Exploring the Void: Revisiting Kathe Koja’s debut, The Cipher
By: Rich Duncan
Kathe Koja’s The Cipher is one of those books that has a mythological reputation among those in the horror fiction community. It was the book that launched the Dell Abyss line, launching a unique blend of horror that had a heavily psychological focus and introduced a blast of fresh air into mainstream horror following the big horror collapse following the 1980s. Even before the release of the stellar horror fiction bible Paperbacks from Hell, original paperback copies of The Cipher were incredibly scarce. It’s not uncommon for copies to fetch north of $100 if you try to buy a copy online. Despite that, copies circulated among rabid horror fiction fans for years and it’s often considered the Holy Grail for bookworms. And for good reason. The purpose of this article isn’t simply a review, but rather a look at one of the most unique works in modern horror fiction.
After years of scouring used bookshops, I was recently lucky enough to find a copy of The Cipher, which features mind-blowing cover and stepback art that perfectly captures the post-modern, mind-bending contents of the story itself. I won’t give you a complete blow by blow of the book’s plot – half the fun is experiencing that for yourself- but for those who may be a bit hazy on the details, here is the back copy from the novel:
Nicholas is a would-be poet and video-store clerk with a weeping hole in his hand – weeping not blood, but a plasma of tears…
It began with Nakota and her crooked grin. She had to see the dark hole in the storage room down the hall. She had to make love to Nicholas beside it, and stare into its secretive, promising depths. Then Nakota began her experiments: First, she put an insect into the hole. Then a mouse…
Now from down the hall, the black hole calls out to Nicholas every day and every night. And he will go to it. Because it has already seared his flesh, infected his soul, and started him on a journey of obsession – through its soothing, blank darkness into the blinding core of terror…
I had been looking for a copy of this book for so long that when I finally found one, the feeling of euphoria was almost indescribable. I was aware of the reverence given to it by horror fans, but in all honesty, that’s not what drew me to the book. It played a part, sure. What really made me want to read The Cipher was Todd Keisling’s heartfelt essay he wrote for Ink Heist a year ago. I also like to think of myself as a voracious reader and, as a fan of horror fiction, my goal is to read as much of it as I can and explore its various subgenres. I want to immerse myself in the great voices of the genre and experience as much of it as I can. It’s something I’m wildly passionate about almost to the point of compulsion. I know there is no way I will ever read everything in the genre, but that doesn’t mean I won’t do my damnedest to try. And that passion is what drove Shane and I to launch this sort of career spotlight that highlights the work of one of our genre’s unique and creative voices – Kathe Koja.
Kathe came roaring on to the scene in 1991 with her debut, The Cipher, when it won her a Stoker award for Best First Novel. That’s one hell of an opening salvo and once you read this novel, you’ll see the accolades and reverence bestowed upon it are more than justified. Kathe has a voice unlike any other I’ve discovered in my horror reading adventures. Her prose has a darkly poetic quality that eschews any frills and instead hones in on making a powerful and lasting impact on readers.
The only other art form that rivals my love of dark fiction is underground music. Punk, hardcore, you name it. This type of music not only shaped my listening habits but shaped me as a person as well. These bands practiced a DIY ethic, doing things their way without regard for standard conventions. The ethos and the sonic hallmarks of their sound resulted in a raw, unfiltered energy that cut straight through to my core, unlike anything I ever experienced. While I was reading The Cipher, I noticed a lot of parallels to that music I love so much. That same energy crackles on every page and something about the flow of Koja’s writing spoke to me in the same way those records did. It has a fever dream quality that will push you mentally and stretches the fabric of reality.
The Cipher‘s horror is largely psychological – it’s about how people perceive the Funhole and the way it makes them examine themselves and how they grapple with its existence and power. And once you first discover the mysteries of the Funhole, it sticks with you. You’re caught in its gravity and find yourself drawn to it over and over again. When you aren’t reading it, you’re thinking about it. That same kinetic pull readers feel to revisit The Cipher is not unlike the feeling Nakota and Nicholas experience after discovering the Funhole. It forces this cast of characters through a metamorphosis of both the mind and body, creating an atmosphere of dread and some truly frightening moments of Body Horror as the novel progresses.
One of the things that I love about this novel is that the mystery of the Funhole is left to the reader to uncover. Why is it here? What is its purpose? It doesn’t make a grand appearance, the work of some extradimensional beings or some ancient ritual. It simply is. Nakota and Nicholas just happen to discover this living anomaly in a nondescript cleaning closet in Nicholas’apartment building. That’s it. The fact that it’s so mysterious and its origins left to the reader’s imagination makes for a thrilling reading experience. Why? Because it drives discussion among the many people who have read it. The title is an apt description because everyone who reads it comes away with something different. Theories about the novel and the reactions it evokes vary wildly from reader to reader and to be honest, I miss that sort of communal reading experience. I have my own theories about the novel and the origins of the Funhole and I would be happy to trade theories in the comments of this article.
It’s been close to 30 years since The Cipher was first published, and out of all the books I have read since, there are few that are anything like it. If you have already tackled The Cipher and are looking for more stories in that style, you need to be reading the work of J Daniel Stone. His last novel Blood Kiss is a wildly original story that explores the creation of art and carries that same untameable spirit as The Cipher. If you haven’t yet gazed upon The Funhole, I highly recommend checking this novel out. There are ebook copies available and pretty soon Meerkat Press will be giving this book the re-release it so desperately deserves. The Cipher is one of the genre’s best works and absolutely deserving of being a classic. And I don’t just mean a modern classic. Kathe Koja is one of the most creative minds in our field and I can’t wait to read her Meerkat collection Velocities, which will be released in 2020. Two never before published stories from a master of horror? Sign me up!
Be sure to keep checking back as Shane and I are planning a series of posts highlighting Kathe’s work and we hope you will join us on our journey.