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What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

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What Moves the Dead: 12/21/22

What Moves the Dead

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher, like Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020) is a retelling or pastiche of The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe (1839). It's also the first of a series of retellings I've read at the end of 2022.

Alex Easton, a retired soldier is summoned with the news that his childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying. He with the help of a steadfast English mycologist hope to unravel the truth of what plagues the Ushers. It doesn't take long to figure out the Usher estate is suffering from a fungal infestation of epic and horrifying proportions. Coming into a retelling of this particular Poe story, mushrooms are to be expected.

T. Kingfisher who lives on a large expanse of land, who loves to garden, but also has a healthy respect for the untamed landscape, is extremely skilled at creating visuals that will stick with a reader, and burrow into their very psyche. If those details happen to be something that the reader is somewhat squicked by, they will be in for an uncomfortable, lasting, but oddly, satisfying read. What Moves the Dead was one of those books, much more so than almost any other book I've read by this author.

Adding to the atmosphere is Alex Easton who really feels like a refugee from one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. Easton and perhaps the Ushers too, come from a country with a complex gender nomenclature. Kan's thoughts on gender and language were a nice distraction from the fungal elephant in the room.

A chart showing the relative positions on the Road Narrative Spectrum of What Moves the Dead and Mexican Gothic

Alex and the Usher's tale of horror and death happens to sit on the Road Narrative Spectrum. So does Mexican Gothic, though in a different location. I should go back and re-read Poe's story to see if it too has a place and if so, where it is relative to these retellings.

In both retellings, the traveler is a privileged one (00). In Mexican Gothic, the horror is from power being derived from an unhealthy relationship with the fungi. In Kingfisher's version, the horror is from a titled family being unable to stop the fungi as it takes control of their land, home and ultimately bodies. The books, though differ in their destinations and in the routes taken. Alex, familiar with the Ushers, is essentially returning home (66) just as Roderick and Madeline have already done. The route, though, is the cornfield, or tkaronto (FF) as represented by the disgusting lake near the Usher mansion.

Finally, some thoughts on reading retellings / pastiches. They can be fun, having a familiar starting point, and seeing how the same story can hit different in the hands of a different author or by putting the characters in a different time or place. But they can also be tedious to read, where there are no surprises and getting to the end seems like a chore.

T. Kingfisher's book was a delight (albeit, a hair-raising one) to read. So was Mexican Gothic back in 2020. Two other 2022 releases, though, were not. One was a retelling of And Then There Were None with a nod to the film, The Sixth Sense. The other was a retelling of Frankenstein with a nod to 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma (2013). Both of these latter books suffer from being too long: one being 352 pages and the other 338, whereas this one is a novella at 156 pages.

Five stars

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