Grotesque monsters often serve as villains in children’s fairy tales. The monsters in Bora Chung’s story collection, Cursed Bunny, translated by Anton Hur, are sometimes less obvious, but not less terrifying. The stories defy conventional categorization. They range from horror to fantasy to slightly supernatural, with the individual stories varying in how they integrate a mix of those elements into modern fables and parables.
The collection moralizes greed and other carnal sins. The underlying message serves as a warning. The stories follow a pattern: a series of horrors befalls the protagonists, often disasters of their own making. There are other critiques, too, of misogyny, capitalism, and even modernity through these often shocking and unexpected narratives featuring assorted monsters, both literal and metaphorical.
In “The Head,” the first story of the collection, a woman is haunted by a floating head who lives in her toilet. The head explains how it came to be from the woman’s discarded waste. The head is a haunted image, resembling “a lump of carelessly slapped-together yellow and grey clay, with a few scattered clumps of wet hair. No ears, no eyebrows. Two slits for eyes.” The repulsive-looking head is the product of feces and clumps of hair. The head follows the woman wherever she goes through the sewer system, manifesting whenever she uses a toilet.
Throughout the story, the woman’s concerns about the head are ignored by her family, who encourage her to leave the head alone and tell her it’s not a big deal. Her family refuses to validate her fears. Eventually, the woman capitulates, allowing the head to coexist unmolested.
The accretion of waste eventually builds itself a full body. The head emerges from the toilet and forces the woman to switch places with it. By now, the woman is elderly and the head has grown to look like a beautiful youthful version of the woman. The story reminds us how we squander our youth, discarding it without much care, until one day we are no longer ourselves. But it also illustrates how women are often marginalized and their opinions disregarded. In the end, the woman was correct in fearing the head. Her family disregarded her fears, encouraged her to ignore them, and she paid the ultimate price. The absurdity of the story sets the tone for the collection, preparing us for stories equal parts fable and horror.
One of the recurring themes throughout the book is how destructive greed can be. In “Snare,” a man traps a talking fox who bleeds golden blood. He abuses the animal long enough to grow wealthy from the gold. When his children are born, his son also bleeds golden blood, but only when he drinks his sister’s blood. The greedy man continues to collect gold from the boy’s blood. His wealth comes at the expense of the girl’s health. His greed also led to his wife’s death. When she attempts to prevent her son from eating his sister, she dies. Ultimately, greed destroys the man’s life because he values the accumulation of wealth more than the lives of his family.
“Snare” illustrates the misogyny of the protagonist. He never seems to mourn his wife’s loss. While his son is the literal golden child, “he was still thinking of his daughter as no more than food for his son.” Even the magical fox with golden blood is a female. The women in the story exist only to serve the man, and when their usefulness to him expires, so do they. Greed and misogyny do not lead to happiness but, instead, to exile.
Greed is also depicted in “Home Sweet Home,” a story in which the protagonist works hard to pay off her mortgage. This is not a morality story about the value of hard work, but rather how, despite hard work, greed can ruin a life. The woman sells the house and buys a less desirable, yet larger property. She wants to own a whole building and collect rent to live on passively. At this point her life begins to unravel. The building is in much worse shape than she knew before buying it. The building tenants end up leaving. Her husband pushes to renovate part of the building because he wants to give money to his girlfriend, an interior designer. The new building becomes a money sinkhole and the woman’s aspirations to greater wealth end in tragedy. It is a warning against wanting too much and a critique of capitalism. The woman wants to live large as a landlord cashing checks without working. There is also a character who lives down the alley next door who feels entitled to park in the woman’s parking space because his family once owned many buildings in the neighborhood, although he himself has contributed very little to society. Like the story “Snare,” greed motivates the protagonist to make poor decisions with real consequences.
The final story in the collection, “Reunion,” is shockingly different from the others. There are ghosts, but otherwise the look and feel of the environment is naturalistic. Set in contemporary Poland, the narrator captures the feeling of visiting a European city still haunted by the Holocaust. The contrasts in the story between the tranquility of the quaint city center and the horrors of the Holocaust are mirrored in the structure of the book. The previous stories are equally filled with horrors and then, at last, this final story comes along presenting a relative calm. But this calm is all a facade covering up great trauma.
Cursed Bunny delivers strange and bizarre fables and, through these often grotesque fairy tales, articulates a clear critique of humanity. These are not childhood bedtime stories, but morality tales; sinners are punished. It is a collection that reminds us there are monsters everywhere, even in plain sight, even if we can’t see them.
Cursed Bunny: Stories
By Bora Chung
Translated from the Korean by Anton Hur
Published December 6, 2022
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.