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This story is based on "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Poe (Edgar Allan, not the Teletubby). I’ll start by admitting that I don’t know Poe’s story, so I can’t really make a comparison or say how true to the original Kingfisher was. What I do know is that cover rocks!
I had a fabulous time in Ruritania with my long-lost, new friend Alex Easton. Kingfisher’s characters were captivating; each one added depth and personality to the story. I often found myself interrupting my wife’s reading to toss out some of the great lines that flowed from the characters.
Kingfisher created a masterpiece of scene, character, and story. How much of it came directly from Poe versus how much of it was hers, I don’t know, but I had a whole lot of fun with the story and how she filled in the picture.
What Moves the Dead is on the shorter side, but then again, so is Poe’s story. I enjoyed all of the details about the Gallacian culture, their pronouns, and their history. Spending some time filling in details can sometimes bring a reader closer to the story.
What Moves the Dead was a fun read that hit all of the right buttons at just the right time.
*I received a copy of the book from the publisher (via NetGalley).
The first thing I heard about What Moves the Dead was that it's a retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe. That was all I needed to hear to be honest, and I wish I had read it as soon as I received it. It's a short book anyway, but I read it in less than a day because I could not put it down.
In What Moves the Dead, Alex Easton is a sworn soldier of Galacia. They receive a letter from their childhood friend Madeline Usher who thinks she may be dying. Naturally, Alex rushes to the crumbling manor Madeline and her brother Roderick call home to do what they can to help. When Alex makes their way to the Usher castle, though, they find a half-caved-in manor on the edge of a sickly lake called a tarn.
Upon seeing the Usher siblings, Alex realizes the house and grounds aren't the only things breaking down. Both of the Ushers seem deathly ill, and even the doctor has no idea what is really wrong with either of them. Thus begins Alex's journey into the slow disintegration of the house of Usher.
From the very first line, the story makes it clear this will not be a happy tale. Mushrooms and fungi are described by comparing them to viscera and open wounds. The local hares behave in strange and unnerving ways, such as sitting up and staring at people and drowning themselves in the tarn. The locals refuse to visit the manor, and no one goes close to the lake if they can help it. All of these descriptions lend themselves to create an atmosphere of dread throughout the story.
Similarly to the story it's inspired by, all the details in What Moves the Dead are important. Nothing is mentioned in an off-hand manner. Even the constant presence of mushrooms is important. Even descriptions of arm hair are important to the story! That being said, all these obvious details made it pretty easy to guess how it would end, and some readers may not enjoy how obvious it is. I personally thought it gave reading the story a vicarious thrill. I knew certain characters were doomed, and seeing those that cared about them confront all of the clues with denial added to the story's atmosphere.
Speaking of characters, they were all wonderful, but my favorites were Alex and Eugenia Potter, the British mycologist. Alex is the narrator of the story, and I loved their tangents into the history of Galacia and the language of Galacia. It really added some context and personality to the story as well as explaining why Alex might do certain things. I also really enjoyed having a non-binary character as the narrator. Alex even explained this through an aside about the Galacian language have six sets of pronouns that are used for people depending on age (children are called va or van until puberty) or occupation (all soldiers are known by ka or kan regardless of gender identity). It was interesting and added to the story.
As for Eugenia Potter, she is a wonder. She's a minor character, but she always pops up whenever the knowledge of mushrooms and other fungi is needed most. She is a tenacious British lady determined to break into the male dominated scientific world of the late 1800's. She's also not afraid to take action when needed, and her no-nonsense manner offered some nice grounding points during the more surreal parts of the story.
Overall, I loved this story. It was the perfect combination of creeping horror, dark humor, and suspense. I loved the characters and the atmosphere in equal measure, and the story managed to be believable in the end, which isn't easy to do considering some of what happens. I will also never look at hares the same way again, or mushrooms for that matter.
I gave What Moves the Dead five out of five stars. I have nothing bad to say about this book. The creeping horror of the hares and the atmosphere created by the crumbling manor house surrounded by the black, fetid tarn pitting man against nature made for the best setting for a horror story. The characters' personalities shone through, and the dark humor kept things from getting too grim. Anyone looking for a short, quick horror read should pick this book up, especially if you enjoy Gothic horror.
Before reading this, I hadn't ever read anything by Kingfisher. Also, although I have a collection of Poe's short tales on one of my bookshelves, I haven't gotten around to reading it yet, so haven't read The Fall of the House of Usher. Having just finished this, it has spurred me on to change that.
What Moves the Dead is a short, very creepy book. It tells the story of Alex Easton; a non-binary retired soldier, who has been asked to attend his childhood friend, Madeline Usher. When Easton arrives, it is clear that Madeline and her brother, Roderick, are both in a terrible situation. Madeline is close to death, and Roderick is half the man that he used to be. Even their house is in decline, as it is decaying and rotting around them. But the truth of what is happening will be far more horrific than Easton could have imagined.
