You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


If I found a hole into another dimension in the utility closet of my dingy apartment building I like to think I would contact either MIT or the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. On the other hand, if I was either of the characters from Kathe Koja's The Cipher (1992), no, I would keep the discovery as the special plaything for myself and my really pretty awful girlfriend. Then all sorts of horrible and unfortunate things could happen, one of the worst being the appearance of a similar hole in the palm of my hand.

This is the set up for Kathe Koja's debut novel The Cipher, one of the three horror novels she wrote in the early 1990's before turning to YA fiction. I haven't read the YA novels, but given the content of the three horror novels I have read, she had to make a serious turn to produce YA material. But the switch could do her good, possibly trimming some of the lugubrious fat from the prose of these earlier works. The Cipher, Bad Blood (1992), and Skin (1994) are overripe with grungy, sex-drenched prose, but they work. This is horror that infests a social setting where young people are making bad decisions that push their curiosity for all things dark and weird toward grotesque and tragic consequences.

Koja needs very little of the supernatural for her horror tales. The Cipher concerns what must be a scientific phenomenon that none of the wastrel art students who are dragged into the tale see any need to investigate beyond the fact that it is way cool and weird. In Bad Blood the hero suffers a blow to the head that leaves him with frontal lobe seizures and visions of a malevolent mass of the color silver. I knew that was going to sound ridiculous when I wrote it, but this mass of silver, which any reader is going to write off as a residual hallucination left over from the accident, is really bad news. Running around the country, drunk and stoned and hanging out with strippers, is probably not the best way to deal with it. When the story moves to the derelict home of a brujo in Michigan, the tragedy could be either purely psychological or the result of occult forces. And there is other weirdness that beggars logical explanation. The hero here is an artist, as are most of Koja's characters. As he travels the northern midwest, he gets reports from his dealer back home that the paintings he left in his charge are suddenly selling, but their new owners complain that images begin to change after they get them on the wall.

Skin is Koja's best novel and the one with the fewest traditional horror trappings. Koja never states a locale for her stores, but she is from Detroit, and a rundown Motorcity, with brutal winters and sweltering summers, seems a likely choice. Everyone is an artist of some sort. I don't know anything about what the Detroit art scene might have been like in 1990, but none of her artists make anything that seems like it would be taken seriously as art. There is lots of fantasy painting and metal sculpture. But Skin brings in the world of transgressive performance that was an important presence at that time. Koja even credits Survival Research Laboratories and books published by ReSearch in her forward to this novel. Skin is a tale of young people pushing their bodies to ever greater extremes, staging illegal performances with battling machines, real blood, and moments of masochistic ecstasy. Unfortunately, people also die. Koja is not an outsider judging this scene. She chronicles her central character's slide into madness with unflinching objectivity. The young artists in The Cipher play naively with forces they do not understand and bad things happen. In Skin the artists pursue a vision they will not relinquish even if it destroys them.

Koja's horror novels are now out of print, but they did not go unnoticed when they first appeared. The Cipher was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award and Skin was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. Her latest novel, Under the Poppy, is a sexy story set in a 19th century Belgian brothel. Reviews are good, it has won a couple of awards, and it is being adapted for the stage.

My reviews of individual Koja novels are on Worlds Without End and Goodreads

The Cipher
Bad Brains

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