Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The Cipher by Kathe Koja


Clerks but make it body horror, THE CIPHER is the story of two 90s slackers living on the edge of counterculture, working the grind as they struggle for their art on the fringe. Nicholas and Nakota have discovered a black hole in the basement of Nicholas's apartment. They call it the funhole and worship it like some twisted altar god. But it's not enough that it merely occupies their thoughts: first they put a jar of bugs into the funhole, then a mouse, and then a corpse hand. After that, it's only a matter of time before something larger goes down there, too.

None of these characters are likable but they are the vehicles that propel the plot. The toxic relationship between them, and the way their drug fugues propel the surreal horror of the funhole and its physical improbabilities ends up becoming the worst kind of biofeedback loop. Also, Nicholas and Nikota are ex-lovers, and the dynamic between them is toxic and abusive. Nikota isn't above using insults and hurtful words or even sex as leverage to feed into what she wants: exploration of the funhole and all of its mysteries. And the fact that the hole seems to "prefer" Nicholas ends up fueling her hatred and her madness.

The writing style of this book took a while to get used to but I did end up liking it. It's greasy, sleazy, and gross, but in a way that feels poetic rather than exploitative. I liked the comparisons some people made to Poppy Z. Brite. I think Tanith Lee is another similar author in terms of style choices. How you feel about this book is going to depend on your tolerance for body horror and unlikable characters. The ending is inevitable but not particularly happy. Perhaps there's a funhole inside all of us, just waiting to be unlocked...

3 out of 5 stars

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