With Bora Chung as Our Guide, We Walk Ourselves Into the Trap

CURSED BUNNY: Stories, by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur

Few story collections greet their reader with an introductory sequence as disarmingly gross as the one in “Cursed Bunny.” “The Head” begins:

The talking head is revealed to be a lumpy, sentient being formed from the protagonist’s bodily waste. And because we are in the wonderfully warped world of Bora Chung’s fiction, the woman proceeds to nonchalantly flush it away and leave the bathroom. But the unifying themes of “Cursed Bunny”are of return and revenge — the talking poop head is going to come back, and each time it will have grown larger and more sinister. “Your defecations are a part of me,” it tells the woman, “so I will always know where you are.”

Past misdeeds of all kinds — a careless flush, a debt unpaid, the corrupt practices of a company, the torture of an animal, an unfair exchange — resurface and haunt the present in these 10 gripping and prodigiously creepy stories. But there is always an ugly, further cost to settling old scores. The title story chronicles the domino-effect tragedy caused by an enchanted fetish (the cursed bunny itself) that brings ruin upon all who touch it, set against the backdrop of a modernizing, postwar South Korea where revenge is its very own industry. “Cursing others leads to two graves,” says the narrator, a descendant of the fetish’s maker, quoting an old Japanese proverb. “Anyone who curses another person is sure to end up in a grave themselves.” When the rabbits unleashed by the fetish begin to “multiply and chew up everything in sight” in myriad, nightmarish ways, they are a potent metaphor for not only the relentless, corrosive desire for vengeance but also capitalist greed. Several other stories in the collectionare also about the exploitation of the disadvantaged by the power hungry — most notably “Snare,” in which a man discovers a fox with golden blood and begins to harvest it; and “Scars,” where a boy is abused first by a literal monster, then by monstrous humans.

The rabbit is also fitting iconography for another theme pulsing ominously throughout the book, starting from the moment the head in the toilet calls out for its mother: the societal expectation imposed on women to marry and bear children. It comes to a crescendo in “The Embodiment,” where a woman becomes mysteriously pregnant without any sexual activity. At the hospital, she is coldly informed that she now needs a male partner for the sake of her fetus. “You better find a father for that child, fast,” the doctor threatens. “If you don’t, things will really get bad for you.” The woman is subjected to shaming, harassment and an escalating series of bizarre matchmaking attempts. In the end, it is women who are the cursed bunnies, condemned to reproduce. But, these stories ask, what do we owe the things we create? And what, if anything, do they owe us?

Chung has assembled a marvelous tasting platter of genres: classic ghost stories, fairy tales, mythic fantasy, science fiction, dark fables, the surreal and unclassifiable horror-adjacent. On the speculative fiction map, you’d come closest to “Cursed Bunny” by triangulating Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby,” Sayaka Murata’s “Earthlings” and Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.” Anton Hur’s nimble translation manages to capture the tricky magic of Chung’s voice — its wry humor and overarching coolness broken by sudden, thrilling dips into passages of vivid description. Even as Chung presents a catalog of grotesqueries that range from unsettling to seared-into-the-brain disturbing, her power is in restraint. She and Hur always keep the reader at a slight distance in order for the more chilling twists to land with maximum impact, allowing us to walk ourselves into the trap. Like the woman in “The Frozen Finger,” who follows an unknown voice into darkness, we go willingly with Chung, even as part of us already suspects we are being led to our peril.

Violet Kupersmith is the author of “Build Your House Around My Body.”

CURSED BUNNY: Stories | By Bora Chung | Translated by Anton Hur | 256 pp. | Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill | Paperback, $17.99

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