Hallucinatory, feverish, dreamlike–I keep writing and erasing these clichés to describe how Kathe Koja’s books felt the first time I encountered them in the mid-90s. She was, for me, the antidote to the complacent middle-class families threatened by horror in so much novel-length fiction of the 70s and 80s. Her protagonists were artists, fuckups, obsessives; her books felt dangerous. Performance artist Bibi can’t stop cutting her flesh. Tess creates massive SRL-inspired mechanistic sculptures. Nakota’s obsessed with the ‘funhole’ that’s appeared in the floor in Nicholas’s apartment. Robin, an artist with schizophrenia, begins to transform into an otherwordly being in the care of photographer Grant: supernatural event, or folie à deux? Koja wrote and still writes other books but it was this trilogy of novels that spoke to me then: The Cipher, Skin, and Strange Angels, all of them savage, bleak, relentless journeys into the psyches of lost and damaged people.
Her prose, her depictions of people on the edge, her eschewing of traditional plot devices–I loved all that, and she was fearless, she was audacious in these books. In the end I’m not sure the genre label was the best thing for them; she was working in a transgressive tradition that’s made literary cult heroes out of writers from Burroughs to Palahniuk and points beyond and in between. These days she mostly writes YA, which I’m sure is excellent, and a couple of years ago a non-horror adult novel, Under the Poppy, published by the delightful Small Beer Press. It seems only right, honestly, that she’s moved away from these sustained journeys into madness; it’s not a vein you can mine indefinitely with any integrity, I don’t think.
I haven’t read any of her novels in well over a dozen years; this blogger returns to The Cipher after many years and his thoughts on Koja really mirror my own.