Brian Evenson is an award-winning author of science fiction and horror whose new novella The Warren, out tomorrow from Tor.com Publishing, does a pretty good job of blending the two: it tells the story, such as we can understand it, of a man known only as X, the sole occupant of a crumbling underground bunker that might be the last outpost of a civilization ravaged by an apocalyptic war, or something else entirely. In a way, it’s an examination in fanatical belief—because when you’re pretty sure your the last person alive, you’ve got to have the courage of your convictions.
Evenson has written a number of books that deal more directly with belief: his cult-related books include Last Days (a novel about a cult of self-mutilators) and, as B.K. Evenson, Dead Space: Martyr (about the founding of cult of Unitology, a religion within the Dead Space video game franchise). Below, he shares five of his seven novels, both literary and SFF (though all play with elements of the speculative), about cults and belief.
Having grown up in (and subsequently left) a fairly all-consuming religion (Mormonism) I have, perhaps predictably, a kind of morbid fascination for cults—as long as they’re other people’s cults. In the same way you can learn a lot about sanity by looking at the insane—by seeing exaggerated versions of what the sane do—you can learn a lot about society at large by looking at cults. You can learn a lot about the limitations of human beings by examining the circumstances that cause us to give up our free will and drink the Kool-Aid (though to be fair to Kool-Aid, the cyanide-laced grape beverage that Jim Jones forced his followers to drink was actually Flavor Aid).
What follows are a few unusual cult-related novels on both sides of the literary/genre divide. They’re weird cult novels—which is to say, cult novels that don’t follow the typical tropes that cult novels do. They’re not about people chanting in smoky rooms while a human sacrifice prepares to happen, or about secret societies plotting the murder of prominent politicians—or if they are, they’re also doing something else, something to make you realize you’re reading something different than you expected.
Kraken, by China Miéville
If you’re looking for a novel about a cult of giant squid worshippers, look no further. And, for the price of admission, you get not just one squid cult, but two rival ones. Kraken is a frenetic and wonderfully madcap London-based novel that brings together sentient tattoos, squid cults, a working phaser, magic, and a whole lot more.
Children of Paradise, by Fred D’Aguiar
Born of Guyanese parents, D’Aguiar has also published a book-length narrative poem about the Jonestown massacre, Bill of Rights. Children of Paradise enters the same territory, but here, in addition to a Jim Jones-like preacher, he offers an apparently resurrected little girl as well as benign and seemingly sentient gorilla who may promise at least some members of Jones’s cult a different sort of salvation. Written in a lush, poetic style, this is a mesmerizing book that tries to depict the Jonestown experience but move beyond it to something else.
Thinner than Thou, by Kit Reed
A stinging satire of image-obsessed culture, Thinner Than Thou offers a near future in which the physical perfection of the body has become religious fervor. With the Dedicated Sisters (who help the obese youth) and Reverend Earl, who preaches the heaven of the Afterfat, Thinner than Thou is an original and surprising take on a cult that hides some quite dark secrets.
Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn
Geek Love is a novel about a family of freaks who have been deliberately bred to be that way (by way of radiation and chemicals). That’s already fairly cultish, admittedly, but when one of those freaks develops his own cult, names it after himself, and encourages his followers to practice amputation as a way of developing peace, isolation and purity, things start to get really odd. Nobody understands cult-like behavior quite as well as Katherine Dunn. This is a novel that has stuck in my mind for years, and had a big influence on me as a writer. If you haven’t read it, you should stop reading this list now and come back to it only after you have.
Sway, by Zachary Lazar
This year everybody is talking about Emma Cline’s novel The Girls for its portrayal of a Manson-like cult, but for my money, Lazar’s Sway is the more interesting Manson novel—partly because it does more than reassert what I already knew about the Manson Family. Sway is a novel that moves between the films of Kenneth Anger, the early days of the Rolling Stones, and the Manson family, using those three lenses to give a picture of the period that’s vivid and illuminating, particularly at the moments when the lenses slide over one another. Sway understands that cults are always part of a broader culture and that they express the subconscious of that culture.
The Shelter Cycle, by Peter Rock
Peter Rock’s The Shelter Cycle is about the Church Universal and Triumphant, an actual cult based in the American West that in the 1980s believed the world was going to be destroyed by nuclear war and began building survival shelters. What makes Rock’s book weird is the degree to which it’s less the cult that is unsettling, but someone who has survived it—someone who, having lost his rudder, might be capable of anything. We like to think that when we leave a cult we enter safety, but Rock’s book is partly about how cults continue to live inside us, evolving and changing, spawning other sorts of things, even long after we leave.