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.