The Salt Grows Heavy

Cover of The Salt Grows Heavy on background of white, red, and black.

by Cassandra Khaw

The more mermaid stories I read, the more aware I become that Disney and the makers of Splash greatly mislead me. (I know, we’re all shocked that Disney wouldn’t be an accurate fount of knowledge.) I was vaguely aware that mermaids had a mixed history in folklore, sometimes dragging sailors to their deaths, sometimes longing to come to shore. The Mermaid of Black Conch took a version of the latter, casting a mermaid as a cursed human who slowly reverts to human form after being captured and using it as a commentary on colonialism. All the Murmuring Bones, on the other, went all in on the mermaids as bad news lore.

And then there’s The Salt Grows Heavy, which devours The Little Mermaid and anyone foolish enough to believe a mermaid could be anything but deadly. Khaw weaves an incredible tale that feels so much larger than the novella appears. The quick plot summary is a mermaid and an unnamed plague doctor travel through a winter landscape, where they discover a community of unnerving children and the “saints” that raise them hidden in the forest. It’s dark, it’s gory, it made me very grateful for my lack of vivid imagination during certain scenes, and it’s beautiful.

Khaw’s writing makes me feel like one of the proverbial monkeys at a typewriter trying to accidentally write Shakespeare, but I’m ok with that. Right from the start, they hooked me with the opening description. Just to give you a taste:  

            Ash sleets from the firmament in soft handfuls of black, gathering in gauzy drifts around my ankles. The sky is ink and seething murk, whispering secrets to itself, the clouds snarled like long dark hair.

So if you’re looking for a horror story to kick off October, start here.


Since Halloween is coming up fast, I’m hoping to get a number of reviews out that fit with the spooky/scary/horror theme. We’ll see how that goes, but I suddenly seem to have a lot to work with!

The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

Cover of The Hacienda by Isabel Ceñas against a white backdrop with a red rose next to it.

I mentioned in an earlier review how much I love Silvia Moreno-Garcia.  Her book, Mexican Gothic, is fantastic and really won me over to gothic novels.  So when I glimpsed The Hacienda on the shelf, I immediately gravitated towards it. 

Set in Mexico in the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence (which ended in 1821), The Hacienda follows a young woman named Beatriz.  Beatriz’s father, a respected general, ended up on the losing side of the war.  As a result, Beatriz and her mother lost their home, their status, and everything they.  In dire financial straits, Beatriz is determined to do whatever it takes to get her mother and herself out of this situation. 

A solution appears in the form of Rodolfo, a wealthy man about whom Beatriz knows very little.  Still, he owns a hacienda, he has good social standing, and he’s enchanted by Beatriz.  Despite her mother’s protests, Beatriz marries him and heads out to the hacienda. 

Beatriz has everything planned out: establish herself as the mistress of the hacienda, make the house a home, and then bring her mother to join her.  But the household – and the house – have other plans.  From the moment she steps through the door, Beatriz gets an ominous feeling.  Rodolfo’s sister seems suspicious, and the kitchen help are constantly burning incense and scratching symbols in the doorways.  Then there’s the mystery of what happened to Rodolfo’s first wife and whether history may be repeating.

While all of this is going on, we meet Padre Andrés, a young Indigenous Catholic priest with deep connections to the hacienda and his own haunted past.  As forces outside their control conspire against them, the priest and the new bride are drawn together. 

This is a fast moving story and even when you have a good guess of what’s going to happen, you still want to keep reading to see how it plays out.  There’s romance, of course – what kind of gothic novel wouldn’t have one? It’s a well-built romance, and one that stays true to the characters and their situations.

Cañas also does a wonderful job of situating readers in the historical landscape of revolutionary Mexico.  Without becoming an academic paper, Cañas interrogates the impact of race and colonialism in Mexican society. It’s a complex topic, and yet it weaves in seamlessly with the story of a haunted house. 

Part of the reason Beatriz jumps at the chance to marry a man like Rodolfo is her awareness that her father’s disgraced reputation in this new order and her darker skin tone significantly limit her marriage prospects.  Meanwhile, Padre Andrés also grapples with his ethnic heritage, the spiritual practices he learned from his grandmother, and the faith instilled in him by the Catholic Church.  The blending of Catholicism and Indigenous beliefs also rang true and was a welcomed addition to the story. 

