Book Review: “The Cipher” by Kathe Koja

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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…

Books like The Cipher come along rarely.

One of the strangest, most existentially disturbing horror? novels I’ve read in a while, it’s a gem that is certainly not for everyone.

When video store clerk Nicholas and his sometimes-girlfriend Nakota stumble across a strange hole (The Funhole!) in an abandoned supply closet in his apartment building, they don’t really know what to make of it. Over time, Nakota begins to perform “experiments” by putting things in or near the hole, with frightening results. This includes a camcorder that creates video so intense it beguiles anyone who sees it.  As tension builds, it comes to a head when Nicholas’ hand accidentally goes in the The Funhole and comes out with a bizarre negative stigmata. A “mini Funhole” that begins to grow.

From there, the conflict between Nicholas and Nakota grows, as she assembles an almost cult-like following of artsy weirdos on the fringes of society, who she tempts by showing them the video which them eerily obsessed with the mysteries of The Funhole…and Nicholas.

Koja’s work is a phenomenal piece of writing. It eschews taking us into the Funhole itself, and rather deals with the psychological aspects of how gross, down-and-out people deal with an unknown (and revelatory) situation. The Funhole’s interactions are on the periphery of the story, but it’s presence is at the heart of what drives this horrible group.

And I do mean horrible. This book is full of really unlikable people. Nakota is an effective antagonist because she is a real-world monster. Selfish, arrogant, uncaring and narcissistic. She preys on weakness; the kind Nicholas has in spades. Reader beware if you need “likable characters” to finish a book.

The Cipher is also a technical tour de force. If you want a book that “breaks the rules”, look no further. Written in stream of consciousness narration, it is full of sentence fragments, interjections, collapsing paragraphs, and 4th wall asides. Her prose is beautifully poetic while simultaneously grimy and disgusting.  I’m sure Koja’s editor had a field day with it.

Again, to those interested in challenging writing styles, you’ll love it, but anyone who wants an easy straightforward read may shy away.

Ultimately, I’m not even sure if I’d classify The Cipher as a horror novel, although that’s what Dell Books called it back in the early 1990’s. It’s certainly weird alt-horror, if not an exercise in existential dread and the human condition.

5 awful, disjointed thumbs up.

What I Liked:

  • The Funhole.
  • The slimy sheen of Koja’s characters and prose. Nothing is nice or clean or off limits.
  • Nakota is a monster and a wonderfully realistic villain.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Sometimes the stream of consciousness was too much.
  • The middle sags, just a tiny bit, but it does.
  • It’s long out-of-print and paperback editions are EXPENSIVE.
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