Sam Jordison is the author of Crap Towns, a guide to the UK’s worst places to live. His latest book is The Joy Of Sects – An A-Z of Cults, Cranks and Religious Eccentrics.
“Literature would be considerably poorer without cults and religious extremists. They’ve inspired some fine novels and riveting eye-witness accounts as well as producing rainforests’ worth of mad, bad and thoroughly dangerous books themselves. Reading all this stuff made researching my book a fascinating and enjoyable experience. Here are 10 of the best I encountered on the way.”
1. Roughing It by Mark Twain
This is one of Mark Twain’s more neglected works, but it’s one of my favourites. It’s an invaluable firsthand account of gold rush-era America written with all the wit and perception you’d expect from such a great writer. His descriptions of the early Mormon church and his time in Salt Lake City are superb. Anyone thinking of joining the Church Of The Latter Day Saints should start here. Then stop. His assessment of the Book Of Mormon is a classic: “chloroform in print”.
2. The Book Of Mormon by Joseph Smith
The book that Mark Twain disparaged is nigh on unreadable. As Twain also pointed out, if Smith had left out his favourite phrase “And it came to pass” this 500-page bible “would only have been a pamphlet”. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading, however. Its incredible tales of stone-tablets, non-existent languages, warring tribes in early America and, oddest of all, elephants, would seem completely beyond belief – if it weren’t for the fact that so many millions take them as gospel.
3. La-Bas (The Damned) by JK Huysmans
In the course of his research for this novel Huysmans became genuinely entangled with black magic groups. One of the few virtuous characters in La-Bas, a tireless master exorcist called Dr Johannes, was based on a priest, the Abbe Boullan. It only later emerged that this priest, who convinced the writer he was an all round good-egg, was also fond of performing rites involving orgies, incest and bestiality. The novel itself is remarkable: a trawl through the Satanic underworld of fin de siècle Paris complete with evil old cults, dark garrets, unspeakable rites and mad perversions. The prolonged and graphic descriptions of child murder make American Psycho look like Peter Rabbit. A must read – but not after you’ve just eaten.
4. The Private Memoirs and Confessions Of A Justified Sinner by James Hogg
James Hogg’s masterpiece. The macabre story of a Calvinist who fervently believes that he’s pre-ordained for heaven whatever happens – and consequently convinced that he can commit any sin he likes while on earth. Hideous, wicked and thoroughly entertaining.
5. Spying In Guruland by William Shaw
In the early 90s William Shaw took it upon himself to join half a dozen of the stranger British new religious movements, including the delightfully named Chrisemma, the cult of two people called Chris and Emma. I’m pretty jealous of the guts William Shaw demonstrated in getting so deeply involved with so many crazy cult groups and his descriptions of the rigours of life within the Hare Krishna organisation are unforgettable. I don’t envy him all those insanely early mornings, however.
6. Diary Of A Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley
Aleister Crowley was a one-man cult-making machine (the societies he influenced include the Ordo Templi Orientalis, the A?A?, the Golden Dawn and The Church of Thelema). He was also a prolific and talented writer – when he wasn’t rambling away in strange self-invented languages. The Diary Of A Drug Fiend is one of his most coherent works and it rivals Naked Lunch in its vivid depiction of narcotic abuse. Of course, Crowley’s ultimate contention that you can overcome addiction with the timely application of a spot of magick is belied by the crippling drug dependency that blighted his later life… but who could resist a book with such a splendid title?
7. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
I hate this book almost as much as I love it. It’s literary crack cocaine – reading it does you no good at all, but you just can’t stop. The Catholic church say that it’s full of “shameful and unfounded errors” and that Brown’s depiction of Opus Dei is riddled with inaccuracies. Of course, as a writer of fiction it’s Brown’s prerogative not to let the truth get in the way of a good story. Although his many critics are at least right when they say that the prose is terrible, the self-mortifying mad albino monk is a great villain.
8. My Life In Orange by Tim Guest
Tim Guest grew up in a cult and lived to tell the tale – and an incredible tale it is too. His description of life within the communes run by the orange-wearing followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is a riot of no-holds-bound craziness, boundary-pushing extremism and terrible, terrible dancing. It’s a credit to the author that he can recount it all with such wry humour.
9. The Satanic Bible by Anton S LaVey
So impressive was Anton LaVey’s shaven-headed appearance as the leader of the Church Of Satan that Roman Polanski employed him to play the devil himself in the film Rosemary’s Baby. He was a smart writer too. Skip all the strange stuff in the bizarre Enochian language and concentrate on LaVey’s startling and lucid essays. They’re surprisingly funny and diabolically clever.
10. The Bible
Eyes of fire, seas of blood, rivers of tears, scarlet beasts, plagues of locusts, pealing trumpets, bottomless pits, mass murder and mayhem. Now this is a crazy book.