Most importantly, The Hacienda is a fun, engaging, and enthralling story.  We get to jump between perspectives of Beatriz and Andrés, with a little bit of back and forth through time. Cañas handles both deftly.  There was never a feeling of “ugh, did we have to switch characters” or anything like that.  Instead, the two side complimented each other well and added to the depth of the story. 

The Hacienda is Cañas’ debut novel and if this is her first, I can’t wait to see what she comes out with next!

Find it here

Tender is the Flesh

By Augustina Bazterrica. Translated by Sarah Moses.

A formally set table with candlelight and the book Tender is the Flesh standing on the plate.

Soylent Green meets The Jungle.” If I had to describe Tender is the Flesh in five words or less, that’s how I’d do it.  (Full disclosure: I’ve never actually seen Soylent Green, but I know the gist of it.  I have read The Jungle.)

But oh boy, would it not be enough!  It would also do a great disservice for the real power of this book. 

I’ve seen other reviews highlight the first line of Tender is the Flesh, to help readers understand exactly what they’re in for.  And it’s a powerful opening:

            Carcass.  Cut in half.  Stunner.  Slaughter line.  Spray wash.

It’s going to be brutal.

In the not-to-distant future, an unknown and poorly understood virus makes animal meat deadly to eat.  One would assume such a situation would create a vegetarian or vegan world.  (It’s not clear whether it’s just animal flesh that is affected or if all animal products, like eggs and honey, are affected.  It also doesn’t matter – Tender is the Flesh isn’t concerned with the wider world and its history.) But one would be wrong.  The vast majority of the world cannot give up meat.  And so, with animals off the table, society turns to the only remaining option: humans.

Cannibalism becomes legalized.  Initially, during the “Transition,” there seems to have been a bit of a free-for-all, with the marginalized set upon and butchered without much thought.  But by the time we join this world, capitalism has reasserted itself.  The slaughterhouses of yore are repurposed for the production of “special meat.” The factory-farm system reasserts itself, raising “head” for the slaughter, milking the udders of females, inseminating them to produce the next generation of food and pumping those offspring full of growth hormones to speed up development.  There are even “organic” options – the “First Generation Pure” specimens, raised without hormones though of course, that’ll cost you more.

Our guide through this world is Marcos, a man who used to work in a regular slaughterhouse prior to the Transition and then took up the job again as the meat source changed. He currently lives alone, as his wife moved into her mother’s house after the death of their infant son. This loss haunts him as well as he attempts to move through his days, lost and alone. The funeral and burial they had for the child was performative; in this world, one may “bury” a body to continue the old traditions, but then immediately disinter and cremate it or risk their loved ones becoming a meal for the Scavengers who cannot afford to buy special meat.

Due to all he sees in his job and after the death of his son and the ailing health of his father, Marcos no longer eats meat. This makes him a bit of an object of suspicion, but the real trouble comes when he is suddenly gifted with a First Generation Pure woman for his own personal use. He could eat her, or sell her for a goodly sum. For the moment, he keeps her in his barn. Where it goes from there….well, I’m not going to spoil it.  At least not here.  Perhaps in our spoiler space.

While the opening line of the book sets the stage for the horror of the world, it’s the subsequent lines of the book that hint to the real power: language, and the power of words.  Bazterrica continues:

            These words appear in his head and strike him. Destroy him. But they’re not just words. They’re the blood, the dense smell, the automation, the absence of thought.  They burst in on the night, catch him off guard. When he wakes, his body is covered in a film of sweat because he knows that what awaits is another day of slaughtering humans. … His brain warns him that there are words that cover up the world.

            There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.

Throughout the book, Bazterrica’s meditation on the importance of language, and her narrator’s recognition of the implications of the words one chooses, brings an incredible depth to this quick and relatively short novel. It was nearly impossible to put this down, but what struck me the most was this focus on language and how we use euphemisms to disguise all sorts of unpleasant truths we’d rather not face.  Translator Sarah Moses deserves a huge round of applause; I can only imagine how tricky it is to translate a work where language and word choice is so central.

Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in hopes of challenging his fellow Americans to question the capitalist system, which ground up low-wage workers and immigrants as easily as it ground up diseased meat in its slaughterhouses. But as anyone who ever read it in high school or college will likely attest, his detailed descriptions of the unsanitary methods, human body parts being ground into beef, and rats running rampant across food intended for human consumption is what grabbed attention. He later bemoaned that he “aimed for the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Bazterrica shoots two arrows at once and hits both. Tender is the Flesh is not for the tender-hearted. Or the tender-stomached. But if you can handle it, it is an incredible tale.

Find it here

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

Book cover of What Moves the Dead in shadow, with green vines reaching out from behind

I’ve written before about how much I love Kingfisher’s books, and this is another example of why.  What Moves the Dead is a little different from her other books. It’s a take on an existing story, but Kingfisher makes it her own. The result is a creepy, quick tale, perfect for October reading. 

What Moves the Dead is Kingfisher’s retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher.  Our narrator is Alex Easton, a sworn soldier from the (fictitious) country of Gallacia.  They have rushed back to the House of Usher upon receipt of a letter from Roderick Usher.  Roderick’s sister, Madeline, is near death.  Alex’s long history of friendship with both the Ushers, and service with Roderick during the recent war, spurs them to return, in hopes of at least providing moral comfort for their friends during this time of illness. 

But even before reaching the formidable estate, a pervasive sense of rot and contagion oozes through the grounds. The curious spread of all matter of fungi is one manifestation of this miasma.  Among the mushrooms, Alex meets Miss Eugeina Potter, an amateur mycologist. (Amateur only due to the Royal Academy’s shortsightedness regarding sex.) The mysterious presence of mushrooms normally never found in European climates fascinates her.  Alex leaves her to her studies and makes it to the manor. 

The worn and wan appearance of both Roderick and Madeline shocks them.  An American doctor is also staying at the house, but he is just as bewildered as Alex by whatever is destroying the Ushers.  Nor is the strangeness limited to the siblings.  The very house seems possessed.  Townsfolk tell tales of rabbits behaving in odd and unnatural ways, which Alex will come to see for themself.  And in the dark, the lake glows with an eerie bioluminescence, reminding those present that there is more to the House of Usher than meets the eye. 

While I had a passing knowledge of The Fall of the House of Usher before reading this, I didn’t know much.  (Ok, ok, basically my only knowledge was watching the house explode as a two-second gag on the Simpsons.) Before writing this post, I quickly read through Poe’s version to have a point of comparison, though I have no intention of writing an English lit essay on it.  (Sorry if that’s what brought you here.  My only suggestion is to find a different thesis than “What Moves the Dead and The Fall of the House of Usher have many similarities and differences.  In this essay, I will…”)

The takeaway is that Kingfisher once again brings an extraordinary amount of life, history, and character to each of the people we meet (and Alex’s horse, Hob, to boot).  Despite its brevity, there’s no skimping on the details that make each of these people who they are, quickly making us very concerned about what is happening to them – and what may be lurking in the darkness for them.  The sense of unease is omnipresent; when a character makes you laugh, it’s like laughing in a graveyard – unexpected and quickly clamped down before it calls unwanted attention to your presence.  I loved it all. 

As I read, the story kept reminding me of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s fantastic gothic horror novel Mexican Gothic.  Thus it delighted me to see it listed as an influence in the afterword.  If you haven’t read Mexican Gothic, check that one out after this (and then keep reading both authors’ other books). 

I also really appreciated Kingfisher’s deftly woven grammar lesson early in the book.  As you may have noticed, Alex is non-binary and while I have been using they/them pronouns in this review, Alex explains that Gallacia has numerous pronouns and sworn soldiers get their own dedicated pronouns of ka/kan. I won’t presume to be better at explaining the grammar better than the author, so I’ll let you discover that yourself.  I will say that if my own grammar textbooks had been even half as entertainingly informative, I wouldn’t be spending most of my editing time painstakingly transforming instances of passive voice. 

