‘What Moves the Dead’ a Creepy Gothic Horror

The Twisted OnesT. Kingfisher‘s take on Arthur Machen’s short story The White People, has still left me, three years after reading it, uneasy around dolls and deer skeletons (which, to be fair, I encounter more often than the average person). The picture on the cover of What Moves the Dead was of a mangled-ish rabbit and I used to have pet rabbits. So, bring it on, I thought. Let me fear rabbits.

I don’t fear rabbits now, but I do have more squeamish feelings toward fish, and arm hair.

In this reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, our narrator, Alex Easton, gets a letter saying a childhood friend, Madeline Usher, is dying. The subsequent race to see Madeline one last time—and see if there’s anything that might be done to save her—puts Alex unwittingly at the center of a series of very strange circumstances that surround the crumbling manor of the Usher family. Madeline, looking as pale as if death has already visited, sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices. Her brother and a fellow friend of Alex’s, Roderick, is also suffering from some mysterious malady that an American doctor, James Denton, cannot seem to identify or treat. Also disquieting are the strange, too-still rabbits that inhabit the fields around the manor, who simply stand and stare at Alex, even after being fatally shot.

But when Madeline dies, that’s when things really get strange. Supposedly she died of her illness, but Alex notices her neck is broken. And when Alex tries to have a friend and amateur naturalist, Eugenia Potter, take a look, they find Madeline’s body has vanished from the family crypt, as if it had simply walked out of the crypt on its own. Something strange is happening in the house of Usher, and Alex and the rest of the gang can only hope they can figure it out before the thing comes for them, too.

The cover of T. Kingfisher's What Moves the Dead, featuring a rabbit on a black background. The rabbit is thin, with gray and brown fur, and possibly two sets of ears. Growing out of it are bits of fungus and mushroom, the shape of which almost looks like another rabbit.
Okay, maybe I’m slightly afraid of rabbits now.

What Moves the Dead is a slender little novella, but Kingfisher packs plenty of worldbuilding and creepiness into the story nonetheless. For example, the manor is located in the remote countryside of Ruritania, a staple placeholder country of the gothic genre back in the day, whereas Alex is from neighboring Gallacia, and Alex differentiates the two mainly by what residents of each country carve into their shutters (tulips in Ruritania; turnips in Gallacia). Alex also notes that the Gallacian language has been called worse than Finnish, in part due to its seven sets of pronouns. Important to this story are the warrior pronouns (ka/kan), which Alex uses after kan’s fifteen years of service in the Gallacian military, and pronouns for children (va/van), for reasons that the gentle reader will just have to find out on their own.

Eugenia Potter is an amateur only because nineteenth-century England couldn’t abide the thought of a woman having an academic profession, and her sharp instincts and wealth of knowledge become invaluable. (At one point, she briefly mentions a niece, Beatrix; Eugenia is fictional, but Beatrix, and the keen naturalist’s eye that apparently runs in this semi-fictional family, is real.) The limitations of the nineteeth century are also present in Denton’s ability to treat Madeline, much to his frustration. The typical diagnosis would be a run-of-the-mill case of hysteria, but Denton, whose nerves of steel and PTSD both came from his service as a surgeon in the U.S. Civil War, knows it’s something else that he simply can’t identify or address.

The vibe in What Moves the Dead is more a creeping dread rather than the sharp fear that tries to slice you up with a chainsaw. This is, after all, gothic horror, not a slasher. The eventual cause of all the odd events, though, is rooted closely enough in reality that it brings in an extra dimension to the horror. (Fine, I’ll tell you: it’s fungus. But what a fungus it is!) In Kingfisher’s author’s not, she mentions shelving this particular project after reading Mexican Gothic, fearing there were too many similarities to the projects. I’m glad that metaphorical shelving wasn’t permanent; there’s plenty of room for gothic horror with strange mushrooms in the genre, and on my bookshelf.

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