This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend. Read the full disclosure here.
Book: “What Moves the Dead” by T. Kingfisher
Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, July 2022
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+; NetGalley
Book Description: 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.
As fans of this blog know, I’ve been on a bit of a T. Kingfisher kick lately, after discovering how much I liked her worked after reading “Nettle & Bone.” So when I saw that she was coming out with a horror novella this summer, I was all on board to read it. And of course we had to have our resident horror expert’s take as well, so I roped Kate into this one.
I haven’t read the original “The Fall of the House of Usher;” frankly, I have read very little Poe altogether. But it was easy enough to guess at the typic of gothic horror story it must have been. So, I can’t say how closely T. Kingfisher followed that story. What I do know is that the author took the liberty of not only creating an original narrating character, but an entire country and culture from which that character originated. With that came one of the most interesting takes on new pronouns that I’ve ever seen. What made it work for me was just how well-thought out the language decisions were. They all made sense in the realm of what we can see in other real languages. But beyond the pronouns, Kingfisher used this culture to highlight the limitations placed on women of the time. But, as the author tends to have a light touch on her prose, it was all done in a humorous, if not any less important, way.
I also really liked the horror aspect of this story. In the author’s note (always read the author’s note!), Kingfisher mentions that she was in the process of writing this book when Sylvia Moreno-Garcia put out her “Mexican Gothic,” another gothic horror with a focus on mushrooms and fungus. I’m glad that Kingfisher wasn’t put off of writing this book, however, because they are ultimately very different stories. The fungus, itself, was very different. Sure, it played for all the spooky horror moments. But it also drew on different emotions that I had definitely not expected. I don’t want to get into it further than that for spoiler reasons, but I was definitely having some surprising reactions to various twists and turns towards the end of the book.
Unlike Serena, I have read “The Fall of the House of Usher”, but it had been, oh… twenty five years since I last read it? I remembered the basics, though I did wonder if I would spot the parallels as well as I would have had it not been a quarter century. But good news! I remembered enough to make the comparisons! But even better news is that T. Kingfisher has made the story unique and able to stand on its own while still harkening to the spirit of the original! That is to say, I definitely enjoyed this book!
A lot of the things I found interesting and unique Serena touched upon, but as the resident horror person I will stick to that aspect of the book. Kingfisher does a really good job of sticking to the Gothic paranoia of isolation and slow mental and emotional decline, while also introducing a really gross and unsettling body horror aspect with the fungal themes. While body horror can be a sub genre that makes me incredibly uneasy, what I liked about Kingfisher’s take on it is that this book rarely goes for deliberate over the top gross outs, and instead relies on unsettling imagery like hares that are behaving oddly, or a sleepwalking woman that just seems off, or the eerie beauty of a lake that glows at night for reasons unknown. We never get to super high levels of horror in this book, as there are plenty of moments of levity as well as a matter of fact tone as the story goes on, but there are plenty of beats that are incredibly creepy that feel like moments in the original tale. It’s a very well done homage and retelling that made me squeamish for all the right reasons.
Fans of the original story should check this out, not only because it’s well done, but also because it’s a good introduction to an author who is doing creative things across genres.
Serena’s Rating 8: A short, spooky tale that introduces a new version of a classic tale, new character and culture included!
Kate’s Rating 8: Unsettling and unique, “What Moves the Dead” is a fun reimagining of a Poe staple.