Book: What Moves the Dead
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Tor Nightfire
Genre: Horror, Fantasy, Gothic, Retellings
Publication Date: July 12, 2022
What Moves the Dead is Kingfisher’s retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania.
What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake. Madeline sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices at night, and her brother Roderick is consumed with a mysterious malady of the nerves.
Aided by a redoubtable British mycologist and a baffled American doctor, Alex must unravel the secret of the House of Usher before it consumes them all.
I was given an advanced readers’ copy of this book by Tor Nightfire via NetGalley. Thank you Tor!
The first thing I heard about What Moves the Dead was that it’s a retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe. That was all I needed to hear to be honest, and I wish I had read it as soon as I received it. It’s a short book anyway, but I read it in less than a day because I could not put it down.
In What Moves the Dead, Alex Easton is a sworn soldier of Galacia. They receive a letter from their childhood friend Madeline Usher who thinks she may be dying. Naturally, Alex rushes to the crumbling manor Madeline and her brother Roderick call home to do what they can to help. When Alex makes their way to the Usher castle, though, they find a half-caved-in manor on the edge of a sickly lake called a tarn.
Upon seeing the Usher siblings, Alex realizes the house and grounds aren’t the only things breaking down. Both of the Ushers seem deathly ill, and even the doctor has no idea what is really wrong with either of them. Thus begins Alex’s journey into the slow disintegration of the house of Usher.
From the very first line, the story makes it clear this will not be a happy tale. Mushrooms and fungi are described by comparing them to viscera and open wounds. The local hares behave in strange and unnerving ways, such as sitting up and staring at people and drowning themselves in the tarn. The locals refuse to visit the manor, and no one goes close to the lake if they can help it. All of these descriptions lend themselves to create an atmosphere of dread throughout the story.
Similarly to the story it’s inspired by, all the details in What Moves the Dead are important. Nothing is mentioned in an off-hand manner. Even the constant presence of mushrooms is important. Even descriptions of arm hair are important to the story! That being said, all these obvious details made it pretty easy to guess how it would end, and some readers may not enjoy how obvious it is. I personally thought it gave reading the story a vicarious thrill. I knew certain characters were doomed, and seeing those that cared about them confront all of the clues with denial added to the story’s atmosphere.
Speaking of characters, they were all wonderful, but my favorites were Alex and Eugenia Potter, the British mycologist. Alex is the narrator of the story, and I loved their tangents into the history of Galacia and the language of Galacia. It really added some context and personality to the story as well as explaining why Alex might do certain things. I also really enjoyed having a non-binary character as the narrator. Alex even explained this through an aside about the Galacian language have six sets of pronouns that are used for people depending on age (children are called va or van until puberty) or occupation (all soldiers are known by ka or kan regardless of gender identity). It was interesting and added to the story.
As for Eugenia Potter, she is a wonder. She’s a minor character, but she always pops up whenever the knowledge of mushrooms and other fungi is needed most. She is a tenacious British lady determined to break into the male dominated scientific world of the late 1800’s. She’s also not afraid to take action when needed, and her no-nonsense manner offered some nice grounding points during the more surreal parts of the story.
Overall, I loved this story. It was the perfect combination of creeping horror, dark humor, and suspense. I loved the characters and the atmosphere in equal measure, and the story managed to be believable in the end, which isn’t easy to do considering some of what happens. I will also never look at hares the same way again, or mushrooms for that matter.
I gave What Moves the Dead five out of five stars. I have nothing bad to say about this book. The creeping horror of the hares and the atmosphere created by the crumbling manor house surrounded by the black, fetid tarn pitting man against nature made for the best setting for a horror story. The characters’ personalities shone through, and the dark humor kept things from getting too grim. Anyone looking for a short, quick horror read should pick this book up, especially if you enjoy Gothic horror.
Do you plan to read What Moves the Dead? What about T. Kingfisher’s other books? Let me know in the comments!
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