It’s hard to find a title more straightforward than the manhwa (a Korean comic) Killing Stalking. The story opens on withdrawn, isolated Yoon Bum breaking into the house of the man he’d admired from afar for coincidentally saving him in the past – stalking. Bum makes his way inside and happens to discover a secret basement where a blindfolded and beaten women begs him to help her; his crush, Oh Sangwoo, comes home with baseball bat in hand and makes Bum the basement’s new resident – killing.
From there the story becomes a survival story, as Bum tries to make himself useful enough to Sangwoo to be kept alive while looking for a way to escape. It’s one of the most compelling horror stories I’ve read in years.
Killing Stalking is what you’d arguably call a guro comic (gory to a degree that would make Fulci, Bava et al proud and generally with some utilization of sex to further contrast the physical grotesquerie). Certainly the story is not shy about its violent imagery, and artist/author Koogi often indulges in drawing bodies so as to highlight them as meat. But it stays its hand by comparison, saving the gore for explosive moments of tension and even then ramping up little by little. Like the best of thrillers, the threat of danger is so nerve-wracking that the actual bloodletting comes as something of a relief – at least then you know where you stand.
That mentality of the terror of uncertainty is key to what makes the comic’s tension work. The basis of the relationship between Yoon Bum and Sangwoo is a parade of almosts. It’s almost like Misery, particularly if you remember that book’s famous leg scene. It’s almost like Stockholm syndrome, as Bum trades on playing wife-mother to Sangwoo and using sexual favors to make himself worth keeping alive, retreating into a need to be “special” to Sangwoo in order to make his captivity bearable. But these facts are complicated by Bum’s mental illness (he almost certainly suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder in addition to the neglect and abuse in his upbringing) and by his idolization of Sangwoo prior to being imprisoned.
Yoon Bum almost wants to believe, on some level, that he’s in a “bad boy” romance. That while Sangwoo is dangerous to others eventually Bum will be able to break through to him and become the one special person Sangwoo values – a belief that, as soon as he seems close to shaking it, gets reinforced by a honeymoon cycle or Sangwoo spilling some tantalizing bit of backstory to make Bum feel as though he’s needed. In another story, these spates of gentleness would be indicative of a turn in the abusive boyfriend’s manner, reinforcing that the “love” of a good partner could somehow change an abuser (hello EL James, I’m looking at you again).
But KS is smarter than that, and as the story goes on the moments of gentleness become their own form of tension, wondering how long it will last and what will trigger another round of violence. Bum’s mix of fear, attraction, and dependence winds up turning inward, causing him to blame himself for still being even a little bit attracted to his captor. He’s both a failure for not being “pure” enough to resist falling for a monster and for failing to be alluring enough to win the monster’s heart and turn him into a prince. With no real-life relationships to draw experience from and no one to turn to but his abuser, Yoon Bum is eventually barely clinging to reality. And even then, it’s not a consistent thing.
KS’s dips into surrealism might be its strongest feature, creating a dizzyingly uncertain foundation of reality that would make David Lynch and Satoshi Kon proud. Bum is never entirely reliable, but being trapped in a house for what might be days or weeks or even months destroys what little grounding he had left, and his hallucinations take power as he drowns under the mercy of Sangwoo’s whims. Flashes of violence pop in and out without ever seeming cheap, functioning as intrusive images in Bum’s mind that he and the reader both know are very plausible threats. After a certain point, it gets murky as to whether death would be a preferable option.
The victim-blaming sequence linked above, where Yoon Bum debates throwing away an opportunity at escape in favor of “love,” might be the comic’s most powerful scene, trapping us with Bum’s anxiety and understandable feelings in an extreme situation. It embodies the most effective terrors the story possesses: the complicated emotions of being a victim of abuse, the ugly morass of affection and fear that gets overlooked when people ask “why didn’t they just leave?” This, of course, leads to the inevitable problem where some readers will romanticize the relationship, taking Bum’s attraction and Sangwoo’s gentle phases as indicators that this is a love story rather than erotic horror.
While the tendency to romanticize abuse is a troubling one (hello again, EL James), in this case It can hardly be blamed on the work. Depictions of abuse do not necessarily indicate condoning of abuse, and tone is a crucial component in how that comes across. Readers of KS are constantly reminded that Sangwoo can’t be trusted, and that any show of affection is concealing either an ulterior motive or the threat of violence. We are choked with how just-barely-off the elements of the story, from Yoon Bum having not the willowy frame of a weeping “uke” but a case of malnourished near-emaciation to Bum’s near-dissociation whenever Sangwoo draws him into a sexual act.
A sense of uncanniness and harm underpins all of it, ensuring that even moments that do have an erotic tint to them come back around to what is terrifying about the situation. It’s thoughtful in its exploration of its protagonist’s mind, willing to portray his feelings without outright condemnation but also stepping back to remind the reader of the broader context of what’s going on (mainly via an investigative detective, an old standby in this kind of story). It’s clearly mindful of the kind of story it’s telling, and while there’s no guarantee that it will stick the landing (a caveat with all works in progress), it’s thus far been on point at the incredibly difficult task of conveying suspense in a non-auditory medium.
As a final note, while most readers of non-English language comics are likely used to searching for them on scanlation sites, it’s worth noting that Killing Stalking is distributed by Lezhin, a paid comic service in the same vein as Marvel’s online comic sites. Lezhin’s comics, however, are quite affordable: the number of “coins” necessary to unlock a chapter of KS (which is generally quite a lengthy read) averages out to roughly a dollar, compared to $4 or more for a currently running Marvel story. It’s a very affordable way to support the creator with an official translation, and I would encourage it with all my power.
[NOTE: Subsequent seasons seem to have proven my optimism wrong–like The Ancient Magus’ Bride, multiple elements of this story that at first seemed to be a commentary on certain toxic romance tropes have instead slipped into straightforwardly replicating them. Disappointing in the extreme, and I wouldn’t expect it to turn around at the finale]