The dead don’t walk. Except, sometimes, when they do.
It is a cliché to say that a building’s windows look like eyes because humans will find faces in anything and of course the windows would be the eyes. The house of Usher had dozens of eyes, so either it was a great many faces lined up together or it was the face of some creature belonging to a different order of life—a spider, perhaps, with rows of eyes along its head.
How many of you have not read Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Fall of the House of Usher? Ok, now how many of you read it, but so long ago that you do not really remember what it was all about? All right, the link is right above, so, really, go check it out. Take your time. I get paid the same whether you take half an hour or a year, so no worries on my part. Pop back in when you’re done.
All right, I think it has been long enough. Those who have not done the reading can catch up later. As I am sure you get, What Moves the Dead is a pastiche, a reimagining of Poe’s tale. Often these are temporal updates, moving the events to a more contemporary setting. But this one is different. Kingfisher (really Ursula Vernon) keeps Usher in the late 19th century. She supplants Poe’s thick style with a more contemporary, less florid, more conversational presentation.
T. Kingfisher – image from her GR page
Poe’s unnamed narrator becomes Alex Easton, of which more in a bit. We first meet the lieutenant examining some disturbing flora.
The mushroom’s gills were the deep-red color of severed muscle, the almost-violet shade that contrasts so dreadfully with the pale pink of viscera. I had seen it any number of times in dead deer and dying soldiers, but it startled me to see it here.
Ok, definitely not good. Continuing on, Alex is alarmed at the state of the Usher manse.
It was a joyless scene, even with the end of the journey in sight. There were more of the pale sedges and a few dead trees, too gray and decayed for me to identify…Mosses coated the edges of the stones and more of the stinking redgills pushed up in obscene little lumps. The house squatted over it all like the largest mushroom of them all.
The invitation (plea) to visit in this version came not from Roderick Usher, but from his twin, Madeline. Neither sibling had had any children, so mark the end of their line, as many prior generations had failed to provide more than a single direct line of descendants. Both Madeline and Roderick look awful, cadaverous, with Maddy, diagnosed as cataleptic, quite wasted away and clearly nearing death. They are having a bad hair life.
Redgill Mushroom – image from Forest Floor Narrative
There is another in attendance, Doctor James Denton, an American, whose primary narrative purpose seems to be to provide a conversational and analytical partner for Easton.
We track the demise of Madeline. Given her Poe-DNA, we know her chances for survival are not great. (But was she really dead in that one, or just entombed alive?) Add in a delight of an amateur mycologist, Eugenia, a fictional aunt of Beatrix Potter, who was quite an accomplished student and illustrator of things fungal. Potter is a pure delight upon the page, (maybe she used some spells?) possessed of a sharp mind and wit, and a bit of unkind regard for some. Other supporting cast include Easton’s batman (no, not that one) Angus, and his mount, Hob, who is given a lot more personality than horses are usually allowed.
Image from from TV Tropes
So, plenty of dark and dreary, but the atmospherics are not all that is going on here. Kingfisher had read the book as a kid, but rereading it as an adult, found her curiosity piqued. She noted that Poe goes on a fair bit in his story about things fungal, so decided to dig into that as a possible reason for the sad state of the Usher land and clan. The result is a spore-burst of understanding,
…so I was reading old pulp, basically going, is there anything here that grabs me that I can see a story in. And I happened on Usher and I was like, I haven’t reread any Poe in a while. And I read Fall of the House of Usher and it’s obsessed with rotting vegetation and fungus. And it’s really short. And they don’t explain hardly anything…I wanted to know what was wrong with Madeline Usher because you get buried alive, that is a problem. And so I started reading about catalepsy which is what it was diagnosed as at the time and also fungus, there was just so much about fungus and I’m like, okay, obviously these two must be linked somehow.; – from the LitHub interview
There is a particularly creepy element, in the hares around the tarn that sit and stare at people through blank eyes. They do not behave like normal bunnies at all in other unsettling ways I will not spoil here.
