Breanna Lucci says What Moves The Dead is entertaining, with characters that leap off the page and force us to listen.
Award-winning author of The Twisted Ones, T. Kingfisher gives a refreshing tour of the Usher household in a witty, modern-yet-rustic take on Edgar Allen Poe’s classic The Fall of the House of Usher (1839). What Moves The Dead features our traditional sickly Madeline and rail-thin Roderick from Poe’s story as they rot away inside their decaying home, and introduces others that are sure to cling to Poe’s tale for quite some time. Between the artful play on pronouns, the creatively wild characters, and the fantastic descriptions, Kingfisher creates a fun and inviting novel filled with thoughtful social commentary.
When retired Gallacian soldier Alex Easton receives an alarming letter from kan’s (ka and kan are Easton’s pronouns) childhood friend Madeline Usher detailing her terminal illness, ka rushes to the Usher home to give her company in her final days. The home is in the same shape as Poe’s rendition, with gloom filling every crevice and the structure looking one strong wind gust away from collapse. Madeline looks terrifyingly pale — it’s as if she didn’t get the memo of her own death. Roderick doesn’t look much better. As a cast of chaotic characters settles into the home, strange things start happening. The lake glows frighteningly bright, Madeline sleepwalks, and the hares move in the most disturbing ways. This rag-tag group of strangers must band together and save themselves from the Usher home’s long-hidden secrets before it is too late.
In this cobwebbed, ludicrous universe, “he,” “she,” and “they” are not the only pronouns. People who find themselves alienated by our society’s rigid identifiers will be pleased to see that What Moves The Dead includes many different sets of pronouns. For example, “va” and “van” describe children before puberty or priests and nuns (“but they’re ‘var’ instead of ‘van,’” as Easton tells us). There’s also “ta”/” tha”/” tan” and ‘than,” and, in Easton’s case, there’s the pronoun for soldiers, which is “ka” and “kan.” Easton describes how kan’s people are fierce warriors who notoriously lose every fight. Still, every soldier “shows up to basic training and they hand you a sword and a new set of pronouns.” It’s rude, Easton explains, to address a soldier as “ta” — it’ll probably get you punched in the mouth. Kingfisher, or Easton, who seems to take on a life of ka’s own in this novel, approaches pronouns with a refreshing matter-of-factness. There is no debating, opinions, or arguing with ka — you will use ka’s pronouns, and that’s that. Ka has more important matters to attend to, as ka tells you from the start.
This refreshing play on English morphology is one of this novel’s many successes. Another is the cast of crazy characters. This includes Easton’s indignant and entitled horse, Hobs. Kingfisher stacks an endlessly fascinating bench with Easton as her star. There’s Miss Potter, a snobby English woman with a shameless love of mycology; there’s Denton, the husky American doctor who specializes in chopping wounded soldier’s limbs off; and there’s Angus, a Scottish soldier who fought in the trenches alongside Easton and Roderick. Sprinkle in the alarmingly frail Madeline and a not-too-far-from-dead Roderick, and this mixture of personalities offers a vast array of opinions, annoyances, and cultures that culminate into an entertaining read.
Perhaps most notable is Kingfisher’s ability to include Easton’s perceptions of ka’s daunting surroundings. As Easton absorbs the Usher home for the first time, one line reads, “I did not want to go into that tired house dripping with fungus and architectural eyes.” This storytelling not only forces us into the dim consequences of the Usher estate but also thrusts Easton off the page and into our minds. It makes sense how Kingfisher’s previous novel brought her success; she is a master manipulator of words and finds creative ways to keep us intimately involved in her narrative.
What Moves The Dead is a masterful rendition of Poe’s traditional tale. What was originally a dark story filled with echoing sadness becomes a strong magnifying glass held up to the English language and culture — what you see is not always what you get. It holds witty societal commentary, prods at our sense of normalcy, and invites us into a world where the dead most certainly do not move.