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I can’t remember when I first got interested in cults, but I know it was before I became a teenager. The first thing I read was an article about a girl who got used to the outside world after leaving a cult – all the details about the cult itself, and the girl in particular, escaped me, except that her favorite book Flowers On was in the attic (which I picked up immediately from the school library). Despite this longstanding interest, I am not sure if I could define a cult that simply, although I know that it is not always obvious, it is not always clearly dressed people behind high walls. Is the cool-looking startup that its HR department calls “People and Culture” a bit iconic? Could something like CrossFit be a cult?
According to Cults in America, a book that I happen to have on my bookshelf like any normal person, cults tend to share the following characteristics: “an authoritarian structure, the regiment of followers, the renunciation of the world, and the belief that Followers alone are gifted with the truth. ”This year’s Cultish by Amanda Montell, a book explaining how cults use language, theorizes that our interest in cults is in part a fear response. We read about cults because we wonder if this could happen to us. Cults in horror novels go a step further by placing you in the shoes of someone who it happened to or who is investigating what happened.
While there are many well-known sects in the realm of fundamentalist Christianity, there have of course been sects in all societies. This is not necessarily reflected in cult fiction, so some of the novels in the list below are not traditional “horror novels,” but rather novels that evoke a similar emotional response in the reader.
Children of Paradise by Fred D’Aguiar
Joyce and her daughter Trina live in a community in Guyana very similar to Jonestown. When Trina plays too close to the cage that holds the commune’s gorilla, Adam, she is attacked and killed – but she is later resuscitated by the commune’s preacher. Trina becomes a symbol of the leader’s godlike power. When things start to fall apart and rumors spread of a congressional delegation supposed to investigate the settlement, Joyce knows she must flee to save her daughter. She finds an unusual ally in Adam, the remarkable gorilla.
Within these walls by Ania Ahlborn
A true crime writer whose career is in crisis is invited to interview a notorious death row inmate. Jeffrey Halcomb, former cult leader, is ready to break his silence on the writer Lucas Graham alone. Graham plans to work from the crime scene, a farmhouse on a beach in Washington state where many of Halcomb’s supporters were killed. He quickly realizes that he is not alone there and that the people who have been promised eternal life are not yet completely dead.
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Last days of Adam Nevill
Kyle Freeman is a documentary filmmaker asked to make a film about a cult called Temples of the Last Days. The cult is known for a massacre in which its leader, Sister Katherine, was killed. The filming takes him to the first temple of the cult in London, an abandoned farm in France and the copper mine in Arizona, where the cult came to an end. He begins to experience eerie events surrounding his interviews with those involved in the case. Visits and sudden deaths leave him questioning what the cult awakened – and why he cares about it.
Little Heaven by Nick Cutter
Three mercenaries have been hired for a seemingly simple mission: to check on the nephew of the woman who hired them. She believes he was taken against his will to a remote location in the backwoods of New Mexico called Little Heaven, which is under the control of a secret religious cult. The mercenaries quickly realize that they are overwhelmed. Something is very wrong here. A monolith called Black Rock stands above the settlement and their escape routes are slowly being cut off. They will have to fight for their freedom against any power that has come into the settlement.
Devil’s Creek by Todd Keisling
In Stauford, Kentucky, there is a local legend that there was once a church on Devil’s Creek. A leader named Jacob Masters preached the gospel of a god without a name. The church burned to the ground, but some survivors remained, including Jacob’s six children and their grandparents. The children grew up and the city moved on. Jack Tremly was one of those children, and when he returns to Kentucky to settle his grandmother’s estate, he will discover secrets about his father and the Church. What was the nameless God of his father, and what is stirring again?
Katharinenhaus by Elisabeth Thomas
Catherine House is a school known for becoming the best and the brightest – as long as they give the school three years of their lives completely cut off from their families, most of their property, and the outside world. The school’s most dedicated students study a mysterious compound known as plasma. Ines Murillo, a budding first year at Catherine House, quickly falls in love with the house closest to home, but something is wrong at Catherine House. When a classmate is struck by a tragedy, Ines begins to suspect that there is more to the renowned school than gilded furniture and strange group meditation exercises.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Geek Love was released in 1989 and is one of the oldest titles on this list. It is the story of children who were created by their parents through a combination of drugs to be a sideshow to the family’s traveling circus. Although it is not all about living in a sect as it involves all siblings, a brother develops a sect based on amputations. As the siblings and their parents travel across the country, the war between families grows and lasts for more than a generation.
Universal Harvester from John Darnielle
In the 1990s, Jeremy worked a “good enough” job in a video store, trying not to think about his dead mother. Patrons are starting to return videos for mixing mysterious material with the film. The scenes are strange, sometimes violent, and without narration or explanation – and they were shot outside of town. This is an atmospheric story of what can be found outside of everyday life.
Collect the daughters of Jenny Melamed
Trigger warning for a belief system that is heavily based on incest. A colony emerged off the coast of a scorched land. Ten men and their families built a society based on ancestor worship, controlled breeding, euthanasia, and total control over knowledge and history. Her daughters are women in training who only have freedom in summer, when all the girls on the island are allowed to let off steam and only return home at the end of the season. At the end of a summer like this, a daughter experiences something that will change everything. This is a very disturbing story that is beautifully told.
Land of grief on the Solomon rivers
A pregnant woman escapes a religious complex and seeks refuge in the woods. There she gives birth to twins, and there she wants to stay. However, she is still being hunted by the people she tried to escape and she finds that her body is changing in some inexplicable way. To protect her family, she must leave the forest to face her past, future, and the violent America she grew up in.
If you’re looking for more cult-related reading material, check out these 100 must-have books on cults as well as these YA books on cults.