Somewhere Beyond The Sea

In Erin A. Craig’s House of Salt and Sorrows, eight sisters sneak out every night to go dancing. Meanwhile, the awe-inspiring power of the ocean looms.

In a cloistered manor on the coast of a cold and severe island, the most recent of four dead sisters has just been put to rest.

In Erin A. Craig’s début, we visit the Thaumas family, who, after losing the fourth daughter, is under the influence of something sinister and unknown: years of almost continuous mourning have also cast them under local suspicion. Annaleigh, now second-in-line, knows all too well that the nearby port town is alight with rumors about her rich and reclusive household. As she dons deep black mourning clothes, she tries not to notice.

Craig’s vision of the archipelago where all of this whispering occurs is House of Salt and Sorrows’ crowning achievement. She manages to capture the bracing, turbulent world of a cold ocean breaking against the cliffs––and doesn’t drop the words “sea” or “salt” too often. The world of the book has talk of other places, peoples, and realms, but it’s also very comfortable and familiar with isolation. Craig’s work is simply so immersive that you forget anything else exists.

It also doesn’t hurt that the book truly basks in details. The first thing we see is a silver locket glinting in candlelight, and afterwards, Craig is never too busy with the action at hand to show us the fit of a dress, the color of a pair of dancing shoes, the looming figure of a family emblem. Yes, House of Salt and Sorrows is, among other things, a fine work of dress porn, but don’t be led to thinking the space spent describing pearls is wasted; Craig defines her characters this way, investing their fineries with significance.

In fact, one of the most keen and sustained examples of this comes when the Thaumas sisters’ father, and his new wife, Morella, decide to cut the newest mourning period startlingly short, and she arrives at breakfast not a day after the funeral in a pale blue dress. Craig dwells on this piece and its upsetting implications for Annaleigh, our lead, for just as long as she needs, spreading white organdy across the page before we can read between the pleats of the fabric and decode the recent death’s effects on everyone around the table, from Annaleigh’s strict adherence to the black dress code to her father’s iffy choice of a light grey coat.

It’s these details that make the appearance of a light pink frock later in the novel so significant––only frequent reminders of Annaleigh’s always dark, always conscientious wardrobe choices can produce such an effect when she casts them off in such extremes. Meanwhile, the dress itself asks questions that her subdued dialogue and increasingly cold relationships with her family can’t pose directly. Is this defiance of her grief disingenuous? Is this vastly different self-expression truer than her norm? Is she moving on, or closing up? And what of her sisters? The dress can’t get its implications out fast enough.

Extensive detail also plays a role in the more magical workings behind the Thaumas sisters’ mysterious deaths: as Annaleigh peers deeper and deeper into the darkness taking hold, House of Salt and Sorrows takes on the is-it-real-or-isn’t-it goodness that makes quieter tales of magic so wondrous and supernatural stories so unnerving. Craig twists the knife of uncertainty with just enough vigor to let ghosts, visions, and gore seep out, and yet allows Annaleigh to temporarily shake off what she sees. She harvests the spooky potential of the ocean, too, what, with its squid and octopi darting in and out of the water’s dark surface, the violence it takes to subdue a fish for cooking, and the doubt that comes when the water freezes over, and the ocean can’t provide.

As with everything in Craig’s pseudo-Victorian upper-class worldbuilding, the horror in House of Salt and Sorrows is a slow burn indeed, appearing always in glimpses, in incidents with plausible deniability, and in murky waters where it could’ve been anything until, in a horrific turn, with undeniable clarity, it really couldn’t have been anything else.

When Erin A. Craig finally plays her card and the source of the “curse” finally steps out from the shadows, bigger forces than unsated Victorian longing are inevitably at work, but they never grow loftier than the characters, particularly because Craig has a character set them in motion, and, essentially, she reveals the mystical culprits early on enough that it doesn’t come across like an easy solution to a complicated problem. The climax also mercifully lacks a heavy-handed vanquishing, instead opting for the violent coming of the inevitable, as fitting an ending this story of spirits and promises can hope to have.

The elements of mythology involved are slow to reveal themselves, but Erin A. Craig did, in fact, hide a whole fictional pantheon in the pages of a story mostly concerned with personal affairs. As pivotal as they are in the inner workings of the supernatural happenings, they don’t overwhelm the story, and Craig is keen on keeping them a presence not overly present. It’s worth nothing that her version of a sea-god, Pontus, is a crucial part of her characters’ society, and his influence is there, but he never appears. The fictional faith in the book carries an air of mysticism, and possibly even terror, but it also exhibits House of Salt and Sorrows’ restraint. Even in this world where Gods and humans sometimes interact, no Earth-shattering events transpire that constitute a permanent change to the pantheon. The strangeness and wonder in House of Salt and Sorrows endures without devolving into an operatic finale with an explosion of unfathomable to-the-point-of-tedious power.

