Books

These 10 Novels About Cults Will Keep You Up At Night

The stories are fictional, but the threat is real.

If organized crime, brainwashing, and new religious movements fascinate you, your reading list is about to get a little longer. These novels about cults will keep you reading long past your bedtime. The stories are fictional, but the threats are all too real.

Reading cult survivors’ stories forces us to confront hard questions about ourselves. You might wonder whether you are susceptible to cult brainwashing, whether you grew up in a cult, or if you’re in one now. Only you can answer those questions for yourself, and it might take a very long time to sort through your childhood trauma.

Since the mid-20th century, not a decade has gone by without one or more major cults captivating the United States. The Manson Family, the Peoples Temple, the Rajneeshees, the Branch Davidians, the Church of Scientology, NXVIM... the list goes on. Since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, much attention has been paid to the similarities between QAnon and cult activity, and how understanding cults may help the United States to end QAnon’s reign over U.S. conspiracy theorists.

Here are the novels about cults you should read this year:

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1

A teenager trapped in a religious family cult flees an arranged marriage and searches for her estranged mother in Kristy Dallas Alley’s The Ballad of Ami Miles. When she’s promised in marriage to an older man and told that she must bear his children, Ami finally escapes the Heavenly Shepherd compound and goes looking for answers to all her questions about her upbringing and the wider world.

2

Set in the mountains of rural West Virginia, Amy Jo Burns’ debut novel centers on Wren Bird — the 15-year-old daughter of a snake-handling, gas-station preacher — as she comes to realize that her father’s sermons may be delusions, or even outright manipulations.

3

Psychically bonded twins take center stage in Diana Clarke’s riveting debut novel. Rose has spent the last year in residential treatment for anorexia, and her twin sister, Lily, is her only connection to the outside world. Lily’s life is far from perfect, however, and when she turns to a cult centered around disordered eating to make sense of the world around her, it’s up to Rose to find a way to save her before it’s too late.

4

Based on the story of the Peoples Temple and Jonestown, Fred D’Aguiar’s Children of Paradise follows Joyce and her daughter, Trina, to Guyana. Held under the sway of a charismatic preacher, Joyce finds her view of the rainforest utopia soured by the man’s sexual advances toward her. When Trina is hurt in a tragic accident, only to be revived by the cult leader, Joyce comes to realize that she and her daughter are caught in the center of a deadly web.

5

As the end of her first year of college draws near, Emily feels adrift. She’s failed to connect with anyone, and she’s too far from home to see her family. When a campus group called the Kingdom invites her on a mission trip to Italy, Emily thinks she’s found the college experience of her dreams... until she’s trapped in Italy with no passport and no clear way out of the Kingdom.

6

From the author of An Unkindness of Ghosts and The Deep comes this chilling tale of a woman raising her twin children on the outskirts of the controlling society in which she was raised. Vern’s little family is always on the run, but when they find themselves backed into a corner, Vern will have to unleash her mysterious powers — powers even she herself doesn’t fully understand — if she wants to preserve the freedom she’s worked so hard for.

7

Orphaned in a car accident, Lo and Bea parted ways when Bea left her baby sister with a relative to join The Unity Project. Ostensibly a charitable organization, The Unity Project has never been anything but suspicious to Lo. When an opportunity to investigate The Project lands on Lo’s doorstep, the journalist pulls up stakes to save her sister... but can she get Bea out before it’s too late?

8

A year after her father mysteriously vanished, Olivia follows his trail to the Levitation Center — a strange mountain retreat that promises to teach its residents how to achieve total weightlessness. But as she and three other teen girls make their way through the Levitation Center’s programming, Olivia comes to realize that they may not all leave the facility alive.

9

Chapel Croft has been the site of myriad tragedies over the centuries, from the reign of Bloody Mary to the suicide of the local vicar. When a new minister arrives with his daughter, the two find themselves marked as outsiders in a tight-knit community... one that harbors dark secrets.

10

A picture-perfect community is left bewildered when its latest homecoming queen disappears with a charismatic man who has promised to help her find identity and purpose. But life with Wesley isn’t all it appears, and Alice and the other women living in his home will soon be pushed to their breaking points, in We Can Only Save Ourselves.