I can’t remember when I first became interested in cults, but I know that it was before I hit my teens. The first thing I remember reading was an article about a girl who was adjusting to the outside world after leaving a cult — all details about the cult itself and the girl in particular have escaped me except that her favorite book was Flowers in the Attic (which I immediately picked up from the school library). Despite this longstanding interest, I am not sure that I could easily define a cult, though I know that it isn’t always obvious, it isn’t always distinctly dressed people behind high walls. Is that cool-seeming startup that calls its HR department “People and Culture” a little cultish? Could something like CrossFit be a cult?
According to Cults in America, a book I just happen to have on my bookshelf like any regular person might, cults tend to share the following attributes: “an authoritarian structure, the regimentation of followers, renunciation of the world, and the belief that adherents alone are gifted with the truth.” This year’s Cultish by Amanda Montell, a book that explains how cults use language, theorizes that our interest in cults is in part a fear response. We read about cults because we wonder whether it could happen to us. Cults in horror novels take this a step further by putting you into the shoes of someone to whom it has happened or someone who is investigating what has happened.
While many well-known cults exist in the sphere of fundamentalist Christianity, cults have, of course, existed in all societies. This is not necessarily reflected in fiction about cults, so a few of the novels in the below list are not traditional “horror” novels but they are novels that elicit 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 that is much like Jonestown. When Trina, plays too near to the cage holding the commune’s gorilla, Adam, she is attacked and killed — but she is later revived by the commune’s preacher. Trina becomes a symbol of the leader’s God-like power. As things begin to fall apart and rumors of a congressional delegation coming to investigate the settlement spread, Joyce knows that she needs to escape to save her daughter. She finds an unlikely ally in Adam, the remarkable gorilla.
Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn
A true-crime writer whose career is in a slump is invited to interview a notorious death row inmate. Jeffrey Halcomb, former cult leader, is ready to break his silence to writer Lucas Graham alone. Graham plans to work from the scene of the crime, a farmhouse on a beach in Washington State where many of Halcomb’s followers perished. He quickly finds out that he is not alone there and that the people who were promised eternal life are, indeed, not quite dead.
Last Days by Adam Nevill
Kyle Freeman is a documentarian who has been asked to shoot a film about a cult known as the Temple of the Last Days. The cult is known for a massacre that included the death of its leader, Sister Katherine. The film shoots will take him to the cult’s first temple in London, an abandoned farm in France, and the copper mine in Arizona where the cult met its end. He begins to experience uncanny events surrounding his interviews with those who were involved in the case. Visitations and sudden deaths make him question what the cult awakened — and why it is interested in him.
Little Heaven by Nick Cutter
Three mercenaries have been hired for what seems to be a simple mission: to check on the nephew of the woman who hired them. She believes he may have been taken against his will to a remote place in the New Mexico backwoods called Little Heaven, which is under the control of a secretive religious cult. The mercenaries quickly realize that they are in over their heads. Something is very wrong here. There is a monolith called the Black Rock standing over the settlement and, slowly, their escape routes are cut off. They will have to fight for their freedom against whatever power has come to the settlement.
Devil’s Creek by Todd Keisling
In Stauford, Kentucky, there is a local legend that says that there was a church at Devil’s Creek once. 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 town 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 his father’s unnamed god, and what is beginning to stir again?
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
Catherine House is a school known for turning out the best and the brightest — just as long as they give the school three years of their lives in which they are fully cut off from their families, most of their possessions, and the outside world. The most dedicated students at the school study a mysterious compound known as plasm. Ines Murillo, an incoming first year at Catherine House, quickly falls in love with the closest thing to a home she’s ever found but there is something very wrong at Catherine House. When tragedy strikes a classmate, Ines begins to suspect that there is more to the prestigious school than gilded furniture and strange group meditation exercises.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Geek Love was published in 1989 and is one of the oldest titles on this list. It is the story of children created by their parents, through a combination of drugs, to be the sideshow of the family’s traveling circus. Though not strictly about life in a cult since it’s about all of the siblings, one brother develops a cult following based on amputation. As the siblings and their parents travel across the country, interfamilial warfare grows and lasts for more than a generation.
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
In the 1990s, Jeremy works at a “good enough” job in a video store and tries not to think about his dead mother. Patrons begin returning videos because they have mysterious footage intermixed with the film. The scenes are odd, occasionally violent, and without narration or explanation — and they have been shot just outside of town. This is an atmospheric story of what can be found just outside of one’s everyday life.
Gather the Daughters by Jenny Melamed
Trigger warning for a belief system heavily based on incest. Off the coast of a country that was incinerated, a colony was born. Ten men and their families built a society based on ancestor worship, controlled breeding, euthanasia, and total control of knowledge and history. Their daughters are wives-in-training, allowed freedom only in the summertime, when all of the girls on the island are allowed to run wild, returning home only at the close of the season. At the end of one such summer, a daughter witnesses something that will change everything. This is a very disturbing story that is beautifully told.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
A pregnant woman escapes a religious compound and takes refuge in the woods. There she gives birth to twins, and there she plans to stay. However, she is still being hunted by the people she has tried to escape and she finds her body changing in inexplicable ways. To keep her family safe, she must leave the woods to face her past, her future, and the violent America that created the compound she grew up in.