Book Review: What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

Title: What Moves the Dead
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Tor Nightfire
Publication date: July 12, 2022
Print length: 176 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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!

Take A Peek Book Review: The Raven’s Tale by Cat Winters

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Seventeen-year-old Edgar Poe counts down the days until he can escape his foster family—the wealthy Allans of Richmond, Virginia. He hungers for his upcoming life as a student at the prestigious new university, almost as much as he longs to marry his beloved Elmira Royster. However, on the brink of his departure, all his plans go awry when a macabre Muse named Lenore appears to him. Muses are frightful creatures that lead Artists down a path of ruin and disgrace, and no respectable person could possibly understand or accept them. But Lenore steps out of the shadows with one request: “Let them see me!”

My Thoughts:

In The Raven’s Tale, muses are considered dangerous to the soul, yet at the same time, they’re acknowledged to exist. The Sunday sermon exhorts the congregation to “Silence your muses!” lest they lead you into temptation and keep you from pursuing an honest, hardworking, upright life. Such is the world in which we meet young Edgar Allan Poe, a 17-year-old devoted to poetry whose foster father wants to see him settled in the family business as a clerk. It’s all about respectability!

Poor Eddy! He’s consumed by thoughts of a deadly Richmond theater fire from eleven years earlier, and from his obsession with the fire, his muse emerges into life. His attention makes her more and more real, a girl of smoke and ashes who assumes human form and accompanies Edgar through the streets and in his home, leading him to greater and greater devotion to his writing. Edgar’s goal is to escape his awful father and begin his university studies, where he hopes to achieve greatness through his poetry — but the dream is on the verge of slipping away as his financial situation becomes dire and he’s forced into debt and out of control gambling in a futile attempt to pay for his fees.

The idea of personification of muses is an interesting one (and there’s also a secondary muse, who represents Poe’s forays into satire). We see how Edgar becomes consumed by his obsessions with his art, and if we didn’t know that his friends and family are all able to see his muses as well, we might think he’d tumbled into madness.

The concept is unique and inventive. The author weaves together her extensive research into Poe’s youth with her flights of fancy in his interactions with the muse. Sprinkled throughout are both lines from what will become his published work and other rhymes and verses that are written by Cat Winters in the style of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s fun to see the use of his style, and seems credible that his great works could have started in bits and pieces, with all sorts of variations, as they do here.

Overall, I thought The Raven’s Tale mostly (but not totally) successful. It’s an interesting and engaging read, but the reality of the muses was not entirely believable. I’m not sure that the balance between established history and invented fantasy really works well, but as someone not previously familiar with Poe’s early years, I found the parts based on real-life events especially interesting.

The writing takes on all sorts of rhythms and moods that feel true to the Poe of popular imagination, and that makes reading The Raven’s Tale a treat (despite some of the plot bumps).

Whenever I’m not writing, time trudges forward with the maddening, mortifying, miserable, morose, moribund pace of a funeral procession.

Don’t you just love that line?

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The details:

Title: The Raven’s Tale
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: April 16, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

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