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Review: The Hole by Pyun Hye Young – Korean Horror at its Most Unsettling

Will Harris

Written by Pyun Hye Young | Translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

The Hole Korean Horror

Blurbs are a tricky thing to get right. We shouldn’t have to stomach blurbs which give too much away. Sometimes having no blurb at all can serve a book very well. The blurb for the translated edition of The Hole is, thankfully, vague. It cites two comparisons: Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King, both of which I believe to be unfair.

Why? Hitchcock is a filmmaker, and just like how it is arguably unfair to compare a novel or a comic book to its film or TV adaptation, it’s equally unfair to compare a writer to a filmmaker of a similar genre of fiction. And, while Stephen King is arguably the one great writer of horror fiction, he certainly lacks the subtlety found in The Hole.

But, while we’re on King, I will mention his three delineations of ‘scary’ as a frame for The Hole:

  • Gross-out: something bloody or diseased
  • Horror: the feeling of being grabbed in the dark when you thought you were alone
  • Terror: the feeling of uneasiness, being sure that there is something lurking behind you, being prepared to run at any moment, but turning to find that there was never anything there

This, ‘terror’, is the feeling that readers of The Hole will experience more than once as they read Pyun’s novel. While there is nothing supernatural novel, there is certainly terror.

Korean horror films have become increasingly popular in recent years (My own favourites so far being The Wailing and A Tale of Two Sisters) and The Hole shows us that Korean writing may be heading the same way.

Check our list of great Korean films here.

On to the Story

The protagonist and narrator of The Hole is the adorably-named Oghi, whom we learn about in two forms:

In flashbacks where Oghi is presented as a successful professor and academic in a marriage falling apart. This provides the disparity between Oghi’s successes and his wife’s failures which cause an uncomfortable rift between them:

“Why don’t you hire a professional gardener and do something else with your time?” She stared at him for a moment, her face unchanging, and quietly said,
“Something else?”
“Something besides this, you know, something that will help you grow.”
“I stopped growing a long time ago. Only plants keep growing, not people. We stop after a certain age.”

And in the present day. We find Oghi after a car crash leaves him unable to move or even speak, only communicating in blinks and the odd twitch of his left hand:

“Do you know where you are?”
Oghi stared at the doctor.
“You’re in a hospital, aren’t you?”
Oghi tried to nod. A pointless effort.
“Now then, blink once for yes.”
Oghi did as he was told.

With these contrasting Oghis – the memories of him being confident, at times callous, versus the present day where he is mute and every voice has a patronising tone – create an immediately unsettling paradigm shift.

The reader will find that, after each flashback ends, a kind of anti-catharsis sets in as we remember that, in the present day, Oghi is a prisoner in his own body; a narrator who cannot narrate.

This is the first terror of the story.

The other terror comes in the form of Oghi’s mother-in-law, both his caretaker and sole remaining family member. After losing her daughter in the crash that left Oghi paralyzed, his mother-in-law is hardly a stable caretaker. To say more would be to spoil things.

It is not wholly original. But where it shines, and wherein lies the terror, is the state of Oghi’s body and his mind. So much horror and suspense writing relies on running, hiding, chasing, and being lost. But Oghi is not lost, and he cannot run.

In choosing to ignore the tropes which make horror what it has become known for, Pyun has crafted a very new kind of terror.

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Will Harris
Will Harris

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