Spirits, Ghosts, and Devoured Souls: a Review of SMALL GODS OF CALAMITY

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

There is something about the supernatural crime/mystery genre that appeals to me on a profound level. It’s like mixing two of my favorite ingredients (chocolate and raspberries, say) and ending up with something even more sublime in the process. Sam Kyung Yoo’s Small Gods of Calamity is a prime example of a story where this blend of genres works to perfection. The novella is a riveting supernatural murder mystery that plays out partly in the everyday world on the streets of Seoul, and partly in the perilous realm of spirits and ghosts. Yoo infuses this spirit realm with beings and beliefs from Korean folklore, myth, and spirituality.  

“There are all kinds of spirits. Some are born from the towering majesty of the mountains or the distant stars and are revered as nature gods. Some spirits bring about disaster through their very existence and are called gods of calamity. But in the end, they’re all spirits, and surely even the smaller spirits are just smaller gods.”

For me, a lot of the appeal of any crime/mystery story hinges on the appeal of the fictional investigator who sets out to solve the case (think Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Henry Bosch, or Benoit Blanc, for example), and Yoo gives us a terrific protagonist in police detective Kim Han-gil. Han-gil works at the Jong-ro Police Department’s violent crimes unit in Seoul, and, in addition to being a detective, he is also able to see and interact with the world of spirits that most people don’t even know exists. While Han-gil is a highly competent and insightful detective, his spiritual abilities (and to some extent his somewhat stand-offish personality) make him an outsider at work, where the other detectives are taking bets on how long his latest partner will last before asking for reassignment. For reasons made clear as his backstory unfolds, Han-gil is also something of an outsider in the spiritualist community. They are the ones who call him “the spirit detective,” a phrase “only ever said with an air of dismissal and derision.”

Han-gil is tasked with investigating what seems to be a series of odd suicides, but soon realizes that there is something profoundly sinister at work, possibly involving a soul-devouring spirit he knows only too well from his own past. As the investigation unveils further mysteries and threats, Han-gil must race against time to protect other innocent people from being hurt and killed.

Like I already mentioned, the investigator is a key ingredient in these kinds of stories, and Han-gil, with his rather blunt manner and emotional complexity, makes for a fascinating protagonist. His life has been shaped by the traumatic loss of his mother when he was still a child, and during this investigation, he is unexpectedly thrown together with Shin Yoonhae who was intimately involved in the events surrounding the death of Han-gil’s mother. This meeting, and the tentative and conflicted relationship that follows, is both fraught and tender at the same time, as they both deal with a tangle of lingering guilt, anger, and grief.

Every part of Small Gods of Calamity is skillfully crafted. The mystery-solving, puzzle aspect of the investigation had me hooked, with mysterious clues to follow and with various people, ghosts, and spirits helping and hindering Han-gil as he tries to prevent another tragedy.

One of the things I particularly love is how we get to see the world like Han-gil sees it: a place where the presence of spirits and ghosts, the use of wards, amulets, and talismans, is as natural as any technology or everyday phenomena we take for granted. The descriptions of how Han-gil perceives the spirit world, his “spirit sense,” as something that is “entangled with his other senses—mostly centering on sound, smell, and taste give the supernatural interactions in the story a tangible, tactile quality that is very effective.

All fiction has to do some form of worldbuilding, of course, but it’s often more noticeable in speculative fiction where a writer has to establish the features and parameters of their invented universe. In Small Gods of Calamity Yoo handles this challenge deftly, letting you know enough about the spirit world’s intricate rules and harrowing perils to keep you tethered to the plot at every turn without ever weighing down the story.

The emotional depth and complexity of Han-gil as a character, and his delicately nuanced relationship with Shin Yoonhae make this story hit a lot harder, and cut a lot deeper, than it otherwise would. There’s a softness and warmth in their interactions that add to the novella’s appeal for me. This is not a cozy mystery by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a thoughtfulness in the writing that leaves space for the characters to grow, and to consider their own emotions and motives rather than just acting out in the worst way possible. Yoo unfolds this relationship with insight and care, showing us how these two characters are drawn together even though the past might be seen as an insurmountable obstacle. Forgiveness and redemption are allowed to take root even in the midst of danger and horror.

Small Gods of Calamity is a suspenseful, supernatural murder mystery that kept me on tenterhooks throughout, and I’m kind of hoping this is not the last time I’ll get to jump into the spirit world with Kim Han-gil.

Sam Kyung Yoo’s short fiction is also well worth checking out, for example, “Nextype” in Strange Horizons, and “Even Robots Can Cry” in Fireside.

About the Author

Sam Kyung Yoo is a queer/ace author and third-degree black belt taekwondo instructor from Massachusetts. They graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English, creative writing, and film studies, but have since abandoned academia to write stories about ghosts, East Asian folklore, and sad robots. Their work has been published by Fantasy, Neon Hemlock Press, Strange Horizons, among others. You can find them online at

Small Gods of Calamity is available now from Interstellar Flight Press: