These aren’t bedtime stories. Indeed, reading them before bed might not be a good idea at all.
The ten well-crafted works of short fiction collected in award-winning Korean author Ha Seong-nan’s Flowers of Mold are not so much horror stories as just horrible. There is a bit of a Roald Dahl vibe to the collection: the characters and the situation in most cases start out as normal, but things are not the way they initially seem and the plots take a detour through a darker underbelly, deflecting attention along the way, ending as often as not with a twist.
But if Dahl’s stories were characterized by plot (as at least they were for me), Ha’s are mostly characterized by atmosphere: they make the skin-crawl—not by overly explicit description, although there can be that too, but rather by imbuing her characters with a certain inescapable creepiness.
Ha achieves this effect in different ways. In one of the most Roald-Dahl like stories, “The Retreat”, the residents of a run-down commercial block fear their landlord is about to turf them out so the lot can be redeveloped. We meet the proprietors of two rather seedy eating establishments on the ground floor, a similarly seedy billiard parlor, the director of a cram school. A “tenants’ retreat”, a sort of group outing, is planned—a tradition established by the current owner’s father—and the thought arises that certain action might be taken. But they are not the only ones with thoughts of homicide.
Ha takes a slower, more psychological approach in “A Woman Next Door”. This starts off entirely domestically:
A new neighbor’s moved into number 507. I’d just taken out the laundry and was about to hang it on the clothesline. The washer is junk now. Whenever it goes from rinse to spin, it gives a terrible groan and shudders, as if it might explode any second. Over the years, it’s shifted about twenty centimeters from its original spot. Since it’s done nothing except wash, rinse, and spin for ten years, no wonder it’s in bad shape.
But is becomes immediately clear that maybe the narrator is a bit strange:
I pat the top of the washer and mutter, “Yeongmi, I know you’re tired, but let’s get through it one last time.” The washer wrings out the water and barely sounds its end-of-cycle buzzer. Yeongmi is the name I’ve given the washer. It’s also my name…
The next-door neighbor comes by and borrows a spatula. Yeongmi seems to think she’s found a soulmate, but strange things start happening. Things get lost, memories get lost, her initially critical husband starts to bond with the neighbor, the narrator loses whatever touch with reality she had.
If, that is, one can determine what is reality and what not. At the other extreme, “Nightmare”, is tale of what might be sexual assault followed by a delayed fatal revenge or which might be delusion; the victim is convinced of the former, her father apparently the latter. But the telling is distanced and dispassionate. Madness flecks the story but whence the madness comes isn’t clear.
Ha finds inspiration anywhere and everywhere: the opening story, “Waxen Wings” is, as the title might indicate, a retelling of the Icarus myth with an erstwhile gymnast whose growth spurt denied her the ability to fly as she wished. Several stories deal with commercialism: department stores, a Chrysler showroom, billboards, advertising. The men are among the more abject members of their gender; the women often put upon by circumstance. The tales are littered with the detritus, physical and moral, of the human condition.
The stories, it must be said, are uncomfortable if not unpleasant: some readers will enjoy the frisson they deliver, while others may admire their craftsmanship without necessarily finding them to their taste.
The stories themselves have a certain “placelessness”.
Janet Hong’s translation deserves more than a mention. It is fluent to a degree that one might never guess it is a translation at all. There is a distinct voice—whether it is the original author’s is something only someone who knows Korean as well can determine—but there is no feeling this is a work that passed through a filter.
This is combined with a certain “placelessness” to the stories themselves: the odd Korean name and reference to a price in won apart, there is little to indicate that the flat, subway car, bus or run-down commercial building is in Seoul rather than, say, the less-glitzy outlying parts of an American conurbation. This can itself be destabilizing and adds to the overall sense of disorientation that the stories produce.