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The Cipher

3.45  ·  Rating Details ·  1,756 Ratings  ·  214 Reviews
Nicholas is a would-be poet and video-store clerk with a weeping hole in his hand - weeping not blood, but a plasma of tears...

It began with Nakota and her crooked grin. She had to see the dark hole in the storage room down the hall. She had to make love to Nicholas beside it, and stare into its secretive, promising depths. Then Nakota began her experiments: First, she put
Paperback, First Edition, 356 pages
Published January 5th 1991 by Dell
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Reader Q&A

The Shining by Stephen KingIt by Stephen King'Salem's Lot by Stephen KingDracula by Bram StokerPet Sematary by Stephen King
Best Horror Novels
259th out of 1,427 books — 4,368 voters
It Lives in The Basement by Sahara FoleyENJOY ME by Logan Ryan SmithMy Eyes Are Black Holes by Logan Ryan SmithDead by Morning by Kayla KrantzThe Cipher by Kathe Koja
Obscure Horror/Dark Fiction
5th out of 31 books — 34 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Will Errickson
Mar 11, 2012 Will Errickson rated it it was amazing
Truly one of my favorite horror novels of all time. I was fortunate enough to buy it around the time it came out, when I was hungry for horror fiction far removed from the bestseller likes of King, Saul, Koontz, etc. And with THE CIPHER I got it! Koja's clipped, unpolished, impressionistic prose evokes avant-garde icons like William S. Burroughs or J.G. Ballard, and sets a jittery, jagged tone of bleakness and rot. I sort of identified with the insular characters and their existential plight (wh ...more
Melissa Helwig
Mar 09, 2010 Melissa Helwig rated it really liked it
Shelves: horror
Nicholas and his lover, Nakota, discover a black-hole-like thing, which they name "The Funhole," in his apartment building's storage closet. They are so fascinated by it that they perform experiments to see what the Funhole will do. First they put a jar of insects next to it, then they dangle a mouse over it and they eventually lower a video camera down. The video makes Nakota obsessive and she almost dives into the Funhole, being saved by Nicholas who inadvertently plunges his hand into the hol ...more
Feb 19, 2013 Robert rated it liked it
An arty, punk rock, existentialist sort of horror tale, with a pretty good-sized cult following. It’s recently been republished in an e-book version, which is pretty impressive for a lowly paperback original from the early 90’s. Kathe Koja is a talented writer and The Cipher is a unique, impressive debut. Koja conjures up a believable milieu of under-achieving, alcohol-soaked thirty-something losers and deluded artists, with the “fun couple” protagonists, weak-willed Nicholas and his über-bitch ...more
When Nicholas and Nakota discover an inexplicable, endless hole which they christen the Funhole, they're both drawn to it. Nakota experiments with the hole's otherworldy transformative properties, but it's Nicholas who finds himself transformed by the Funhole. The Cipher is, at its heart, a simple book—but it sells itself on boldness. The premise is straightforward, but so outlandish that it immediately intrigues; the plot is sparse, but its simplicity allows the book to focus on the bizarre Fun ...more
Holly Rusak
Nov 20, 2011 Holly Rusak rated it really liked it
I mercilessly hunted down this book after mentioned it. I finally bought it from the author. All that effort propelled me to keep reading after I was turned off by the first few pages. Half-way through the first chapter, I couldn't put it down. I read a little more than half on the few hours before bed, and finished it up the same way the next night.

The tone was off putting at first, and I hardly consider myself a prude. I think I just had a hard time connecting with the narrator and hi
Jan 06, 2015 Leslee rated it liked it
This novel was written almost 20 years ago, at the height of the horror resurgence and was part of the 'Dell Abyss' line of books that was supposed to bring horror back to the mainstream - Stephen King even gave his praise for this line of books, and Kathe Koja won the Bram Stoker for best newcomer for this entry.

I have a love/hate relationship with splatterpunk. I do like gore, but I don't like gore and grossouts just for the sake of being 'subversive'. Take Edward Lee for instance. I can take
Charles Dee Mitchell
Apr 11, 2012 Charles Dee Mitchell rated it really liked it
Shelves: horror
Just about everyone has known at least one guy who always hooked up with crazy girlfriends. In that same vein, who hasn't known girls whose boyfriends were invariably losers. Nicholas and Nakota, the central characters in The Cipher, are made for each other. Both are college-educated underachievers. Nicholas works in a video store and only writes poetry when he is drunk, which is often. Nakota, also known as Shrike and whose real name is something like Diane, is manipulative and just downright m ...more
Andy Smith
Jul 23, 2012 Andy Smith rated it it was ok
I found this a little bit difficult to read, though I made fairly fast progress with it anyway. I think it's because the punctuation is a bit odd, almost like a stream of consciousness in places. I found the initial idea and characterisations great; grotesque, thoroughly unlikeable people yet complex and believable.

However, I felt the story never really went anywhere. By the end I was left disappointed and wanting so much more.
Christopher Ruz
Jan 14, 2013 Christopher Ruz rated it it was amazing
What is the funhole? A portal into another world, a fold in reality, or as Nicholas always puts it, a process? An equation of maths and biology and physics that takes whatever is inserted and gives a good, hard twist?

