Five by Five Books #2: “Skin” by Kathe Koja (1993)

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? Protagonist Tess Bajac is a talented metal sculptor who enters into a creative partnership with dancer Bibi Bloss and her posse of night (club) creatures. Their performing arts troupe — dubbed Surgeons of the Demolition — incorporates ever-increasing acts of ritual violence into their work, with Tess and Bibi’s collaboration resulting in a move toward powerful bio-mechanical syntheses. As their work grows stronger and finds its audience, Bibi engages in increasingly obsessive efforts to mortify her flesh through extreme body modification. Tess is torn by these developments: she knows that her work is achieving transcendence through her collaboration with the Surgeons, but she struggles to accept responsibility for — or to even want to be knowledgeable of — what Bibi slowly becomes. Skin is ostensibly a horror novel, but its grounding in a gritty, believable, industrial urban artscape lends it a resonance that few Gothic, fantastic, period, or supernatural horror novels achieve.

Who wrote it? Kathe Koja published five challenging speculative fiction/horror novels between 1991 and 1996, with Skin sitting smack in the middle of her initial print run explosion. Her first novel, The Cipher, won the Bram Stoker Award and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, ably demonstrating how well many of her works straddle traditional genre definitions. After publishing a short story collection called Extremities in 1997, Koja embarked upon a successful career as the author of young adult fiction through most of the early 2000s. She returned to intense and evocative adult fare with 2010’s Under the Poppy and its recent sequel, Mercury Waltz. Koja is an ensemble member of Nerve, a contemporary creative troupe that has brought her written work to stage in florid, interactive, theatrical environments.

When and where did I read it? Late 1990s, when we still lived in our townhouse on Harvard Drive in Watervliet, New York. I discovered Kathe Koja on a Saturday morning back when Katelin and I would make a father-daughter visit to the William K. Sanford Town Library in Colonie most weeks, so she could hang out in the kids’ section and load up on an assortment of reading material for the week, while I scavenged the grown-up shelves for my own edification. On this particular Saturday, something had recently reminded me of William Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat, which I had read in early high school days, so I went to grab and re-acquaint myself with that title again. Koja’s The Cipher was nearby on the shelf and caught my eye, so I grabbed it, checked it our, read it, and loved it. I then moved on through the rest of her early works from there, with Skin being the one that has retained the most resonance for me over the years.

Why do I like it? Kathe Koja does an absolutely extraordinary job of accurately portraying the shifting inter-personal dynamics associated with creative collaborations in evolving, amorphous or open group settings. I’ve read some reviews that criticized the “minutiae” of these interactions, but they feel very real, and they give the work much of its emotional depth and structural heft for me; this, of course, may be a function of my own experiences with such creative collaborative communities, but it works. As a long-time devotee of hard industrial culture of the Survival Research Laboratories and RE/SEARCH Publications varieties, (not to mention a fan of the garish Tetsuo: Iron Man), I was also deeply impressed at the care Koja took in exploring the motivations, manifestations, and ramifications of the creative bio-mechanical desires of Skin‘s protagonists. The story moves quickly, and characters flit in and out of the narrative (as happens in real life), and while you know early on that the whole thing is likely to end awfully, there’s a certain grandeur to watching the story arc play out to its inevitable conclusion. At bottom line, Skin is a wonderful oddball in my list of favorite novels, very different from what I normally read, and I applaud Kathe Koja for creating a powerful work that easily transcends genre stereotypes or expectations.

A five sentence sample text: “She remembered her real school, welding school: truck bodies and they had let her watch, they thought she was cute or something, had not driven her away. Hot, always, and the big ventilators going on and on and on, the endless revolution of blades big as bodies, rod and arc and the fountaining shine like stars ground to pieces, the endless eclipse one must not watch. Fascinated, silent, in roll-down pants and her hair skinned back, baseball cap and wanting to make the fire, make the metal run; she had never gotten over it, the idea of liquid metal. She remembered the smell of scorched clothing, heavy coveralls burned straight through, everything seen through the underwater gloss of welder’s goggle, the helmets most exotic; round-head spacemen with flat square eyes, the world’s most faceless mask. She had seen men — it was all men, only men — hurt, burned, once she saw a man drop the fluxless tail end of his welding rod into his low-cut shoe: hideous and funny his screaming dance; he had danced her into taped-up pant-legs as an article of faith.”


#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)