Wonmi Ghosts and Wonjjang Proofs

I was hiking Wonmisan (Wonmi Mountain) just now. It was dark, and got me to thinking about ghost stories. I’m supposed to be working on one independently, but I let it stall. It’s for this call for stories, but the problem is, I don’t really know any famous Korean ghost stories. When I’ve asked around, a lot of people have said there isn’t a “most famous” Korean ghost story, and couldn’t really name me individual particular ones. What they did seem familiar with was types of ghosts — the “hungry ghosts” to whom scraps of food are thrown during ancestral rites a couple of times a year, the “virgin ghosts” who seem to be motivated by some horrid wrong in their lives that caused them to fail their Confucian duty to marry, reproduce, and thus carry on someone’s family line (or, as some have joked, because they missed out on the joys of sex), and the ghosts of urban legend, particularly the ghost stories whispered among young men doing their mandatory military service.

So I’ve been working on one story, but I’m wondering if it mightn’t be a triptych of Korean “ghost types” refashioned into unlikely settings. The hungry ghost injected into  a Bucheon rather like the Seoul of A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball, a famous Korean social novel of the 70s; a military service ghost injected into the life of a pop star (or soccer hero) doing his basic training; a tale of “virgin ghosts” that draws on the (actual, historical) murder of three schoolgirls two schoolboys on the very same mountain I’m hiking daily, Wonmisan.

(EDIT: Knowing the victims were boys puts an even stronger “twist” on the virgin ghost tradition, I suppose. Thanks for the correction, Bulgasari, er, Matt.)

I dunno, but I’ll tell you, if I were thinking of writing that ghost story, maybe the best way would beto get myself a flashlight, and bring my laptop with a few batteries, and sit out there in the dark on Wonmisan at night, typing away. After all, back in Seattle, I went down into what some of us called the “spooky bunk room” (or something like that) and worked on my comfort-woman ghost story, a tale I have yet to revise but which is likely to become part of my Dead White Guy Stuck in Korea novel… the one I’m hoping to edit and rewrite next semester, and send out for publication, like, er, sometime after that. Sitting in that spooky bunk room probably didn’t help me in the drafting process, since, once I’m drafting, there’s nothing else in the world but the screen, the keyboard, music on a loop, and a cup of water or (maybe, on a hot day) beer, but I do think that being in the dark, lightless, shuttered, spooky bunk room got me into the mood as I sat there and waited to feel freaked out, so that I could started drafting. Is there a word for that? Can we call it “method writing”? I dunno. Maybe I’m the only weirdo to do this, I dunno. Anyway, I’m sure if I go sit up on the mountain, alone, I’ll find some inspiration. I just don’t know if my little inspirers will let me down off the mountain safe, and sane, when I finish drafting the story.

Anyway, yes, I got down off the mountain at 8:35pm, quite some time after sundown (and quite late enough for me to spook some people who were taking a break by the badminton courts up near the “first peak,” and who thought they  were the last to climb down.  I shall have to remember not to leave it so late next time, as it was really dark and I had to take the stairs at one point where I prefer to hike down the rough dirt, because I couldn’t really see the footholds in the rough dirt and didn’t want to risk breaking a leg. Or, if I do climb up with the laptop, like a fool, I shall have to remember to bring my bug spray and a headlamp. (Yes, I have one, as I think I’d like to see the mountaintop by night sometime this summer. With tons of bug spray on, of course.)

As I was scrambling down the last bit of mountain trail, I realized that I was so busy posting about the Catholics and the protest in Seoul that I forgot to post a bit of writing news: last night, I submitted (to the excellent Claude Lalumière) the page proof corrections for “Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang,” which will be published sometime later this year in the twelfth annual volume of the Canadian SF anthology Tesseracts, which is chock full of big fat novellas for you to enjoy.

When Tesseracts Twelve comes out later this summer, I’ll post a link where you can order it online — one for North Americans, and one for those in Korea who want to read it, assuming it’ll be available through Whatthebook.com — but for now, here’s a link to the page listing at EDGE’s website. Oh, and you can read the intro, and the first page of each story (including mine) here.

4 thoughts on “Wonmi Ghosts and Wonjjang Proofs

  1. I heartily recommend going hiking at night. I do it many nights in the summer, the beaches next to my apartment here in Busan being completely packed at that time of year. But man, midnight on a high peak overlooking the cliffs and sea, cool breezes, not a soul for miles…it’s really quite serene.

