A few weeks ago, in a dimly-lit chandeliered chamber, I heard the name of a ghost.
“I’ve never wanted to tell this story because where I come from, we believe that to speak the name of a ghost is to invite it into your life, to allow it take up residence in your mind and the minds of all who hear it,” said Catherine Chung, author and speaker at the Single-Voice Reading in the Tillotson Room of the Tippie Alumni Center.
Most of the attendees of the night knew Chung by her novel, “Forgotten Country,” which deals with heavy themes of personal loss and conflict of identity. And most of us expected Chung to read a selection from this book.
What we heard instead was a ghost story.
The tale, titled “Give Me Your Body,” follows a boy, orphaned by a plague, and raised by monks in a forested temple, who encounters a kumiho spirit—a fox ghost who, according to Korean legend, must eat the hearts of a thousand men during a period of a thousand years before it can become human.
Unlike the mythical Japanese kitsune, kumihos are universally malevolent entities, and Chung’s ghost is no exception.
The unnamed narrator stumbles across what he thinks is a girl, and the two fall in love. Thirty years pass before the boy is brought back to the temple and shown his own emaciated reflection and realizes he has been seduced by a ghost.
The boy does not believe at first. The monks who rescue him from the dream have to guide him to a fox den, where he is held captive for two weeks.
They tell him, “go seek the truth.”
The short story uses simple language yet deals with complex themes of reality, loyalty and fear. At the end of his imagined 30 years of opulent marriage, the boy is brought jarringly back into a stark reality where asceticism governs. His close friends and the monks of his temple shun him, and he becomes a vagabond and an outcast.
The twist is somewhat reminiscent of “The Matrix.” The boy awakens from a dream to find himself in rags with a broken body, only dressed in eastern folklore and minus the western cultural anxiety surrounding artificial intelligence. In this respect, the story invokes that philosophical quandary as old as Plato’s allegory of the cave: is ignorance bliss?
The narrator concludes his tale by revisiting those false memories, imagining the kumiho, now vanished from his life, speaking to him in light of his discovery of what she really was.
“I dream of her every night at the brink of her own extinction,” Chung read. “Last night I dreamt she kissed me. She came to me, so fresh and laughing and beautiful, and she asked that I forgive her.”
The narrator, now a grown man, cannot forgive the spirit. But he does concede that it was with this spirit that he first learned love, even under a false pretense.
“Why am I telling you this story,” Chung read. “Because I am lonely and have no one else to tell it to. Because there is something I wish to do but have not decided, and am hoping the telling will take me there.”
What does it matter that the narrator is lonely? But the audience is not the one meant to alleviate his loneliness in the telling. Remember to speak the name of a ghost is to invite it into your life.
After the fact, the narrator seems to wish to return to the dream world. The kumiho was more of a reality for him than the temple. Give me the blue pill, he seems to say. I prefer the simulation. So ends the tale.
Most ghost stories typically offer a reason why their featured malevolent spirit is malevolent. But the mythopoeia captured in “Give Me Your Body” gives agency to that “why.” The boy is a victim. He would have had his heart ripped out and devoured had he not been saved by his friends. Chung asks, from behind trees in a haunted forest, what matters of reality if it keeps you happy?
“I don’t know about you, but that was really scary for me,” said Chung, at the conclusion of the reading.
The room laughed, half approvingly, half nervously. Chung had read not as the narrator of her own story, but as Catherine Chung. She had opened up the pages of a ghost story the way they are meant to be accessed, as if they are someone else’s words, a warning message left to float at sea in a bottle for anyone willing to unfurl its contents.
The ghost story is not a dead form. Chung proved it so. What she did not do was resurrect a dated myth and retrofit it with contemporary cultural anxieties. That’s the stuff of teen slashers. Chung is more acute than that. Hers was a real haunting, she simply shared it with the rest of us.