What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
T. Kingfisher, aka Ursula Vernon, writes in several different genres: fantasy, children's, middle grade, graphic novel and horror. Her horror novels, so far, have taken classic horror stories of the past and reimagined them with her own unique twist. This novella follows that formula very successfully, as it is a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"...with additional sentient fungi.
This being very much a gothic, with a ramshackle decaying moldy house set on the edge of a creepy lake (with greenish lights sparkling in its depths), it takes a few chapters to set up. You have to get the characters, landscape and atmosphere just right. Our protagonist, Alex Easton, is responding to a letter from Madeline Usher, a childhood friend. Kan (Easton is nonbinary) arrives to find both Madeline and her brother Roderick, with whom Easton served in an unnamed war, looking like they are near death. Another person is staying with them, an American doctor, James Denton. The book begins with an unsettling description of the mushrooms that grow around the lake (also known as the "tarn") near the house of Usher:
The mushroom's gills were the deep red color of severed muscle, the almost-violet shade that contrasts so dreadfully with the pale pink of viscera. I had seen it any number of times in dead deer and dying soldiers, but it startled me to see it here.
Perhaps it would not have been so unsettling if the mushrooms had not looked so much like flesh. The caps were clammy, swollen beige, puffed up against the dark-red gills. They grew out of the gaps in the stones of the tarn like tumors growing from diseased skin. I had a strong urge to step back from them, and an even stronger urge to poke them with a stick.
These two paragraphs, though you don't know it until later, set up the entire story. This book is not drenched in blood and gore like many horror novels, but when it gets going...you might never want to eat a mushroom again.
Another of the author's strengths is her characters. They are relatable, down to earth, practical people. Alex Easton is an old retired soldier with tinnitus, and another delightful character, Eugenia Potter the mycologist and fictional aunt of Beatrix, is the one who gives out all the relevant information about fungi, and comes up with the way to destroy the tarn at the end.
I have several books by this author, but I think this is one of her strongest. There is not a wasted word or scene, and the terror of what is happening in that house to Alex's friends is a visceral gut punch. If you can handle horror, go out and get this right now.
View all my reviews