Summary: When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania.
What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake. Madeline sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices at night, and her brother Roderick is consumed with a mysterious malady of the nerves.
Aided by a redoubtable British mycologist and a baffled American doctor, Alex must unravel the secret of the House of Usher before it consumes them all.
Trigger Warnings: Body Horror, Animal Death, Mild Period-Typical Transphobia
Review: Ursula Vernon owns my soul. This is simple fact. Her adult works, published under the pseudonym T. Kingfisher, have never once disappointed me. All of them are different yet branded with Vernon’s style of witty, warm, yet disturbing stories with relatable protagonists and, often, friendly animal companions. Even her work in horror manages to straddle the line between terror and coziness.
What Moves the Dead follows many of Vernon’s patterns. The novella tackles and transforms a classic Edgar Allan Poe story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” into a wonder of fungal horror.
First of all, I must admit to all my readers that Poe tends to be hit and miss for me. His prose in particular resembles nothing less than a minefield. When his stories work, they stick in my head for a very long time. When they don’t, those stories waste an abominable stretch of my time. “The Fall of the House of Usher” falls into the latter for me.
However, Vernon manages to take a stinker and turn it into gold. She takes the unexplained events of the original story and creates a real, terrifying explanation in the form of fungi.
Now, I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I’m finding this latest wave of fungal horror to be a renaissance. Whether it’s Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic or the anthology Garcia co-edited with Orrin Grey, Fungi, the mycological inhabitants of the planet make for great horror storytelling. What Moves the Dead is no different. The fungus’ reach in the story is terrifying, and Vernon’s description of the havoc it wreaks unknowingly sends chills down the spine.
Yet the novella doesn’t just succeed in its terror. In fact, the story shines the best when it comes to our characters. Alex Easton, the protagonist, is a trans veteran of the war hitting kan country, Gallacia. As a character, Easton works beautifully, a witty and relatable narrator for the strange events of the story.
Nor do the side characters deserve to be overlooked either. Roderick and Madeline, the two siblings brought from the original story, feel so much more real than they ever did in Poe’s hands. Miss Potter, the fictional aunt of the famous Beatrix Potter and skilled amateur mycologist, leads to the most charming passages in the book. Angus, Easton’s servant and guardian, is a grand, feisty addition to the visitors in the castle. Even Denton, the shameful American, makes for an interesting portrayal as a medic recovering from PTSD after the country’s Civil War.
Furthermore, as a novella, What Moves the Dead is a mastery of pacing. Not one scene or piece of dialogue is wasted. Everything contributes in some way to the progression of the story, needed context for a further reveal, or a deepening of our characters.
Just like Vernon’s previous forays into the horror genre, The Twisted Ones and The Hollow Places, What Moves the Dead is a beautiful example of what the modern horror genre is capable of. Don’t miss this one in your Halloween reading. How else will you learn to beware the tarn?