The Cipher and Bad Brains by Kathe Koja

koja cipher bad brains
My offering this week is a couple of books by Kathe Koja. These immediately went on my to-read list after I saw them in Paperbacks From Hell. It took me quite a while to find copies, but they’re so deadly that it only took me a few days to read them.

the cipher kojaThe Cipher
Dell Abyss – 1991
This is the story of a couple who find a weird hole in the corner of an unused maintenance room in their apartment building. The hole is weird because stuff that goes into it comes out quite different. Dead bugs come back to life and mutate. Human body parts that are inserted come out grossly disgfigured. When a video camera is lowered into the hole, the resultant video footage is so disturbing that it radically and permanently affects its viewers’ lives.

No sensible explanation of the hole is ever given, and the narrative is enhanced by this omission. The plot here is quite simple, and atmosphere is what drives this novel. It’s original title was ‘The Funhole’, and while that title definitely makes more sense than ‘The Cipher’, it might have made the book sound far less dark than it is. I don’t know why they went with ‘The Cipher’ though.

Nobody is happy in this book, and everything that happens is uncomfortable. It’s fairly long too, and while I enjoyed it immensely, it won’t be to everyone’s tastes. It’s very 90s, very dark and a little bit arty. If you like Nine Inch Nails’ early records, you’ll love this. (I can’t imagine a movie version of The Cipher that doesn’t end with Head Like a Hole playing over the credits. There were talks of a movie version, but I don’t think it ever happened.)

The Cipher is an original, exciting and disturbing horror novel, truly deserving of its reputation, but it has been out of print for a long time. I managed to find a copy at a thrift store for the price of a cup of coffee, but copies currently go for silly amounts online. Luckily for you, there’s an ebook version available, and Meerkat Press are publishing new hard copies next year. I can wholeheartedly recommend that all horror fans pick up this book; it’s seriously awesome.

kathe koja bad brainsBad Brains
Dell Abyss – 1992

Bad Brains is Koja’s second novel, and it has a lot of similarities with The Cipher. In this one, the protagonist trips over a curb, and smashes his head. The resulting brain damage fucks up his life. This book has nothing to do with everyone’s favourite Rastafarian hardcore punks.

Again, the plot is quite straightforward. It’s the slick, shifting prose and atmosphere that carry this novel. The text is fantastic, but I found the pacing a little uneven with this one. There’s a lot of build up to a very cool, but overly short ending segment. Also, the blurb on the back of the Dell edition gives away the most surprising element of plot, so don’t read it until after you’ve finished.

Bad Brains is certainly a horrible story, but it’s less of a horror story than The Cipher. Weird stuff happens, but the central character is so messed up that it’s impossible to know how much of what’s being described is hallucination and how much is real. The definite supernatural element here, the Dorian Grayesque alterations of the protagonist’s paintings, are background events that occur far away from where the story is unfolding. I reckon that the most frightening element of this book is the way it forces you to contemplate the fragility of the human brain.

If you enjoyed The Cipher, you’ll enjoy this. It’s a lot easier to find too.

impermanent mercies kathe kojaLoving that comic sans action.

I also read by Impermanent Mercies by Koja. It’s a short story featured in the second Splatterpunks anthology about an accident involving a kid’s pet puppy. It’s fairly bizarre. I’m planning a post on the 2 Splatterpunks anthologies for the near future. Stay tuned.

Aside from her books, Kathe Koja is pretty cool. She doesn’t eat meat, and she doesn’t like Donald Trump. I plan to read more of her books in the future.

 

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