What Moves the Dead - Book Review
by T. Kingfisher
Coming out July 2022
I received this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. Thank you so much to the publisher, Tor, for approving me!
Have you ever read The Fall of the House of Usher and wished for a bit more? Well, What Moves the Dead gives that to you, along with some slight humour, a deeper mystery, and more overt horror. Personally, I think the title should have been Ushering In the Dead but what do I know?
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.
This book has all of that, except the poems, and it beefs everything up. It’s set in this alternate 1800s where this country, Gallacia, exists and produces these warriors who, because they are fighters, are given their own pronoun as a sign of honour. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman, a man, or non-binary; you use ka/kan as your pronouns if you're a warrior. This was so fun to me and both an interesting take on language as well as gender politics. Gallacia isn’t featured in the story a whole lot, but the bits of background we get gave the story an interesting dynamic. I really liked the main character, Alex Easton, who was an old soldier but has a duty to kan friends ka can’t ignore. Easton makes logical choices - ka both takes up arms when ka needs to as well as gets freaked out and bolts at a few points. Ka acts like a normal person involved in odd circumstances. This is one of those few exceptions where I really liked the first-person point of view.
The other characters are fun too. Denton is compelling because he’s brash one minute and aloof the next, but also likeable. The siblings aren’t in it as much as you’d expect, but there are a few side characters that add some flair to the story too.
The mystery was fun because while I should have guessed what it was, I did not. I suppose Kingfisher just did a great job hiding what was going on with other things in the plot. Yet, the story is cohesive, interesting, and slow enough to build tension and mood but quick enough that you’re not bored. It reminded me a lot of Mexican Gothic, but I liked the ending to this a lot better. It’s also quite funny! The humour is hard to describe. It’s not laugh-out-loud so much as amusing observations. These pop up just enough to even out the tension and give Easton a rather quirky personality. I loved the few references to Beatrix Potter as well.
The novel is also very clever. Small details mentioned in passing have relevance later - in this regard, Kingfisher really emulated Poe because every line seems to have a purpose.
That’s not to say this novel feels like an unnecessary copy of The Fall of the House of Usher. Where that story is all about mood, this has more horror elements and has its own story to tell. It’s a fun homage to one of horror’s more popular classic tales.
There’s a lot to love about his novel and if you like Edgar Allan Poe, gothic mystery, horror that won’t make you shit your pants but is still creepy, and rundown mansions covered in fungus, you’ll enjoy this!