The Fall of the House of Usher has occupied some space in my brain since the halcyon days of high school English class. Not only did I read it several times, but I never wrote the assigned paper, a fact that literally haunts my dreams. There is just something unnerving about Poe’s story that I’m always keen to experience retellings of it however I can. Last October I even watched the Vincent Price movie, and enjoyed its weird form of madness. So when I saw that T. Kingfisher was going to take a crack at it, with a heavy emphasis on fungi, I went a little mad with anticipation. Unfortunately, What Moves The Dead spends too much time explaining the horror, without adding too much to the core ideas of the short story.
Lieutenant Easton has just received a letter from their old friends’ sister, Madeleine. Once learning that Madeleine was ill, Easton ventured to the house of Usher to spend some time with Madeleine and Easton’s old war buddy, Roderick Usher. However, upon arriving, Easton notices there is something terribly wrong at the house. Both siblings are wasting away. The hares on the property are crawling and staring, and there is a rumor that the tarn (pond) glows with an ominous green pulse at night. Luckily, Easton is not alone with the Ushers as they are supported by their batman (no, not that Batman) Angus, and a mysterious fungi-loving woman who stalks the Usher’s property in search of its uniquely haunting mushrooms. Easton is both curious and frightened by the task at hand, but being the good soldier they resolve to save Madeleine however they can.
It would be incredibly easy—irresponsible, even— to go on an unhinged rant for this novella. There was a lot I did not like paired with some particular aspects I did enjoy. So before I get into why I didn’t like it, let’s stroll through what I did enjoy. Kingfisher’s focus on the nature of the Usher property was refreshing. The time and attention paid to building the miasma that surrounded the house of Usher was delectable, even when it felt a little heavy handed. Easton’s slow discovery of the pond, and their eventual questioning of the effects on their own self was a nice slow build up. And while Kingfisher dove a little too deep into the details for my taste (to the point where it felt like I was reading pop-science literature), the fungi angle was a nice touch (especially after reading Entangled Life). The particularly anti-American attitudes of the 1890s British folk also lended some nice humor to the darkness.
But that’s about it. I think most of my biggest gripes come from the lack of horror or fear I felt while reading What Moves The Dead. Now this is likely because my conception of horror stems from the unknown and the unexplainable counteracting one’s agency. Once I know or see something, the fear begins to subside, and I’d prefer to pick it apart than be scared by it. Kingfisher’s story falls into the camp of “fully discovering the nature of the thing causing fear,” and I found it tedious. Especially since an entire character was created just to explain things, or be available for a line of questions for Easton to discover what might be happening to their dear friends Usher. And while it was nice to see education about mushrooms in horror fiction, it completely diluted my personal experience with the story. This might just not be my kind of horror.
An aspect that felt sorely missed was watching the Usher family fall completely apart. The story focused more on the investigation, without really diving into the barely concealed madness of Roderick. Gone were his fits of madness and his need to uphold dignity in front of his guest, replaced by a man who was merely concerned for his sister’s welfare. The house itself, while falling apart, was barely involved in the affair. Easton is a cool collected soldier, their grounding only shaken occasionally and without much fanfare. It was nice to see Madeleine given some time, but even then she was merely there to raise questions to be answered, and answered they were. The final reveal was conceptually horrific, but so much work had been done ahead of it to show what it was, I was not impacted. There was no weight behind the curse of the Usher family, and it barely seemed to rattle the character’s themselves. Yes, they were “shocked and appalled,” but did what was necessary without any damage to their own psyche. Easton’s and Roderick’s bonafides as soldiers over-rationalized their reactions to everything, making every choice feel like the only choice, but without the robbery of their agency. They didn’t have to think and overcome when confronted by the horror, only act.
Again, horror, especially of the written variety, is subjective and quite often hard to really pull off. Some things will scare you that I can brush off like a mosquito. And there are things that might chill me to the bone that embrace your heart like a teddy bear warmed in the dryer. But rarely does “overly competent person encounters and vanquishes inhuman horror” feel scary. I appreciate Kingfisher’s effort to give Easton shell shock and tinnitus to temporarily incapacitate them at moments, but it never felt quite organic. Maybe I wanted something different than Kingfisher wanted to write, and that’s fine. I just felt disappointed that her foray into the lands of Usher felt so tidy for the mess the family has made for itself.
Rating: What Moves the Dead – 5.5/10
Note: I have referred to Easton using the pronouns they/them for sake of clarity through this review. Though their preferred pronouns are ka/kan, which are deeply rooted within Easton’s military background and highly specific to how their society perceives them.
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.