Courtney Summers Recommends 10 (Literal) Cult Classics

Posted by Sharon on January 28, 2021
 
Fans know author Courtney Summers for her gritty, immersive young adult novels. From her 2008 debut, Cracked Up to Be, to her 2018 bestseller Sadie, a Goodreads Choice Award–nominated story about a young girl's disappearance partly told in podcast form, Summers has proved that she is unafraid to tackle tough teen topics head-on.

Her newest book, The Project, examines the dark allure of cults as Lo Denham tries to save her sister from a mysterious community—without losing herself in the process. The Project hits U.S. shelves on February 2. Ahead of the book's release, we asked Summers to share with us some of the books she turned to in her research on cults, as well as her recommendations for further fictional reading.

 
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There’s something perennially fascinating about cults, isn't there? In light of a recent high-profile criminal case involving a cult (that inspired two separate docuseries), it may seem as though the subject is enjoying a renaissance in the popular imagination, but public interest in the topic has always marked more than a passing moment. The question of what would make a person walk into such a terrible situation, and whether or not we would make the same choice, proves an irresistible thought experiment that oftentimes reveals a certain hubris; most of us just don’t believe we’d ever join a cult.

Of course, it’s easy to stand outside a situation and declare yourself above it. Because of this, when I wrote my new novel, The Projectinspired by Peoples Temple and about a girl determined to save her older sister from a cult—it was important for me to approach, and reflect, the complexities and contradictions of cults, and the experiences of victims and survivors, with as much empathy and as little sensationalism as possible. I didn’t want The Project to define itself by how far removed we are from the world it presents—but how close.
 
That said, here’s a list of ten book recommendations with a little something for everyone (YA, crossovers, and nonfiction!) that explore the world of cults with all the nuance and care the subject demands—and deserves.

 
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Reading a Stephanie Kuehn novel feels a bit like a confrontation. Her work has a way of peeling back and exposing those irredeemably human qualities in all of us, forcing us to reckon with the fact that the book we’ve just read might have been a mirror all along. These talents are on full display in The Smaller Evil, a novel about a struggling boy who finds himself at a retreat run by a charismatic man named Beau. What unfolds is a disorienting and gripping tale of all that lies in the space between what we think we know and everything we don’t.


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Girl in a Bad Place follows two best friends whose loyalty and love for one another is put to the test by an off-the-grid commune called Haven, run by a man called Firehorse. While Cara adores the life she finds there, Mailee’s convinced Haven is hiding something. This unputdownable coming-of-age novel is as tender as it is suspenseful, due to Ward’s deep understanding of how easy it is to prey upon a person’s developing sense of self. She skillfully examines what it means to be a victim, witness, and bystander without judgment and cleverly asks readers to do the same.


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Timely is one word to describe McWilliams’ debut, which includes a cult—and a pandemic. Agnes is a devout follower of the Prophet but is forced to act against his teachings to procure the insulin her diabetic brother needs to survive. Her sister, Beth, has always met the strict rules of their community with far greater skepticism. Though Agnes at the End of the World pushes past genre conventions to exciting results, the motivations of its characters are firmly grounded in reality and, as they reconcile with their faith and the world around them, deeply relatable.


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The Girls follows 14-year-old Evie Boyd, whose fascination with a young woman named Suzanne gets her tangled up in a Manson-esque cult. Emma Cline’s first novel is a compellingly written fever dream; so much of The Girls serves as an unsettling reminder of the fragile path we walk at our most vulnerable—and how easily we can be taken advantage of.


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The Liar’s Daughter asks us to consider the lives of cult members who did not choose their circumstances—but were born into them. Piper has never questioned Father, or life inside the compound, until a government raid rips her away from the only world, and family, she’s ever known. Told in chapters alternating between life Before and After the raid, Megan Cooley Peterson’s novel is a testament to the necessity of compassion and understanding when it comes to approaching survivor narratives.


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The Incendiaries explores faith and loss through the perspective of a man whose girlfriend leaves him for a cult. This is a gorgeously written character study of someone trying to understand what might be beyond all understanding and leaves us considering the role we play and the impact we might have—for better or worse—in one another’s lives.


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Beautiful Revolutionary is a fictional account of life inside Peoples Temple, primarily from the perspective of one of Jim Jones’ mistresses, Evelyn (based on Jones’ actual mistress Carolyn Moore Layton). What Woolett captures so well is a world and generation in turmoil, politically and socially, one that made it easy for people to get caught up in Jim Jones’ tantalizing vision.


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Raven was one of many books I read in the name of research for The Project. This is a comprehensive account of the life of Jim Jones, the members of his church, its inner workings, and the unfathomable tragedy that took place in 1978. Reiterman is a surviving journalist of the Jonestown massacre and his record of the rise and fall of Peoples Temple does not lack for details in its quest to find out how and why something like this could happen. There is no answer, ultimately, but the power of Raven is in its determination to ask every question.


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Moore, who lost both of her sisters and nephew in Jonestown and who runs the website Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, has dedicated much of her life to creating a space where people are forced to reconsider their assumptions about cults and their leaders, victims, and survivors. Though this book specifically applies to Peoples Temple, there’s much to take away from the analysis she provides, including our own complicity in these kinds of tragedies when we contribute to or feed into the sensationalism surrounding them.


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When Leigh Fondakowski decided she’d write a play about Peoples Temple, she spent three years interviewing survivors, determined to do their stories justice. The result was a successful run of The People’s Temple, and this book, a transcript of some of those survivors’ accounts. Plenty of memoirs were released in the aftermath of Jonestown and it’s important to read them, but if you’re unsure of where to begin, this is a great launching point. Stories from Jonestown strips the Jonestown narrative of its sensationalism and critically reminds us of the humanity, the very real people, at its heart. And that’s something we should all, always, be mindful of.


Have you read any of Courtney Summers' book recommendations? Which ones have caught your eye? Let's talk books in the comments!

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Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Neide (new)

Neide Gomes Good selection! I'm looking forward to read The Liar's Daughter.


message 2: by Jenny (new)

Jenny Farn Thank you! I've added most of these to my list :-)


message 3: by Andrew (new)

Andrew Tucker Last Days is my all time favorite book about cults


message 4: by Martin (new)

Martin Hall @andrew tucker, thanks for the recommendation


message 5: by Angela (new)

Angela Wishlist grew again! Great recommendations!


message 6: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Welch I’d like to add Lucinda Berry’s When She Returned.


message 7: by Amber (new)

Amber Medley Going to have to check some of these out


message 8: by Elizabeth (last edited Jan 29, 2021 08:30PM) (new)

Elizabeth Aguilar If anyone's interested in learning more about Peoples' Temple that inspired the Project, I also recommend Seductive Poison. I recently read it and wow, it's worse than I previously thought. It's written by Deborah Layton, who informed the U.S. media and government about what was happening there.

Looking forward to digging into these books!


message 9: by Brigid (new)

Brigid Agnes at the End of the World is so so good.


message 10: by Zorena (new)

Zorena thanks. I loved Sadie btw. probably my top read of 2019.


Tee loves Kyle Jacobson Thanks for the recommendations. I added all of them to my TBR list.


message 12: by Erika (new)

Erika Happy to see The Girls on this list! One of my favourite books.


message 13: by Jerin (new)

Jerin Tahapary Cause of cult of darkness creeping in current societies that civilization crimes.. dark ages.


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