It is plenty in this novel, to exist in a world of mystery, at the mercy of the elements, in a small and quiet human society. That loneliness is terror enough.

Where Wilder Girls Fears To Tread

In Rory Power’s debut, about 40 of a boarding school’s 100-student population remain. The culprit is Power’s complex, ruthless Tox, a mysterious force on the boarding school’s Raxter Island, a sickness accompanied by an unnerving natural flourishing––it makes animals grow bigger, faster, and more dangerous, and the human girls that survive its onset suffer periodical flare-ups––if it doesn’t kill them first.

Wilder Girls’ main trio is composed of the grim and worn-down Hetty, the compulsively dishonest and forlorn Byatt, and the cold and distanced Reese. The bond between them is supposedly the beating heart of Wilder Girls‘ tension––from page one, they tip-toe around each other. By page 100, dying for each other isn’t out of the question, and their lives are meant to hinge upon each other to the end and beyond. The kicker, however, is that the fast approach of grizzly manners of death (literally, in one case) is Power’s only tool to push them together. She doesn’t use their pasts very often, for the deep dread of recalling the untouchable world beyond their quarantined island; she doesn’t allow them to truly enjoy each other, because survival becomes more pressing than happiness; she doesn’t allow them to truly rely upon each other, because, of course, the only way to survive in their ruthless new world is total self-reliance.

The result is that at the heart of Wilder Girls––at the epicenter of its every emotional quaking––is a paradox. The trio care about each other, and they don’t. They have something to live for, and they don’t They’re proof of female resistance and friendship in the face of danger…and they aren’t.

But another paradox that lies there is Wilder Girls‘ view on humanity. The moniker “feminist Lord of the Flies” has been floating about, but Rory Power’s description of young people in crisis doesn’t reveal a hidden inhumanity to them at all. Some of the unravelings near the end suggest that it’s perfectly fine for Hetty and company to only look out for each other, but the text never makes way for it. The girls left from what was the boarding school on Raxter Island develop a solemn, matter-of-fact kinship, one that doesn’t suddenly dissolve or rot from infighting––and yet, when the impulse arises, Hetty crosses them and hardly looks back.

Nameless, faceless legal entities play a similar role. Quarantining, as we learn in the first few chapters, is the Navy’s/CDC’s/Some Monster in a Lab Coat’s solution to the rapidly-spreading Tox. The novel never leans into their anonymity, nor their disregard for human life, nor their pure detachment from nature. In doing so, Wilder Girls settles on having no Big Bad to speak of, but doesn’t take the risk of playing up the antagonist-less possibilities, either. The work could be a vs. nature conflict, or a vs. people conflict, or a vs. authority conflict, but in the end, it sits squarely in a rushed, unmotivated middle.

And, naturally, because Wilder Girls doesn’t settle on an evil, the Tox doesn’t pick a culprit. As a reflection on our treatment of nature, it’s only tangentially related to climate change, and even further from pungent personal guilt. Wilder Girls, as a dystopian narrative, lacks thematic unity––whatever it tries to communicate gets lost in a web of immediate thrills and inessential twists. The unwise choices of the human antagonists are unrelated to the distance and cruelty of the quarantine, which is as far as can be from the human-natural world interplay at hand.

Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls has a slow horror build in the stripe of Wilder Girls, but in the case of Legrand’s novel, everything leads back to the rot at the heart of Sawkill Rock, from the way the characters are treated to the failure of authority figures to address the consequences. Wilder Girls, with a sharper focus, could be the skewer to mistreating nature that Sawkill Girls was to the unkind experience of young girls––but the conceptual work of Wilder Girls is simply spread too thin.

To its merit, Wilder Girls, in the scenes where Rory Power’s vivid sensibility of gore is allowed to shine through, gets to be visceral and morbidly fascinating. Though, for better or worse, the outside world and how it’s coping with the Tox remains shrouded in mystery. By the end, however, we’re intimately familiar with the experience of having the Tox, as well as the experience of wondering if this flare up or the next is the one that ends fatally. When Wilder Girls approaches horror, it does so with detail and no degree of squeamishness. Emotions run high when they aren’t being bogged down; deep and throbbing biological horror takes the spotlight whenever it appears; and glimmers of a shorter, tighter, more secluded novel shine through. Were Wilder Girls a short story, or a hundred pages shorter, or had its eye trained on the interior, it would’ve gripped from start to finish. But the book we have is split between ideas, and self contradicting, and maybe, with patience, the things hiding there are worth it.