Book Recommendation: The Cipher by Kathe Koja

About the Book

We're starting off with an older one, folks. I set off to find some good-ole-horror from a few fellow females and this one came highly recommended. Kathe Koja is an American writer who debuted in 1991 with her novel novel, The Cipher, which won both a Bram Stoker and a Locus award. 

It's a first person, mild body horror romp into the gritty underbelly of the human condition. Our protagonist, Nicholas, is a ripe fucking mess who can't seem to shake himself free of his beautifully sociopathic ex-girlfriend. Together, they find a hole, aptly dubbed "the funhole" in a largely unused storage room in his apartment building and creepy shenanigans ensue.

What I Liked

The premise is familiar but exciting. In horror, completely unseen plots are hard to find and this one does a good job of bringing something new to the table. Similar plots have us traveling back and forth between the worlds but from the start, this happy funhole makes it damn clear that a leap of faith isn't to be taken lightly. In part, the funhole acts as another character, in both the life it's given by Koja's writing and the sway it has over the characters.

My favorite thing about this book is the way it was written. In my opinion, first person POV's really need to be done well in order to retain a suspension of disbelief. It's a little hard for me to wonder if the protagonist dies if they're writing in past tense. First person/present tense makes me wanna go punch the author though, as so few of them read as anything other than shitty to-do lists. This one, in past tense, was unlike anything I'd read before. Most First Person POV's either completely ignore the protagonists reason for writing their life story, or try to be all sly in convincing you that you really don't know what to expect even if you think you do... I'm looking at you, Odd Thomas. The Cipher makes way more sense as it reads as a stream of consciousness. I felt like someone just plugged me into this dude's head and let the story fly. It's insanely immersive. By the end, I felt like I needed a shower and some antibiotics. Which brings me to...

What I'm Not Sure if I Liked

Now usually I'm not on the fence about my opinions. This one, though, left me wondering whether I was disturbed by this next bit, or truly didn't like it. It's the characters. I didn't like these people... any of them. Nicholas just mills through life being miserable and the only characters with any redeeming qualities sit so far on the periphery of the novel that you see little of them. Nakota, the ex-girlfriend, is apathetic enough to dislike but not menacing enough to hate. Most of the party's interlopers end up being so pathetic that I found myself wishing they'd never shown up in the first place. They had a plot to progress, though, which felt cheap to me.

Now that all sounds like I should have a concrete opinion but maybe that was Koja's plan. See, these people are train-wrecks and everybody loves a grizzly train-wreck. More than once, I felt like these folks should have their own reality TV program watched by millions of people who need to be reminded that they really do have their shit together after all. So did I identify with any of the characters... not at all. Did I get some sick enjoyment out of imagining them stumble through Koja's twisted little funhouse... you-betcha. 

Final Thoughts

If you've always wanted to insert yourself into the mind of your trashy neighbor while he gets peer-pressured into continuously fucking himself up, despite knowing that almost every decision he makes is a bad one, The Cipher should be the next book you pick up. While it won't make my top-ten list, I did enjoy the read. I give it four bloody footprints, though I think one of them sprouted insect wings.