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The Cipher Mass Market Paperback – January 5, 1991

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Down-and-out Nicholas and his friend Nakota one day discover a black hole in the floor of an abandoned storage room in his apartment building, which they quickly christen the "Funhole." The two set out to see what happens when they drop various items into the hole, whetting its appetite with insects, a mouse and a human hand, which all come back violently rearranged. Next, they lower a camcorder into the hole to record the action within. The videotape they retrieve is spellbinding, but there's a catch: what Nicholas sees is different from everyone else's vision. To Nakota the hole means change, because whatever is dropped into the Funhole emerges transformed-- if it ever emerges. Mesmerized by the Funhole, she claims that Nicholas is the only one who can make things happen around it. For Nicholas himself, the hole is a phenomenon that forces him to face his miserable, aimless life. Koja has created credible characters who are desperate for both entertainment and salvation. Inaugurating Dell's new Abyss Books series, this powerful first novel is as thought-provoking as it is horrifying.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Winner of both a Bram Stoker Award and a Locus Award in 1991, Koja’s debut has yet to lose one iota of impact. It’s a marvel of bleak economy: Nicholas, going nowhere in his video-store-clerk job, discovers a foot-wide black vortex in an old storage room of his apartment building. His caustic sometime-lover, Nakota, christens it “the Funhole” and begins inserting experimental items: a jar of insects (they combine and mutate), a live mouse (it is ripped apart), a human hand from the morgue (it reanimates), and, finally, a video camera, which records a self-eviscerating figure of awe-inspiring dreadfulness—Koja only teases its description. Nakota becomes obsessed with the Funhole (a place of “blood and sex and revelation”) and is driven mad when it is Nicholas, not her, whose flesh becomes gloriously infected. The grungy, sweaty two-person drama, delivered in Nicholas’ vulgar ramble, widens to include additional viewers of the videotape who become fast new acolytes. Seemingly influenced equally by Clive Barker, David Cronenberg, and a particularly distasteful nightmare, this entry into the body-horror canon carries with it the kind of fatalism horror readers prize—it’s going to end badly, for sure, but just how badly? Currently available in an e-book version from multiple sources, this is well worth rediscovering, if you’ve got the guts. --Daniel Kraus

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Product Details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 356 pages
  • Publisher: Dell (January 5, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0440207827
  • ISBN-13: 978-0440207825
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 4.5 x 7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #362,192 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Stantz on August 10, 2013
Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase
In the introduction to the current edition, the author notes that people seem to either love the book or despise it, suggesting indirectly that those who despise it have a problem with its extreme subject matter as opposed to the way it's written. Sadly, this isn't exactly accurate.

The hole (funhole) stuff is GREAT. Creepy, uncomfortable, squishy, can't-put-down-the-book great. It's creative, it's primal, it's scary, it's imaginative, it makes you think you'd never do what the protagonists are doing, it makes you wonder if you could resist doing what the protagonists are doing, etc. And I didn't mind the William Gibson-meets-Stephen King in your face prose, though it was a little silly and distracting at times.

The rest of the book...Well, I'll put it this way. About 1/3rd of the way in, the book has one-upped itself in a way that has kept you fully engaged - first putting objects in the hole, then insects, then a human hand, etc, etc. But at this point, you suddenly realize: how the heck is this book going to sustain itself for the remaining 2/3rds?

And that's when the extraneous characters show up, and unnecessary plot elements, and a strange critique of the modern art world and its sycophants is introduced, and some people move into the apartment, and blah blah blah, and it's not particularly well-written. And while you could make all sorts of symbolic connections to the funhole, it feels VERY amateurish and shoehorned, and you are just hoping to get rid of this crap and get back to the hole.

I wouldn't mind if this stuff had been better integrated - but it really feels like the whole circus shows up just when the main premise starts to run out of steam.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By on September 21, 1998
Format: Mass Market Paperback
An introspective, overwhelming, claustrophobically creepy horror novel in which you're not entirely sure anything has "really happened". A combination of the intricate "other world" detail of the best of 1920's sci-fi horror fiction, with the dark, compulsive nihilism of the best of punk. Along with a really realistic portray of personal relationships. Does all that sound overly pretentious? Well, it is, but the book ISN'T. I picked the book up one morning on the way to work, and didn't do a damn thing until I finished it after lunch.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By J. Daniel Stone on December 12, 2011
Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase
Obsession: we all suffer from it, we all dabble into its temptation. But what do we do when we can't LET GO of it? We swim into its viscous waters, drown, and then rise again. Or do we?

This is the constant battle in THE CIPHER, written by the once QUEEN of Horror, the macabre, obsession and the wasted twenty somethings of the American landscape: Kathe Koja. Koja weaves a tale inspired by Alice in Wonderland and everything H.P. Lovecraft, with prose influenced by Burroughs, Poe and Burgess, which is uniquely Koja's own. I first read the book in 2008 and didn't get it. Not until I picked it up again a year later was I floored (I'd become a better reader). It's perhaps the best book to come off the Dell Abyss line (Koja's other titles were just as good, but didn't tap the same vein as this did, though Strange Angels comes closest), and it's also probably one of the most unique books written in the 90's when everything was about horror and blood and gore, Koja stood far away from that and made us realize what went on inside people's heads. Koja is a master at what she does, and even with her new book Under the Poppy, she hasn't lost her touch.

Truly, unrepentantly, brilliant!
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
When Nicholas and Nakota discover an inexplicable, endless hole which they christen the Funhole, they're both drawn to it. Nakota experiments with the hole's otherworldy transformative properties, but it's Nicholas who finds himself transformed by the Funhole. The Cipher is, at its heart, a simple book--but it sells itself on boldness. The premise is straightforward, but so outlandish that it immediately intrigues; the plot is sparse, but its simplicity allows the book to focus on the bizarre Funhole itself. The Funhole is introduced on page one, and it's so strange a concept that it seems like it couldn't get any weirder--but it does. With each page, Koja pushes the premise to a new extreme, and the evolving parade of grotesqueries and impossibilities is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying. All of this is couched in a strong narrative style: Nicholas's first person narration is somewhere between stream of consciousness and spoken word, thoroughly exploring the psychological effects of the Funhole and bringing his gritty dirty world and the cast of characters--most of them otherwise unlikable--to vivid and compelling life.

For all of this, The Cipher was not, for me, a perfect book. The ending lags, perhaps because I had adjusted to the style and premise, and so neither remained so compelling; perhaps because the ending is too intangable--and while intangibility compliments the book's themes, it's a weak conclusion to such a brutal and straightforward plot. These complaints are mere nitpicks, however, and The Cipher is as dark, compelling, and disturbing as the Funhole at its center. I recommend it with enthusiasm: if the premise of the Funhole intrigues, then Nicholas's long journey into it will satisfy.
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