[Book Review]: T. Kingfisher’s What Moves the Dead
The House of Usher, Repossessed
There’s no one quite like Poe. Haunted as he was in life, it’s no surprise he was so adept at tapping directly into fears in his work, no matter how dark and unusual they were. From fear of the elderly to tales of revenge to his tried-and-true staple of mourning the loss of a beautiful woman cut down in her prime, he was a master of dread and I read him so voraciously as a child it’s almost a wonder I didn’t consider myself a genre fan earlier in life. I was a Gothic fan before I was anything, but with that comes the knowledge that for all his talent, Poe could also tend toward the denser side, waxing poetic about things that seem unrelated to the core story for so long it’s easy to forget just what he started on. With that in mind, it’s always a delight to see his work given new life by new voices. T. Kingfisher may not be new on the scene, but the characters of What Moves the Dead are a breath of fresh air.
Alex Easton is a sworn soldier coming to visit their friends the Ushers following a letter from Madeline Usher indicating her own failing health. They begin the story self-assured and battle-worn but grounded in the knowledge that they are not a very fancifully imaginative person. Upon arrival at the Ushers’ estate, Easton is met almost immediately with challenges to their ideas, from the house’s deeply unsettled atmosphere to the building feeling that they may not truly know their friends near as well as they first thought. Both Ushers have a look of death about them, and the manor enveloping them is decaying even as it suffocates them.
I feel still somewhat new to Kingfisher’s work, and yet found myself anticipating What Moves the Dead more than nearly any other book releasing this year. Getting the opportunity in 2020 to review The Hollow Places introduced me to an author who knew how to craft dread so sinister it snuck up and wrapped itself around you before you ever got the chance to know it was there. So it is with What Moves the Dead. Even knowing it is based around one of Poe’s most unsettled locales, Kingfisher’s ability to turn the stomach with a simple turn of phrase adds a whole other level of disturbance. Reading What Moves is an exercise in the kind of fear that starts slow only to stick in your craw and settle into your bones with the same dedication as the Usher manor’s poisoned atmosphere. You can’t place it, exactly, but you can’t quite shake it either, and what you’re left with is the discomfiting sense on which myths are built and stormy nights are passed.
When adapting a well-known and well-beloved text into something new, it is important to make one’s unique impression on the story in order for it to stand on its own ground alongside its source, a sometimes-daunting task not easily managed. Yet in Kingfisher’s hands “Usher” becomes a newly enriched text full of fascinating characters, some of the likes of which it strikes me as beyond Poe’s scope to have even considered casting. Easton’s delicate balance of unsettled and self-assured is engaging to read — there’s nothing quite like newfound fear in someone discovering a version of the world they had never previously considered — and the way they are conceptualized is comfortingly novel. That is, Easton grew up in a land with a much more nuanced view of gender identity and personal identity than what we have, and the way it’s handled is immediately clear enough that we understand why the people around them respond in such varied ways, bringing each of their pre-conceived ideas about sworn soldiers such as Easton to bear with the reality of Easton before them. Just enough time is spent on it to give each of the characters a unique sense of depth, but it isn’t ever the sole focus. There are, after all, witch-hare legends and catalepsy to deal with.
Alongside Easton is the bold mycologist Miss Beatrix Potter, who unabashedly pursues her passion for fungus research with dreams of confronting the field of study with something so novel they have to take her seriously, gender be damned. She is the very definition of a strong support system for everyone who meets her, taking all things in stride with an air of confidence in her ability and steadfast belief in her work that Poe would never have thought to introduce — on the whole, for him, to be woman was to be doomed to death or already dead, there was no room for breaking down glass walls. She is also, pleasantly, somewhat wistfully dedicated to her paintings of the various fungi she encounters on the moors; no character of Kingfisher’s is ever quite just one thing, and we as readers are all the more benefited for it.
My only complaint with What Moves the Dead is the same as Kingfisher’s own in the Author’s Note — much as she was left longing for more from Poe’s “Usher”, Moves goes by so fast it’s almost as if it ended too soon. That is, it builds such a wonderfully entrancing cast and atmosphere around itself that I, quite frankly, entirely forgot it was a novella and never wanted it to end. Hares, with their disturbingly deep eyes and airs of dark quest-giving, were never firmly on my list of warm and cozy creatures, but Kingfisher’s hares — gracing the exquisite cover of this Gothic journey into darkness — have landed themselves on my personal list of nightmare creatures from now to eternity.
I would like to thank the publisher and NetGalley for the opportunity to receive an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
What Moves the Dead releases from Tor Nightfire on July 12, 2022.