What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
Ursula Vernon, writing as T. Kingfisher, doesn’t try to out-Poe Edgar Allan in her 2022 novella What Moves the Dead. Instead, she flips “The Fall of the House of Usher” sideways, giving us a creepy, atmospheric, heroic and sometimes funny look at the doomed siblings Madeline and Roderick, the moldering mansion they’ve inherited as the last of the family, and the surreal, creepy mountain lake or tarn that laps at the walls of the house. While the house of Usher does fall, the steps that lead to that event are fresh, guided by a lively, plausible first-person narrator who breathes life — well, sort of — into the creepy old house and into the story itself.
It’s 1890, somewhere in Europe, and Alex Easton, a soldier now out of the army, is on their way to visit old family friends, Roderick and Madeline Usher. Easton’s visit is inspired by a letter from Madeline, who is seriously ill. Easton’s culture has many pronouns, and Easton uses a particular one for themselves. For this review, I am going to use “they.”
When Easton reaches the dilapidated ancestral manor, things are even worse than they thought. Roderick is barely recognizable, suffering from something that looks like a nervous disorder. Madeline, who is theoretically too sick to be moved, roams the creaking halls of the place at night, speaking in a voice that isn’t hers. The fish in the tarn are tainted with some kind of growth, and the wild hares that roam the countryside are considered cursed by the villagers — they don’t behave like animals in the wild.
Easton soon meets an American doctor, Denton, brought to the manor by Roderick, and a British naturalist, Eugenia Potter, who is an expert on mycology, even if the Royal Society won’t allow women membership. Potter provides invaluable information and proves to be a hero — but for the middle of this story, dread and creepiness hold dominion over everyone in the house.
Kingfisher nails the creepiness, even in mundane moments, as she describes the cracking, peeling wallpaper or the ruined books in the Usher library. Where she really turns up the dial, though, is with Easton’s interactions with the hares. In contrast to the eerie, weird threat of the house, the tarn and the grounds, Easton is a breath of fresh air. They tell us early in the book that they are not imaginative, not sensitive to emanations, not particularly suggestible, and this trait makes the story even scarier. When Easton hears footsteps in the dead of night, and sees a wispy figure in white, they don’t think “ghost,” or “nightmare.” They think “person.” Thus, when the truly unnatural things happen, Easton’s complete reliability make the situation even more terrifying. One of the best jump-scares I’ve read (that’s a bit of a play on words) happens in this book, when Easton picks up a dead hare.
Enjoy this short, brilliantly creepy retelling of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but especially enjoy these characters; Easton; the troubled battle surgeon Denton, the brisk, no-nonsense British naturalist, Easton’s loyal batman, Angus, and even Easton’s horse. Kingfisher delivers another perfectly nifty horror story.