The Cipher by Kathe Koja

2021 marks the 30th birthday of Kathe Koja’s horror novel The Cipher. My edition has an author’s note in which Koja explains that the original title was The Funhole, which would have made more sense. You see, “the Funhole” is literally a hole, a black circular space found in the storage room of an apartment building where Nicholas lives. The hole is blackest black and definitely alive, leaving one question: what’s down there?

Nicholas and his toxic lover, Nakota, can actually smell the Funhole. Sometimes it entices, like baking bread, and other visits are cut short because they’re throwing up due to the rank stink. While Nicholas is drawn to the Funhole but wants to leave it alone, Nakota is obsessed, giving the black hole the nickname and designing experiments to see what’s below. She leaves a jar of bugs near the Funhole, which get chewed up and merged together to make two-headed insects. She lowers a mouse on a string, which explodes.

Then she gets an idea: what if they put a camera down the Funhole? The novel was published in 1991, so getting a camera isn’t as easy as sacrificing your cell phone. Nicholas works at a video store and has to secret out a hand-held camcorder (they used to loan these!) to keep Nakota happy. The video that comes up is horrifying, confusing, and completely addicting. Followers of the Funhole start to occupy the apartment, and though Nicholas wants to avoid the crowds and curl up alone, it seems the Funhole only exists when he’s around.

Koja delivers a horror grunge novel that reads more as an internal psychological thriller than the total terror you might expect of horror published in the 1980s and 1990s. Nicholas lives in squalor, never caring if there’s food or gas in the car; he’s got just enough to draw Nakota to him, the one person from whom he seeks love. She gives him affection just often enough to string him along, so the result is two characters you hate. Nakota is despicable, and he’s more like an apathetic Gen Xer who won’t ditch her because, “I can take a hint, but I can’t live with it.”

The Cipher, oddly, is a slow-moving book. Much is made of the fact that Nicholas and Nakota were messing around the Funhole when he trips and down goes his arm. Later, the submerged hand grows its own black hole, one that seeps like an infection, and later oozes other material — whatever it’s near, if I understand correctly. We’re also talking about a main character who drinks too much, is often freezing in an unheated apartment, and does he eat? His vitamin levels must be awful. There’s a vibe of SLC Punk meets American Psycho, messed up characters and living in squalor. Without a connection to society, Nicholas’s life seems slowed down to individual moments with a gross hand.

Creeping along in psychological torment, it sometimes feels like not much is happening. The Funhole is supposed to be a secret, or so Nicholas assumed, but Nakota shows the tape to her friend and his girlfriend, and later Nicholas tries to one-up a pretentious performance artist named Malcolm by showing him the tape. Malcolm arrives with a crew of groupies, who are like loyal, obsessed undergrads. But when Nakota can’t sway the groupies and Nicholas wins them over from Malcolm’s influence, Nakota finds other underlings to boss around, and the plot is filled to the brim with random bodies all worshiping the Funhole. At times, I just wanted something to happen with the Funhole instead of the characters, but I suppose I’m missing the point: it’s the people that are terrifying, not the black hole in the closet.

Finally, near the end of this 300+ page novel, Nicholas locks himself into the storage room with the Funhole, and it seems the door to the room can no longer be opened. Art pieces left in the room by the Funhole followers come to life, and when Nicholas puts his wounded hand back in the Funhole, he describes the sensation:

. . . my hand was squeezed, squeezed like caught in machinery, and I screamed, oh did I scream, my broken fractured finger bent and twisted and my other lesser bones twirled and blended in my flesh, and I thought as I screamed. This is what the bugs must have felt . . .

And the ending? I was both pleased and bummed. It made sense in the context, but I wanted more Clive Barker and less Lord of the Flies. Though I was entertained by The Cipher, I wish it were shorter and found myself thinking, “hurry up and do something horrifying with the hole!” more often than I care to admit.

15 comments

  1. Even though this book is definitely a very strong “nope” for me, one of the things that I find interesting about horror as a genre (from a distance) is the way authors explore what’s actually scary about life – like you say, that it’s people rather than things that can be terrifying.

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    • I’m not sure who was scarier, the “girlfriend” who lives like a feral animal, or the art groupies who do whatever they’re told based on whoever is the most popular artist.

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  2. That is easily the weirdest plot synopsis I’ve ever come across. Weirder than The Naked Lunch. I’m tempted to read it, though as you say, the action you describe doesn’t seem enough to justify 300 pages.

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    • When I finished reading The Cipher, I remember thinking, “The one person I’d recommend this to without too much hesitation would be Bill.” Namely, that 90s grunge aesthetic, which you’ve mentioned you like in Australian writers. Perhaps you would see the book as more cerebral, likely how I was supposed to read it, and less “why don’t they DO something,” as I approached it.

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  3. There are a lot of reasons that I will probably never read this but one of them is that it really stresses me out when characters make poor decision after poor decision and I’m left wondering why they won’t just eat a few vegetables!!

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  4. Perhaps this is just my husband’s influence, whose mind is always in the gutter, but I can’t help but think of something else when the word ‘funhole’ keeps being repeated! LOLOL

    Was this made into a movie? Because if not, it totally should have been! I love the premise of this scary black hole, it’s great.

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