The Cipher

April 19, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

cipherThe Cipher by Kathe Koja


For me, Dell/Abyss defines what horror was in the early 1990s. Stephen King blurbed the entire line, and the publisher swore the books would be cutting-edge. They could have done no better than to start with The Cipher, Koja’s first novel, featuring outcast characters and surrealistic imagery and horror.

This is a re-read for me, and I went into it with some trepidation. I remembered the book as being avant garde, Koja’s style unorthodox and confusing. It definitely remains avant garde, even twenty-plus years later, but Koja’s style was more straightforward than I recalled. She definitely breaks some grammatical rules, but not in such a way as to interrupt the flow of the story. I just found it odd that I remembered something far more unusual.

Part of it, I think, is the content of the story. Koja’s main characters, Nakota and Nicholas, aren’t likeable; Nakota is a bully, and Nicholas has no motivation. The story, though, hums along with a high level of interest when they discover a hole in their apartment building, which leads into another dimension. Koja avoids the usual tropes this would present for a science fiction story, and instead focuses on the lengths the characters go to discover more about the hole’s effects. Nakota’s interests are dark and perverse, so her obsession with the hole is in how it deforms reality, and since Nicholas is obsessed with Nakota, he follows in her interest. This is where the horror enters, since the imagery and theme do more to mess with our heads than the actual progression of the story.

The story, for all its darkness, is about the search for meaning. Nakota looks for it through the hole, and Nicholas looks for it through Nakota. This microcosm is affected by the hole, and as this relationship grows more complicated, so do the effects of the hole, and their search for meaning becomes more important. It’s hard to say whether or not they find it, but the story doesn’t feel incomplete as a result. I give it 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 because it was so far ahead of its time.

The Cipher could easily be a part of the modern new horror, with its surrealism and nihilism. Koja definitely started, or was part of, that revolution, and she tells an effective tale here. It’s hard to recommend it because it comes at the reader so strongly, but folks who like stories about characters on the fringe of society would find a lot to like here. At the very least, it’s affirmed my decision to read through all of the Abyss books to see how they hold up so many years later.

Started: January 31, 2018
Finished: February 3, 2018

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