Just what is a cult novel? Well, like so many literary terms, the edges blur whenever you try to look right at them, but in the end, you sort of know one when you read one. Sometimes a cult novel is one that the critics panned but the fans love, or sometimes it’s one that both readers and critics love, but a certain contingent of readers really love. Any book with a squadron of rabid fans swearing that it changed their lives quickly seems cultish. Cult novels often come from the fringes, they often represent countercultural perspectives, they often experiment with form. But again: you sort of know one when you see one, and this list contains 50 of the best (or at least the most notable). As always, there are many more good ones out there, and new cults forming all the time across the world, so if your favorite dog-eared novel-of-worship is missing here, add it to the list in the comments.
Speedboat, Renata Adler
Renata Adler was a formidable critical and literary figure in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with the kind of obstinate, intellectual-badass reputation that delights some and faintly terrifies others. Her self-constructed fall from grace, at least with the critical world, is well known, but she is cherished more for her first novel, Speedboat, a non-linear, delicious wisp of a thing, which immediately became a cult classic among writers and lovers of experimental literature. As Michael Robbins of the Chicago Tribune described it, the book is “the kind you buy multiple copies of to push on friends, the kind you dog-ear and mark up until it could line a camster cage. A talisman, a weapon, a touchstone.” When Speedboat and Pitch Dark were re-released by New York Review Books last year, Adler enjoyed another wave of cultish affection, this one more Internet-instant, and perhaps more widespread. Now, having read the book is certainly cool, but if you have an old edition, proving you were in the know before the re-release? That’s the culty-coolest.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Though it’s now a verified classic (taught in high schools and everything), Salinger’s classic started out as an underground cult hit, quickly becoming the bible for every disaffected youth in 1950s America (and at least one disturbed murderer of John Lennon). There was parental and school board outrage, articles about the “Catcher Cult,” and, by 1979, it was the most banned book of all time. Probably a good thing, too, because when you are a disaffected youth, there’s no silver bullet to something you love like parental approval.
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Another youth touchstone (this one more wander-youth than disaffected) that has become a big mainstream book over the years. Who never prayed to the stream-of-consciousness drug-and-poetry freedom-hymn of Jack Kerouac? Well, a number of reviewers at the time — but that didn’t stop the hordes who adored it. After all, it was a novel of its generation, held aloft by beats and counterculture kids and those just wearing black berets because it seemed like the thing to do.
A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
There is a whole legion of fans out there for this novel, most of whom will swear that it is the most hilarious book ever written. This book, like many of the others on this list, was a cult classic first and a widely popular novel second, even winning a Pulitzer. Unfortunately, this was all too late for Toole, who had committed suicide 11 years before the book made it to the public eye — thus, it must be said, greatly enhancing its cultish appeal.
Stoner, John Williams
Unlike many of the books on this list, this novel isn’t a cult classic because it’s all that strange, experimental in form, or full of angsty teenagers and their drugs. It’s a grown-up’s cult novel, a relatively obscure book with relatively sedate themes: scholarship, family, solitude. It never sold many copies, but had a small but devoted cult of writers and academics, and has enjoyed a slow-growing but significant second life since it was reprinted by NYRB in 2006. It’s one of those books that, once you read it, you’ll see it everywhere. Join the club as soon as you can.
Masters of Atlantis, Charles Portis
Now here’s a triple-whammy: a cult novel by a decidedly cult author that is also about a cult. Doesn’t get any better than that. Portis saw a little uptick in popularity after the adaptation of True Grit hit the big screens, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not enough. This is probably the most hilarious book that you’ve never read, and it’s not even his best one.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
The very scripture for the fluctuating and still omnipresent cult of Nietzsche. You’ve known a member. If you’re saying “not I, not I,” just wait until you get to college, man.
Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs
A trip in a book, banned all over the place for its obscenities and profanities and needle drugs, it has also been clutched to the chest of many an open-minded reader as they shouted against censorship. And hey, unlike many onetime cult novels that were made into popular films, this cult novel has a cult film to match.
Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
The cult novel of choice for those studying abroad. Preferably in the Himalayas, but really anywhere will do.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
For a certain set of young readers in the ‘70s, this trilogy was essential — a satirical, sci-fi, raunchy, manic, conspiracy-filled romp that had to be on the shelf of any worthwhile human. For a certain set of readers, it still does.
Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
I hesitate to put this book under any heading with the term “essential” in it, but what Rand’s novel lacks in literary merit it makes up for in extreme, rabid cultishness. Rand fans are devoted, divers, and (at least in the comments on this website) often disgruntled. Well, you can see why.
Dune, Frank Herbert
This novel might just have the most intense fans of any work of science fiction ever. In fact, Herbert was famously asked — repeatedly — if he was building up a cult, which anyone who has read any of the Dune books should know was ironic to the point of hilarity. But whether or not Herbert reigned supreme over it in a fancy hat, his novels had and still have a cult following — and by now, a popular one, too.
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
Do you grok it?
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
A well-regarded novel for all of its life, to be sure — but it has always managed to seem both like a successful book and like a cult classic, probably in part because of the culty group of college students it follows, but also because of the kind of extreme devotion it elicits in readers, especially teenage ones. If only her next two novels inspired such unequivocal devotion, you might say — but if you’re part of the Secret History cult, you’ll love them just the same. On principle, really.
