Book Review: The House of Salt and Sorrows

I just finished this retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and it made me think of a number of things that I wanted to go into a longer discussion of. It was an interesting read for a number of reasons. On the one hand, I really dig creepy gothic horror, and Craig does a fantastic job of upping the creep factor throughout the book. But at the same time, I really dislike romance subplots. I know this is probably a weakness of mine, not those plots. I mean, as an author, I realize there are many many people out there who love romance, so it would probably be in my best interest to throw some more passion into my books.

But I just can’t bring myself to do it, or at least, I haven’t been able to so far. The simple truth is that almost any book with a heavy romance plot is going to fall somewhat flat for me. So the fact that I’m still giving House of Salt and Sorrows four out of five stars should tell you just how much I loved the creepy.

Writing a good creepy scene, in my opinion, takes a number of elements to pull off. First, you need to be quite present in the scene itself. You have to take the time as an author to dwell on the details, and you have to take the time to think about just why those details would be so off-putting. There’s a scene in this book where the main character confronts an animal’s corpse. She feels terrible for it, but then she notices that it’s still moving. That’s pretty terrible to imagine: something that’s so hurt it looks like it’s dead, but it hasn’t passed yet?

And then Craig shows why the critter is still moving: it’s almost bursting with maggots. When they all explode, raining down the corpse . . . that’s an image that’s going to stick with you for a while. Yes, I realize to some of you that just sounds disgusting and makes you want to never read the book, but I was seriously impressed, especially because in-scene it’s much, much better executed.

The book has so many scenes like that, and Craig deftly weaves in the other necessity to make something really creepy: give the scene time to unfold. I suppose that goes hand in hand with providing plenty of details, but I think it’s more than that. A scene can move as quickly or as slowly as an author wants. Imagine a scene where a character goes into a room for the first time. It could be fast: she goes in, glances around, and leaves. Or it could be slow: she goes in and is awed by the parquet flooring and the crystal chandeliers. She sits down at the piano in the room and plinks out a few notes, noticing it’s out of tune. She can stay in that room for hours, if the author really wanted her to. There are all sorts of actions a character can take that prolong the action of the scene.

Details don’t do that. You can inundate a reader with tons of detail, spending four pages to describe the piano and its history. While that might take a while to read, it doesn’t do much (in my opinion) to extend the scene itself. It just stops the action while you take a long digression.

So to be really creepy, a scene has to have enough action to justify its length, and enough detail to hit home. It’s a balance you need to walk, and I was seriously impressed with how well Craig did it.

In any case, if you love romance and creep, then do I have the book for you. If you just love romance and not creep, then I’d steer clear. If you just love creep and not romance, then you’ll still have a great time with this one. 8/10


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