Not darkness, not the absence of light but living black. Maybe a foot in diameter, maybe a little more. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you look at it too closely, the sense of something not living but alive, not even something but some —process. Only Nicholas and his cantankerous sometime- girlfriend Nakota are aware of this apparent warp in the space-time continuum, and they aren't telling anyone what they have found. At first, they treat the black hole as little more than a joke, even assign cute or scatological names to the looming void. Others might consult Stephen Hawking for a professional verdict, but for Nicholas and Nakota, it is just their private Funhole.
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Not darkness, not the absence of light but living black. Maybe a foot in diameter, maybe a little more. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you look at it too closely, the sense of something not living but alive, not even something but some —process. Only Nicholas and his cantankerous sometime- girlfriend Nakota are aware of this apparent warp in the space-time continuum, and they aren't telling anyone what they have found.
At first, they treat the black hole as little more than a joke, even assign cute or scatological names to the looming void. Others might consult Stephen Hawking for a professional verdict, but for Nicholas and Nakota, it is just their private Funhole. They aren't scientists. Nicholas works in a video store, and is an aspiring poet who no longer aspires.
Nakota is a cocktail waitress who is too rude and raggedy to work at anything more than the lowest dives. First she exposes a jar of insects to the black hole, and then moves on to a captive mouse. None of these creatures returns unscathed from their journey, but instead suffer strange mutations, akin to what you might find after a few core meltdowns and several generations of genetic anarchy. Nicholas is frightened by the strange powers of the Funhole, but Nakota is obsessed with discovering what goes on inside its abyss.
Her next experiment involves sending a camcorder into its dark inside to capture video footage. A vaguely-defined, but ominous figure shows up in the Funhole video, but many details of the film change with repeated viewings. Yet no matter what the audience sees, the experience of watching the video turns into a compulsive ritual for those exposed to it.
Nakota wants to push onward with their exploration of the Funhole. Nicholas is reluctant, but he becomes an unwilling part of the mystery after a storage room mishap leads him to place his right arm into its abyss. After retrieving his limb, he notices a small wound in the palm of his hand. Over time, the wound grows, and— horror of horror! At this juncture in the novel—some seventy pages into The Cipher— Koja shifts gears. Readers are expecting a descent into the Funhole.
Just as Alice tumbled into the rabbit hole, and Jules Verne took his characters down to the center of the Earth, we anticipate that Nicholas and Nakota will make the inevitable leap into their black void.
Recall that science fiction and fantasy tales evolved out of travel literature. So what genre author would build a novel around a mysterious hole, and never make the plunge? But Koja is not your typical genre writer. Perhaps you could tell that just by glancing at her bio, which notes that she previously worked as a "bonsai lumberjack, an oyster cowboy, and a freelance criminologist.
In the course of The Cipher , we gradually discover that her main concern is less with the Funhole and more with the people drawn into its orbit. She has no interest in emulating Stephen Hawking, and serving up a theoretical explanation of the mystery she posits, and is equally unwilling to emulate Jules Verne and give us a guided tour of the unknown.
Instead, she adopts the modus operandi of a psychological investigator, deeply attuned to the ways different individuals react to transcendent experiences. She sees a connection between this tendency and her own spiritual quest—which started out under the auspices of the Catholic faith, then led to a separation from the Church, and finally a return to religious belief.
The prevailing moral philosophy of Aquinas and Dante denied any reality to evil. Evil possesses no positive qualities, according to this worldview—it is merely a negation of the good. As you approach the epitome of evil, its essential passivity turns into its sole defining trait.
Koja has found the perfect way of applying this line of thinking to a contemporary horror story. If evil, by definition, collapses into a nullity, its most terrifying manifestation must be some kind of black hole. Nicholas eventually becomes the unwitting instrument of the Funhole. He attracts the curiosity, and eventually the rapt devotion, of a group of artists and bohemians.
For those at the cutting edge of culture, out to find the next new thing, Nicholas and his black hole are as avant-garde as it gets. Randy, a tow-truck driver who dabbles in sculpture, wants to see what the Funhole can do for his art. Malcolm, a cynical visual artist, also wants to tap into the eerie energy coming from the hole, and increasingly from Nicholas himself.
Other hangers-on and disciples-in-search-of-a-guru join the growing crowd in the storage room. It seems only a matter of time before police, and maybe even the military, decide to check out the scene. The pacing of this book slows down considerably after the first hundred pages, and normally that would spell doom and gloom for a genre book. But Koja compensates through the sheer zest and energy of her prose.
As the narrative shifts to Nicholas's internal monologue on the pros and cons of his Funhole-centric life, and his morphing physiology, Koja turns increasingly to stream-of-consciousness techniques. She relies heavily on meandering sentences, sentence fragments, eccentric punctuation, and paragraphs that collapse before reaching closure. She mixes in puns, jokes, allusions, barbs, philosophical asides, and in general convinces the reader that our inept hero Nicholas may have failed in his calling as poet, but still has a way with words as narrator of his personal horror story.
It got nominated for a Philip K. Dick Award and won a Locus Award. It frequently shows up on lists of outstanding horror fiction. Yet I note, with some astonishment, that it is out-of-print, except in e-book format.
It took me some effort, and expense, to find a beat-up secondhand paperback copy. Some smart publisher ought to rectify this, and put this stellar work back in print.
It is really too good to fall into some black hole. Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. Publication Date: October 30, This is my year of horrible reading. I am reading the classics of horror fiction during the course of , and each week will write about a significant work in the genre. You are invited to join me in my annus horribilis. During the course of the year—if we survive—we will have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and monsters of all denominations.
Check back each week for a new title Ted Gioia. Essay by Ted Gioia. To purchase, click on image. Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at www. The State of the Art Ballard, J. The Atrocity Exhibition Ballard, J. Crash Ballard, J. The Crystal World Ballard, J. Childhood's End Clarke, Arthur C. Babel Delany, Samuel R. Dhalgren Delany, Samuel R. Nova Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick, Philip K. Ubik Dick, Philip K. Camp Concentration Disch, Thomas M. Tales Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World Mandel, Emily St. The White Hotel Tiptree, Jr. Slan Van Vogt, A. The Island of Dr. Moreau Wells, H. Robert Heinlein at A. All rights reserved. Kathe Koja.
Thanks to Jeanne Cavelos, not only an award-winning editor but also a goddamn NASA scientist , we were introduced to hitherto novice authors such as Poppy Z. Not until Cavelos joined the team and changed everything. Consider the year. Nobody in this new decade seemed to give a shit about the dark and macabre. Thus, the Abyss. I don't like to lay down edicts about horror, since the great strength of the genre is how much freedom it provides. Horror doesn't dictate a plot, as mysteries and romances do; it doesn't dictate a setting, as Westerns and, to some degree, science fiction and fantasy do.
Kathe Koja born is an American writer. She was initially known for her intense speculative fiction for adults,  but has written young adult novels, the historical fiction Under the Poppy trilogy, and a fictional biography of Christopher Marlowe. Koja is also a prolific author of short stories , including many in collaboration with Barry N. Koja has also collaborated with Carter Scholz. Koja was born in Detroit, Michigan,  the second of two sisters. Koja lives near Detroit, Michigan , and is married to the illustrator Rick Lieder, who often does her book jackets.