Stupid Children by Lenore Zion

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  Stupid Children

Author:  Lenore Zion

Type of Book:  Literary novel

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Children are tortured with nasal balloons and animal entrails.

Availability:  Published by Emergency Press in 2013, you can get a copy here:

Comments: The cover of this book drew me in.  A white little girl – white skin, white underwear, long blonde hair – is standing behind a rope in a ragged backyard in late fall, or early winter.  The look on her face is unfathomable to me, but the confrontation is undeniable.  She is standing there, in her socks and underwear, unprotected in the wind, literally holding on by a string, and staring at you, the reader.  Her expression could be anything from veiled disgust to melancholy to vague interest in the camera as a break in the bleak boredom of the landscape.

This book, at turns neurotic and gross, touching and funny, is grounded by this cover.  This book has a strange, over-the-top cult that engages in really nasty rituals.  The heroine of the book is hilarious and neurotic.  The plot-line gets loose at times and the wackiness of the book can occasionally make the reader forget that at its heart this is still a book about a little girl whose mother is dead, whose father is in a mental institution, who ends up in foster care in the home of cultists who marry her off to an old man in a scenario reminiscent of so many stories that came out of the FLDS sects.  Zion handles all of this heaviness with a humor and open-minded acceptance of the bizarre, but the cover ensures you remember a smart little girl in a forsaken place is at the center of the story.  Outside of House of Leaves, I can can’t recall a time when a book’s cover ensures you don’t miss some of the most important details of the book.  The girl on the cover helps you remember that this is a very upsetting book, even as you find the prose quite amusing at times.

Quick synopsis:  Jane’s mother is dead and her father had a breakdown.  He attempted suicide and becomes  a long-term resident in a mental hospital.  Jane is sent to live in foster care and ends up living with a family indoctrinated into the fictional Second Day Believers, a strange cult that merges properties of Scientology (weird ideas about mental illness and its treatment), FLDS (marrying young girls off to older men powerful in the cult) and a very gross, borderline pagan attraction to animal entrails.  Jane becomes close to her foster brother, Isaac, and their relationship takes a dark turn as Isaac becomes rather unhinged himself, a young proxy in Jane’s affection for her unbalanced father.  Jane eventually becomes far more valuable to the cult than the cult is to her but her love of Isaac keeps her from leaving the madness until Isaac forces the issue in an act of numb but horrifying violence.

Let me get the hard criticism out of the way before I sing this book’s praises.  The ending was rushed and, in a way, a bit contrived.  It all happened too fast.  The reader doesn’t get to see what happens and because it is so rushed, we miss out on some catharsis. The reader needs that catharsis because this book, as funny and sarcastic as it can be at times, also has some hard and upsetting content.  We need to have that BAM! moment and it gets lost in the rush.  Not entirely – you won’t be left feeling like doors were left open, but you also don’t get the satisfaction of hearing those doors slam shut.

With my main criticism out of the way, let’s dissect why this book is worth reading.

The Cult Files by Chris Mikul

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief

Author: Chris Mikul

Type of Book: Non-fiction, cults, religion, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is very subjective, but as an atheist I find all religious beliefs a bit odd. Extreme cults are therefore all the more odd.

Availability: I read the Metro Books edition, but this book has been released by Amazon for Kindle, and that edition is a better bet:

Comments: This book was in my to-be-discussed pile back in 2011 (yeah, I am still catching up) when Chris Mikul sent me copies of his excellent ‘zine, Biblio Curiosa. We began a friendly correspondence and he gave me some interesting information about this book. Evidently his publisher was concerned that some of the content in the book could lead to a lawsuit and demanded the book be radically edited. Mikul sent me the excised chapters but I am limiting myself to the content in the actual book because it seems unfair to discuss material that my readers won’t be able to read for themselves.

