Book Review : What Moves the Dead

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : What Moves the DeadWhat Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
Published by Tom Doherty Associates on July 12th 2022
Genres: Fiction, Horror, Occult & Supernatural
Pages: 160
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Source: NetGalley

From T. Kingfisher, the award-winning author of The Twisted Ones, comes What Moves the Dead, a gripping and atmospheric retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's classic "The Fall of the House of Usher."
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.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

What Moves the Dead is a retelling of one of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe works, The Fall of the House of Usher. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from What Moves the Dead, as this was my first time reading both a Poe retelling and anything by T. Kingfisher. At first, I was really perplexed by what the heck I was reading, as What Moves the Dead spends a lot of time dedicated to the history of a fake country and its sworn soldiers, with our narrator counting themselves amongst the number of sworn soldiers, and interspersing it with a strange, meandering sense of humor that feels almost like a stream of consciousness.


“Ah. American. That explained the clothes and the way he stood with his legs wide and his elbows out, as if he had a great deal more space than was actually available. (I am never sure what to think of Americans. Their brashness can be charming, but just when I decide that I rather like them, I meet one that I wish would go back to America, and then perhaps keep going off the far edge, into the sea.”


I was really not a fan of this rambling sense of humor, which felt more like a digression or diatribe, and wished the novel would get on with the good stuff, which is ultimately the truly creepy setting of the Usher house. T. Kingfisher excels at creating a spine-chilling atmosphere, which effortlessly allows me to picture every little terrifying detail that our narrator Alex Easton encounters while visiting his ailing friends, Roderick and Madeline Usher at their ancestral home. I must say that I found T. Kingfisher’s descriptions just as unsettling as Poe’s if not even more so.


“‘This place…’ I gestured vaguely with my free hand, but it was the tarn I was thinking of, the dark water, and the stinking fungus. ‘I think it might be enough to make anyone ill.'”


Though it had been years since I read the original work, I did pick up the short story after T. Kingfisher’s and I must say that I prefer What Moves the Dead. Sacrilege, I know, but the build up of tension and unquiet throughout this novella is simply masterful, and I adore the expounding on the original story. Readers see more than a glimpse of the ailing Madeline Usher, witness Alex Easton speaking at length with the doctor and hearing the local superstitions surrounding the house and the local wildlife. It all paints a very creepy and more realistic picture, which doesn’t hurtle towards an abrupt and somewhat ridiculous ending.


“The dead don’t walk. Except sometimes, when they do.”


What Moves the Dead takes its time, lulling readers into a false sense of security that even though things aren’t quite right, there is no inherent and pressing danger. In fact, I could only wish What Moves the Dead had been a bit longer, with even more build up, as not only am I a glutton for punishment, aka suspense, and thought that it was a little too obvious that Alex’s meeting with the mycologist, Beatrix Potter, was more important than some chance encounter with the wacky neighborhood mushroom lady. Plus, I wanted more time wondering what was going on with the creepy bunnies and how it related to Madeline.


I also was much more invested in the characters and the deadly mystery ensnaring them. Perhaps because The Fall of the House of Usher is so short, and hurtles towards its deadly and inexplicable conclusion, I never quite got too attached to Roderick and Madeline. It was more that I was committed to seeing what horrific fate would inevitably fall onto the characters, rather than the characters themselves.  What Moves the Dead by far renders the characters more fleshed out and sympathetic, and in turn, makes me more care more about what is happening to them.


“‘Roderick,’ said Denton, leaning against the stone railing. ‘He complains of nightmares. Says the walls breathe them out.'”


Though I did struggle to get into What Moves the Dead at first, I’m so glad I stuck out my initial reservations about extra pronouns, sworn soldiers, and an entirely fictional country. I am still not the biggest fan of the whole made up pronoun thing, such as “ka” and “kan,” but it does play a bit of a role in the twist at the end, so I suppose I can’t complain too much. With that being said, I do think this twist could’ve been carried out without the whole pronoun thing, which honestly made me zone out quite a bit when reading the original explanations of these pronouns.


But it was interesting seeing a non-binary person as our narrator and how they fit into the time period. The pronouns they used were both gender neutral and indicative of their career as a sworn soldier. It’s always good to see some diversity and glimpses of a more accepting world. But again, I found myself disappointed whenever the novella wasn’t focusing on the mystery and horror of the Usher House.


Though I bordered on inattentiveness during the descriptions of the pronouns and the fictional country, and it took me quite a while to get accustomed to the narrator’s humor, I highly recommend What Moves the Dead to not only fans of Poe, but to those who simply like horror stories. This would definitely be a great choice for those who loved Mexican Gothic, a work that the author even mentions in the acknowledgements. I could also easily see myself rereading this retelling in future spooky seasons, as it is just such a fun read. I also plan on checking out more of T. Kingfisher’s works in the future.

Book Review : What Moves the Dead - Blogging with Dragons

Posted March 1, 2022 in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Mystery, Thrillers, and Horror

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4 responses to “Book Review : What Moves the Dead

  1. Richard G Kerr

    I’ve always been a fan of Edgar Allen Poe. Some of his short stories haunt me still. Thanks for the review… (A round of Amontillado for everyone)

    • It’s been a few months since I’ve read this book, so I may be a bit shaky on the details. However, I believe I took the term “sworn soldiers” to simply refer to those that enlisted in service to the fictional country of Gallacia (I think that’s what it was called.) Hope that help!

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