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Body Horror and Folklore: Cassandra Khaw in Coversation With Lee Mandelo


Body Horror and Folklore: Cassandra Khaw in Coversation With Lee Mandelo

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Body Horror and Folklore: Cassandra Khaw in Coversation With Lee Mandelo


Published on May 15, 2023

Cassandra Khaw photo courtesy of the author; Lee Mandelo photo by Sarah Jane Webb
Cassandra Khaw photo courtesy of the author; Lee Mandelo photo by Sarah Jane Webb is pleased to share this conversation between Cassandra Khaw, author of Nothing But Blackened Teeth and the newly released The Salt Grows Heavy, and Lee Mandelo, author of Feed them Silence and Summer Sons. Here they chat about everything from the craft of writing novellas to the intersections of horror and folklore, and of course, things with very sharp teeth. Read their unedited interview below!


Lee Mandelo: Thanks so much for taking the time to discuss The Salt Grows Heavy with me today. It’s such a gruesomely compelling novella! I’ve seen it described elsewhere as equal parts folklore, body horror, and gothic romance… but how would you introduce us to the book?

Cassandra Khaw: Um, oh god. What happens when a plague doctor and a mermaid—no, that’s not right. What happens when you have a fever dream of a frozen taiga ruled by bloodthirsty immortal children, a deepsea mermaid, and a plague doctor? Hm, still not quite there. Let’s try this: what happens when a mermaid solves all her problems by eating them?

Actually, I don’t know either. The Salt Grows Heavy is, I think, best described as a retelling of several obscure fairy tales (I’m not talking about The Little Mermaid here!) and an exploration of what happens after happily ever after when the mermaid is an immortal horror who can never go home and who finds things on the land she loves?

LM: Since your work spans across a wide variety of forms and genres—games writing, journalism, poetry, short fiction, and more—how did you settle on a particular form, or story-shape, for The Salt Grows Heavy?

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The Salt Grows Heavy
The Salt Grows Heavy

The Salt Grows Heavy

CK: I wrote a short story called, ‘And in Our Daughters, We Find A Voice’ about the protagonist, and it starts when she’s fished out of the water (it’s in the bonus chapter at the end of the book) and ends with her opening the windows of her tower, letting her children escape. I immediately knew I wanted to finish her story because I just didn’t like leaving her there, stranded without her proper revenge. So, the book slowly came together, and it decided it’d be a novella. (I never really set out to write anything of a specific length. The story just settles that way, sometimes.)

LM: I’m also wondering, given you’ve written several other novellas (including one of my recent favorites Nothing But Blackened Teeth): is there something you find uniquely compelling about the form? Or, put another way, what does the novella offer you as an artist that keeps you coming back?

CK: First off, thank you, eek! That means a lot to hear. I was a nomad for about ten years of my life, bouncing between continents every three months, and one of the things I loved best about that period of my life was seeing the snapshots of other people’s lives. I’d only ever see a few weeks of narrative development, so to speak, before I’d have to leave. And it stuck with me: how much story can be told in long breaths, how much can linger in the brain because you never saw it to the perfect end.

LM: Overall, what was the drafting process like for The Salt Grows Heavy? Were there any particular pleasures or challenges that you encountered during—or, any favorite bits to write?

CK: Extensive! I actually wrote the first bit of this before I wrote Nothing but Blackened Teeth, and then just let it fallow for a while. None of the endings ever felt right and it took me literal years to figure out how to close the story. (And the epilogue, I think, was what I loved best. I won’t spoil it for readers, but it felt like one of those moments where I got to surprise two friends with something they’d longed for.)

LM: I’ve heard you talk before about your love for horror movies, and that made me curious: what other kinds of art feed into your creative process? With this novella in particular, playing as it does with the deep and nasty currents that run beneath a lot of folklore, were there any outside inspirations that fed your writing?

CK: The works of Failbetter Games (disclaimer: I’ve also written for them and am friends with some of the folks who work/worked there) inspired at least some of the vibes. I’d been hardcore playing through Fallen London again, and I loved the deepwater dreaminess of that world where everything is softly limned by darkness. I wanted some of that here, some of that ineffable eerieness.

But really, it was more inspired, as many things are, by growing up in Malaysia and having access to so many stories, so many myths, so many legends. I grew up seeing how some would run into others, with people who’d try to braid their myths together with others, while all the while acknowledging theirs weren’t the only interpretation.

LM: They’re definitely quite different books, but as I was reading The Salt Grows Heavy, it seemed to share some thematic resonances with Nothing but Blackened Teeth. First, I was struck by the ways folktales and legends weave through these narratives—either as starting blocks, like how “The Little Mermaid” functions here, or as the backdrop against which purely human misery unfolds, such as the observing yokai in Teeth.

What draws you to working with these kinds of story materials?

CK: Again, it’s a lot to do with growing up in Malaysia and spending a childhood steeped in ghosts and legends. I was raised with the belief that it was entirely possible that there was a spirit living in your house but also evolution is very much real. Every August, we’d have the Hungry Ghost Festival and there’d be performances for the dead to watch, but then I’d come home and read about the latest in NASA’s space endeavours.

