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Kathe Koja: ‘Detritus, spills, 4am. Dread. All of that is in there.’

Kathe Koja’s 1991 novel The Cipher is considered a classic of contemporary horror fiction. An unusual blend of body horror and cosmic horror, the story examines how a mysterious, physics-morphing hole found in an apartment building – called the Funhole by many of the characters in the novel – alters the lives of everyone that comes into contact with it, and especially the life of the narrator, Nicholas. Filled with sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque physical transformations, and laced through with meditations about nothingness and the unknown, The Cipher is an intense exploration of the outer edges of human experience. A new print edition is forthcoming this September from Meerkat Press. I recently interviewed Koja through email about the novel.

James Pate: I was trying to describe The Cipher to a friend of mine recently without giving away too much of the story, and a phrase I found myself using was “psychedelic horror.” One of the elements I love about the novel is how the body horror is mixed up with an eerie type of wonder. I was thinking especially of how the Funhole transforms the insects, and the mouse, and Nicholas’ hand. Many of the descriptions are a heady blend of Gothicism and surrealism. The novel has such a visual aspect, were you influenced by certain paintings or photographs, and do you have a background in the visual arts yourself?

Kathe Koja: I don’t have an art background, but visual art has always been a source of inspiration, enrichment, delight, in my life as well as my work. And “psychedelic” in the sense of phantasmagoric, certainly – there’s a kind of brutally hyperreal feel to those moments of the intensely strange, the way a thing that is foreign to our experience is difficult to process, the eye shows it to the brain and the brain says, “Wait, what?!”

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JP: I really like that idea of how moments that are “intensely strange” are difficult to process. This reminds me of one of the really intriguing elements of The Cipher – how the Funhole is both outside of Nicholas’ experience, but also maybe in some ways a manifestation of his unconscious, or at least a part of himself he never had access to before. How did you come about the idea of the Funhole? And the complex relationship between Nicholas and the Funhole – did it evolve as you wrote the novel, or was that always part of your vision for The Cipher?

KK: Everything I write always begins with a character, and for Cipher it was Nicholas.

I had been trying to expand a piece of short fiction into a novel, it wasn’t working – but Nicholas was in it, I plucked him out, and his milieu, including the Funhole, pretty much fell into place around him. His relationship with the Funhole itself was always inherent in him, it just took a little pressure to make it appear.

JP: What were some of the influences for Cipher?

KK: I can’t say there were any direct influences – Nicholas brought the Funhole with him – but the book came out of a fictive atmosphere that you could think of as a petri dish, or tidewater: entropy, loud music, profound loneliness, the smell of lukewarm beer, the sourceless heat of ambition, the dimness that is never truly dark and never quite light. Detritus, spills, 4am. Dread. All of that is in there.

JP: That’s a great way to describe the atmosphere of the book. Nakota is a really fascinating character, too – a kind of nonconformist in the extreme. Was she part of your original vision for Cipher as well?

KK: She arrived all of a piece. Nakota, or Jane, or Shrike – is fascinating, in the way that people who know exactly what they want are fascinating: we so seldom can parse out our own desires and drives so completely, and nakedly, as she does. Personally, I respect her honesty, and that fucked-up can do courage.

And as much as her relationship with Nicholas may seem like the mating of a steamroller and a soufflé, even as he’s constantly fleeing her, fending her off, he’s also involving and invoking her, riding that furious drive. They each give each other what the other wants most. So many readers have told me that they know, or have met, or lived with, someone just like Nakota: she leaves no one indifferent, which is a testament in itself!

I’ve been asked over and over if there will ever be a sequel to Cipher, and the only possible sequel would be the story from Nakota’s POV. (Saying that, no sequel is planned or in the works.)

JP: The Cipher was originally published in 1991, when it won a Bram Stoker Award and a Locus Award, and it has regularly been mentioned as one of the top horror novels of the past few decades. Were you surprised by the response? And what is it about the story, do you think, that has attracted so many fans?

KK: I was delighted by the initial response (and the awards too of course). And what’s been especially gratifying is the conversation readers continue to have with Cipher, because writing is a conversation, always. And this conversation is an especially human one, it’s fundamental, it asks what if existence, all existence, your existence and mine, is just an uneasy dance in a cruddy backroom on the lip of a total void? What do we do, then? What should we do? What would you do? Every reader has a different answer.

And the Funhole just keeps on being there, on the floor of that cruddy room, behind a door that doesn’t lock.

JP: One last question…What are you working on now? I know Velocities: Stories was recently published by Meerkat Press. Are you working on a new book?

KK: Velocities: Stories, my second fiction collection, came out this spring from Meerkat, and it’s been getting enthusiastic and thoughtful reviews, including one from Sublime Horror.

And I’m working on DARK FACTORY, an immersive fiction project that I’m incredibly excited about: it combines fiction, graphic art, sound, and video, to create the world of Dark Factory, a dance club where reality is customizable. Come and join me at the club!

The Cipher by Kathe Koja is being reissued by Meerkat Press. Buy the book: bookshop.org (US).


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