    Naturally the first time I ever went into the pitch-black hills at night I was shit -scared (not to put too fine a point on it), but resolved to go in line with Baz Luhmanns’s advice to do something everyday that scares you (from the song “Wear Sunscree”. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to it though.

    I’m not sure I’d ever consider taking a laptop up with me though. I used to relish the opportunity just to talk to myself with no inhibitions for an hour and a half or so and work various things out, but these days I just take the iPod. It can suffice as a handy torch, although in practice losing you rarely need it and losing your night eyes is annoying.


  2. Yay for ghost stories. I’ll look forward to reading them, whenever they appear. As for Tesseracts, me wants it! Thanks for mentioning it.

    Here’s a thought… maybe you could try recording a draft with a tape player instead of following your usual process with the laptop and and whatnot. A change in routine might prove fruitful. Then again, I’m speaking as someone who usually has to repeat any lines of poetry I get (when I write it) over and over in my head until I get an writing implement, so it may be less verbal for fiction writers (someday perhaps I’ll know).

    Although that’s another thought…going up a haunted mountain with nothing more than a a flashlight, a candle, and a notebook. (the flashlight being for practical transit, the candle to write by, unreliable and old enough to keep the mood).

    And the method writing idea sounds familiar…I know I’ve tried it, in different ways. Its research, just a different sort than websurfing or library wandering.

  3. Can’t say I do much night hiking here (though it’s very possible, as there are a few mountains within walking or biking distance), but I do ride my bike through the nearby fields at night from time to time (NOT early evening – too many damn bugs! I literally had to put my hand over my mouth and nose Sunday evening in order not to inhale half the swarm).

    Do tell more about the three girls murdered on Wonmisan. When was that? Two boys were murdered there (or their bodies turned up there) in January 2004 (I was biking there two months later and saw posters pinned to trees – I don’t recommend biking on Wonmisan in March – you have to carry the bikes up the hills and then walk them down because they’re too damn muddy!).

    BTW, Yang Kwija has a story in “A Distant And Beautiful Place” about a man who spends more and more time on Wonmisan before disappearing. One of the things motivating this is his fear of crowds, brought on by his experiences in “that southern city” in May five years earlier. I highly recommend that book.

  4. James,

    Okay, I’ll try it. Though I bet it’s nicer with the ocean than with, er, Bucheon below. But hey, you live where you live. My night eyes are long gone, but a laptop in total darkness will only hurt my eyes more, I think. So maybe I’ll just think it out.


    Oh, I can’t write more than scattered notes before I get impatient and switch to a keyboard. And I can see how poetry would be easier to compose aloud. Fiction, well, some people do it, but I can’t. Not with stories, anyway. Maybe I could do pots that way, though.

    I may just try hiking in the dark for that lovely spooked out feeling. And I am glad to hear that I’m not the only weirdo who does something like “method writing.” It’s like how I had the same short (30 second) sample of Lester Young on a loop as I wrote the majority of, well, you can guess which story. (Except for the phased-out music scenes, where I switched to some of Steve Reich’s phase music pieces.)


    Ooops, seems I’ve picked up the mutated, urban-legendy form where the boys turned into girls somehow. The number 3 is, though, as I mentioned in my email, probably a faulty of my own memory. But I’ve heard it from independent students on campus that it was girls. Interesting, that. I may just do some little informal survey in my classes next semester. It’d be interesting to see whether the gender has changed in retellings of the story among students… one thing I can say is that at least one of the times I was told was a male student, and one was a female. Hmm. Anyway, that’ll teach me to believe my students, or, rather, not to research and confirm what they tell me.

    And on the theme of urban-legendy retellings of disappearances on Wonmisan, I read that story right after I saw your comment, early this morning, and loved it. Great story. I’ll have to read the rest of the book, now… It was revealing to see that the joys of commuting haven’t really changed much since when that story was penned. I totally could relate to the guy when he yelled, “I’ll blow it up! I’ll blow this train up!” Excellently written, and I think, a kind of ghost story in its own right. As some Welsh (I think it is) proverb goes, “It is far more terrifying to see a ghost of a living man than a ghost of a dead one.”

    And yeah, biking in early evening — ugh! Bugs in teeth… I even got a couple of bugs in my teeth just hurrying down the last bit of Wonmisan trail, the bit that leads down to the dormitories on campus, so I imagine on a bike the bugs in the fields would be much worse!

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