As this is a short tale - around 170 pages - you will find that the pacing is perfect. Kingfisher has created a sense of unease from the very beginning, meaning that even as Easton approaches the Usher house, you get a feeling of wanting them to turn back, but also being pulled along as though beside them, needing to see their journey to the end. Kingfisher's descriptions of the characters, as well as the house, bring this horror to life, and for a short book, it certainly still manages to pack a punch. In a way, I do wish that I had thought to read the original Poe version before this, but at least it has encouraged me to read the original sooner rather than later.
T. Kingfisher proves once more what a consistently good writer and storyteller she is. Not only does she have complete command over the 176 pages of her latest novella, a retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher, but she’s managed to successfully combine horror and humor in the most remarkable way, which doesn’t really surprise me because she did the same thing with The Hollow Places and The Twisted Ones. Creepy, atmospheric and extremely unsettling, What Moves the Dead is another winner for Kingfisher fans, and a great place to start if you’ve yet to try this brilliant author.
Retired Lieutenant Alex Easton receives a disturbing letter one day from an old friend, Madeline Usher, who says she is dying and asks Easton to come and visit her. Easton arrives at the Usher mansion and is shocked to see the house and grounds in a terrible state of decay. Even worse is the condition of Madeline and her twin brother Roderick, who both appear emaciated and ill. Roderick’s American friend Denton has also arrived at the mansion and is trying to determine the cause of Madeline’s decline.
With the help of Eugenia Potter, an eccentric mycologist, and Easton’s servant Angus, Easton and Denton are determined to help their friends. But strangeness abounds in the house of Usher and the nearby lake, as the visitors begin to feel trapped by the odd events surrounding Madeline's illness.
Savvy readers may recognize some of the Gothic details from another popular novel (I won’t mention the name of the book because it’s fun to figure it out on your own). After the first sentence I knew what Kingfisher was paying tribute to, and I thought she did a brilliant job of utilizing some of the same elements but putting her own unique spin on them. She also explains in her Author's Note why she did this, and by the way, the Author's Note is definitely worth reading!
There are so many wonderfully bizarre elements in What Moves the Dead, and I don’t want to spoil anything for you so I’ll try to be vague. First of all, fungi and mushrooms play a big part in the story, and I have to say I’ve never seen them used in quite this way, even though I’ve read lots of horror stories involving fungi. And I will never look at hares the same way again ever, lol. If you think of rabbits and hares as sweet, fluffy creatures, then you might want to stay away from this book, as your image of them might be crushed forever. The author uses some well-tread Gothic elements that you’ll be familiar with, like the crumbling house of Usher with its peeling wallpaper, damp rooms and creaky floors. But she also adds some twists, like the nearby tarn (lake) that glows at night. And did I mention the hares?
The story is set in a fictional European country with its own traditions, like the use of seven different sets of pronouns. Children and inanimate objects have their own pronouns (as does God!), and when you join the Gallacian army you become “sworn” and give up your gender and thereafter use different pronouns. Easton, although retired from the military, continues to use the non-binary “ka” and “kan” pronouns.
And it wouldn’t be a T. Kingfisher story without engaging characters. Luckily we get a bunch of good ones in this story, including Easton’s servant Angus, who is simply delightful. Eugenia Potter is wonderful as well (and is the fictional aunt of someone you might recognize!) I loved the playful banter between the characters, especially with an American in the mix, which leads to lots of wryly funny jokes. Kingfisher’s prose is polished and elegant and perfectly suited for a Gothic mystery like this.
Some of the descriptions of the fungi and the hares are gross and disturbing, so do beware if you have a weak stomach. I personally loved every disgusting detail! What Moves the Dead is fairly short and can be read in one sitting. In fact, you probably won’t be able to stop once Kingfisher hooks you with her mesmerizing storytelling skills and atmospheric prose. Highly recommended.
Eerie and atmospheric, this is a tightly paced book that starts off unsettling and continues from there. There is a strong sense of place and time without lengthy description. I could clearly picture the setting while reading, which is not the case for many books. The characters are clear and well-drawn too, and their interactions drive the story. If you have read books by this author before, you know that her characters tend toward being quippy - here, that is kept to a minimum, and so does not take you out of the tension building or this specific setting. The plot is a retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher. Even though I guessed what the resolution would be, the big reveal scene still surprised me. I knew what was coming and yet it was more horrific than expected. If you had asked me whether the story would be improved by having a protagonist with gender neutral pronouns, I'm not sure I could have given you an answer, but it absolutely was. Easton is wonderful. Also wonderful is the country that Easton is from, a small European country caught up in the wars, which does not exist. I am a big fan of this type of literature (the Ruritanian romance, per Wikipedia), and to find a new one being written today was a thrill. The author said in the afterword that this story was a nod to that genre, and that she was not sure she had really accomplished it - I say she has, and excellently at that.
