Sunday 6 August 2023

CBR15 Book 36: "What Moves the Dead" by T. Kingfisher

Page count: 160 pages
Rating: 4 stars

CBR15 Bingo: Dwelling (the "haunted" house is pretty central to the story).

This was my fantasy/sci-fi book club's selection for May, and while I normally don't like horror books, I read this mainly because I was so impressed with T. Kingfisher's Nettle & Bone, and also because it really was very short. It's a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, which I have never read, and because I'm not a huge fan of Poe, I didn't bother reading it before reading this, either. I just read the Wikipedia summary, figuring that would be more than enough. 

Our non-binary protagonist, Alex Easton (uses they/them pronouns) is a retired soldier who receives a letter from an old friend, Madeline Usher. Alex was in the army with Madeline's brother Roderick and is shocked when they arrive at the absolute wreck of a house the siblings live in, and see the physical state that their old friends are in. Both siblings are emaciated and deeply pale, and have thin, white flyaway hair, both on their heads and bodies. According to an American doctor who is also there, Madeline is seriously ailing, and struck with frequent fits of catalepsy, moving around the house with rigid limbs, speaking in a distracted, eerie voice. She rarely remembers what happened during these fits when she is more lucid. Her brother Roderick is pretty much a nervous wreck. Easton wonders why the siblings haven't just moved, but both seem determined that they must stay in their old, dilapidated family home, even when something there might be killing them.

Easton is deeply worried about their friends and with the aid of the American doctor and Miss Potter, a British botanist who is travelling in the area (she's revealed to be Beatrix Potter's aunt - probably fictional), tries to figure out what is causing their strange behaviour. Next to the house is a creepy, murky lake, which has strange lights within that glow at night. There are also a host of strangely behaving wildlife, including hares that move about with jerky, unnerving movement, and that don't seem to stop moving, even when dead. 

What Moves the Dead has a lot of Gothic elements and the creeping sense of unease just grows as the story progresses. It's a very well-written story, and several of the members of my book club wished that it was longer and that we got more out of the story. For all that it's a novella, Kingfisher includes some interesting worldbuilding. Easton is from a fictional European country, where they have a lot more pronouns than many languages. There are, for instance, specific pronouns used only for children, and some that are used only for God. In this country, members of the army are also given a unique pronoun, which means that no matter what gender the soldier is originally, once they become a sworn soldier, they are referred to with ka/kan pronouns. The explorations of the fictional European country and its language give added depth to what is really just a very quick read.

I don't like a lot of horror, and I find fungus generally very creepy. So there were a lot of elements that really worked to make this a rather uncomfortable read. Nevertheless, I also really liked the story and especially Alex Easton, our protagonist. It seems that this novella is the first in a series featuring Easton, with the next one out in early 2024. In a lot of cases, I don't want to keep reading the series of our book club selections, but in this case, even if Kingfisher stays with the horror genre, I will keep going, because I was so entertained. 

Judging a book by its cover: The really very unnerving image on the book gives you a fair idea of what the book features. The hare is absolutely riddled with fungus and little pink mushrooms, including some piercing it. The UK cover features a raised hand covered in mushrooms, which seems tame in comparison to this. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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