But even though he had to cut out some pretty interesting discussions, The Cult Files remains a very absorbing book. Though I am reasonably well-read on the subject of cults, I found information new to me in this cult anthology. There are some of the usual suspects, like the Branch Davidians and Jonestown, but every other chapter had something completely new to me.  That Mikul discussed one of my “favorite” cults, the Ant Hill Kids, led by the repellent and vile Roch Thériault, just sealed the deal for me. Thériault didn’t get much play in the USA and is one of the most fascinating cult leaders, far more interesting than Charles Manson and, in my opinion, at least as toxic as David Koresh. So that was definitely a point in Mikul’s favor.

To prevent this from becoming an extremely long discussion, I’ll just discuss the chapters in this book I found the most interesting or that were new to me when I read the book.

Before I begin, I need to state that not all of the cults discussed in this book fit my criteria of what makes a cult, but it must also be said that I use a pretty strict measure that requires a single charismatic leader, alienation from family and friends, no financial control for followers, increasingly strict punishments for continually changing “sin” metrics, different rules for those in favor with the leader, an inability for followers to question anything, an inability to leave with impunity and more. Mikul doesn’t define his metric with such exacting specificity, though he does give an idea of what a cult may be and how what defines a toxic cult can vary from person to person and from sect to sect. However, his metric comes pretty close to that espoused by Robert Lifton, who stated three different categories to consider when discussing cults: a charismatic leader who positions himself or herself to become the focus of worship, employing brainwashing or thought control methods, and exploitation of the rank and file cult members by the upper echelons of the cult. Even if the cults Mikul discusses in this book may not meet my stringent standards, they meet Lifton’s, who is far more of an expert.

The book begins by discussing the Thuggee in India, a group of traveling confidence killers who preyed on other travelers. They became associated with the garrote, their most common method of killing. I knew a bit about the Thuggee just from osmosis because of my varied reading habits, but I had not known they were dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Kali, the goddess of death and destruction (among other things). The Thuggee were more or less suppressed and destroyed by the British Raj. Before reading this I had considered the Thuggee to be murderous equivalents of the Irish Travelers, con men and women who just upped the ante in scams via murder. I suspect part of it is because I always think of cults in terms of charismatic leaders, and the Thuggee were not organized in this manner, or at least they weren’t when they were in their heyday. But there are typical cult elements that one commonly sees in cults that allow the Thuggee to qualify as a cult, like an us-versus-them mentality, justifying all behaviors, even that which is illegal, as ordained by elevated or outsider status. I think it was an interesting choice to include the Thuggee in this book.

Cosmic Suicide by Rodney Perkins and Forrest Jackson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Cosmic Suicide: The Tragedy and Transcendence of Heaven’s Gate

Authors: Rodney Perkins and Forrest Jackson

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime, cults

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It was a look at the Heaven’s Gate suicide when events were still relatively fresh and mass cult suicide is always a bit strange. The book is also listed as a source in the amazing book Strange Creations by Donna Kossy and would be a honorary odd book on that merit alone.

Availability: Published by Pentaradial Press in 1997, you can get a copy here:

Comments: When I began reading this book I thought there would not be much that was new to me. I had already read quite a bit about the Heaven’s Gate cult, those strange, asexual computer geeks in California who killed themselves en masse to be able to board the spacecraft they were sure was traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. And in a way, I was correct. The book tells very succinctly the story of how two lost souls – Marshall Applewhite and Betty Lu Nettles – met and fed off each other, creating the New Age death cult that became Heaven’s Gate.

All the details that caught the public’s morbid imagination are there. The androgyny of those who took their lives, the voluntary castrations of some of the men, the presence of Nichelle Nichols’ brother among the suicide victims. It all made for very tawdry television.

The case interested me for a couple of reasons, above and beyond the strange details of the suicide and Art Bell phone call that some believe was the genesis for the belief that there was something following behind the Hale-Bopp comet – later interpreted as a space craft by Heaven’s Gate members. By killing themselves, they thought they would meet up on the space craft with Betty Lu Nettles, who had died, and achieve what they called T.E.L.A.H. – The Evolutionary Level Above Human.   All of that was sort of interesting, but strangely bloodless in a way. The way the cult killed themselves was orderly, calm, and without the sort of horror I associate with mass suicides.