What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
(Titan Books, 2022)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
T. Kingfisher seems to have cornered the market in an intriguing subgenre: novels not exactly re-writing classic horror stories but visiting their worlds. The Twisted Ones collides with Arthur Machen’s “The White People”, while The Hollow Places owes quite a lot to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew (specifically that novel’s “Wood Between the Worlds”). Each novel contains some very chilling scenes, marred by others where the narrator tells us that we are in a horror novel (“Oooh look, this is just like Algernon Blackwood/C.S. Lewis!!!—and I only very lightly paraphrase). Each, however, can be recommended for fans of the originals. “Sequels by other hands” of well-known stories, of course, are legion, but these are playful encounters with scenarios we know rather than pedestrian rip-offs.
What Moves the Dead is something more of a retelling (this time of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”), but it is equally amusing. Alex Easton, a former “sworn soldier” in the service of the unfortunate nation of Gallacia, “a stubborn, proud, fierce people who are also absolutely piss-poor warriors”, is on the way to meet the Ushers. Roderick, a companion in the Service, has sent a message that his sister Madeleine is dying. On the way, Easton meets Eugenia Potter, an English illustrator and mycologist who is fascinated by the local fungi. Arriving at the gloomy “House” (whose windows, yes, do stare down like eye sockets), Easton discovers that neither Roderick and Madeleine are well, and their doctor, and American named Denton, is baffled. Easton, or rather his batman Angus, also discovers that the moor through which they are travelling is haunted by hares who “don’t act right”.
In her previous two novels, Kingfisher (who as Ursula Vernon writes for children) displayed a certain uncertainty of tone, in which fully-grown adults with their middle-age in sight talk and act like teenagers. Easton, the narrator of What Moves the Dead, is much more assured: cynical and world-weary and with, we are told, no imagination whatsoever, but offering an amusing commentary upon an environment. (Kingfisher’s nod to the “Ruritanian” elements of her fiction—as well as to current controversies about identity–includes Easton’s remarks about the “idiosyncratic” nature of the Gallacian language, with seven sets of pronouns, one of which is for inanimate objects, one used only for God, and another reserved for “sworn soldiers” like Easton.) The plot doesn’t diverge much from what might be expected, but the story is told well, adhering closely to Poe’s plot but bringing in a number of amusing sidebar characters such as the bluff and often-exasperated Angus. The mysteries of Madeleine’s “illness”, the sinister tarn overlooked by the House, and the “witch-hares” which help to bring an uncanny reputation to the area, are all solved by the end, with the help of the redoubtable Miss Potter (who, yes, is the (purely fictional) aunt of another talented nature-illustrator named Potter). But along the way, Kingfisher manages to remind us that while Poe, like Lovecraft, can often inspire giggles, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, if read carefully, has not lost its ability to unsettle. She takes one element Poe used in his fiction to create an atmosphere of dread and uses it to provide a reasonably plausible “explanation” for the story.
Importantly, in doing so, she doesn’t allow Easton’s comic commentary to undercut the macabre elements and tension in her own story.
What Moves the Dead is an entertaining read. Whether Kingfisher will be able to continue in this vein for much longer without becoming too metafictional is unclear, but at the moment she is on a roll, and it will be interesting which classic short story of the supernatural she will tackle next.