Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Cipher Specializes in Self-Inflicted Suffering

I miss horror. Oh, the genre lives on in cinemas, but it has largely vanished from book racks. I've wondered why for the longest time and actively looked for any authors that specialize in it, so I was excited to discover Kathe Koja's The Cipher, which won a Brahm Stoker Award and a Locus Award. In it, inveterate slacker Nicholas and his sometimes friend, sometimes lover Nakota find a hole in a disused storage closet in Nicholas' apartment building. But this isn't just any hole. Black as deep space, redolent of some indefinable odor, and terribly unnatural, it seems a portal into absolute nothingness, an opening to utter null. Nakota dubs it the Funhole, not that there's anything enjoyable or humorous about it. Caged insects left near it sprout bizarre mutations in a matter of minutes. A mouse dipped into the ingress explodes, showering the pair with suddenly misshapen body parts. Nakota wants to go in herself, but Nicholas won't have it. Then Nakota gets the bright idea to put a video camera down the Funhole ...

Anyone who reads this blog would think I'd love lyrical, literate horror that peers into its protagonists' dark hearts. That's everything The Cipher purports to be. But I do not love it. Part of that has to do with Koja's style. Although she certainly has writing chops and can pen metaphors as striking as an enraged pugilist, her paragraphs sprawl like a drunk missing the first step on a ten-story stairwell. Think Dostoevsky in a loquacious mood. In fact, just read the following single sentence describing Nicholas' job as a video-store clerk and you'll see what I mean:
The mood stayed with me all day: things at work acquired a significance: a customer's choice of video, sure, you could read runes in that any day of any week, but I saw, in this new state, deeper, encountered signs I had never before known: the slick sound of a Visa sliding across the counter; the feel of the counter itself, the way the endlessly playing monitors flickered in and out of blackness in the existential spaces between Streetgirls II and Dead Giveaway and Dog Gone Wild, the scent, even, of the money paid or the customer's fingers or the very air in the heat beneath the fake marquee lights, all of it told me things, and gifted somehow by the Funhole -- was that the source? -- I saw, if not the meaning of patterns then patterns of meaning, and for me that was enough.
Tough sledding even during the best bits. More problematic, though, are the characters themselves. Yes, Koja holds up a mirror to their dark secret selves -- only there's not much there to see. Nicholas owes the entirety of his troubles to his incipient, overweening laziness and self-loathing. If Koja made the least movement toward condemning such vices, I would much mind the portrayal, but Nicholas consistently treats it like the natural state of things. The only significant step he takes in advancing the plot is attempting suicide during a bout of despair and then chickening out at the last minute. His existential ennui bleeds into almost everything. Don't expect to find any comfort in The Cipher. except through beer (overconsumption of which inevitably leads to wicked hangovers), sex (which is always devoid of anything except quickly sated animal lust), or a box of Minute Maid raisins (which gets horribly corrupted by the Funhole). I guess the crux of the matter is this: Horror should seem horrifying, but you need to feel that something worthwhile that could be lost during the story for it to become so. Such a sense is completely absent in The Cipher. Things start out badly. They grow marginally worse by the end. In between is 350 pages of mostly senseless, self-inflicted suffering. If that's all this award winner has to offer, no wonder the genre has faded.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Tom Magliery)

11 comments:

Phil W said...

There aren't any dedicated horror authors you want to read? Give us a run-down of your opinions on various contemporaries.

Loren Eaton said...

I don't think much of anyone is writing dedicated horror anymore. Koja certainly isn't; she's moved on to YA. Scott Smith's A Simple Plan is the first thing that springs to mind. It's really a horror/crime-fiction hybrid, but it's really, really good and very hard to read at several points. Additionally, it's one of the most moral horror titles I've ever read.

Loren Eaton said...

Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer might be worth your time, too.

Todd Mason said...

As often, Loren, there's plenty of horror, you're just not looking in the right places.

Pick up Ellen Datlow's, Stephen Jones's and Paula Guran's annuals and the magazine BLACK STATIC (among so many other less popular ones), read some of those people's work in longer as well as shorter form, and then you might be more engaged with today's horror.

Loren Eaton said...

I like both Datlow and Black Static (which I listened to quite a bit when the TTA podcast was still up and running). But most of the authors I encountered were only doing shorter works of horror. I didn't find many penning novel-length scary fiction. Any you'd suggest?

Todd Mason said...

Sadly, I haven't had nearly the time for new novel reading that I'd like, but I'll suggest starting with:

Kim Newman, ANNO DRACULA: JOHNNY ALUCARD
Neil Gaiman, THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE
Joyce Carol Oates, THE ACCURSED
...and I've heard good things about Dave Zeltserman's MONSTER: A NOVEL OF FRANKENSTEIN, the new Joe Hill, BABAYAGA by Tony Barlow, and a few others I've yet to try at all. And check all three of the annuals for recommendations.

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Todd. I'm familiar with Joe Hill's Locke and Key, but have yet to read any of his novels.

Roy Jacobsen said...

Huh. I read "The Ocean at the End of the Lane," but never thought of it as horror.

What about Koontz and his "Odd Thomas" or "Frankenstein" stories?

Loren Eaton said...

Gaiman has elements of horror in his work, but I've never read a straight horror novel from him. Of course, I haven't picked up Ocean yet, so I can't judge that particular work.

Regarding Koontz, the only pure horror novel I remember was Intensity. It was pretty good, too. He had a lot of interesting thematic material going on there. Haven't read anything from him in about a decade, though.

Guilie Castillo said...

Ocean is very very good, although--in my uneducated and naive opinion--it's not horror, or at least not straight-up horror. Same for Koontz, but I love him anyway. The Odd series is good, as are the Frankenstein books, but I'm much more a fan of his non-serial stuff, the ones that hit you with radically unexpected stuff. He does precisely what you said: give us something to care about, some redemption to hanker for. That, I think, is the hallmark of any good work of fiction, but it's especially in the horror genre when the absence of this leaves a void.

Loren Eaton said...

I'm no expert on horror, but the stuff I've read tends to skew super-nihilistic or uber-moral. There are some horror writers who focus on hope. You just have to look for them.