The Cipher is a horror novel, but also a novel of human frailty like Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, and also a mystery that reminded me strongly of Murakami's Dance Dance Dance. It's an unrelentingly bleak tale of what happens to two young semi-destitutes (Nicholas and Nakota) after
Aug 21, 2012 Adam rated it it was ok

The Cipher has a unique premise, but Koja's approach to the story was stiflingly cerebral and failed to provide dramatic payoffs. The narrator is a cynical, neurotic former poet. Koja captures his voice, but he was not a character I cared to spend time with. Too often the narrative derails due to one of the narrator's many digressions, and while the story has a number of nightmarish surprises, I was skimming by the last chapter.
Oct 17, 2016 Jim rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This was just not the book I wanted it to be. I had read several good reviews on blogs but it turned out to be so opposite everything I was looking for and anticipating. I found the story to be plodding which made it feel like work reading it. In addition to just being boring as hell. Curse my compulsion to finish what I start.
Mar 08, 2013 Lydia rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nook
If I could give this 0 stars, I would. I really didn't like this book. I got about halfway done, and realized that I really didn't care about the characters. My mind wandered a lot while I was reading it, and the way it was written was so difficult to understand. I think the author was trying to make it seem like you were actually in the mind of the main character, so he wrote in a stream of consciousness fashion. It was so irritating. It was like reading facebook status updates of some people. ...more
Dec 16, 2014 Quill rated it it was amazing
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 t
Mar 25, 2013 Tressa rated it liked it
Shelves: horror, 2013
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 31, 2013 Kimberly rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
First person POV has always been a tough sell for me. I have been pleasantly surprised numerous times; sadly, this was not one of them. I felt that the narration had a choppy feel to it. There were only two characters I liked, Nicholas and Randy, neither of whom I felt I really "knew" by the end of the story. The rest of the characters felt inconsequential. The story itself was somewhat intriguing, but I just didn't feel that it went as far as it could have. Overall, this one just wasn't for me.
Jul 21, 2014 Jared rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
That... I... she... is there... can I... what?

There are some horror novels that come at you with gushing innards and discarded limbs, swinging cleavers and pulling triggers and slashing with razor-sharp blades. These can be scary, but they can also fail miserably. There are other horror novels that wait for a while in the shadows, lurking like a mutant reptilian creature in the corners of your awareness, heightening your paranoia with bumps in the night and scratches against the floorboards. T
Paige Ellen Stone
Jun 08, 2013 Paige Ellen Stone rated it it was amazing
I picked this book up for one reason and one reason only: Caitlin R. Kiernan mentioned it in something she wrote. There is no question that Ms Koja now belongs in that subgenre of fantasy/horror which is owned by CRK, in my opinion, but also includes John Shirley, J.A. Konrath, Clive Barker and a few others, specifically, every literate, darkly funny, and yet still scary stuff. This was KK's first book and it shows. It is a bit wordy, but still readable. I could move faster, and given the length ...more
Sep 15, 2013 Thom rated it did not like it
Shelves: fiction
Between the stream-of-consciousness narration, the unlikeable characters and the inevitable ending that took forever to arrive, I just didn't like this book.

The plot is this: Nicholas, a video store clerk finds a mysterious hole in an abandoned storage room. He shows it to Nakota, who wants to explore it - lowering items into it, and eventually a camcorder. She becomes obsessed with the resulting video and he with the hole itself.

The unexplained provides the horror here, but not to society or e
Sep 08, 2016 Mindi rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
So, this was a nasty little dark book of fun.

I really don't want to give too much away, because I think it's always best to go into a book like this knowing as little as possible. I'll just say this...a pair of self destructive, slacker, ex-lovers find a vast, empty hole of nothingness in the basement of their skeazy apartment building. They are both inexplicably drawn to what they jokingly dub the "Funhole", but ultimately...well just imagine the darkest way a story like this could end. Then ma
Oct 18, 2013 Hannah rated it it was ok
I'm not sure how to go about writing a review of this. I made it to 60% before my brain refused to go any further. It just wasn't worth it. The concept of this is so interesting and intriguing...and CREEPY, but the writing style, while, yes, is edgy and artsy, it also tends to be REALLY annoying. And while the plot, as I said, is creepily intriguing, it keeps you hanging on, and in the end, there is no reward. Well, maybe there is. I didn't make it far enough to find out. All I know is I couldn' ...more
Nurse Nightmare
Mar 26, 2014 Nurse Nightmare rated it it was ok
2.5 stars for me. After having searched trying to get a copy of this book I was super excited to get it and start reading it.
Needless to stay the first part of the book was great, and I found myself quite involved with it not wanting to put it down.
In saying that I was finding myself skimming towards the middle and end as it seemed to just repeat and drone on about the same things with no real progression. The ending was fine for me, it did leave things unanswered, but to be honest with the way
Adam Nevill
Dec 30, 2014 Adam Nevill rated it really liked it
Some wonderfully macabre ideas in a complex outsider novel. Some absorbing characterisation and a great depiction of a Bohemian scene. Not sure how I'd never heard of this novel until this year.
Gregor Xane
Feb 07, 2015 Gregor Xane rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015
But what did it all mean?

