REVIEW: The Cipher by Kathe Koja

Unlike a lot of people who write about horror, I will admit that I am not that widely read within the genre. I may have read a load of Stephen King novels as a teenager but I would say that my love of horror comes primarily from the artier end of cinema than literature.

When I decided to start reading horror novels as inspiration for my regular game, I went to a handful of big book-related websites and had a look at their semi-regular posts of books that the publishing industry expects us to get excited about. Based upon these recommendations, I made a few purchases and immediately remembered why I don’t often read books by people who write predominantly for children. There’s nothing wrong with writing books for kids, I just don’t happen to be one of them. Having read and been disappointed by two such novels, I decided to seek out something a bit more… edgy and I am so glad that I did.

Kathe Koja’s The Cipher was first published around the time when the market for horror novels was beginning to collapse. According to some, the imprint that carried Koja’s debut was ordered to break the rules and look further afield in an attempt to rebuild the genre’s credibility in a bid to prevent the genre from being washed away in the torrent of shit that was the horror paperback explosion of the 1980s. While The Cipher may not have been enough to keep the roof from crashing in, it was and still is considered to be a stone cold classic.

Something you tend not to see very much nowadays are genre stories set amongst the homeless. Back in the 80s and 90s, you would often encounter stories about people living on the margins of society and having that marginality manifest itself as a set of magical powers that helped people to survive a brutal existence set amidst decaying institutions and rotted out buildings. As with all tropes, these stories tended to manifest themselves along a tonal continuum between two extremes: Towards one end of the spectrum you have the relatively benign urban fairy tale of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the nihilistic violence of video games like Manhunt and Condemned.

Though nowhere near as violently misanthropic as either of those games, Kathe Koja’s The Cipher is definitely closer to that end of the spectrum than it is to stories like Neverwhere. Set in a city that could be anywhere but which is most likely New York, The Cipher opens on a couple that are walking the boundary between friends and lovers. On one side of the boundary is Nicholas, a video store clerk of little skill or renown. On the other side of the boundary is Nakota, a bar-tender who is just a little bit too cool and a little bit too crazy for Nicholas to cope with. At first, it seems as though the only thing binding the pair together is Nicholas’ sad-sack thirstiness. Then it turns out that there’s something else. It turns out that girls only want one thing and it’s disgusting…

A closet in Nicholas’ apartment building contains a sucking void. Nobody knows what the void is, where it leads, or where it comes from. They only know that it is called the funhole. Nakota is absolutely obsessed with the funhole and while she doesn’t seem that interested in Nicholas, her interest in the funhole is enough to put her in a position where she is effectively begging to get into his hole.

At first, Nicholas is mildly annoyed by Nakota’s obsession but he gets scared when she starts experimenting by lowering things into it. Suddenly, insects are growing extra heads, bars of metal are bursting into flame, and camcorders are recording weirdly hypnotic footage. At some point, Nicholas’ hand slips into the funhole and he develops a kind of weeping sore in the middle of his palm. The more time goes by, the more the sore grows. The more the sore grows, the more it seems to place him in contact with the funhole.

What happens next initially put me in mind of the lifecycle of artistic scenes. All artistic scenes are born of particular cultural moments, those moments inspire an aesthetic wellspring and when people with similar aesthetics start to discover and respond to each other you get a scene. All scenes have the potential to change the world but most of them seem to progress through a series of predictable stages whereby scenes become movements, movements become hierarchies and hierarchies either cross-over into the mainstream or tear themselves apart. Under this reading, the funhole is a source of inspiration and the circle that Nakota assembles around the funhole is the beginning of a scene.

The idea that artistic scenes might have fixed lifecycles can be explored using that article by Venkatesh Rao about how the sitcom The Office explains the lifecycle of human institutions. According to Rao, institutions start to decline because sociopaths rise to the top and sociopaths tend to lead either by recruiting clueless idiots or turning useful losers into sociopaths. In Rao’s mind, institutions need sociopaths to lead and losers to follow but they don’t need clueless people who only serve to gum up the works. Unfortunately, while institutions may not benefit from the presence of clueless people, sociopaths do as clueless people can be used as cannon fodder for internal battles. Given enough time, sociopaths will recruit so many clueless people that the institution will cease to function at which point the sociopaths all walk away.

If we accept Rao’s analysis then Nakota is most definitely a sociopath in that she spends all of her time sucking artists, academics, and random strangers into the orbit of the funhole for no apparent reason other than to either boss them around or gatekeep access to the funhole. Unfortunately for Nakota, while she may be the one building the community surrounding the funhole, the funhole itself appears to respond only to Nicholas and Nicholas has no interest in any of this weirdo bullshit.

To grasp The Cipher is to wrestle with a very specific vibe, a vibe that flows directly from Koja’s style of writing. The book is written in a very close first person. It’s so close that while we do have access to Nicholas’ thoughts and feelings, our attention is frequently dragged hither and yon by the tidal forces of his moods.

Sometimes Nicholas feels isolated and reflective, at which point we get a clear idea of what is going on around him. Other times, Nicholas is drunk or in pain and the world becomes a blur. Sometimes those tidal forces are so strong that they will drag our attention away mid-sentence resulting in lines of dialogue being interrupted by paragraphs of only tangentially relevant descriptive text. As readers, we are forever behind the times. Struggling to keep up as things change and different people suddenly turn up. We flip back and forth between pages to remind ourselves of who people are and what Nicholas was saying when he first started talking.

Line by line and sentence by sentence, The Cipher is like a tumour eating away at our brains. The book drenches us in fear and anger that comes from seemingly nowhere. It’s like a panic attack born of a mescaline overdose. It’s like getting septicaemia from sucking on the shards of a busted up bong.

Chapter by chapter, the story that emerges is not so much about an artistic scene as it is a story about the birth of a religion, one modelled on Christianity but born of the time and place in which the novel is set. Under this reading, Nicholas is an uncooperative Christ who wears the stigmata-like scars of his collision with the divine while Nakota, serves as a hostile punk rock John the Baptist who runs around trying to recruit followers and build some sort of cult only for Nicholas to refuse to play ball at every possible turn.

This sense of Nakota serving as both an organiser and an interpreter becomes particularly clear towards the end of the novel when Nicholas withdraws from the world, forcing Nakota to try and keep things together based solely on Nicholas’ muffled voice and screams of pain.

The Cipher is one of those novels that reminds you of how literature should function. In an ideal world, books would serve as conduits for the ideas and emotional vistas created by the author. Because our ability to understand culture comes from a process of education and engagement with culture, certain strategies come to be favoured by the marketplace and simply by habit. Not all stories have to tell the hero’s journey but the more that strategy gets deployed, the more people get used to its presence and the more other conduits start to fade into the background through neglect.

The fact that certain narrative structures have managed to wear themselves into the landscape is particularly evident in horror cinema where stories of teenagers going on holiday, discovering evil, and then confronting evil seem to make up a good 60-70% of the market.

The Cipher is a fascinating novel as while it evokes feelings of dread, anxiety, queasiness, and fear, it does so with an intensely singular set of narrative techniques. The feelings you get from good horror are all there, but the story and the characters that take you there are fundamentally different. That difference is why The Cipher remains a classic.

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