Take a little bit of Philip K. Dick, add a little bit of very dark Scottish myth and folklore and you have T.C. Parker’s Saltblood. The premise: “Guests” are brought to an island dubbed “Salt Rock” off the coast of Scotland for committing what amounts to “thought crime.” These “guests” were not aware of the full extent of the crime the committed even as they “committed” those crimes. On the island, these guests have zero communication with the outside world with the exception the man who functions as their warden. Salt Rock has secrets and a long history, which may not be the best of amenities for the island’s guests.
A remote island. A group of prisoners. And an evil as old as time.
Robin didn’t mean to break the law. Didn’t know at first what law she’d broken. And now she’s on her way to Salt Rock – a new-model prison for a new kind of criminal, way out in the remote Northern Isles of Scotland. On Salt Rock, she’ll meet other prisoners like her – men and women from all over the world, spirited away from the lives they knew for crimes they didn’t know they were committing. She’ll uncover the complex web of conspiracy that connects them all, confronting some of the darkness of her own past in the process. And she’ll come face to face, finally, with an evil as old as the land itself.
It’s hell in those waters.
The novel focuses on a young woman named Robin who is sentenced to Salt Rock for an “outrage” crime, whereby she accumulated enough negative public opinion points to warrant her sentence. Most of the “guests” of Salt Rock found themselves on the island for similar reasons, some guests were under the radar having been guilty of rather minor offenses, a couple were very high-profile offenders. Robin is the newest “guest” which allows readers to experience the commune with the same set of fresh eyes as she experiences everything for the first time. Sure, it is an old literary trick, but it works great. The “guests” aren’t the only people on the island, there are indigenous people living there as well, and one of the primary directives is that the “guests” should not communicate or intermingle with the natives.
Robin makes friends and finds the surroundings to be much more darkly tinged than she could have expected. There’s a net, essentially a Faraday Cage, surrounding the commune, preventing any kind of outside communication, cutting off guests from the outside world. One of the people Robin gravitates towards is a woman named Julia, who has earned a rather negative reputation as she was one of the aforementioned high-profile offenders. As Robin learns more about Julia and how she arrived at the island, much darker connections arise from the salty haze of the island. Compounding those dark connections are strange happenings on the island, shadowy creatures, and some physical clues that point to the true dark heart of the island.
Parker balances character, mystery, and creepy elements extremely well in the novel. Robin was a compelling enough character to provide a lens into the world and the set up/situation presented on the island. There’s real tension between the individuals as they discover more about each other. When the narrative took a look at the past lives of the characters, it gave much more weight to their current situation, built up empathy for the characters, and fed into the conspiracy elements in the plot. In that regard, there’s a bit of resonance with the television show, Lost. Parker also does a nice job of building the shared tension between the characters around the frustration they hold for their warden as well as the fear they have for the indigenous people and the darker elements as they become more tangible.
Those darker elements lean quite heavily into folk horror, which was a slight turn from the conspiracy elements at the start. However, I found them to be quite welcome, especially how Parker tied those two elements, which superficially are quite different, but were woven together in a logical fashion. Folk horror, when done well, can be some of the creepiest flavors of horror, it is a primal horror, speaks to a darker time when people were living in a pre-technological world. Parker captures that primal horror quite well. My favorite bits of the novel were those darker, terrifying elements that emerged as Parker allowed a mild sense of comfort to settle in with the characters.
Parker pulled off a cracker of a novel in Saltblood, it was paced incredibly well, and laced with fear and horror. I’d like to read more of her work.
© 2023 Rob H. Bedford
Trade Paperback | 288 pages | July 2020
Author Website: https://www.tcparkerwrites.com/