My review is part of the blog tour for the re-issuing of The Cipher. Please scroll below my review to read and excerpt and take part in the rafflecopter giveaway.
September 15, 2020
Blurb: Winner of the Bram Stoker Award and Locus Awards, finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, and named one of io9.com’s “Top 10 Debut Science Fiction Novels That Took the World By Storm.” With a new afterword by Maryse Meijer, author of Heartbreaker and Rag. “Black. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you look at it too closely, the sense of something not living but alive.” When a strange hole materializes in a storage room, would-be poet Nicholas and his feral lover Nakota allow their curiosity to lead them into the depths of terror. “Wouldn’t it be wild to go down there?” says Nakota. Nicholas says, “We’re not.” But no one is in control, and their experiments lead to obsession, violence, and a very final transformation for everyone who gets too close to the Funhole.
Note: I unfortunately just finished The Cipher moments before beginning this review so I am certain that I am not going to do justice to this novel, which probably takes more thought and rereading than I’ve given it. Please keep that in mind as you read my review.
When I was younger, I read a lot of horror, the gorier, the more gruesome, the better. I loved being scared by all of those things that go bump in the night, creatures jumping out of closets, trails of blood. It is now, however, I know that the scariest monsters are the ones inside each of us. What people are and are not capable of. While there are many instances of gore in Kathe Koja’s spellbinding novel The Cipher, it is outdistanced by the psychological horror that builds page by page.
As The Cipher begins, the Funhole already exists and Nicholas and Nakota have been visiting it often. The fact that the action has already been going on means the reader is thrown immediately into upset. I must admit that I found the beginning rough going. Because of the writing, the unlikability of Nicholas and Nakota, and Nakota’s unpleasant actions, I considered not continuing. But The Cipher is so different from anything I’ve read that I couldn’t not finish it.
Honestly there is a lot of unpleasantness in this book from the setting with its dark cold bleakness to most of the characters who offer another form of bleakness. It’s not an easy book to read, but it is so well done. If you are a fan of the well-written word, you will love Koja’s writing, which elevates the book far above typical horror novels. Literary horror?
With its open-ended ending, out-of-necessity perhaps because the novel is narrated by Nicholas, the reader is left wondering, left with so many questions, left just generally thinking about what’s happened and what could happen; and, that is the only ending possible.
Written in 1991, The Cipher was Koja’s first novel, which is stunning in itself and equally stunning that a debut novel won so many major awards. The book feels fresh and contemporary.
I recommend The Cipher for readers of horror who like stream-of-consciousness writing and psychological horror as well as gore.
I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
4 butterflies and a ladybug out of 5 butterflies
Nakota, who saw it first: long spider legs drawn up beneath her ugly skirt, wise mouth pursed into nothing like a smile. Sitting in my dreary third-floor flat, on a dreary thrift-shop chair, the window light behind her dull and gray as dirty fur and she alive, giving off her dark continuous sparks. Around us the remains of this day’s argument, squashed beer cans, stolen bar ashtray sloped full. “You know it,” she said, “the black-hole thing, right? In space? Big dark butthole,” and she laughed, showing those tiny teeth, fox teeth, not white and not ivory yellow either like most people’s, almost bluish as if with some undreamed-of decay beneath them. Nakota would rot differently from other people; she would be the first to admit it.
She lit a cigarette. She was the only one of my friends who still smoked, without defiance or a guilty flourish, smoked like she breathed but not as often. Black cigarettes, and sweetened mineral water. “So. You gonna touch it today?”
Another unsmile. “Wiener.” I shrugged. “Not really.” “Nicholas Wiener.”
So I didn’t answer her. Back to the kitchen. Get your own mineral water. The beer was almost too cold, it hurt going down. When I came back to the living room, what passed for it—big windows, small floor space, couch, bed and bad chair—she smiled at me, the real thing this time. Sometimes I thought I was the only one who ever saw that she was beautiful, who ever had. God knows there wasn’t much, but I had eyes for it all.
“Let’s go look at it,” she said.
The one argument there was no resisting. Quietly, we had learned to do it quietly, down the stairs, turn right on the first landing (second floor to you), past the new graffiti that advised LEESA IS A HORE (no phone number, naturally; thanks a lot assholes) and the unhealthy patina of aging slurs, down the hall to what seemed, might be, some sort of storage room. Detergent bottles, tools, when you opened the door, jumble of crap on the floor, and beyond that a place, a space, the dust around it pale and easily dispersed.
Behold the Funhole.
“Shit,” Nakota said, as she always did, her prayer of wonder. She knelt, bending low and supporting herself on straight-stiff arms, closer than I ever did, staring at it. Into it. It was as if she could kneel there all day, painful position but you knew she didn’t feel it, looking and looking. I took my spot, a little behind her, to the left, my own prayer silence: what to say before the unspeakable?
Black. Not darkness, not the absence of light but living black. Maybe a foot in diameter, maybe a little more. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you looked at it too closely, the sense of something not living but alive, not even something but some—process. Rabbithole, some strange motherfucking wonderland, you bet. Get somebody named Alice, tie a string to her . . . We’d discussed it all, would discuss it again, probably tonight, and Nakota would sit as she always did, straight-backed as a priestess, me getting ripped and ripping into poetry, writing shit that was worse than unreadable in the morning, when I would wake—more properly afternoon, and she long gone, off to her job, unsmiling barmaid at Club 22 and me late again for the video store. She might not come again for days, or a day, one day maybe never. I knew: friends, yeah, but it was the Funhole she wanted. You can know something and never think about it, if you’re any good at it. Me, now, I’ve been avoiding so much for so long that the real trick becomes thinking straight.
Beside me, her whisper: “Look at it.”
I sometimes thought it had a smell, that negative place; we’d made the expected nervous fart jokes, the name itself—well, you can guess. But there was some kind of smell, not bad, not even remotely identifiable, but there, oh my yes. I would know that smell forever, know it in the dark (ho-ho) from a city block away. I couldn’t forget something that weird.
For the millionth time: “Wouldn’t it be wild to go down there?”
And me, on cue and by rote, “Yeah. But we’re not.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kathe Koja writes novels and short fiction, and creates and produces immersive fiction performances, both solo and with a rotating ensemble of artists. Her work crosses and combines genres, and her books have won awards, been multiply translated, and optioned for film and performance. She is based in Detroit and thinks globally. She can be found at kathekoja.com.
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