Title: What Moves the Dead
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Tor Nightfire
Publication date: July 12, 2022
Print length: 176 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
From the award-winning author of The Twisted Ones comes a gripping and atmospheric 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’m convinced that the coming apocalypse will be the work of killer fungi. There are certainly enough works of horror fiction to back me up! What Moves the Dead further cements my belief that fungi are the creepiest life form there is. Prove me wrong!
What Moves the Dead is a twisted retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. As in the original, the main character is summoned to a dark, disturbing, decrepit mansion located on the shores of a dark, scary tarn (lake), where a childhood friend cares for his dying sister and seeks companionship and support in their looming disaster.
In What Moves the Dead, Poe’s unnamed narrator is replaced by Lieutenant Alex Easton, a retired “sworn” soldier from the country of Gallacia, who once served as Roderick Usher’s officer during wartime, and who even earlier was close friends with Madeline Usher. Alex is shocked and horrified at the sight of the siblings, who appear gaunt, withered, and years older than their actual age. Madeline truly does seem to be on the verge of death, and Roderick appears unwell himself. The entire house and surrounding countryside (and that darned tarn) seem menacing, perhaps even poisonous.
Alex arrives at the house to find an American doctor already in residence, whose brashness eventually gives way to common cause. Dr. Denton doesn’t quite know what’s ailing Madeline either, but she does appear to be on the point of death.
Alex also meets Eugenia Potter, an Englishwoman whose chief passion in life is mycology (and who fumes against the stupid men-only rule of the English scientific societies of the time). Alex, Denton, and Potter all share the belief that something is wrong, not just with the Ushers but with the natural world too. What’s up with all the strangely-behaving hares in the area?
This short work is delightfully, deliciously creepy! The house is moldy, there are awful looking mushrooms all over the grounds, and the lake is stagnant and gross and seems too terrible to want to be anywhere near. I’ve read enough creepy fungi horror stories to have a pretty good sense of where the story would end up, but it was so much fun getting there, and the author still managed to surprise me time after time with all the crazy, strange, awful details.
Beyond the horror plotline, other delights await. Alex’s background in Gallacia is too good to reveal in a review, but trust me when I say that the explanations of how the Gallacian language adapts gender and pronoun formations based not just on biology but also on station in life, age, and other factors is absolutely wonderful and so fascinating. I’d read a whole book just about that!
Miss Potter is a secondary character, but she’s lots of fun, as is the reveal of who her one of her family members is. (I’m not telling!)
When I requested a review copy of What Moves the Dead, it was based on (a) how much I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by this amazing author and (b) the gorgeously creepy cover (*shudder*). I hadn’t realized at the time that this book would be a retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher — I actually didn’t know that until I started What Moves the Dead and happened to finally read the Goodreads blurb.
At that point, I took a small detour to read Poe’s story, which isn’t very long (the edition I read was 36 pages). I’m glad I did. It gave me great context for What Moves the Dead, and made it really fun to compare and contrast the two versions of the story, especially the character portrayals, the explanations, and the outcomes.
Note: The Fall of the House of Usher is easy to find online at no cost! Here’s one resource, and there are free versions available for Kindle too.
What Moves the Dead is an excellent read, perhaps not for the squeamish — but if you enjoy creepy, understated horror, definitely check it out!