Summer is the prime time for Korean literature. Literary fiction publishers pour out big-name novels that will drive sales for the rest of the year just ahead of the summer vacation season – all in hopes that vacationers may pick up a novel as they go off to their much-needed break, and because a novel does not come off as too pricey even for those who happen to stop by a bookstore at the airport.
Some of the best-selling novels in the past 3 years, including Farewell by Young-ha Kim, Bright Night by Eun-young Choi, Dallergut Dream Department Store by Mi-ye Lee – and 28 by Yu-jeong Jung if you go a little more back in time – were also published in summer to remain best sellers towards the end of the year. In particular, for Korean readers who have to endure what feels like an eternity of humid summer nights, nothing beats the chills from genre fiction like thrillers and mysteries.
As Korean TV dramas and films garner worldwide popularity, the genre of Korean literature is going beyond what used to be confined to pure literature. Below are some of the best new mysteries and thrillers from younger authors with fresh writing, big ideas, and gripping thrills, all of which will hit the shelves this summer.
The Midnight Timetable / Bora Chung
The Midnight Timetable is the latest work from Bora Chung, the first Korean science fiction writer whose work was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the U.K. This collection illustrates a series of 7 stories that take place at a suspicious laboratory which stores and manages an unidentifiable object. The stories are thrilling and chilling enough to make the heat of summer nights endurable, but it also leaves behind a warm feeling that will resonate with the reader. This is because the author’s signature themes of curses and revenge do not simply illustrate the good and evil, but also extend a warm hand to the weak, minorities, and nonhumans. It is a terrifying story that is oddly comforting. “Writing the book was like going to an amusement park. I had a lot of fun writing it,” said Bora Chung, the author.
Waiting for High Tide / Yae-eun Cho
This is the newest novel from Yae-eun Cho, whose Cocktail, Love, Zombie has garnered much enthusiastic support from young readers. Her lighthearted horror thrillers with a spoonful of happy endings have even earned her the nickname “Yae-eun Cho World.” The novel begins with Jung-hae receiving news that their childhood friend Woo-young has committed suicide by throwing themselves into the ocean at high tide. Unable to believe that Woo-young, who has always said they wanted to be buried in the mountains, would throw themselves into the ocean, Jung-hae follows their track to dive right into the heart of the cult Youngsan Church. Just as the tide reveals the mudflats, the black sea at high tide gradually reveals the real secret of Youngsan Church and Woo-young. A sharp satire of religious madness behind the social phenomenon, this is an absorbing novel that is driven by the protagonist's desire to reunite with their friend, even if it means relying on superstition and prayer.
At a Coin Laundry at 2AM / Hyun-ju Park
This book is the latest addition to My Occult Days, a series of mysteries written by Hyun-ju Park. Written in first-person narrative, “I” still writes an occult column for a magazine while solving paranormal cases that come their way. Like a detective, “I” solves ominous cases of a woman suddenly appearing in a closed coin-operated laundry; a mirror that shows the future husband of a person; a lover from a previous life that appears near the end of a person’s life; a bat that shudders in search of things that a filmmaker has lost; and a cursed doll for revenge. The book is a collection of short stories that each deal with a different theme, but a central mystery that runs through them connects all cases. Being a renowned translator of numerous mystery novels including those by Truman Capote and Charles Bukowski, the author has successfully created a unique Korean story by adding occult elements on top of the foundation of a classic detective novel.
Servant School 1 / Yi-eun Kim
Seo-jeong Han thought she had succeeded in leading a normal life after leaving her turbulent days in the past – only to have everything completely shattered when she is accused of fraud, embezzlement, and murder. Overcome with fear, she follows the advice of her childhood friend Jin-wook Lee and visits “Servant School.” Hidden underground in a corner of the cypress forest that separates the luxury resort Solaz from the outside world, Servant School is as grand as an extravagant mansion or a six-star hotel, and as dreary as a tattered old housing complex. The goal of students at Servant School is to sneak into the life of a chaebol family as servants and eventually become the master of the chaebol family. Those void of happiness, glory, or hope – they are the ones who arrive at Servant School. Servant School is a novel in which Yi-eun Kim’s storytelling shines through as she coldly and thrillingly depicts the lives of those who try to break through the walls of social class and become part of the inner circle.
Runaway / Se-ah Jang
Runaway, which can be described as a “Korean gothic thriller,” is a full-length novel by Se-ah Jang, who worked as a publicist for a luxury brand for a long time. The short story she submitted to the Kyobo Story Contest was recognized and turned into a full-length novel, recommended by Kyobo Bookstore. On the first train in the early morning, Jae-young accidentally comes across a young mother in the train compartment while on the run. The mother disappears, leaving behind her baby and a note that urges Jae-young to take the baby to her family-in-law. Jae-young is overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Western-style mansion when she visits the mother’s family-in-law in order to fulfill her wish. After lying about being the baby’s mother, Jae-young forgets about her predicament and adjusts to her role as the eldest daughter-in-law of a wealthy family, but when she discovers the enormous secrets this seemingly prosperous family has been hiding, she realizes she has made a fatal mistake.
Written by Seul-ki Kim
Journalist at the culture & sports department at Maeil Business Newspaper. Kim has been covering literature and publishing since 2012, writing book reviews.
Translated by Shannon Kim
Shannon is an interpreter and translator with expertise in a wide array of domains ranging from literature and popular culture to advanced technology. She has provided translations for various esteemed corporations and institutions, including NAVER Corp, SBS, LG Electronics, Samsung Electronics, and HUFS GSIAS.
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