Cursed Bunny: Stories
- By Bora Chung; translated by Anton Hur
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- December 16, 2022
These fractured fairytales mirror a perpetually broken society.
Fairytales come from the preliterate traditions of our forebears, repeated around the tribal hearth for generations, exposing the deepest fears, fissures, and moral convictions of a culture. South Korean author Bora Chung’s U.S. debut, the short-story collection Cursed Bunny, presents vivid, bizarre, and often gruesome fractured fairytales that reflect a broken society.
The family is a microcosm of a culture, and in many of the stories, home is a scene of horror populated by spirits, monsters (both human and not), and other entities that hover on the border of the living and the spectral. Adding to the archetypal aura, the characters are nameless, designated with titles like “the man,” “the youth,” and “the daughter.”
In the first two stories, women inadvertently create life and must suffer the consequences. The opening tale is titled “The Head” — an example of translator Anton Hur’s dexterity — a double entendre for the toilet and the “thing that looked vaguely like a head” that pops out of it, calling the female main character “mother.” At first, she manages to flush it away. But the head keeps returning despite her best efforts to rid herself of it, until one day, it manifests as a younger version of the woman and takes its revenge.
The following story, “The Embodiment,” depicts a woman who gets pregnant despite taking birth control pills to manage a period that “refused to stop.” Her doctor blames her for the pregnancy, saying, “You’re in a situation where you’ve become pregnant under abnormal circumstances, which means that if you don’t find a male partner, the cells of the fetus will not properly propagate or grow.” The woman has various humiliating encounters with potential husbands before giving birth to “a black and red, slightly iron-smelling, enormous blood clot.” The story ends with the would-be mother’s confusion of sorrow and relief.
Revenge, a popular Korean theme, haunts this collection, along with its sinister sibling, the curse. In the titular story, “Cursed Bunny,” jinxed fetishes are the family trade, and the narrator listens as Grandfather relates yet again the legend of a cursed fetish in the shape of a bunny lamp he made to avenge a friend who killed himself after being run out of the spirits (alcoholic, not otherworldly) business by a company that succeeded through government connections and bribes. The fetish worked splendidly, but not without repercussions for Grandfather, who broke a family rule: “It is forbidden to make a cursed fetish for personal use.” Revenge, though sweet, is also damning.
“Home Sweet Home” is another supernatural revenge tale. After investing in a mixed-use building to rise in economic status, a woman finds that strange accidents begin to befall those who mean her harm. These incidents probably have something to do with the child who she spends time with in the building’s basement. As with many of Chung’s eerier stories, it ends with a thrilling twist.
The family is a chamber of terrors in the Southern (Korean) Gothic tale “Snare,” about a greedy father who chances upon a trapped fox that bleeds gold. Eventually, he bleeds the animal to death before discovering his son also bleeds gold but only if he sups upon blood, preferably human, preferably that of his twin sister. With grim themes of abuse, incest, and parental exploitation, the story concludes with the promise of the perpetuation of the curse the father brought upon his home.
“Ruler of the Winds and Sands” is the collection’s necessary aberration, a gorgeous fable about a princess who goes on a mission to save her prince, only to find he is unworthy of her. Rather than conjure a curse, she breaks one by speaking the truth. The prose, again skillfully rendered into English by Hur, who perfectly captures the off-kilter tilt of Chung’s highly atmospheric writing, is as luminous as the story’s uncharacteristically optimistic conclusion.
As a mixed-race Korean adoptee, I found many of these stories acutely painful in their stark, unforgiving portrayal of the crippling dysfunctions of a country that has sent at least 200,000 of its children out of the country for adoption. Saturated in transgenerational trauma, Chung’s stories abound in victimized, disposable children. The author addresses this devastating cycle in the final story, “Reunion”:
“Parents who destroy their children’s lives, who suck the life out of their children’s futures, not only for the sake of maintaining their own illusions but also to zealously expand them into the lives of their children — such parents can almost be understood from the perspective of obsession. Following the words ‘Be grateful I raised you’ is the implied clause ‘instead of killing you or leaving you for dead.’ [Reviewer’s aside: Or adopting you out.] They probably mean it, too. My parents and their parents’ generations, after surviving the Korean War, had always, just like the generation that survived World War II, set their purpose not to live a human life but to have an animal’s instinct for survival. Still, understanding and forgiving are completely different things.”
With this dazzling, gut-wrenching, and revelatory collection, American audiences are given a glimpse into the dark heart of a nation that has much to atone for before it can lift the curse of its entrenched, rigid patriarchy.