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The Cipher

3.55  ·  Rating details ·  3,798 ratings  ·  557 reviews
"Black. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you look at it too closely, the sense of something not living but alive." When a strange hole materializes in a storage room, would-be poet Nicholas and his feral lover Nakota allow their curiosity to lead them into the depths of terror. "Wouldn't it be wild to go down there?" says Nakota. Nicholas says, "We're ...more
Paperback, 260 pages
Published September 15th 2020 by Meerkat Press (first published January 5th 1991)
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Average rating 3.55  · 
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 ·  3,798 ratings  ·  557 reviews

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THE CIPHER! I don't even know what to say.

I've only recently joined the church of Koja. It may not be as big as some, Stephen King's say, but there are joys to be found in smaller congregations.

This is the story of Nakota and Nicholas who one day found a black hole, named it the funhole, and changed their lives forever. They stuck different things into the hole, (getting uncomfortable yet?), including bugs, a mouse, and then a hand. What happened to these items when they were thrust inside? You'
Jun 10, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: edelweiss-arc-s
Man, I hate reviewing books when it's a premise you love and writing you love but the story itself leaves much to be desired. I have wanted to read this book for years and when Edelweiss had a copy of a new edition available I jumped at the chance to FINALLY read this and it pains me to say I was disappointed.

As I said Koja can write. What a wordsmith. I wish I could put words to paper as eloquently as she does but sadly that was not enough to save this story for me.

Let's get to the premise -
Jonathan Janz
May 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Gregor Xane
Jan 31, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Sadie Hartmann
Nov 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: cemetery-dance
3.5 stars
There’s kind of this unofficial debate among readers concerning those who enjoy unlikable characters and those who need protagonists to be tolerable in order to invest in their story.

I like despicable, flawed people. I think protagonists should be as varied as the people we encounter in real life. I don’t need to like people in order to emotionally invest in their stories — sometimes, hating them is just as fun as loving them.

In Kathe Koja’s The Cipher, Nicholas and Nakota are pretty lo
Michael Hicks
Jun 10, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: netgalley, horror
We're (and by we, I mean me, Richard, and Matt) are taking a deep, spoiler-filled dive into the Funhole in our latest episode of Staring Into The Abyss! As my review below inidicates, this was a pretty polarizing read for some of us. LOL You can listen to our episode on your favorite podcatcher or stream it now at

Originally published over 30 years ago, The Cipher was the debut title in the Dell/Abyss horror line and earned Kathe Koja a Bram Stoker Award f
May 06, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Was the darkness always there? Was all it needed to infiltrate a lack of determination to keep it out?

Another huge disappointment, and my second one-star reading adventure in my last three books. Haven't had good luck lately, it seems. Briefly, The Cipher tells the story of Nicholas and Nakota, who discover a mysterious black hole/portal in the utility closet of Nicholas' apartment building. The book involves Nicholas' deterioration after he puts his hand into the hole and ends up with a black h
Jessica Woodbury
Jun 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: horror
This year, THE CIPHER is getting reissued by Meerkat Press, which is how one of these classic horror titles I've heard about for ages but haven't been able to find finally made it into my hands. Somehow I was under the mistaken impression that I'd already read Koja but I hadn't and it was clear to me right away when I started reading that I hadn't encountered anything like this before.

To be talking about Horror and to say "I've never see anything like this before" is a big deal. And it's an extr
Will Errickson
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
Charles Dee Mitchell
Apr 11, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
Cody | CodysBookshelf
”It really couldn’t get any weirder, now could it? Weirder or any worse, no. Just more of the same, world without end. Funhole forever. Skin and bone, dissolving. Matter over mind.”

1991’s The Cipher, Kathe Koja’s debut release, is infamous amongst vintage horror readers for being hard to find in physical form for cheap. I scored a copy for just under forty bucks (a steal, really, for what was the debut production in the Abyss Paperback line). Was paying that much money worth the story I got?

Mar 21, 2013 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. ...more
Oct 11, 2013 rated it really 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
Alex (The Bookubus)
I am so glad I finally read this! It completely blew me away and now I need to get my hands on Koja's other horror novels!

This is about Nicholas and Nakota who find a hole in a storage room in Nicholas's apartment building. When they lower things into the hole they come out transformed. Initial curiosity develops into full-blown obsession and the story becomes incredibly unsettling and psychologically horrific.

This is set in the 1990s and it feels very of its time but also still manages to feel
Adam Nevill
Dec 30, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Helen Power

Koja writes with a style that’s not quite like any other.  The tone is gritty and dark and ripe with twisted metaphor.  She employs sentence fragments and run on sentences like no other author can.  She uses almost a stream of consciousness style that grows more and more erratic and confusing as the novel progresses. This in itself instills a level of disorientation in the reader, which mimics the feelings and internal conflict that Nicholas himself is going through.  There were times when I

Grady Hendrix
Nov 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Spot-on account of the kind of marginalized but safe art-life we all led in the early 1990's. ...more
Christopher Ruz
Jul 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 16, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: horror
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Claire- Louise
What a disgusting little book. I turned the light out and kept envisioning a hand appearing from under my bed. I was scared to get a glass of water. Would rather lay there all night and die of dehydration than risk putting my foot out the covers. This book is a disgrace to all thats whole and pure.

‘Because I was after all just a small guy, just a little man; just big enough to fit morsel-like down the Funhole.’

‘Call me Lefty. Maybe I could just...’

‘Lassie come home.’

“When life gives you lemons,
Melissa Helwig
Feb 08, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Holy fuck... this book, you guys!!!! Am I late to the funhole party or what?

I first became aware of Kathe when I picked up her dark and lushious novel Under the Poppy, a book that still, to this day, remains one of my absolute favorite reading experiences.

I simply cannot wrap my head around the fact that The Cipher is her debut. From raunchy brothel with puppets to freaky black hole body horror, she continues to blow me away. I am just in awe of Kathe's range as a writer.

This book was so much
Jan 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: melancholia, 1990s, loved
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
I’ve never read a book quite like this before. It starts out a little mundane, beginning with the characters already knowing about “the black hole” (dubbed “the Funhole”). It kicks into high gear quickly.

Nakota (Nicholas’ former girlfriend) finds a strange black hole on the floor of an old storage room in Nicholas’ apartment building one night after a drunken party. “Black. Not darkness, not the absence of light but living black. Maybe a foot in diameter, maybe a little more. Pure black and the
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
Mar 04, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nurse Nightmare
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
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Kathe Koja is a writer, director and independent producer. Her work combines and plays with genres, from YA to contemporary to historical to horror. Her novels - including THE CIPHER, BUDDHA BOY, TALK, and the UNDER THE POPPY trilogy–have won awards, been multiply translated, and optioned for film and performance. She creates immersive fiction with a rotating ensemble of video artists, dancers, mu ...more

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“If I could have broken his neck I would have, just for the pleasure of the silence after the snap.” 5 likes
“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
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