“Black. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you look at it too closely, the sense of something not living but alive.”
When a strange hole materialises in a storage room, would-be poet Nicholas and his feral lover Nakota allow their curiosity to lead them into the depths of terror. “Wouldn’t it be wild to go down there?” says Nakota. Nicholas says “We’re not.” But no one is in control, and their experiments lead to obsession, violence, and a very final transformation for everyone who gets too close to the Funhole.
Horror as a genre has never held much appeal for me, mainly because I’ve seldom felt even vaguely disturbed by conventional horror stories, more often than not finding them ludicrously implausible rather than scary. However, earlier this year I was introduced to Kathe Koja’s writing when I read Velocities, her short-story collection. In my review I reflected on how much I appreciated that she was “prepared to explore some very dark themes and to unnerve her readers by taking her stories in totally unexpected, sometimes bizarre, directions whilst at the same time managing to make each one psychologically credible.” So, with this memory in mind, I started this story with rather less scepticism than I might otherwise have done, wondering whether her debut novel (it was first published in 1991) could possibly succeed in making me feel truly scared whilst reading it? Having now finished The Cipher, and as I start writing this review, the old adage “be careful what you wish for” has never felt more apposite because I found this a dark, deeply disturbing, weird beyond imagining and, above all, genuinely terrifying story. For me its real power lies more in its all too convincing psychological integrity than in any of its specific depictions of gory horror – although there are plenty of those along the way.
Apprehension and fear are present from the start but are soon intensified, in a truly terrifying, nightmarish way, as first Nicholas and Nakota, and then the numerous other characters who join them, become increasingly obsessed with the Funhole, determined, whatever the consequences, to explore its secrets, its power to transform and the extent of its unrelenting blackness. It soon became apparent that each of the characters is deeply-flawed, with each having different motives for wanting to expose themselves to unpredictable dangers and each of them giving little or no thought to the consequences of their actions, either on themselves or on others around them. Although I found it difficult to feel any empathy with any of them (apart, at times, from Nicholas), without exception each of them was convincingly drawn and, rather disturbingly, felt all too recognisable, not just as individuals but also through their behaviour and interactions as a group. A major strength of the storytelling lies in the fact that so much of its power to shock and disturb comes from the author’s acute observations and explorations of human behaviour, of toxic, dysfunctional relationships and of a nihilistic darkness which can lurk deep in the human psyche. I soon started to feel very scared of the Funhole and the compulsive pull it exerted: it seemed to dig deep into primal fears, into the unknown darkness we don’t understand, which we’re repelled by and yet, like moths to a flame, can be tempted to respond to the almost hypnotic pull it exerts. As the characters started to take more and more risks around the Funhole, I found myself wanting to find a way to persuade them to stop being so selfish, narcissistic and self-destructive, to pull them back from exploring this darkness … although I must admit that there were moments when I could quite cheerfully have pushed the hateful Nakota into the very depths of that bottomless hole!
The contrast between the author’s poetic, at times almost hypnotic, narrative and the horrors she was portraying on almost every page, could have felt disconcerting but it never did, if anything, it added an extra dimension to the unfolding dramatic tension and escalating horror. Although it took me few pages to “hear” the cadence of Nicholas’s voice, it wasn’t long before it became so gripping and compelling that I felt as though I was sitting alongside him by the Funhole, being inexorably sucked into his descent into madness and despair. His powerfully affecting stream-of-consciousness narrative certainly contributed to this visceral immediacy of my growing tension and fear. There were moments when I felt almost too scared to carry on reading, fearful of what new horrors I’d be forced to face. However, feeling so inextricably caught up in his, and the other characters’, obsession with that irresistible black hole, and needing to find out “what comes next”, I always felt compelled to do so. In so many ways it was a relief to turn the final page, to escape the darkness, but I know that with all its disturbing, thought-provoking themes, all the questions it poses but never answers, this is a story which will continue to make its presence felt for a long time to come.
With my thanks to Meerkat Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review – and to Kathe Koja for convincing me that a horror story doesn’t have to be “ludicrously implausible” but can indeed be truly scary!
Reviewed by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: 5*
Group read: 5*
Meerkat Press 15 th September 2020
ISBN: 978-1-946154-33-0 Paperback