The best cult books

What makes a cult classic? It can be hard to characterize or predict, but cult novels inspire fervent devotion in certain sections of their readership. Discover our edit of the best cult books.

10/08/2020
2 minutes to read

Cult classics, whether they are bestsellers or hold a special niche appeal, inspire passion among their devotees. It’s hard to define what gives a book cult appeal: some capture the essence of a subculture at a particular time, give voice to marginalized people or inspire new ways of thinking in their fans. All are sure to spark conversation and debate. Here is our edit of the best cult novels.

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by Rian Hughes

Book cover for 9781529020571

Rian Hughes’s novel uses the full narrative potential of graphic design, using twenty-first-century visual culture to ask who we are, and where we may be going next. When an extraterrestrial signal is detected, artificial intelligence expert Jack Fenwick is sure he can decode it. But when he finds a way into an alien realm, he finds it already inhabited by ghostly entities that may come from our own past. This unique novel includes NASA transcripts, news and magazine articles and books within books. There is no book quite like this.

American Psycho

by Bret Easton Ellis

Book cover for 9781447277705

Published to widespread uproar over its hyper-violent content, Bret Easton Ellis’s savagely funny satire of the consumerist 80s quickly became a cult classic. Patrick Bateman is young, rich, handsome and works on Wall Street. He is also a psychopath. Addicted to his perfect, superficial life, for Bateman the American Dream soon becomes an American nightmare. This Picador Classic edition comes with an introduction from another cult writer, Irvine Welsh.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

by Douglas Adams

Book cover for 9781529034523

The first book in the ‘trilogy of five’ has morphed from a late 70s cult sci-fi read to a pop-culture classic, inspiring a TV series, stage play, comic book and film. Douglas Adams’s smartly funny journey through the universe follows the misadventures of Arthur Dent and his alien best friend as they narrowly escape the destruction of Earth by hitching a ride on a spaceship. DON’T PANIC!

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

by Tom Wolfe

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Tom Wolfe’s classic of New Journalism follows the adventures of Ken Kesey – another cult writer best known for the cult hit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and his ‘Merry Pranksters’ as they travel across America in their psychedelic bus. The book is probably best known for its depiction the ‘happenings’ organised by the Pranksters, where they served the LSD-spiked Kool-Aid of the title. Over forty years on, the book is a vivid history of 1960s American counterculture.

Oreo

by Fran Ross

Book cover for 9781509888467

Fran Ross’s picaresque novel was ahead of its time when it was first published over forty years ago, and was out of print for years until it was rediscovered and became a cult classic. Oreo lives with her maternal grandparents in Philadelphia, while her black mother tours with a theatrical troupe. Her deadbeat Jewish dad disappeared when she was a baby, leaving her only a mysterious note. Oreo embarks on a quest to find her father, and what ensues is a modern parody of the odyssey of Theseus, encompassing issues of race, sexuality and identity and with a large dollop of '70s pop culture.

The White Album

by Joan Didion

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The White Album is a collection of essays by another rock star of New Journalism, Joan Didion. This mix of journalism, memoir and criticism paints a vivid picture of American culture and politics in the '60s and '70s, and begins with the famous and endlessly quotable first line ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’

Pages For You

by Sylvia Brownrigg

Book cover for 9781509836604

This cult romance is a heady story of the beginning, blossoming and falling apart of a love affair. When Flannery Jansen arrives at university, she’s unprepared for an encounter that will change her world. But when she meets Anne Arden in a local diner, she falls quickly and desperately in love and Flannery quickly becomes the older woman’s student in life and in love. The novel’s devoted fanbase eagerly devoured the sequel, Pages For Her, which was set twenty years after Pages For You.

House of Leaves

by Mark Z Danielewski

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This nightmarish novel about a house which is inexplicably bigger on the inside than the outside quickly gained a devoted cult following when it was published in 2000. Danielewski experiments with typography, unconventional page design and copious footnotes as he tells the disorientating story of the Navidson family and their explorations of their unconventional abode.

A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara

Book cover for 9781447294832

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and celebrated as ‘The Great Gay Novel’ by author Garth Greenwell, Hanya Yanagihara’s immensely powerful story of brotherly love and the limits of human endurance has had a visceral impact on many a reader. Willem, Jude, Malcolm and JB meet at college in Massachusetts and form a firm friendship, moving to New York upon graduation. Over the years their friendships deepen and darken as they celebrate successes and face failures, but their greatest challenge is Jude himself – an increasingly broken man scarred by an unspeakable childhood.

Naked Lunch

by William Burroughs

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Burrows was a leading light of the Beat Generation, alongside Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and their work had a huge influence on 1960s counterculture. Naked Lunch, which has been called ‘the most shocking novel in the English language,’ is the story of William Lee, an Ivy League-educated junkie who journeys from New York to Tangier. Based on Burroughs’ own experiences, the book was subject to obscenity trials in the US and was banned in both Boston and LA.

Siddhartha

by Hermann Hesse

Book cover for 9781529024043

Hermann Hesse wrote Siddhartha in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the book was published in translation in the US in 1951 that it started on the road to cult classic status, becoming influential in the 1960s counterculture. The story of Siddhartha’s search for enlightenment and self-discovery in an ancient Indian kingdom chimed with the hippie movement’s adventures in spirituality.


Discover even more cult books in this episode of Book Break: