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The Cipher

3.52  ·  Rating details ·  2,977 ratings  ·  367 reviews
Winner of the Bram Stoker Award and Locus Awards, finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, and named one of's "Top 10 Debut Science Fiction Novels That Took the World By Storm." With a new afterword by Maryse Meijer, author of Heartbreaker and Rag. "Black. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you look at it too closely, the sense of something not ...more
Paperback, 260 pages
Expected publication: September 15th 2020 by Meerkat Press, LLC (first published January 5th 1991)
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Average rating 3.52  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,977 ratings  ·  367 reviews

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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.
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
The Basics

Nicholas and Nakota have found a hole in the storage room of Nicholass apartment building. Its 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 theyve dubbed it. And hes 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 to be
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 ...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.
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 ...more
Cody | CodysBookshelf
It really couldnt 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.

1991s The Cipher, Kathe Kojas 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?

Yes. Oh,
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.
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
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
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 ...more
Mar 16, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: horror, 2013
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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.
Jan 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
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. Its recently been republished in an e-book version, which is pretty impressive for a lowly paperback original from the early 90s. 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
Alex (Hey Little Thrifter)
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
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
Oct 15, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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.
Vivid prose and sometimes compelling imagery can't make this overlong, tiresome slog of a book worth reading to the end. Koja keeps her focus so narrow throughout this story that the novel never really has anywhere to go and the narrator isn't interesting enough to follow through hundreds of pages of what amounts to the "same shit, different day" over and over and over. This might have worked at a much shorter length, but as a novel it's a failure and a real disappointment.
Mar 18, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: horror, fiction, abyss
I bailed out at 60%. Dreadful. Tedious, without plot. Dated. The prose was nice but didnt say much of anything. All the characters were hateful. ...more
Feb 04, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
*4.5 stars*

I loved this book! It was nothing like Ive ever read before. Kojas writing is lyrical and grotesque in equal measures and The Funhole is such a unique concept. Highly recommended.

*I deducted half a star because it dragged a bit in the middle.*
Bill Hsu
Mar 18, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned, ebook
I loved the concept, and enjoyed the first couple chapters, despite not being a fan of the writing. But there's really not much beyond the early chapters that we haven't seen before, over and over.
Sep 02, 2013 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Holly Rusak
Nov 20, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 08, 2013 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
Mar 29, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned, horror
This book was a triiiiiip. Incredibly weird for all that it's not very action-oriented and moves with a slow burn pace. We have a mysterious black hole thing that Nicholas and an ex discover in the back of a maintenance room in his building. Nakota vaguely resembles a manic pixie dream girl distorted by grotesque funhouse mirrors -- she's incredibly into the implications of the "Funhole" and the macabre way it changes things and mad as hell that it seems to only respond to Nicholas' presence. ...more
Ken Saunders
Mar 30, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
THE CIPHER cooly transcends the junkie-love genre (SID & NANCY, DRUGSTORE COWBOY, RUSH, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM etc) by swapping all the requisite drug-addled desperation for a gory body-horror nightmare set against an art-scene satire, told in a sarcastic stream of consciousness. You still get all the filth, the vomit, the hangers-on eager for a cheap fix (here they can't stop watching an addictive, hallucinatory video), and the slide out of reality in the third act, but here the familiar ...more
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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 novelsincluding THE CIPHER, SKIN, BUDDHA BOY, TALK, and the UNDER THE POPPY trilogyhave won awards, been multiply translated, and optioned for film and performance. She creates immersive fiction with a rotating ensemble of video artists, dancers, ...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.” 4 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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