There’s nothing at the center of Kathe Koja’s novel The Cipher. Even less than nothing—a
kind of black hole that has opened up spontaneously in the floor of a neglected second
story storage room in Nicholas’s down-and-out apartment building.

It’s hard to describe, because there isn’t much to describe. “Black. Not darkness, not
the absence of light but living black. Maybe a foot in diameter, maybe a little more. Pure
black and the sense of pulsation, especially when
you look at it too closely, the sense of something
not living but alive, not even something but some
—process.” Here, amidst the tools, containers and
clutter of the storage room, a pathway to an
alternative universe has opened up, and no one
has noticed.

Only Nicholas and his cantankerous sometime-
girlfriend Nakota are aware of this apparent warp
in the space-time continuum, and they aren't
telling anyone what they have found. At first, they
treat the black hole as little more than a joke, even
assign cute or scatological names to the looming
void. Others might consult Stephen Hawking for a
professional verdict, but for Nicholas and Nakota,
it is just their private

They aren't scientists. Nicholas works in a video
store, and is an aspiring poet who no longer aspires.
Nakota is a cocktail waitress who is too rude and
raggedy to work at anything more than the lowest dives. But even losers are curious,
and eventually Nakota decides to conduct “experiments” to determine the properties
and contents of their beguiling Funhole.

First she exposes a jar of insects to the black hole, and then moves on to a captive mouse.
None of these creatures returns unscathed from their journey, but instead suffer strange
mutations, akin to what you might find after a few core meltdowns and several generations
of genetic anarchy.

Nicholas is frightened by the strange powers of the Funhole, but Nakota is obsessed with
discovering what goes on inside its abyss.  Her next experiment involves sending a
camcorder into its dark inside to capture video footage. The resulting film is strangely
mesmerizing—Koja anticipates “The Entertainment,” the fatally addictive videotape that
plays a key role in David Foster Wallace’s
Infinite Jest, published five years after The
. A vaguely-defined, but ominous figure shows up in the Funhole video, but
many details of the film change with repeated viewings.  Yet no matter what the audience
sees, the experience of watching the video turns into a compulsive ritual for those exposed
to it.

Nakota wants to push onward with their exploration of
the Funhole. Nicholas is reluctant, but he becomes an
unwilling part of the mystery after a storage room mishap
leads him to place his right arm into its abyss. After
retrieving his limb, he notices a small wound in the
palm of his hand. Over time, the wound grows, and—
horror of horror!—begins to take on the appearance of
mini-Funhole, now a kind of permanent stigmata on
Nicholas’s body.

At this juncture in the novel—some seventy pages into
The Cipher—Koja shifts gears. Readers are expecting a
descent into the Funhole. Just as Alice tumbled into the
rabbit hole, and Jules Verne took his characters down
to the center of the Earth, we anticipate that Nicholas
and Nakota will make the inevitable leap into their black
void. Recall that science fiction and fantasy tales evolved
out of travel literature. So what genre author would build
a novel around a mysterious hole, and never make the plunge?

But Koja is not your typical genre writer. Perhaps you could tell that just by glancing at
her bio, which notes that she previously worked as a "bonsai lumberjack, an oyster cowboy,
and a freelance criminologist." But readers also discover her idiosyncrasies via the defining
themes of her stories, which deviate markedly from the staples of genre fiction. In the
course of
The Cipher, we gradually discover that her main concern is less with the Funhole
and more with the people drawn into its orbit.  She has no interest in emulating Stephen
Hawking, and serving up a theoretical explanation of the mystery she posits, and is
equally unwilling to emulate Jules Verne and give us a guided tour of the unknown.
Instead, she adopts the modus operandi of a psychological investigator, deeply attuned
to the ways different individuals react to transcendent experiences.   

"My characters are generally people who are driven and obsessed in some way, and
comfortable at extremes—of behavior, of emotion, of belief—that would make most
people uneasy," Koja has explained. She sees a connection between this tendency and
her own spiritual quest—which started out under the auspices of the Catholic faith, then
led to a separation from the Church, and finally a return to religious belief.  "One of the
great advantages of being born a Catholic— at least for me—is a hands-on, matter-of-fact
acceptance of mystery," Koja has commented, "of the limbo district where the corporeal
intersects with the Divine." This manifests itself, again and again in her works, as an
intense focus on, in her words, "transformation, or more properly transcendence: when
we will to be more than we are, what do we do?"

Readers with more than a passing acquaintance with theology will also grasp the
rigorously medieval essence of the horror at the heart of
The Cipher. The prevailing
moral philosophy of Aquinas and Dante denied any reality to evil. Evil possesses no
positive qualities, according to this worldview—it is merely a
negation of the good. That's
why the inhabitants of the lowest reaches of Dante’s hell are frozen into inaction. As
you approach the epitome of evil, its essential passivity turns into its sole defining trait.

Koja has found the perfect way of applying this line of thinking to a contemporary horror
story. If evil, by definition, collapses into a nullity, its most terrifying manifestation must
be some kind of black hole. From this perspective, Koja’s refusal to delineate the inner
workings of her Funhole reflects neither coyness nor a lack of imagination, but rather a
strict adherence to principle.

Nicholas eventually becomes the unwitting instrument of the Funhole. He attracts
the curiosity, and eventually the rapt devotion, of a group of artists and bohemians.
For those at the cutting edge of culture, out to find the next new thing, Nicholas and
his black hole are as avant-garde as it gets. Randy, a tow-truck driver who dabbles in
sculpture, wants to see what the Funhole can do for his art. Malcolm, a cynical visual
artist, also wants to tap into the eerie energy coming from the hole, and increasingly
from Nicholas himself. Other hangers-on and disciples-in-search-of-a-guru join the
growing crowd in the storage room. It seems only a matter of time before police, and
maybe even the military, decide to check out the scene.

The pacing of this book slows down considerably after the first hundred pages, and
normally that would spell doom and gloom for a genre book. But Koja compensates
through the sheer zest and energy of her prose. As the narrative shifts to Nicholas's
internal monologue on the pros and cons of his Funhole-centric life, and his morphing
physiology, Koja turns increasingly to stream-of-consciousness techniques. She relies
heavily on meandering sentences, sentence fragments, eccentric punctuation,
and paragraphs that collapse before reaching closure. She mixes in puns, jokes,
allusions, barbs, philosophical asides, and in general convinces the reader that our
inept hero Nicholas may have failed in his calling as poet, but still has a way with words
as narrator of his personal horror story.

The Cipher stirred up a lot of attention, launching Kathe Koja’s career as a novelist,
and winning a host of awards. The book was honored with the Horror Writers
Association's Bram Stoker Award as best debut novel. It got nominated for a Philip K.
Dick Award and won a Locus Award. It frequently shows up on lists of outstanding
horror fiction.  Yet I note, with some astonishment, that it is out-of-print, except in
e-book format. It took me some effort, and expense, to find a beat-up secondhand
paperback copy. Some smart publisher ought to rectify this, and put this stellar work
back in print. It is really too good to fall into some black hole.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.

Publication Date: October 30, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Week 35
King Kong
by Edgar Wallace

Week 36
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole

Week 37
The John Silence Stories
by Algernon Blackwood

Week 38
The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

Week 39
The Other
by Thomas Tryon

Week 40
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

Week 41
Ghost Story
by Peter Straub

Week 42
John Dies at the End
by David Wong

Week 43
The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

Week 44
The Cipher
by Kathe Koja
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

The Horror of Absolutely Nothing

Revisiting Kathe Koja's Out-of-Print Classic The Cipher
Essay by Ted Gioia
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.

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Kathe Koja