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What Moves the Dead

Review

What Moves the Dead

If you have read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s wildly popular MEXICAN GOTHIC, a slow-burn gothic horror featuring some dastardly mushrooms, T. Kingfisher’s WHAT MOVES THE DEAD may ring some bells.

As a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the book actually shares something in common with Moreno-Garcia’s latest novel, THE DAUGHTER OF DOCTOR MOREAU, which reimagines the H.G. Wells classic, THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU. While Kingfisher notes the first coincidental commonality in the Author’s Note, mushroom and style similarities aside, WHAT MOVES THE DEAD stands on its own as a fantastically creepy tale and a compelling reworking of Poe’s enigmatic story.

"Kingfisher takes on trauma and PTSD, the price of war, the loss of wealth and power, and issues of gender and misogyny in health care and in the professional world, and successfully wraps it all up in a book that is both amusing and nightmarish."

Upon arriving at the crumbling manor of their childhood friends, Madeline and Roderick Usher, retired soldier Alex Easton is struck by the general gloominess of the estate. Even before reaching the house, as Easton stops to water their horse, Hob, they realize something is amiss. The water of the tarn seems stagnant and vile, and there are strange mushrooms everywhere.

Inside the Usher house, things are even worse. Easton, summoned by a letter from an ailing Madeline, was not prepared to find the Ushers living in squalor and looking on the verge of death already. James Denton, an American doctor caring for Madeline, is not quite sure what is wrong with her. She has some form of catalepsy, falling into brief comas, but the cause is unclear and still doesn’t fully explain her terrible health or that of Roderick. Both Easton and Denton want the pair to leave the damp and cold house, but Madeline is not well enough to travel, and her brother won’t leave her.

As the days go by, Easton grows increasingly worried about Madeline and Roderick, as well as their own health. Plus, there are some truly awful things happening with the local rabbits that seem connected to Madeline’s condition. From glowing lights in the tarn, to terrifying rabbits, to the somnambulant Madeline, to the overabundance of mushrooms, Easton finds kan-self in a horrific and deadly situation. When a final tragedy strikes, Easton, Denton and the formidable mycologist Eugenia Potter must concoct a plan to save Roderick and themselves, even it it means the fall of the house of Usher.

Alex Easton is wonderfully conceived and written. Kingfisher’s narrator and protagonist is a genderqueer war veteran from the fictional Galicia, whose language and culture allows a gender-neutral identity. This identity, with its own set of pronouns (ka/kan), gives Easton a fascinating vantage point in their army career and in relation to the wider world. Kingfisher describes all of this easily, and it threads well into the larger story being told. Easton is a great character: funny, charming, smart, tough, and a perfect guide through this weird and fun book. The novel takes Poe’s story and expands upon it, clearing up some mysteries and introducing others. The writing is light-handed and slyly humorous, despite the dark yarn being spun.

Kingfisher takes on trauma and PTSD, the price of war, the loss of wealth and power, and issues of gender and misogyny in health care and in the professional world, and successfully wraps it all up in a book that is both amusing and nightmarish. A fresh update on an American classic, WHAT MOVES THE DEAD is a chilling and entertaining short novel --- the perfect read as hot summer days slide into darker, cooler autumn ones.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 29, 2022

What Moves the Dead
by T. Kingfisher

  • Publication Date: July 12, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Horror
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Tor Nightfire
  • ISBN-10: 1250830753
  • ISBN-13: 9781250830753