{Book Review} Flowers of Mold and Other Stories by Ha Seong-Nan

As much as we’d sometimes like to think otherwise, the gap between genre and literary is not the chasm we assume. Horror has become more and more serious artistically in its mainstream forays (see: The Witch, Hereditary, the remake of Suspiria), catching up to the high-minded acumen of its fiction counterparts. Why is horror so self-consciously literary in the first place? Is it a conscious decision made amongst writers with large, unwieldy chips on their shoulder, or is there something inherent in the genre that lends itself to transcending beyond its tropes? And strange as it is—the relationship between capital-L Literature and horror isn’t a one way street. David Foster Wallace listed Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs amongst his favorite books. Joyce Carol Oates has won both an O. Henry and a Bram Stoker, all the while being nominated for Pulitzer’s along the way. Raymond Carver writes stories of blue-collar desperation, complete with fashionable minimalism that turn a hard eye to our darkest nature. Horror and literature are old bedfellows, as evidenced by Frankenstein’s long-standing canon.

Continuing this long and fascinating relationship is a short story collection from South Korea. Flowers of Mold and Other Stories by Ha Seong-Nan  is a subtle and strange collection that puts people under the microscope. These stories are as literary and oblique as they come, and yet: there is still obsession, violence, and a pervasive feeling of powerlessness. The people of Ha’s fiction are nameless entities bouncing off their surroundings in near total obscurity. Depicted in short, declarative sentences she builds scenes and fills them with detail with a war reporter’s nonchalance.

Brian Evenson, who has written a number of books I’d consider personal favorites, provided a blurb for Flowers of Mold, calling Ha Seong-Nan “a master of the strange story.” He goes on to say a lot more, highlighting the unsettling effect of her work. It’s true, Ha is a strong stylist and uses her prose to create an atmosphere of uncertainty (with the aid of a wonderfully lucid translation by Janet Hong). To say this is straight-up balls-to-the-wall horror would be misleading, but consider Robert Aickman—another master of the strange story—and you’d be in the ballpark of pinning down Seong-Nan’s work.

“Nightmare” is a strange and dispassionate rape-revenge story, in which the conclusion leaves the reader with neither catharsis, victory, or even real closure. Instead, it’s permeated with a weird sense of distance from its subject that brings along an atmosphere of absurdity as well as dread. The people of Ha’s fiction do not rant and rave; they encounter extremity, but only from other people. When the story does end, there is finality, but not in the way you’d expect from a pure-genre horror story. What Ha comes up with instead is sadder, more bizarre, and a lot more telling.

Another highlight of the collection is “The Woman Next Door,” which is probably the most accessible in the collection. In it, a woman loans her new neighbor a spatula, an act that spirals into a new friendship, and then further out of control. Here is your typical story of obsession, enriched with the author’s meticulous, minimalist style, as well as the social implications at the heart of the story. “The Woman Next Door” is not only about the protagonist’s infatuation with a new friend, its about the sinister implications of the new friend’s will on the protagonist; just as much as it’s about her relationship with her husband and the disdain in which he views female friendships. The truth that Seong-Nan paints with her fiction is messy, unsettling, and deliciously off-kilter.

The title story revisits the theme of obsession, featuring a man who gets to know his neighbors by rifling through their garbage. In concurrence with the story, throughout the collection there are minute revisitations of themes and ideas. It reminded me of Ligotti’s sly repetitions in his Songs of a Dead Dreamer collection, where specific words and phrases would leave the reader trying to find patterns that never existed. Ha Seong-Nan isn’t as overt with her intent, but there are images and actions that do recur: billboards, shoplifting, hospital beds—words that put together equal a stark depiction of a modern world. Contemporary life seems to be a greater theme in the collection, connecting all the stories together in one way or another. The world of “Flowers of Mold,” where a man is brought to digging through refuse to grasp at kinship with his fellow urbanites might just be indicative of the collection’s primary worldview: that we, even together, are largely alone.

Flowers of Mold and Other Stories is Ha Seong-Nan’s first story collection available in the English language. For first time readers, this will be an exciting discovery sure to put a spotlight on South Korea as a literary destination (just last year, The Hole by Hye-young Pyun, dazzled me with its Hitchcockian thrills). While this may not please genre readers looking for the purest devotion to gore and the supernatural—those with a taste for the literary will find a strange and intriguing voice at work in Flowers of Mold. And as horror and art continue to steal and mix with each other, I’m sure we’ll find more—on both sides of the aisle—that continue to push the envelope. Flowers of Mold pushes that envelope with its impressive style

 and stifling isolation, creating something that’s as strange as it is incisive.

Flowers of Mold is available in trade paperback and eBook formats- just click our affiliate link to the right and head on over to Amazon to pick up your copy or order it direct from Open Letter Publishing.   Looking for more horror novels that will make you think?  The best way to keep up to date with all of our news, reviews, and analysis here at Signal Horizon is to follow us TwitterFacebook, or subscribe to our newsletter below.

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