I'm not usually into horror novels but I like classic horror that relies less on blood and gore and more on psychological tension and atmosphere, and this book has both of those things in spades. WHAT MOVES THE DEAD is a delightful bundle of tropes: creepy animals, crawling mold, a gothic castle, a family filled with madness, and a dark, dank secret that would chill the blood of men, all told by a dryly witty nonbinary protagonist, Alex, who has come to the House of Usher to aid a childhood friend as she succumbs to a mysterious illness.
I don't know if any of you are familiar with Magic the Gathering lore, but this has very similar vibes to the plane of Innistrad when it was being influenced by Emrakul: picture a quaint 19th century European village being slowly poisoned by toxic and sinister influences. The interactions with the flora and fauna and the palpable terror of the villagers made this feel like an old skool horror movie that could have starred Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. I also liked the comedic elements that came from Alex and the proper Ms. Potter, Beatrix's fictional aunt, and determined female mycologist.
Less is definitely more going into WHAT MOVES THE DEAD because part of the fun is figuring out what's going on. But this is definitely creepy and despite being under 200 pages, the pacing was economical and perfect. If this isn't made into a movie, somebody's not doing their job.
4.5 stars, actually. I am a HUGE T. Kingfisher fan, usually for how she manages to interweave common decency and a sense of comfort into all the stories of war-weary and traumatized folks like in the alternate world fantasy Paladin/Hanged Mother novels or fairytale retellings like Bryony and Roses
This is a retelling of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher starring a war-weary Gallacian sworn soldier with pronouns khan and ka, a non-nonsense British amateur mycologist, and a pair of very pale, very weird siblings in the House of Usher in a small hamlet in a small European kingdom.
Alex Easton is called to a friend’s house by the news of imminent death of a friend’s sister. Ka discovers a really, really nasty dank pond, a crumbling mansion, and strange hares that don’t run away when you approach but stare at you with unblinking eyes.
And there’s mushrooms.
It’s kind of fun to read this as I am also eagerly watching each episode of Last of Us on HBO, and the afterward mentions Mexican Gothic by Moreno-Garcia which I almost wish I hadn’t read yet so I could read it close to this one. It’s definitely fun to see the different “flavors” of fungi in all three creative works, and the intersection of human horror and fungi.
But this is Kingfisher, so whilst its definitely gothic and atmospheric heavy, once the horror is truly revealed, our heroes step up to handle it.
This is very short, more like a novelette than a full novel, but then the original source material was also short:)
I've never read Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher and from what another reader told me, What Moves The Dead weaves a more in-depth, definitely more organic, retelling as to what happened to the old manor and its sibling residents. After reading WMTD, I truly need to read more Poe.
The book starts at full-on creep show when Office Alex Easton of the Gallacian army arrives at the gloomy Usher manor; the stone walls are crumbling, the grounds unmanaged and overgrown. Easton can feel the windows staring at them, watching them, like eyes to the soul. Friends with the Ushers, Roderick and Madeline, since childhood Easton has come after an imploring letter from Madeline; Roderick is dying.
Easton meets the elderly Miss Potter, an amateur mycologist, just outside the grounds when she warns them to not poke the mushrooms; they smell like death when broken open. Everything about the Usher estate just screams death and dying and decay, especially the inside of the manor, with its moldy wallpaper, cold stone floors, dark rooms and ghostly emaciated residents. The siblings are frail looking, especially Madeline with her wispy white hair, and appear decades older than their childhood friend. They both appear to be dying. Even the visiting American doctor is unable to find the cause of their deterioration and is there only for support.
What transpires is Easton's attempt to support his friends-they won't leave the manor because it would kill Madeline-followed by their determination to discover why the siblings' health has declined so alarmingly. The forest surrounding the manor is filled with staring hollow-eyed hares with a jerky, zombie-like gait, unafraid of humans. The tarn glows at night and is filled with inedible slimy fish. Easton hears the floors creaking at night and while a trained officer who has seen combat, sleeps with a pistol under their pill0w. The family crypt has catacombs. Roderick claims he hears worms eating the walls. Nothing makes sense to Easton.
The answer is not a surprise but T. Kingfisher, queen of the atmospheric creep out, makes it freaky AF. Hats off to her for, again, leaving me with achingly tight jaw muscles from the tension and dried out eyes from not blinking. She is an awesome writer.
So, is it a cautionary tale about humankind vs. nature? Or is it just a freaky retelling of what some consider Poe's best writing? It's definitely a warning and it is most certainly a creepy, gloomy ghost tale. Just picked up a copy of The Fall Of The House Of Usher.