Folklore and legend has always been in the backdrop of my life and I think, with moving to the West, they’ve become my tethers to home. I don’t know who I am without them and I think, because they’re so integral to my psyche, I’m almost compelled at this point to extrapolate everything from a memory of them.

LM: As the plague doctor and the mermaid aim to unweave the religious mythos the surgeons have built around themselves, the plague doctor says, “How do you kill any religion? You convince its flock that their shepherds are wolves.” This line struck me, particularly in the context of a novella that engages deeply with the violence and violation at the core of so many stories about women, as well as creatures who are taken to be women.

Do you see this novella as serving, perhaps in a looser thematic sense, a similar purpose in how it engages the underlying cruelties within these popular fairytales?

CK: I think so, yes. At least a little. I know it’s silly, and these are all just stories and no one in them is real, but part of me writes so I can offer a knife to the characters so they can cut themselves out of the horrors they’ve been thrown into.

LM: Relatedly, I appreciated how gender appears and functions throughout The Salt Grows Heavy. On the one hand, the mermaid and her sisters are gendered in a fashion legible to the husband who captured and imprisoned her; on the other, the plague doctor’s body has been constructed, and reconstructed, such that the resultant form seems to possess all gender and also none simultaneously.

How do you approach gender as a component part of “horror,” or even simply as part of the crafting of a piece?

CK: Thank you! I think my approach varies depending on the book or the story, but with The Salt Grows Heavy, I wanted to examine how people sometimes insist on interpreting others based on how they’ve gendered them, what that means when you make that mistake with a monster –and also what it means to be constantly seen through a lens that ignores your reality.

I have a lot more thoughts on this, but that’d take up a whole essay so we’re going to stop here, yup.

LM: Another thing about The Salt Grows Heavy that struck me, and also had me reading through my fingers at some of the gnarlier scenes, was how fleshy and destructible bodies are—and yet, paradoxically, how much they can survive.

What draws you toward exploring physicality in such depth, and what sorts of research goes into your careful renderings of… well, what’s underneath the skin?

CK: A part of it is probably the fact that I am a bit—no, that’s a lie, very much a hypochondriac. My parents weren’t terribly good about teaching me a healthy relationship with my body. (I recall coming back with my first blood test and my mother announcing grimly the results were fake.) I started developing a fascination with the internal workings of the body as a result. I guess it was an attempt to control my own fears. (It sort of worked. Today, when I have a hypochondriac spiral, I can talk myself out of it by outlining a truly disgusting amount of facts. Being able to outreason your anxiety is kinda fun.) Anyway, that was the beginning.

I stay drawn to body horror because there’s a certain universality to the topic. Regardless of who we are, regardless of our backgrounds, we are all still coils of entrails nested in skin, all hoping the mechanisms will continue to tick along. And we are also all terrified of the moment they stop. There’s a tenderness in this, in the knowledge that we all have that same fear when we go to the doctor, when we’re made to sit and wait and wonder if this is the year it all collapses.

As for the research, uh, I’m just going to say there is a surprising amount of autopsy videos out there, and a comprehensive amount of accessible medical texts.

LM: The flip side of that bodily coin seems to be the constant presence of desire as a motif throughout the novella, and your work at large. By desire, I don’t only mean the sensual or the erotic, though those are sometimes present. I’m also thinking about things like the desire for intimacy, or the desire to eat—or even love itself as a form of desiring. With this novella in particular, hunger and consumption felt so central to what desire might be for the mermaid.

So, how do you think about desire in your work, and how do you go about representing it in all its myriad forms?

CK: I was the eldest child in a very Asian family, and I think they were kind of hoping for a son as I was raised very much like one, in some ways. (In retrospect, I wonder how much of my gender identity was shaped subconsciously by this background.) But at the same time, it was made clear to me that I was a daughter and disadvantaged from early on because I wasn’t waif-thin or particularly pliable.

So, I grew up hungry for opportunities, for chances to prove myself. I grew up not despairing but intent on pushing past the accidents of my birth. I would be better than they assumed of me, I would be more than my circumstances. I would do what the son they’d wanted would do, only better. Together with the cultural pressure to prove yourself worthy of all the sacrifices made by your predecessors, it left me absolutely starved for the world.

I don’t really think about desire in my works or how to weave it into the text, but I think my characters all leave my brain with that same hunger as a result.

LM: I always want to ask, as we start to wrap up: are there any books (or films, or games, or any other art pieces!) that you’ve been digging recently? Anything in particular that’s stuck with you, done some haunting of its own?

CK: The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher has me utterly enraptured. Similarly, Frances Hardinge’s Unraveller is still stuck in my head. (Shoutout as well to Johnny Compton’s The Spite House which I find myself thinking about randomly, and Kelly Barnhill’s The Crane Husband which twitches in my lungs like a thorn.)

LM: And, of course, the traditional ending question: what are you currently working on now that The Salt Grows Heavy has been released into the world? Anything you can share?

CK: I’m currently working on a dark academia book that I will only describe to you as a cross between Battle Royale x Magic School. It is my most plotty, brain-twisty book ever. And it’s hurting my head to write, but what is life but endless opportunities to try new things?

LM: Oh, I can’t wait to see that! Thank you for the excellent conversation, and for the audience: go forth and grab a copy of The Salt Grows Heavy.

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