WHAT MOVES THE DEAD, by T. Kingfisher

It was only a few weeks ago when I reviewed T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone, and here I am with another of her books, one that confirmed my intention of adding as many of them as possible to my TBR, because she is an amazing storyteller indeed.

I knew, thanks to my fellow bloggers’ reviews, that What Moves the Dead would take me on a gothic horror journey – and more specifically a retelling of Poe’s The Fall of House of Usher – and I was also made aware that the terror elements would be expressed in some wildly ghastly way, thanks to the cover illustration with its gruesome implications of body horror. Still, I found much more than I bargained for, because the dreadful elements are quite successfully blended with a peculiar brand of tongue-in-cheek humor that I’ve come to suspect might be T. Kingfisher’s trademark.

Alex Easton, the first-person narrator, is a non-binary former soldier who has been summoned by Madeline Usher, an old friend living with her twin brother (who used to be Easton’s comrade in arms) in a dilapidated house on the shores of a sinister-looking lake. According to the letter she sent to Easton, her health is failing and she also mentions her brother’s fears that she might be dying: worried for the sake of both friends, Easton comes to the mansion, where they are met by the siblings who appear aged beyond their years, emaciated and quite mentally troubled.  The dark, decrepit house and its environs fare no better than the Ushers: where inside one can see dust, cobwebs and peeling wallpaper, on the outside the lake’s waters appear unusually still and coated with something of an oily film which at night sports a weird luminescence. And creepier still, the local fauna – particularly the hares – shows unusual behavioral patterns, while strange fungal growths seem to thrive on the ground as far as the eye can see.

Worried for the plight of the almost-unrecognizable childhood friends, Easton tries to enroll the help of Denton, an American doctor also living at the manor, and of Miss Potter, a dedicated mycologist and illustrator, to try and understand what might be affecting the siblings and Madeline in particular, whose night-time cataleptic wanderings always take her to the lake’s shores. Unfortunately, events move rapidly toward tragedy, as a nameless menace hovers above the collapsing house of the Ushers…

While Poe’s tale might have been the inspiration for this novella, T. Kingfisher imbues it with its unique sense of dread and impending doom, enhanced by the villagers’ dire warnings and by the clues that the author seeds along the path to lead her readers toward the conclusion: I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the story, so I will keep any hint to a minimum – suffice it to say that other novels, some recent, some less so, have used that same narrative element but, in my opinion, not as successfully as Kingfisher did here.  There is a disturbing escalation of clues in What Moves the Dead that makes the horror palpable, rendering it so very easy to put oneself in Easton’s shoes as they walk through the crumbling rooms or fear for the Ushers’ failing physical and mental health at the same time as the former soldier tries to unravel the mystery of the house and its nearby lake.

Still, the story is not totally oriented toward gothic horror, because the author inserts a welcome vein of whimsical humor that takes some weight out of the narrative and offers a welcome respite: in my previous encounter with Nettle and Bone I enjoyed this element and I was glad to find it again here.  For starters, Easton is a delightfully no-nonsense, self-deprecating character who is hardly prone to flights of fancy, and therefore the right person to investigate the strange happenings of the house without being unduly affected by them: there is an interesting digression about the custom of Gallacia – Easton’s country of origin – whose linguistic flexibility extends to pronouns, which are assigned on the basis of situation rather than gender, so that for example a sworn soldier like Easton is referred to with the pronouns of ka and kan. This detour, together with some fun references to Gallacian propensity toward turnips, or to spoiling its national liquor with the addition of lichen, helps keep the overall tone from becoming too dreary even as the story progresses toward its dramatic climax.

The supporting characters, much as it also happened in Nettle and Bone, are explored with equal care and serve as a solid counterpoint to the main roles: Miss Potter, the spirited mycologist and naturalistic illustrator, is a delightful figure imbued with an indomitable spirit and a pointed view of the male-dominated scientific world, while Easton’s longtime footman Angus is there to offer his grouchy advice (whether one wants it or not…) and a steadfast support in times of trouble. And this review would not be complete without a special mention of Hob, Easton’s horse who, while not gifted with speech, is nonetheless able to comment on various situations in its own horsey way, delightfully reminding me of the demon-infested chicken from my first Kingfisher read. I now wonder if her other novels will sport more opinionated animal companions, because that’s an addition I enjoyed very much.

What Moves the Dead turned out to be another extremely engaging read and the confirmation that I just discovered a new-to-me author whose books I intend to explore as much as my overcrowded TBR will allow…

My Rating:


18 thoughts on “WHAT MOVES THE DEAD, by T. Kingfisher

  1. She seems to include an animal companion in most of her books. In The Twisted Ones there’s a fantastic dog and The Hollow Places has a taxidermy elk (not alive but weirdly feels like a pet!) I love imagining what she’ll bring to her next book😁

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love her writing – the Saints of Steel series is a firm favourite. And I’ve just finished reading Bryony and Beast which is a delightful retelling of Beauty and the Beast – but I’ve always avoided her horror offerings. And your excellent review has made it clear that it’s a wise decision:)). I’m just too much of a wuss for such creepy goings on…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In this case the horror is far from the style of Lovecraft (just to mention an example), and it’s more a kind of eerie, creepy horror than the tentacle-infested one. Still, I believe that right now you might do better with some unicorns and rainbows 😉 😀
      Maybe later on….

      Liked by 1 person

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