The Cipher

The Cipher - Kathe Koja

The Basics


Nicholas and Nakota have found a hole in the storage room of Nicholas’s apartment building. It’s far from normal, holds some mysterious power, and compels them to play with fire again and again. Unluckily for Nicholas, Nakota is just the sort of person that could become entirely obsessed with the “Funhole”, as they’ve dubbed it. And he’s just the sort of guy who could become a pawn in a very complicated and existential game.


My Thoughts


Horror is rarely poetry. A lot of authors who try to be scary don’t see a need to do it beautifully, but Kathe Koja obviously does. Moreover they often don’t even reach scary, but Kathe Koja does that, too. This book is physical and metaphysical in its terror. It invites you in, sits you down, and proceeds to tear off layer after layer of safety until you feel as exposed as Nicholas does. And she keeps going until she determinedly finds something that will unnerve, and she will.


This book doesn’t have likeable characters really. Even the likeable ones are clearly flawed. The situation escalates in ways that reek of human nature, and even with this cosmic horror staring you in the face, it winds up feeling depressingly real, because it expresses a great deal about the worst in people. Everything from the mundane things thoughtless people do that are irritating and insulting, all the way up to mob mentality. None of this is a criticism, as these are some of the novel’s greatest strengths, shedding light on dark places and forcing you to look.


The poetry of Koja’s words is really astounding. I don’t think I’ve ever read prose quite like this. It’s half fever dream, half free verse poem. It reads like a nightmare, to the point that I struggled to write “The Basics”. That’s not to say it’s incomprehensible. It doesn’t suffer from that at all. Nor does it feel pretentious, like other works that aspire to such heights might. It is one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read, dancing hand-in-hand with Kafka and giving the finger to convention and banality. It’s making me use words that cost at least ten dollars, and shouldn’t that be recommendation enough?


Final Rating


5/5 Stars