If you don't like reading books where that's the question you're left with after turning the final page, this might not be the thing for you.

This book is like a Rorschach splatter, and I'm not telling you what I think it all meant to me. I'd be embarrassed, I think, to expand on the matter with anyone other than a close friend.

It's dark. It's nasty. The only good people in this story are on the periphery.

If you like body horror. If you like art house films that shove th
Jeff Francis
Jul 05, 2015 Jeff Francis rated it it was ok
Shelves: horror, fiction
I really disliked this book. But, in forcing myself to finish it, it had the odd effect of making me really analyze why I disliked it. So (taking a cue from the most recent novel I read), in list form…


1) This book has not aged well. Yes, such an assessment of a quarter-century-old novel may elicit a “well, duh!” but this one is even more dated than usual, e.g., perhaps best personified by the ‘80s-chick/Glamour-Shots author photo.

2) The writing has an
Jan 18, 2016 Noll rated it really liked it
This was my first Koja novel, picked up purely by chance from Amazon on my tablet when I glimpsed it for a fair price. A very fair price, actually, given how thoroughly satisfying a read it is. It suggested something dark and gritty on its cover and in its synopsis and boy did it deliver! I zoomed through it in less than 24 hours, despite the repulsive, repellant things I was reading. The characters range from unlikeable to utterly detestable - all apart from poor Randy, the only relatively-san ...more
Jonathan Janz
Jun 01, 2015 Jonathan Janz rated it really liked it
Kathe Koja is an artist who writes like no one else I've ever read. As I sometimes do, I read this more for the writing than the story, which isn't a criticism at all, but rather a compliment to the writing. Koja conjures words and phrases that are at turns poetic and grotesque. Her feel for language is truly impressive. And, of course, The Funhole is a fascinating concept. I'd heard about the novel for years and am glad I read it. Recommended.
Mar 10, 2016 Britta rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
A common refrain I hear from other horror fans is, "Yeah okay it was a good book but it wasn't /scary/." Quiz people on the greatest horror novels of all time and you'll get a list of Stephen King books (good to great but not always what you're in the mood for) and some assorted upsetting books that for some reason people think to classify horror (i.e. books about the Holocaust, Lord of the Flies, The Trial, etc. All of them Not Horror.) Well I have great news for you because The Cipher by Kathe ...more
Apr 26, 2016 Victoria rated it it was amazing
Shelves: loved, 1990s, melancholia
I have finally face-planted at the bottom of the Funhole after years of being curious about this novel. I read Skin, but I did not find it quite as enjoyable because I found it harder to follow the story.
But The Cipher was such a fun and interesting story, unlike any other, completely in a genre of its own! I felt the growing sense of dread, and it slowly turned into a disgusting pit in my stomach that could not be coaxed.
I was thoroughly sickened, Yet I was still completely ob
Rebecca McNutt
Jul 03, 2016 Rebecca McNutt rated it it was ok
Amazing front cover, but the story, not so much. It was really confusing and a lot of it was just a bunch of filler.
Oct 16, 2016 John rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: oct-2016
Overall - 2 stars
Story - 2 stars
Narration - n/a stars
Scare Factor - 0 stars

This story started out pretty well, but then it went downhill. This story got very tedious after a while because very little actually happened besides the characters arguing and this stream of consciousness thing that went on and on. I think there was the seed of a good book, but, IMHO, it all went wrong.
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Horror Aficionados : April 2013 Group Read: The Cipher *SPOILERS* 114 131 May 14, 2013 04:02PM  
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Kathe Koja (born 1960) is an American writer. She was initially known for her intense speculative fiction for adults, but over the past few years has turned to writing young adult novels.

Koja is also a prolific author of short stories, including many in collaboration with Barry N. Malzberg. Most of her short fiction remains uncollected. Koja's novels and short stories frequently concern characters
More about Kathe Koja...

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“Gone as usual in the morning, and me left behind and naked, inner thighs lightly scaled with the dried spoor of our lovemaking: she liked to stay on top afterward and let the juice run down, and I liked whatever she liked. Imagining in the shower that I could smell her still, the angular scent of those secret bones, had she always smelled so fierce and so good? Recalling those gone times, old memories lit by the fire of the new, I did not this time wonder how long it would last; I was too smart for that now. Take what you get, and don’t think. Of course it could never be that easy, but there were moments, like now, that I could successfully pretend that it was, and I had no inclination to try to peer past those moments. I’m not one who wants to know the future: at the best it spoils the present, with longing or dismay, and at the worst, well. Who really wants to find out how tight the sling is, for your own very personal ass, who wants to know how deep the shit will really be? Not you. Not me either. Because it’s rarely bliss saved up, is it, when you finally get there. I’ll take my now, waking with a lover’s scent on me, around me, take my hopes before they’re maybe tragedy; a good morning is still a good morning, even if it leads to apocalypse at night.” 4 likes
“If I could have broken his neck I would have, just for the pleasure of the silence after the snap.” 2 likes
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