Lis Carey Review: What Moves the Dead

What Moves the Dead (Sworn Soldier #1) by T. Kingfisher
Tor Nightfire, July 2022

Review by Lis Carey: This is a retelling of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Kingfisher discovered on a rereading that Poe’s story was much shorter than she remembered, and that there was room for…more.

More background and explanation of why this happened, in particular.

It’s 1890, and Alex Easton is a retired soldier, plagued by tinnitus, from a tiny European kingdom called Gallacia. Kan is a “sworn soldier,” a status which requires an exchange of gendered for nongendered pronouns. Kan is also the childhood friend of Roderick and Madeline Ussher, and travels to their ancestral home in Ruritania, in response to a letter from Madeline.

Madeline says she’s dying.

Easton is nearly there when they encounter Miss Eugenia Potter, a knowledgeable and practical English mycologist, who shows them some of the creepier mushrooms of the area. This proves to be important information.

Arriving at the Ussher home, Easton is shocked by its state of decay. The Usshers themselves — Madeline is fragile, pale, clearly very ill. Roderick isn’t really in much better shape. There’s also another visitor, an American doctor, who is clearly confused by Madeline’s condition. He says she’s suffering from catalepsy, but that this is more a description than a useful diagnosis. He can’t identify a cause.

Roderick, meanwhile, says he hears sounds in the walls. It’s not rats. There are no rats, which is abnormal in itself.

Madeline sleepwalks, and speaks very oddly when Easton finds her doing so.

Around the manor house, there are hares, very strange hares who move very unnaturally, and don’t stay dead when you shoot them. The local tarn, or lake, which the manor house sits on the shore of is both strangely dark, and strangely lit at night by what, at sea, might be bioluminescent algae.

Easton’s batman, Angus, catches a fish and wishes he hadn’t.

This is clearly a very bad place to be, and Madeline and Roderick both hate it. Why won’t they leave? What holds them there?

Easton, Angus, Denton, and Miss Potter all want explanations, and the more information they uncover, the darker their speculations get. The mushrooms Miss Potter showed Easton aren’t the only, or the strangest, fungi in the area. When they cut open first a fish, and then a hare–which doesn’t stay put even after a second killing blow — they realize it’s time to be very, very scared.

But how can they fight a fungus that’s in the lake, and the local wildlife, and, they realize to their horror, in Madeline?

Read this, and you might never eat mushrooms again. Or hare, if hare meat ever comes your way. Or fish you haven’t caught and cleaned yourself.

I haven’t half done this story justice. Just read it, and see for yourself how good it is. How creepy, atmospheric, peopled by good characters, and with a real scare awaiting you.

I bought this book.

4 thoughts on “Lis Carey Review: What Moves the Dead

  1. I just finished reading this story yesterday and it is a fine piece of atmospheric horror fiction.

    It very much reminded me of another award winning classic, the very first Nebula Award winner in their novella category, The Salvia Tree by the late Brian Aldiss.

    If you loved What Moves The Dead I can highly recommend you read this tales as well…

  2. I got a bit frustrated with the characters early on, because it took them so long to see the obvious… but then I knew that this was a T Kingfisher story and that the author was lobbing clues at me with both hands, and of course they didn’t. And who could possibly believe, um, that?

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