So whether or not you’ve read the Poe version, do yourself a favor and pick up What Moves the Dead.  Then keep an eye on the rabbits around you…

Find it online here

The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias

Book cover of The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias

There are monsters all around us – and some are hiding within us.  So Mario discovers in The Devil Takes You Home as his life shatters like a glass tabletop around him.  He knew some of these monsters.  As someone with “too many syllables” in his last name, turned down for jobs he was perfectly well qualified for, he had always been intimately familiar with racism in the United States.  He and his wife, Melisa, struggled to make ends meet, but their four-year-old daughter Anita brought them plenty of joy.  Until the doctor uttered the word “leukemia.” Suddenly, their life became endless drives between their home and the hospital in Houston, desperate prayers for a cure, and listening to medical professionals boil down their daughter’s losing battle as a “fascinating case.”

Soon enough, the monsters of our failed system rear their heads.  [SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH STARTING HERE FOR THINGS THAT HAPPEN RIGHT IN THE BEGINNING AND ARE PART OF THE DUST JACKET SYNOPSIS.] Mario loses his job for spending too much time at his daughter’s side.  Insurance doesn’t cover nearly enough of the costs of care and once Mario’s job is gone, even that paltry help disappears (ironically, Mario worked for an insurance company).  Bills are piling up, the hospital calls more often to demand payment than to offer any solutions, and soon Anita is gone.  Only the collections calls remain.  Grief rips apart Mario’s marriage and just like that, he is alone, in debt, and unemployed.   

Upon losing his job, Mario decides to contact an old acquaintance and former co-worker.  Brian, a white meth-head, always had several side-gigs going, each of differing levels of illegality. In no time, Mario finds himself hiding behind a van in the dark of night with a gun, waiting for his target to appear.  Brian assured him this man deserved to die, but didn’t provide many details. And Mario found that he didn’t really care.  When he blows off the back of the head of the man, he discovers a monster of some kind made its home in this man.

Mario also finds there’s a monstrous side living in him as well.  He takes on additional hit jobs, making money and finding a way to channel his anger and grief.  But then Brian introduces him to Juanca, who proposes one final job with the promise of a big payday.  All they have to do is survive a near-impossible job knocking off a cartel’s money shipment.  Vaguely imagining a plan where the money will bring Melisa back, Mario agrees. 

The rest of the story follows the men’s journey to Mexico and back.  They encounter all sorts of awfulness – racists, cartel bosses, man-eating alligators, and violence of all kinds.  Meanwhile, each member of the crew contemplates their companions’ potential to double-cross, as well as their own. 

Overall, it’s a spell-binding book.  I’m not huge on slotting everything into a particular genre, which is good, because it would be hard to figure out where exactly to place this.  It’s located in the horror section and it definitely fits, but it’s also more than that.  Then I saw some interviews with Gabino Iglesias where he describes this work as “barrio noir.” It’s a mix of horror, crime, borderlands, languages, and more, with a dash of the supernatural thrown in.  (Just like in the last review, this is another book with a lot of non-English dialogue.)

The Devil Takes You Home sometimes evoked strains of Almanac of the Dead.  It emphasizes the artificiality and arbitrariness of national borders.  It does not shrink away from the destructive impact of centuries of racism in the United States.  And like Almanac of the Dead, The Devil Takes You Home refuses to allow us to hide from the awful violence so many endure. 

There’s also a level of the supernatural to the story, which was interesting but some of it felt extraneous.  Mario has visions from time to time, brief warnings or whole scenes that felt incredibly real but didn’t happen.  It plays into the feeling of vertigo the book creates, where you can’t quite seem to anchor yourself in its reality.  It’s also terrifying to see how people’s faith and belief in spiritual powers results in horrendous cruelty and torture.  (Including a scene of brutal child abuse.) All of that is really well done.  The stuff that didn’t work quite so well for me was the suggestion of actual non-human or not-quite-human monsters.  They don’t appear often, and it didn’t kill the vibe of the book by any means.  But they could have disappeared and not been missed.  There was plenty of horror in the human characters. 

Overall, this is a bleak, creepy, haunting tale and hard to put down. 

Find it here