It’s a strange and disturbing novel. I leaned about Kathe Koja’s The Cipher from a book about women horror writers that I read some time ago. I figured I’d get around to reading it eventually and now that I have I’m wondering what I just read. In that regard it reminds me of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, which I really didn’t find that scary. The thing about Koja’s novel is that it leaves you feeling empty. It is perhaps the most nihilistic fiction I’ve ever read. A slow build to nowhere and really no explanation either. If you like your coffee dark, this is a story for you. It’s a story of slow decline and loss of self. In that respect it’s pretty scary.
One of the points I made in Holy Horror—although it’s about movies instead of books the same principle applies—is that different things scare different people. The Cipher is existential horror. There really aren’t any moments of sudden gasps of surprise—this is a train you can see coming—but that doesn’t mean the inevitable is pleasant. My edition comes with an afterword by Maryse Meijer that really helped name the horror. There are no heroes here, as she points out. These are characters who get themselves into bad situations and sometimes don’t even know why they do what they do. As I said, this is existential horror. It all swirls around an unexplained “Funhole” that takes over the characters’ lives.
Everyone in this book is working class and creative. They don’t find any recognition, of course, because that’s the way of working class life. They do, however, find meaning in the art they make, after work. Indeed, as everyone gets more and more drawn toward the Funhole one of the worries that constantly hangs over their heads in the face of sometime truly supernatural, is work. When to quit your job because something not natural is taking over your life? Who’s going to pay the rent? In my own existential crises, I often think that capitalism with it’s unvarying nine-to-five certainly doesn’t help. When something extraordinary happens, you’d better hope it’s not during a weekday, or if it is you’d better have some vacation days you can cash in. So it is that the young characters here, drinking and dreaming, have to come up with some way of dealing with an unexpected existential threat. I’m trying not to give too much away. This is unlike any other horror story I’ve ever read.