Review: The Cipher by Kathe Koja

Nicholas, a video store clerk and would be poet, and his quasi-lover Nakota, waitress/artist find a mysterious hole in an abandoned storage room. The hole seems to be bottomless and made of pure darkness. The slacker couple begin to drop things down the hole, which spits them back up, beautifully and terrifyingly altered.  Nakota, a ruthless seeker of mystical experience, drops a video camera down the hole, and films what is in there. Nicholas is slightly less gung-ho about the obviously paranormal phenomenon, but ends up having a rather personal and symbiotic relationship with the void, which they dub The Funhole.


This novel is an exemplar of what I’d call Existential Horror fiction. While there are supernatural things that go in the novel, they highlight the anomie and isolation that goes on in Nicholas’ rapidly deteriorating mental state.  The horror also comes from the demimonde Koja evokes—that of bored artists trying to push the envelope, and the characters, particularly Nakota. The unclean, perverted energy of the Funhole—which at times is described as a mouth or an anus—and the graphic body horror is leavened by Nicholas’ mordant sense of humor. He narrates the tale in an associative stream-of-conscious style full of wry asides. Images of decay, and industrial rot and wounds flow through the hallucinatory prose. You can smell and taste the bizarre odors that issue from the Funhole. A friend of mine read the book 20 years ago, and said that it was one of the few books that made him feel ‘unclean’ after reading it.

Roadswell Press

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