Cursed Bunny

The International Booker Prize has an unusually high number of short story collections on the long list this year and, having only been won once by anything other than a novel (Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ in 2014), it seems unlikely that many of them will make it through to the shortlist. Of the four, Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny (translated by Anton Hur) most deserves a place there.

Chung demonstrates her disregard for realism within the first moments of the opening story, ‘The Head’: a woman, just as she is about to flush the toilet, notices a head looking up at her. She ignores its cry of ‘mother’ and flushes it away, but it soon reappears. When she questions it, she is offered this explanation:

“My body was created with the things you dumped down the toilet, like your fallen-out hair and feces and toilet paper you used to wipe your behind.”

Even when she pulls it out of the toilet and throws it away, it finds a way back. Years pass; when she has child, she tells her: “That was what we call a ‘head’.  If you see it again just flush.” The story taps into both the guilt we feel at what we discard and the anger that results when we cannot entirely reject those elements of our past we regret. Like most horror stories it is about loss of control, and Chung brings it to a fitting conclusion. Body horror also features in the second story, ‘The Embodiment’ abut a woman whose menstrual bleeding won’t stop. A doctor prescribes birth control pills but six months later she feels sick and dizzy and discovers she is pregnant, despite a complete absence of sexual activity. This is blamed on taking the pills longer than she was told to:

“If your body happens to be abnormal, a side effect from taking birth control pills for a long time can be pregnancy.”

This obviously requires a tricky suspension of disbelief from the reader (perhaps because other elements of her fiction, like the talking head, are so clearly fantastic) but may well originate in an old wives’ tale. Certainly, the story proceeds to satirise Korean society as the woman is told she must now find a husband:

“You better find a father for that child, fast. If you don’t, things will get really bad for you.”

The story proceeds to relate her often excruciating attempts to do just that on a series of awkward dates, though the satire gives way to horror once again at the end.

A number of the other stories feel like modern versions of traditional tales. The title story is about a family that make cursed fetishes and the havoc that a cursed lamp in the shape of a bunny creates. In ‘The Frozen Finger’ a woman returns to consciousness after a car accident to hear a voice telling her she must get out of the car. Chung uses a small detail (the wedding ring the woman searches for before she will leave) to create a spine-chilling ending. Like ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘Reunion’ it is an unexpected ghost story.

Even closer to fairy-tales and fables are stories such as ‘Snare’ (which literally begins, “Once upon a time…”) in which a man finds a fox in a snare bleeding gold:

“The surrounding snow had made it hard to notice at first, but now he saw the area around the snare was splattered with the glittering substance, some of it hardened in the cold snow.”

He keeps the fox and bleeds it regularly, but that cruelty is exceeded when the fox dies, and the man finds a similar ability in his twin children. In ‘Ruler of the Winds and Sands’ we have kings and princesses – and a golden ship that sails through the sky, and in ‘Scars’ we have a man tuned into a monster. Each of these showcases the darkness at the heart of Chung’s work, ‘Scars’ in particular, as the protagonist, once he has been changed, seems incapable of anything but destruction no matter how good his intentions.

Despite these common themes and genres, Chung’s work is varied and unpredictable – she even branches out into science fiction in ‘Goodbye My Love’. The only certainty in every story is that the reader can be confident they are in the hands of a writer in complete command of her material, no matter how incredible the events she is describing.

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10 Responses to “Cursed Bunny”

  1. Tony Says:

    Yes, no arguments here – it’s an open secret that this is a big hit with the Shadow Panel 😉

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    You certainly are steaming through some varied and complex books for the prize! I wasn’t sure the last one was for me, but this is defintely a bit more appealing!

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s great collection of short stories. It’s been an enjoyable list so far this year, though I’m getting through it by avoiding the longest novels!

  3. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead Says:

    Chung sounds enormously talented but I’m afraid this collection is most probably not for me (although I’m generally fond of horror fiction, I tend to avoid body horror)

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    I’ve seen a lot of love for this on Twitter, especially amongst the members of the Shadow Panel, so it’s good to see a positive review from you here. As a collection, it sounds relatively varied despite the overriding darkness of the themes. Body horror is not probably not for me, but the unexpected ghost story and fairy-tales/fables sound more intriguing…

  5. International Booker Prize 2022 Longlist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated from Korean by Anton Hur (Honford Star) […]

  6. Belated June update | Pechorin's Journal Says:

    […] wrote well about this here. It’s definitely going to be on my end of year […]

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