Review: What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher 

cover of What Moves the DeadWhat Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher 
Tor Nightfire (July 2022)
176 pages; $17.99 hardcover; $6.99 e-book
Reviewed by Haley Newlin

The dead don’t walk.

There is a place secluded by an untenable smog, a 30-foot drop lake, and shrouded with acrimonious fungi. Some say it is the place the devils dance on moors. Others say at this ancestral residence, The House of Usher, they can hear the worms in the earth, craving flesh.

T. Kingfisher’s What Moves the Dead follows Alex Easton, a retired soldier, who journeys to The House of Usher after receiving word that their childhood friend, Madeline Usher, is dying. Upon arrival, Easton discovers that Madeline’s illness is far more severe and gruesome than they ever imagined. Madeline and her brother, Roderick, possess an unearthly appearance, with bone-colored flesh, eyes deep hollows, and their frames frail. The Ushers looked like walking corpses.

But “the dead don’t walk,” Easton reminds themselves repeatedly.

What Moves the Dead is an expert reimagination of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” integrating some of the most haunting and memorable elements of the classic gothic tale. Kingfisher resurrected the knocking from the crypt, the misogynistic “hysteria” diagnosis, and the nightmarish fungal growth but still made this book a unique horror story.

What truly separates — rather, elevates — Poe’s original story is Kingfisher’s likable characters, from the aspiring British mycologist, Miss Potter, Easton’s batman, Angus, and even Easton’s horse, Hob. I’ve heard Kingfisher is known for making outstanding, strong-headed animal companion characters, and after reading What Moves the Dead, I wouldn’t doubt it.

Possibly, that charming quality allowed the author to create such disturbing, sickly, and memorable animals on the Usher property, particularly the hares, as well. I would argue the hares are one of the most memorable and bothersome images in What Moves the Dead. 

Contrary to the typical hare nature, the ones at The House of Usher don’t scurry away at the slightest movement or even gunfire. Instead, they linger. They stare with a dead gaze. And they walk in circles, trailing one leg behind themselves.

I won’t give too much away here, but how this detail comes together, with the help of the American doctor, Denton, and Miss Potter, feels like an ode to a leading trope in the zeitgeist of gothic horror. Poe would be proud.

I do wish the climax received more page time. The build of What Moves the Dead feels like a growing itch you can’t scratch, eyes you sense behind you but don’t see when you turn around. It’s nagging, twisted, and such a surreal delight.

Furthermore, Kingfisher managed to answer so many questions Poe left unearthed or the elements he left only partially crafted. I couldn’t help but imagine his work as a halfling creature who escapes Dr. Frankenstein, still shy of his empathy and compassion. And that’s what Poe was really missing — the heart.

Kingfisher’s Afterward says of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “He [Poe] devotes more words to the fungal emanations than he does to Madeline.”

In What Moves the Dead, you mourn for Roderick, somewhat understanding his reactionary, violent slip-up. You wish the head of the Usher House recovery and pray the illness doesn’t reach the others. You ache for Easton’s constant run-ins with PTSD, or battle nerves, as they call it, and hope it, in some way, will be their angel at the table.

If Poe had given us just a bit more character depth, more explanation behind the illness befallen the House of Usher, and some gender queerness, he would’ve had the gothic, spine-chilling brilliance T. Kingfisher has achieved here.

An absolute must-read for fans of Roger Corman films, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, and readers of Edgar Allan Poe.

I hope authors like T.Kingsfisher, continue reframing classic works, adding in a dose of heart, kickass queer characters, and more scare!

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