When I was 17, I found myself enamored by a black box. I had been walking my dog along the sea wall, not a block from my seaside home, when I spotted it nestled among an outcrop of rocks jutting from the shoreline. It was a hard plastic carrying case, its contents sealed behind two latches and a lock.
For days, I would pass it by on my dog walks, its mystery beckoning me like a siren call. So great was my curiosity, that I would sometimes drop my dog off at home and go back just to stare. The closest I ever got to it was just behind the black bar fence that separated park goers from dropping off the side of the wall and into the sea.
One day, it vanished. As a boy who longed to be someone else, I regretted ignoring the call to adventure, but I had sensed danger. I had sensed my own fear.
The characters in Kathe Koja’s 1991 novel, The Cipher, succumb to their morbid curiosity when they find a pit of living darkness inside their apartment complex and it is their ruin. Unable to determine what it is, they dub it “The Funhole.” Egged on by their fascination and the wretchedness of their aimless existence, they begin to experiment by dropping all sorts of fun things into its all too hungry maw. Slowly, but surely “The Funhole” begins to infect them physically and mentally, all while further distorting their already disjointed lives.
When I finished reading this book, I initially came away feeling unsatisfied. At the time, I didn’t get it. I picked up the book because I saw it on a “Top Must-Read Horror Novels” list somewhere and I didn’t understand all the fuss. To me, horror was about monsters, demons, ghosts, and murderous individuals. It was about jump scares, fearing for characters, and frightful scenarios. This book didn’t “scare” me and back then, that was what I was looking for.
However, I forgot that horror was an emotion. Not just one, but a culmination of many. This book is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Things are only going to get worst. Your heart is filled with dread and revulsion at the thought of it, but in the end, you can’t look away.
Once I put the book down, I felt dirty, as if I had participated in something I didn’t ask for. There are body-horror elements that might make your skin crawl. The thought of it now makes me itch. There was a physical consequence as well. I felt a weight on my chest for days after. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but “The Cipher” repulsed me in a way that I couldn’t identify. Even the characters themselves are off-putting.
This is not the type of book everyone will enjoy. There are few if any enjoyable characters. You will travel to a dark and uncomfortably gritty place. The prose is odd. Things feel off. However, should you make the journey, you may be surprised to see how far “The Cipher” gets under your skin. And it just might stay there.