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 Funhole.
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 Cipher. 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 annus horribilis. 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