The Light at the End of the Tunnel: Stories from the Terrifying Night by Lee Ho-cheol

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byAmelia Suárez Arriaga
Cuentos de la noche escalofriante (Stories from the Terrifying Night)
Tr. Hae Myoung Yu

Reading Lee Ho-cheol is like walking on the edge of a cliff. The opportunity to step back to safety is always there, but the abyss feels more powerful and, worse still, deeply desirable. In Stories from the Terrifying Night, desperation, pain, the inevitable passing of time, the conflict between North and South Korea, and the thin line between life and death combine through masterful storytelling.

In addition to the political and historical themes that Lee includes in these witty, satirical stories, there is a deep understanding of human nature as he explores the inner feelings we experience when confronted with extreme situations. Within the prevailing mood of melancholy and desperation, there is always a spark, symbol, or shift in emphasis that helps us to keep going and find the strength to face our harshest judge: ourselves.

In “The Naked Image,” for example, we are presented with the moral dilemma of two brothers—prisoners of war suffering not only from the inhuman conditions of the conflict itself, but struggling to reconcile their strengths and weaknesses when confronted with tragedy. It is a raw portrayal of the slow collapse of an initial stoicism in the face of disaster where the characters are forced to become empty in order to survive.

In “Odol’s Grandmother,” an old woman waits for news from her grandson who has left her, treasuring the brief letter she received in her lonely home and asking the Lord of the Mountain to keep him safe. But she must pay a high price for his absence as her desolation takes its toll.

In “Heat on a Cold Night,” the first story in the book, Captain Kim has to put up with a pompous superior, a young general obsessed with trivialities, who takes his subordinate on an inane jeep ride. The general’s explanation for his erratic, volatile behavior is that: “A new war must break out! We are soldiers but we’re bored and have nothing to do.”

In the wide scale of emotions that can be found in this collection, “Invitation to a Birthday Party” stands out. The protagonist, Wankyu, tells a group of enthralled listeners about the series of events that almost killed him and his brother during the war. As they listen, the audience experiences a growing sense of anguish that is then conveyed to the reader, who starts to feel as though they’re also a listener.

Stories from the Terrifying Night was translated into Spanish for the first time by Hae Myoung Yu for the Mexican publisher Bonobos, in collaboration with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. It introduces us to a tough, overwhelmingly harsh world and the inescapable awareness that our worst demons are always to be found within ourselves. 


 by Amelia Suárez Arriaga
Writer and Editor, Bonobos Editores