T. Kingfisher is an author I’ve been meaning to get into. Her 2020 novel The Hollow Places is on my bookshelf, eyeing me impatiently, and I have an ever-growing list of her other books I’d like to read. This year, I decided to finally start with a novella that’s been all the rage: What Moves the Dead. It’s a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and although I’m not familiar with the source material, I wholly enjoyed T. Kingfisher’s version.
It’s 1890 when Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives a letter from their childhood friend, Madeline Usher. She has a mysterious malady and may be knocking on death’s door. Alex travels to the Usher household, finding Maddy and her brother, Roderick, in alarming condition. With the help of an English mycologist, an American doctor, and Alex’s family friend Angus, Alex does what they can to save Madeline and get to the bottom of whatever is afflicting the Ushers.
What Moves the Dead is a short book – only 165 pages – but it packs in a lot. The stage is set right away: a marshland filled with grotesque mushrooms, an eerily still lake, and bizarre hares, leading up to a dilapidated mansion. Madeline Usher looks not just sickly, but near death, and her brother Roderick doesn’t seem to be much better off. Alex Easton is visiting their friends in hopes of saving them both, but they may have to settle for unmasking the mysterious malady afflicting both Ushers. The American doctor, Denton, has had no luck in that department, but perhaps they all need to look at it from a new angle.
The story feels rather horror in nature, with its spooky mansion, creepy flora and fauna, and themes of illness and death. However, T. Kingfisher infuses the novella with enough humor to lighten the mood. Some characters get too passionate about mushrooms (neighbor Eugenia Potter is an ambitious mycologist); sometimes Alex or their family friend Angus resort to sarcasm and jokes when feeling uncomfortable. Indeed, What Moves the Dead is a silly and quirky book, despite the subject matter and setting.
Also on a lighter note, I very much enjoyed the brief grammar lesson Alex provides about their (fictional) home country’s language, Gallacian. Their language has several more pronouns than English does, and Alex’s enrollment as a soldier provided them with a unique set of pronouns. (In English, Alex uses they/them pronouns.) My inner English major nerd loved this grammar lesson! If only Gallacian were a real language.
All of that fun notwithstanding, the horror elements do fully shine in What Moves the Dead. The descriptions of Madeline, the mansion, the area outside, and those creepy hares will haunt me for weeks to come. The wispy hairs rising from Maddy’s skin, the strange movements of the staring hares, the eldritch grounds – the imagery is vivid and deeply unsettling. These depictions keep the novella rooted in its spooky, speculative genre. However much fun the readers may have, the horror is never too far away.
Ultimately, I love the way the mystery unfolds. What could be causing Maddy’s rapid decline in health and unusual nighttime behavior? Why is the lake so unmoving… and why does it glow at night? How might the demon hares be related to all of this? Alex, Angus, Denton, and Miss Potter have a lot to contend with, and may have to revise their view of what’s possible. Science fiction mingles with fantasy in what is ultimately a horrifying mystery.
What Moves the Dead is an odd, fun, and bone-chilling novella. Though I can’t speak to comparisons with “The Fall of the House of Usher” (sorry, Mr. Poe!), it does stand on its own as an imaginative work of horror.
I’m now even more eager to read T. Kingfisher’s other works. I may start with The Hollow Places, which has been on my shelf for nearly two years, or perhaps her other 2022 release, Nettle & Bone. Two more books are due out next year as well: A House With Good Bones (March) and Thornhedge (August). Stay tuned for my reviews of all of these and more!
Get the Book
You can buy What Moves the Dead here – it’s available as a hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.
|What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher|
|Genre||Horror; Gothic Fiction|
|Number of Pages||165|
|Format I Read||Hardcover|
|Original Publication Date||July 12, 2022|
From T. Kingfisher, the award-winning author of The Twisted Ones, comes What Moves the Dead, a gripping and atmospheric retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
*A very special hardcover edition, featuring foil stamp on the casing and custom endpapers illustrated by the author.*
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.
About the Author
T. KINGFISHER (she/her) writes fantasy, horror, and occasional oddities, including The Twisted Ones and Swordheart. Under a pen name, she also writes bestselling children’s books. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, dogs, and chickens who may or may not be possessed.