Image from Television Heaven
It is definitely worth your time to re-read Poe’s original. There are so many wonderful elements. One is a song that Roderick composes, which encapsulates the dark sense of the tale. There are some bits that were changed or omitted from the original. Poe’s Roderick was heavy into painting, an element that Kingfisher opted to omit. And he was particularly taken with Henry Fuseli, whose dark painting, The Nightmare, certainly fits well with the tale. His guitar work in the original was replaced with piano playing.
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli – image from Wikimedia
Kingfisher adds into the story a bit of gender irregularity. What to do if a non-binary person with mammaries wants to become a soldier? Well, these days, can do, but in the late 19th century, not so much. She learned of a practice in the Caucusus, borne of a shortfall of human cannon fodder. A woman could join the military by declaring herself a man, and voila, presto chango, she is legally a dude. Kingfisher took a tangent off that, giving Easton a home in a made-up European nation.
Gallacia’s language is . . . idiosyncratic. Most languages you encounter in Europe have words like he and she and his and hers. Ours has those, too, although we use ta and tha and tan and than. But we also have va and var, ka and kan, and a few others specifically for rocks and God… And then there’s ka and kan. I mentioned that we were a fierce warrior people, right? Even though we were bad at it? But we were proud of our warriors. Someone had to be, I guess, and this recognition extends to the linguistic fact that when you’re a warrior, you get to use ka and kan instead of ta and tan. You show up to basic training and they hand you a sword and a new set of pronouns. (It’s extremely rude to address a soldier as ta. It won’t get you labeled as a pervert, but it might get you punched in the mouth.)
This did not seem particularly necessary to the story, but it is certainly an interesting element.
Image from Filo News
So, while you know the outcome in the original, (because you went back and read the story, right?) there is a question of causation. Why is the land so dreary? Why are the Ushers so ill? Why was the family tree more like a telephone pole? Kingfisher provides a delightful answer.
So, What Moves the Dead, in novella length, (about 45K words) provides an intriguing mystery, renders a suitably grim setting, offers up some fun characters, with an interesting take on gender identification possibilities, delivers some serious, scary moments, and pays homage to a classic horror tale, while (didn’t I mention this above?) making us laugh out loud. I had in my notes FIVE LOLs. Add in a bunch of snickers and a passel of smiles. Not something one might expect in a horror tale. Bottom line is that T. Kingfisher has written a scary/funny/smart re-examination (exhumation?) of a fabulous tale. What Moves the Dead moves me to report that this book is perfect for the Halloween season, and a great read anytime if you are looking for a bit of a short, but not short-story short, creepy scare.
DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. – from The Fall of the House of Usher
From Otakukart.com – image from Netflix
Review posted – September 9, 2022
Publication date – July 12, 2022
I received an eARE of What Moves the Dead from Tor Nightfire in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating. Wait, why are you staring at me like that? Stop it! Really, Stop it!
This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
Links to the author’s personal, Goodreads, and Twitter pages
Profile – from GoodReads
T. Kingfisher is the vaguely absurd pen-name of Ursula Vernon. In another life, she writes children’s books and weird comics, and has won the Hugo, Sequoyah, and Ursa Major awards, as well as a half-dozen Junior Library Guild selections
—–Mighty Mu – Spoilers Club 3: T Kingfisher and What Moves the Dead – video – 41:08
Item of Interest from the author
—–Sarah Gailey and T. Kingfisher Talk Haunted Houses, Fantastic Fungi, and the Stories Nonbinary Folks Deserve
—–Carl Maria von Weber’s Last Waltz is referenced in Poe’s story, in which Roderick played guitar instead of piano
—–John Brown’s Body – Smile-worthy reference to a dead person who still walks among us
—–Ben Morton – Beethoven’s Fifth on piano – …he played dramatic compositions by great composers. (Mozart? Beethoven? Why are you asking me? It was music, it went dun-dun-dun-DUN, what more do you want me to say?)
3 responses to “What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher”
Excellent review. I’m not as familiar with Poe as I probably should be, this seems interesting though.
Thanks, Shelly. Poe’s story is a manageably short read and definitely called for if you are interested in reading Kingfisher’s book.
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I was on a no-request break from NetGalley when this was published. I did wind up buying it though. Very interesting take and yes I read Poe’s original!