Monthly Archives: August 2023

“The Cipher”, Kathe Koja

I wrote this in an email and now I am leveraging it as Content. Sorry to the email recipient, I did not mean to make this a blog post, it was meant for you but now everyone gets it — I hope the sharing greatens it. Anyway:

One of my favorite novels, ever, is The Cipher by Kathe Koja, a 90s grunge horror killshot about a man (written expertly by Kathe who, afaik, is a woman) in love with his ex, Nakota, an edgelord punk who looks for meaning in things that are horrific and strange and intrusive. The two discover a hole in their apartment’s chemical closet — a hole that is black, strange, and apparently bottomless. They call it the Funhole and they investigate it, despite its obvious and increasing power and danger. But really the novel is about their relationship as lensed through the Funhole – Nakota wants to go near it, to go into it, our protagonist just wants Nakota to love him, but the Funhole chooses him and Nakota can’t stand it. “Love is a hole in the heart” is the last line of the book.

Is this a bleak, nihilistic condemnation of love? Yes? No, no, absolutely not. The book is so good! It is alive! Nakota and the protagonist’s relationship is miserable and broken, but it makes the book sing! We, the reader, find interest and attention and thrill and life in the book because their love, their fucked up arguably abusive certainly malformed love, is what brings meaning to what would otherwise be a Ligotti-ish drudge through the miserable lives of miserable people encountering a horror. I am not a moralist, I do not read a book and say “these characters had a bad relationship, so the book is bad”. I would never want to live like Nakota and the protagonist. But their relationship is the filament which burns at the middle of the book and that is why it cannot be nihilistic. It is not the laughing abyss of the Funhole which dominates the book. It is the feeling and intent created by the bond between two people. It does not matter that so much of this feeling and intent is ugly and ‘toxic’, what matters is the assertion that even in the face of a cosmic nothing, love is the thing that matters to these people. It is ultimately the assertion of a human experience over the alien.