Book review: The Cipher

The Cipher.The Cipher by Kathe Koja.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

So it’s only taken me about thirty years to read any Koja, and Current Me is somewhat annoyed at Past Me. I’ve no idea how I missed this novel on its first publication, as it certainly scratches the itch for the bizarre that Past Me would have been Well Into, what with all the human transformation and grimy locale and vaguely religious groupings shrouded in pisstaking and gore.

“When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade.” Well, life had given me shit, and I was making a compost heap. Or more succinctly, life had given me a Funhole, and I was making a grave.

Past Me is an idiot, plainly, especially given the number of awards The Cipher has won. (The Locus Award for Best First Novel and the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Horror Novel seem to be a fairly good indicator of quality, let’s face it.)

The Cipher is a fly-on-the-wall story about a guy who discovers a hole in the world, and his on-again/off-again partner – the detestable Nakota – who wants to explore it. What this exploration results in ends up in some bodily changes that wouldn’t be out of place in Cronenberg’s work. Indeed, the mutability of human flesh, and the disgust one can conjure for one’s own form is a big concern in the text, when it’s not busy pissing on art pseuds from a great height.

Everyone in this work is a marginal character: trotting along the outside of life whether it’s due to working in shit-job dive bars, or because they make art that the sheeple can’t understand. There’s a liminal urge running through some of the people here; a sense of transformation, either underway or anticipated. Partially, this is down to the grim, junkie-adjacent wastrel setting: it’s so fucking grim that it’s unsurprising that some people would seek a way out via transmogrifying hole.

What a melodramatic asshole I was turning out to be.

Though you’d be right to acknowledge the copious gross-out moments in the novel, it’d be remiss to think this was the only trick in Koja’a bag. The horror of other people is just as much a feature as that of the body or the inhuman. Throughout, Koja creates careful portraits of people – odious as they might be – to explore how obsession and the desire to be part of something changes how they act. There’s only one character for whom the reader can muster much sympathy – maybe two, tops – but everyone else climbs over their compatriots, either out of a desire for solidarity or supremacy. The readiness of people to believe in something – even something abhorrent – is something that plays on the mind almost as much as dripping gore. (There’s also a fair amount of rumination on weaponised fucking, too.)

Koja’s writing would seem to be a neat fit with the Splatterpunk movement. Certainly, there’s a bit of a whiff of Clive Barker in The Cipher, as the story is redolent of the scent of compulsive scab-picking that informs The Hellbound Heart, say. The viscera are not quite as exposed here as in other writers, but the exploration of pain and fleshy transgression are just as important to Koja, whose prose sometimes drops the support of traditional sentence structure in order to convey the breathless wonder of inexplicable horror.

More importantly, I didn’t find The Cipher wearying in the same way I do some other splatterpunk. Seen one spine, seen ’em all, right? For Koja, the squick isn’t the end point; it’s all in the service of something other than grossing out the reader, which sometimes seems a rarity in horror.

Something about The Cipher stuck in my mind and refuses to dislodge, a couple of weeks later. I suspect I’ll be examining the rest of Koja’s work sooner rather than later.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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