THE CIPHER by Kathe Koja
RELEASE DATE: 9/15/20
GENRE: Horror / Dark Fantasy
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.
Kathe Koja writes like an artist. Her pen is a paint brush and she paints this beautiful and terrifying visual for us. Part of the reason I am such a fan of this novel is the writing. I’ve never read anything quite like this, and I am looking forward to more from this author.
This is one of those novels where you’re not given all the answers. It is something you’re meant to sit and think about after finishing. Some people are not fans of this style, but when done right, I think it is very effective. The Cipher was done right. I am still thinking about it. What I think it all meant matters little to this review, but just prepare yourself to think when you go into this.
I am thoroughly impressed. Beautiful, mesmerizing writing and a premise that is uncomfortable and thought-provoking. I definitely think you should give this a shot.
*I received a free copy of this book from Meerkat Press in exchange for an honest review on the blog tour. All opinions are my own and unbiased.*
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.”
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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