I’ve written before about how much I love Kingfisher’s books, and this is another example of why. What Moves the Dead is a little different from her other books. It’s a take on an existing story, but Kingfisher makes it her own. The result is a creepy, quick tale, perfect for October reading.
What Moves the Dead is Kingfisher’s retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. Our narrator is Alex Easton, a sworn soldier from the (fictitious) country of Gallacia. They have rushed back to the House of Usher upon receipt of a letter from Roderick Usher. Roderick’s sister, Madeline, is near death. Alex’s long history of friendship with both the Ushers, and service with Roderick during the recent war, spurs them to return, in hopes of at least providing moral comfort for their friends during this time of illness.
But even before reaching the formidable estate, a pervasive sense of rot and contagion oozes through the grounds. The curious spread of all matter of fungi is one manifestation of this miasma. Among the mushrooms, Alex meets Miss Eugeina Potter, an amateur mycologist. (Amateur only due to the Royal Academy’s shortsightedness regarding sex.) The mysterious presence of mushrooms normally never found in European climates fascinates her. Alex leaves her to her studies and makes it to the manor.
The worn and wan appearance of both Roderick and Madeline shocks them. An American doctor is also staying at the house, but he is just as bewildered as Alex by whatever is destroying the Ushers. Nor is the strangeness limited to the siblings. The very house seems possessed. Townsfolk tell tales of rabbits behaving in odd and unnatural ways, which Alex will come to see for themself. And in the dark, the lake glows with an eerie bioluminescence, reminding those present that there is more to the House of Usher than meets the eye.
While I had a passing knowledge of The Fall of the House of Usher before reading this, I didn’t know much. (Ok, ok, basically my only knowledge was watching the house explode as a two-second gag on the Simpsons.) Before writing this post, I quickly read through Poe’s version to have a point of comparison, though I have no intention of writing an English lit essay on it. (Sorry if that’s what brought you here. My only suggestion is to find a different thesis than “What Moves the Dead and The Fall of the House of Usher have many similarities and differences. In this essay, I will…”)
The takeaway is that Kingfisher once again brings an extraordinary amount of life, history, and character to each of the people we meet (and Alex’s horse, Hob, to boot). Despite its brevity, there’s no skimping on the details that make each of these people who they are, quickly making us very concerned about what is happening to them – and what may be lurking in the darkness for them. The sense of unease is omnipresent; when a character makes you laugh, it’s like laughing in a graveyard – unexpected and quickly clamped down before it calls unwanted attention to your presence. I loved it all.
As I read, the story kept reminding me of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s fantastic gothic horror novel Mexican Gothic. Thus it delighted me to see it listed as an influence in the afterword. If you haven’t read Mexican Gothic, check that one out after this (and then keep reading both authors’ other books).
I also really appreciated Kingfisher’s deftly woven grammar lesson early in the book. As you may have noticed, Alex is non-binary and while I have been using they/them pronouns in this review, Alex explains that Gallacia has numerous pronouns and sworn soldiers get their own dedicated pronouns of ka/kan. I won’t presume to be better at explaining the grammar better than the author, so I’ll let you discover that yourself. I will say that if my own grammar textbooks had been even half as entertainingly informative, I wouldn’t be spending most of my editing time painstakingly transforming instances of passive voice.
So whether or not you’ve read the Poe version, do yourself a favor and pick up What Moves the Dead. Then keep an eye on the rabbits around you…