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Pyun’s novel The Hole is a Masterclass in Tension

Recently, I was lamenting the lack of great new horror novels. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great horror out there. But when I think about the genre, I primarily think of short fiction. I can shoot off a dozen or so collections that I found stellar in an instant, but if you ask me my ten favorite novels? Well, give me a minute. That’s both the problem of horror and its most exciting feature—this is where the short format thrives. It allows for experimentation, one-sitting reads, and has been around since the genre’s genesis. Horror has its famous novels of course, and we know that because they continually float to the surface in more mainstream conversation. Stephen King, I’ve heard, has made quite a career out of those longer stories. Shirley Jackson is rightly heralded as one of our most important voices in top ten lists the web over. The novel is an experience of its own, distinct from the short story format, with its own set of offerings. Just look at The Fisherman—if ever there was a novel that caught the horror community’s attention at large, and largely positively too, there it was. But still, as the greedy fan I am, I always want more. 

Korean domestic market and English Translation covers side by side 

This lamentation occurred, ironically enough, when I was halfway through reading exactly what I was looking for. I had taken the recommendation of the Shirley Jackson Awards and had picked up (as much as anyone can pick anything up on Kindle Unlimited) their Best Novel winner The Hole, a South Korean import by Hye-Young Pyun. Having just reviewed a collection of foreign horror shorts, the concept and appreciation of non-Anglo genre reads was freshly cast in my mind. The Hole is the sort of book we’re all looking for, and it succeeds in a classicist way. There are no cosmic entities, no pessimistic philosophies (although, a pessimistic streak), and no trace of the Weird. This is a horror story that uses its form as a long, low downslope—gathering speed like a boulder left to gravity. 

The Hole’s plot has shades of other classic horror novels, as well as Hitchcock thrillers and Korean film. If I had to pick a logline to sell it, I’d probably settle on: Park-chan Wook’s Misery. It’s the King book that most people will go to when trying to describe The Hole, as it does share some key points in its premise. Oghi and his wife get into a car accident. His wife dies, but he’s nearly paralyzed. In an unsettling turn of events, it’s his mother-in-law who becomes his caretaker, and in doing so begins to finish the work of her late-daughter, digging in the garden the titular hole. Confined to his own mind, with his body in revolt, we learn more about his relationship with his wife. We learn the unsavory aspects of himself. It’s this exposition that constantly recontextualizes Oghi’s predicament, and makes for a tense read that starts as a walk and ends at a sprint. 

Hye-Young Pyun (Image credit Koogle TV)

The Park-chan Wook comparison might come as superficial at first glance, but at second and third, I’d stand by it. Anyone familiar with OldboySympathy for Lady Vengeance, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance can recognize the director’s themes and plotting as kin to Pyun’s story. While, I wouldn’t say they are beat-for-beat, I do think they share in the tradition of Korean thrillers rooted in the Hitchcock school of suspense. Whether you call it an international reflection of King’s Misery, or another entry in South Korea’s impressive cadre of dramatic, twisting suspense thrillers—The Hole succeeds as a unique tale in the spirit of both, but not as a carbon-copy of either. 

In thinking about why the book succeeds as it does, I can’t help but come back to its expert pacing. Pyun tells you just enough at just the right times, to accrue details and raise questions. As the book tightens its grip, phone calls and conversations become set-pieces, white-knuckles and open-jaws accounted for. This works because Pyun doesn’t just give the right exposition, she gives it at the right time. Her control over the steady-stream of information in her novel is impeccable, and perhaps its greatest feat. 

The Hole, despite it’s minimalist story, is also thematically rich, which makes it all the more weighty. While I’d characterize it as a gripping, horrific read—it feels nothing like a disposable beach thriller. The minimalism, whether a product of translation (a very good translation, by the way) or design is a reflection of Oghi’s view of the world. His world is small, bedridden. This is also supported by how the book treats the rest of the characters. None of the others are given true names, either referred to by their relationship with Oghi or a letter. It’s no spoiler to say, that in a story like this, no character is unflawed, and the way Pyun builds the world, from the word up, is an extension of her character’s self-centered, nearly solipsistic mindset. 

The Hole, a title that the more you consider, the more it can mean. It can be a dark, cavernous displacement of earth, it can be something missing from a life. It’s an implicating title. It hints at complexity, it begs to be understood. Hye-Young Pyun has written a horror novel that succeeds as a story well told, a masterclass in tension, and a thematic consideration on success, relationships, and how well we can really know the people that populate our lives. And that’s the ultimate horror, isn’t it? The unknowable—sometimes it’s what’s beyond the veil of our demise, sometimes it’s the monster in the dark. But other times, it’s the frustrating and shackling realization that we can only truly know ourselves. That we are a single lens, myopically viewing reality in a teaming bustle of other lenses. The Hole is what happens when we’re confronted with that fact; a lesson in humility, as only a great storyteller can teach it. 

The Hole is available from Arcade Publishing in hardback, trade paperback, and eBook formats.  If you found this review insightful and you would like to purchase The Hole through Amazon, please click on our affiliate link to the right.  It doesn’t cost you anything additional and it helps us to keep the servers spinning here at Signal Horizon.  Most amazingly, The Hole is also available through the eBook subscription service Kindle Unlimited.  If you are already a subscriber don’t delay and pick it up today, if you are not a subscriber and would like to know more about the ins and outs of Kindle Unlimited as well as a list of grade-A horror titles to get you started, click here or on the picture below.  Hint, hint you can pick up Shadows and Tall Trees 7 which also won the Shirley Jackson Award.