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WesternSFA


House of Salt and Sorrows
by Erin A. Craig
Delacorte, $18.99, 403pp
Published: August 2019

I fell deeply into this novel, the debut of Michigan writer Erin A. Craig, and I'm not sure I've fully found my way out yet, even though the title is a highly accurate guide to its content.  There are three important factors that shape the book's grounding in gothic romance: house, salt and sorrows.

The house definitely deserves to be capitalised. It's The House, Highmoor by name and the mansion of the Duke of Salann, home to the current Duke, the twelve Thaumas daughters and their uncountable maids and cooks and other servants. It has cliffs and crypts and a curse.

Salt places it by the sea. Salann is made up of islands breathed into life by Lord Pontus, the god of the sea, who also created the People of the Salt, who have fished the local waters for generations and see themselves as apart from the mainlanders, having a completely different way of life and mindset on everything.

And sorrows speaks to recent deaths because, while the Duke had twelve daughters, the Thaumas girls, the four eldest are now dead and the rest are worried about whether they'll be next. None of them were old, those they left behind ranging from nineteen down to six, but they're gone nonetheless and talk is of a curse.

I adored this setting, which is built out of details so vivid that we can locate Highmoor in both place and time, even though it's entirely fictional. This isn't our world, these islands aren't ours and these gods spring fully formed from the mind of the author, but we can see and hear it vividly nonetheless, if we have any background in English literature. Highmoor has portraits and topiary and custom grandfather clocks. The daughters gobble down petit-fours and wear shirtwaists and prepare for their debuts. It doesn't take a pair of them being called Lenore and Ligeia for us to picture them accurately.

However, this is not just a gothic and Annaleigh, born sixth but now second in line to the Duke's title, is no born victim. She can understand the varied deaths of her eldest three sisters, even if she misses them terribly, but Eulalie's doesn't make sense to her and she's not willing to let it go. Mysteries are traditional components of gothics, but this one definitely shifts out of Joan Aiken Hodge or Daphne du Maurier firmly into Nancy Drew.

Ironically, it's once we find ourselves in Nancy Drew territory that the really freaky stuff starts. Verity, the youngest of the Thaumases, is apparently talking to her dead sisters and drawing their portraits as they are now, beyond the grave, illustrations that wouldn't have seemed out of place on the pages of 'Weird Tales'. Verity may be six, but she's a deep six. Ha. Annaleigh's bath octopus is outrageous and dark too, crafted out of the stuff that gives little girls nightmares.

And, as we get used to the Nancy Drew approach, we take a sidestep into fairy tale and romance. This is hinted at by Papa springing for a dozen pairs of fairy shoes, but that's just the name of the style; we're not expected to believe that the town's cobbler is literally conjuring up shoes for fairies. However, we are expected to believe that there's a Door of Pontus down in the grotto ready to transport the girls instantly to the far flung lands of their world, always to a ball, at which they're immediately welcomed and where they dance the night away. They return home to sleep well into the daytime and worry their father, who can't understand how they're all destroying their shoes in no time flat.

If it seems like this story is veering off in wild directions, it isn't. The style may shift between gothic and fairy tale, two takes on fantasy that aren't really that far apart, but the story is consistent and it knows exactly where it wants to go. The final element I should highlight is a gentleman called Cassius, whom Annaleigh bumps into in town and immediately falls for. Now, Cassius is clearly not just what he says he is, the son of a local fisherman who's on death's door, and he's not just the romantic lead that Craig sets him up to be. He may be both of those things, but we have no idea what else he is and hazarding guesses is a good pastime until Craig is ready to let us in on the secret.

It's fair to say that this novel is built out of tropes, because so many of them are easily recognisable, but they're not built into what we've been conditioned to expect from them. I enjoyed this from the very first chapter, as the Thaumas clan put Eulalie to rest in the crypt under Highmoor, from which she'll be washed away by the tide to the embrace of Lord Pontus, and I devoured the rest of the novel in short shrift. However, the final act is a step above the rest, because it does so much and because it isn't at all what I expected. Sure, this remains a gothic fairy tale romance until its final page but, as close as those elements come at points, there's a lot of breadth to that combination of genres and I thoroughly appreciated where Craig took me.

I should point out here that this book ought to play better to the female audience to which it was surely aimed. Most of the characters are female, especially those with depth, and this story is always told from their perspectives, especially Annaleigh's. As straight man living in the New World who's past his half century, I really don't have much in common with the windswept heroines of gothic novels or the little girls in fairy tales, let alone the lovestruck young women who populate romances; but I didn't have any lack of connection to this at all, even the long scenes where all these daughters gleefully try on their new outfits without an apparent end in sight. I might like this more if I were a sixteen-year-old girl in a sheltered household with no siblings but I liked it just fine as an old dude with more grandkids than the Duke has surviving daughters.

In fact, I'd very much like to check out Craig's more recent work. This one came out in 2019 and there's already another novel in print, 2021's Small Favors, which looks like it's categorised as YA horror. Yeah, that's not really a genre of choice either, but I'm sold already on the basis of this one. It looks dark and unusual and enticing and that's exactly what any novel should aim at. I have no doubt Craig will do it justice. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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