Mushrooms and Mystery in Kingfisher’s What Moves the Dead

Fungi are having a really fun pop culture moment right now – the layperson’s interest in foraging, identification, and learning about fungi is extremely popular, and with good reason!

Fungi are especially cool little agents of decay that are neither entirely plant or animal. They are crucial to many ecosystems; they carry sugars to networks of trees in forests, and decompose fallen logs and stumps. There is a species of mushrooms that have been shown to break down plastic in weeks, instead of centuries. Fungi are harbingers of both life and death – so it makes sense that T. Kingfisher, a delightfully spooky writer, has put fungi at the heart of their latest atmospheric and gothic horror novel, What Moves The Dead.

What Moves the Dead begins in the late 19th century, where a former military officer and dreamy narrator, Alex, receives a letter from a beloved childhood friend, Madeline Usher, informing him that they are gravely ill. Alex rushes back to their hometown to visit Madeline’s dilapidated family home.

Alex is a charming, stoic, and witty narrator that has a gentle admiration for people with all their quirks and passions. The Usher family home is damp, dark, and creepy. The property is brimming with strange mushrooms never seen before, animals behaving bizarrely, and Madeline and her brother Roderick, are suffering at the great House of Usher in seemingly inexplicable ways. Add a ragtag team of Miss Potter, an uptight English amateur mycologist-illustrator and a confused American doctor, and a gross but atmospheric Gothic mystery ensues.

It goes beyond the scope of the haunted house genre. Kingfisher’s writing is unbelievably vivid. The smells, sights, and sounds of this mysterious abode feel so real and the characters are sharp-tongued, funny, and caring in their sometimes-cantankerous ways. To top it all off, there is some excellent commentary about gender and sexuality. By the end, I wished for more time with this funny, weird, and heartbreaking cast of characters.

What Moves the Dead is perfect for fall and Halloween season reading and is a Fall Featured Read at WPL! I hope this inspires you to go mushrooming this fall (after it rains is the best), and perhaps join the waitlist of my Mushroom Walk on Saturday, October 29th!