Don’t Read This If You Want to Sleep

Inside the mind of Reddit horror writer, Ha-yong Bak.

By Jessie Schiewe

Many of Ha-yong Bak’s stories are cautionary tales about the evil humans are capable of committing. (Art:  Jonathan Matthew Hall )

Many of Ha-yong Bak’s stories are cautionary tales about the evil humans are capable of committing. (Art: Jonathan Matthew Hall)

Last year, Ha-yong Bak, a Korean-American writer, took penis enlargement pills. They seemed to work at first, until he began experiencing a tickling sensation in his crotch that wouldn’t go away. It turned out the drugs he’d swallowed had actually been eggs. Worms were growing inside of his dick.

Actually, that never happened. Well, it kind of did. Bak didn’t take dick pills in real life, but he did write a horror tale about someone who did. And he wrote it from his own point-of-view so that the clickbait-y titled story — “I Wish I Never Took a Dick Enhancement Drug Called ‘Max Best Growth’ ” — would seem more believable to readers.

In fact, when I first read Bak’s story on Reddit, I was totally convinced that it was real. The confessional tone of the narrator, the conversational writing style, and the fact that it ended without a resolution, all made it seem like a regular, oversharing internet post. Little did I know that the subreddit it had been published in — a horror writing forum called No Sleep that has more than 12 million members — only accepts stories that are told in the first-person or as a found journal.

But even if that wasn’t a rule, Bak would probably still be writing his stories that way.

“I try to make it all seem like it could happen,” the 25-year-old told me through Skype from his home in South Korea. “I know a lot of writers who do really awesome monster or Cthuhlu stories and stuff, but I just can’t do it for some reason. I have to make it realistic.”

Not surprisingly, I’m far from being the only reader whom Bak has bamboozled.

“Oh my god, people are fooled all the time,” he said. “I get a lot of people who send me messages on Reddit with concerns or just absolute hatred if my character was a total douchebag.”

It’s easy to see why so many are deceived by Bak’s stories. With titles like “If You See a Facebook Ad for ‘Choices that Matter,’ Avoid It At All Costs,” “Have You Tried Vaping?” and “A Site Called ‘Cash for Confessions’ Has Changed My Life,” how can you not — at least for a second — think they are true? Their believability is heightened even more by the fact that the villains in Bak’s stories are generally fellow humankind or man-made technology. Most of his tales also tend to end on cliffhangers, so we never know if the main character survives or gets killed — a writing tactic he picked up from John Steinbeck, his favorite author.

“I love open endings because they encourage people to use their own imaginations. Like in Grapes of Wrath, the ending is literally a grown-woman breast-feeding an elderly man, and it ends there. So you never know do they die the next day? Or do they actually get through the Great Depression?”

life-is-beta-horror-hayong-bok

In addition to dick pills filled with worm eggs, Bak has tales about people at a conference on a tropical island turning into cannibals, a little boy who spent four days in heaven, and a man who becomes eternally trapped inside of a cafe after drinking their special: a mango smoothie. His most popular work — a multi-part series called “Life is Beta” — is about an app that forces you to choose between killing others or getting killed yourself. His tales have been compared to Stephen King and the TV show Black Mirror, which is impressive given that he just watched the latter for the first time this January.

Bak himself has never experienced anything truly “scary” in his life, a fact that he laments. “I’ve always wanted creepy stuff to happen to me,” he said. “Like, I’ve always wanted a toaster to fly out in the open out of nowhere and stuff like that.” Since he can’t pull from personal experiences for his stories, he uses his imagination — and gets sloshed on his favorite $1 soju — to construct his plotlines.

Since starting in December 2016, Bak has written more than 200 stories for No Sleep. He self-published 10 of them as a book of short stories, and has had five published in horror anthologies alongside other writers. In that time, he’s also gotten divorced from his wife, whom with he shares a son, and left his job working at a conference organizing company. He’s now the general manager of a cell phone store in Daejeon, South Korea.

And for now, he’s happy with it all; happy with his quaint routine of peddling cell phones during the day and churning out stories by night. He doesn’t really have any plans to change the way things are, but he wouldn’t become maudlin if something happened. He’s open to whatever, a real go-with-the-flow kind of guy. And, just like in his stories, he’s cool with not knowing what comes next.

 

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