1975 Ghoulish K-pop teen horror!!

Gorgeous Gruesome Faces
by Linda Cheng

New York: MacMillan/Roaring Brook Press, 2023

$26.99 / 9781250864994

Reviewed by Zoe McKenna

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All that glitters is likelier ghoul than gold in Linda Cheng’s K-pop-inspired debut novel, Gorgeous Gruesome Faces. 

Cheng was born in Taiwan, though much of her adolescence was spent moving between different cultures and continents. Before landing to Vancouver, Cheng resided in Georgia, where she fell in love with Southern Gothic. Gorgeous Gruesome Faces is a clear reflection of the paths Cheng has walked, with off-putting spectres appearing as at home on the page as descriptions of big city living. 

Gorgeous Gruesome Faces follows Sunny Lee, a once-beloved television star who’s already burnt out before she’s 20 years old. Sunny rose to fame on Sweet Cadence, a television series where she portrayed one-third of a K-pop girl group making it big. She and cast members Candie and Mina were on a straight shot to stardom until the unthinkable happened: Mina suffered a violent and mysterious death. It shattered the trio and left many questions unanswered.

Author Linda Cheng

Sunny, now years removed from Sweet Cadence, is prepared to leave fame behind. She then learns that Candie is a participant in a K-pop contest in Atlanta, the winner of which will debut in Korea as “part of the hottest new girl group next year.” Sensing an opportunity to reunite with Candie and get answers about Mina’s death, Sunny signs up. In the process she re-embraces the painful familiarity of K-pop idoldom. 

At the contest’s bootcamp, Sunny is struck by the unsettling feeling that there is someone—or something—living among the girls that doesn’t belong. Sunny is plagued with gory nightmares, many including Mina. Plus, there’s the girl at the end of the hallway, “hunched forward, as if her spine can’t sustain her weight. Arms twist unnaturally at the elbows, legs bend at awkward angles.” Other contestants soon start to get hurt in the “exact kind of grisly accidents” Sunny has witnessed before.

Though the novel is dedicated to weaving an insidious tapestry of horror, the most striking thread of Gorgeous Gruesome Faces is its candid portrayal of girlhood. Sunny, despite reckoning with the death of her friend and being confronted by a haunted bootcamp, is constantly preoccupied by Candie. Sunny’s feelings oscillate between hatred and sadness and love and anger, but her concern about her relationship with her ex-friend and lover supersedes her fear of both the supernatural and Candie herself. 

Throughout the novel, all the girls bicker and bully, fawn over each other, tiptoe towards friendship, and hurtle towards declaring nemeses. The bootcamp is a liminal, eerie space dedicated to training exceptional women for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Simultaneously, bootcamp evokes every high school locker room and a girls’ cabin at camp. 

Cheng’s careful portrayal of adolescent female friendship sidesteps trite descriptions of sugar and spice; it favours a frank portrayal of the way young women can love and fight with equal, ruthless fervour. In her fair treatment of the characters, Cheng’s criticism of idol culture is clear without being heavy-handed. 

The novel is told in two parts: “Then” portrays the inception and ultimate dissolution of Sweet Cadence; “Now” traces Sunny’s quest for answers.

The “Then” timeline explores the many risks for teenagers thrust into stardom. Between sex scandals, disordered eating, and violent attacks, Cheng is succinct in her assessment: idol culture can be deeply—and permanently—harmful. The “cheery naivete” of young Sunny in “Then” has vanished by the present-day narrative, replaced with a teenager who has felt loss and anger far beyond her years. 

Gorgeous Gruesome Faces occupies a space between genres. The unearthly dance studio echoes horror classics such as Suspiria, and Sunny’s nightmares punctuate the narrative at just the right pace to keep readers looking over their shoulder. As the novel progresses, ghosts and body horror are replaced with supernatural elements that lean closer to mythos than malignant spirit. Impressively, Cheng creates harmony where there might typically be conflict between old-world mythology and hyper-modern idol culture.

The dissonance continues into the novel’s conclusion, where, for the first time, the narrative becomes so chaotic that it’s difficult to follow. Events—on various planes of reality—happen at once, creating a finale that is cacophonous, yet fitting for the unbridled storyline. 

Those who think they know what to expect from Cheng’s novel will be be caught off guard in the most delightful way. With that said, those who might attempt to predict the progression of a sapphic, young adult, K-pop-inspired horror novel are likely few and far between.

 

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Zoe McKenna

Zoe McKenna recently completed her Master of Arts from the University of Victoria and also holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vancouver Island University. Her thesis, as well as a great deal of her other reading and writing, focuses on horror writing in Canada, especially that by BIPOC authors. Her previous work has appeared in VIU’s Portal Magazine and the Quill & Quire. When not reading, writing, or reviewing, Zoe can be found hiking a local mountain or in front of a movie with her two cats, Florence and Delilah. She is always covered in cat hair and wears almost exclusively dark clothing to prove it. Find her on Twitter. [Editor’s note: Zoe McKenna has recently reviewed books by Paul Cresey, Michelle Min Sterling, Eve Lazarus, David Wallace, David Ly & Daniel ZomparelliSophie Sullivankc dyerRobyn Harding, and Lindsay Cameron for BCR.]

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The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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