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
This is a cult classic squarely rooted in the modern age — that is, it had already developed a cult following on the mysterious interwebs before its 2000 publication and subsequent print-based cult following. It’s probably too weird for mainstream consumption, and will never be read on a Kindle. And then there are those who hate it, a lot, which makes it all the cultier.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
Kind of cheesy now, but one of the most influential cult novels of all time. Fun fact: Pirsig’s book was rejected more times by publishers than any other eventually bestselling novel.
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
This one is a little bit of an obscure classic, but when you find someone who has read it, they have also invariably loved it, and the two of you will be squealing for hours. What’s more cultish than a few crazy people jumping up and down together over an old book?
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
AND IN THAT MOMENT, I SWEAR WE WERE INFINITE. Just like the teenagers who love this book.
Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
Calvino is a little too dignified — and universally acclaimed — to be a traditional cult author, but the reverence with which this book is spoken about by writers and readers alike (hushed tones, closed eyes) makes it seem as though somebody, somewhere is probably sacrificing in its name.
Watchmen, Alan Moore
Moore’s masterpiece is beloved of nerds and normals alike, but still maintains that dangerous, underground vibe that earns it a cozy spot on this list.
Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
A book so good its fans can’t but make little guttural noises in the backs of their throats when asked about it. And weird as hell, like, perhaps, those very fans.
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware
Though eagerly passed from hand to hand and often described as the best graphic novel of all time, Ware’s rise to cult status was a slow burn. Now, with his most recent release, Building Stories, one might say he’s achieved a kind of household name status. If your household is arty.
Youth in Revolt, C.D. Payne
An epistolary YA cult classic only slightly tarnished by the lukewarm Michael Cera movie.
Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker
You will inevitably come away from this outrageous, feminist, metafictional, collaged cult classic without a strong opinion — one way or the other. Whichever side you come down on, you might not want to read it on the subway.
Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann
Now, this one is a cult classic the way films are cult classics — in the sense that it’s so bad it’s good, or at least, really bad but people love it anyway. You’ll start out scratching your head over the fact that it’s a mega-bestseller, but then you’ll eat it up and understand.
Ham on Rye, Charles Bukowski
Honestly, everything Bukowski’s ever written is pretty culty. You kind of have to be a true believer to be into it. But when you’re in, you’re in — and a whole lot of people are.
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
Another relatively popular one, made cultish by the fervent love of its fans (although, with recent revelations about Card’s homophobia, some cult members may be having second thoughts about championing the book so wholeheartedly).
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Another cult classic gone classic-classic, and perhaps the funniest book ever written about war.
Lanark, Alasdair Gray
A sprawling cache of wonders that took Gray 30 years to complete, Lanark is woefully under-appreciated by the literary mainstream, especially on this side of the pond. But those in the know, well, they know. You know?
This Is Not a Novel, David Markson
Or really anything by David Markson, long a writer’s writer, an experimentalist, a plotless rambler that can keep you pegged to your seat — all in all, a creator of what at least once person called “porn for English majors.”
The Dice Man, Luke Rhinehart
Nothing screams “I AM A CULT NOVEL” more than these words emblazoned on the cover: “Few novels can change your life. This one will.” Urgh, we all groan. But in the ‘70s, it worked, and if hearsay can be trusted, this subversive novel (about a disaffected psychiatrist who trusts all his decisions to a roll of the die) changed quite a few.
Fear of Flying, Erica Jong
This book — a frank-talking, progressive bildungsroman about a young woman trying to figure out love/sex/life — is over 40 years old, still a legend, and still a subject of contention. And while it was never really not a bestseller, it still feels like a cult book — not least because of how many have held it aloft, yelling “this” for hours on end.
The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel
The first in a series of Cro-Magnon romances written by a Mensa member. People love these books.
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
Delany’s convoluted sci-fi classic gets its cult status from its extreme divisiveness. Theodore Sturgeon called it “the very best ever to come out of the science fiction field.” Harlan Ellison famously threw it against a wall.
Generation X, Douglas Coupland
This is the novel that coined the term “Generation X.” According to Coupland, he “just want[ed] to show society what people born after 1960 think about things… We’re sick of stupid labels, we’re sick of being marginalized in lousy jobs, and we’re tired of hearing about ourselves from others.” Preach.
The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk
Not Pamuk’s best-known novel by any means, but often cited as the one in which he really came into his own, and dearly beloved by all true fans.
Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
A notoriously difficult, feminist, modernist cult classic that often feels more like poetry than prose.
The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
The ultimate in metaphysical/quantum mechanical literature — known of by many, loved by a fervent few.
The Gormenghast Trilogy, Mervyn Peake
This epic, unclassifiable series earned a cult following in the ‘60s and never lost it. The trilogy is still obscure, its few fans still on their soapboxes, yelling into the void. C.S. Lewis, one of the soapbox-sitters, once called Peake’s works “actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.”
V. , Thomas Pynchon
Or really, anything by Thomas Pynchon, whose ghostly visage literary nerds trawl Manhattan to glimpse.
Neuromancer, William Gibson
Like Pynchon, Gibson himself is a figure who inspires cultish devotion. But Neuromancer probably had — and still has — the most immediate tech-cult appeal.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Wallace is no underground writer, of course. But anybody who gets through Infinite Jest is doomed to proselytize about it until they are reduced at the end of their days to a slobbering mess in front of their bookcase.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
Enter the cult of the college student.
Kindred, Octavia Butler
Why is Octavia Butler still such a cult author? I couldn’t tell you. At least the cult seems to be slowly growing — that’s what happens when everyone who picks up one of her books falls totally in love with her.
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
It’s sort of funny to call this a cult novel, considering how popular it is, but this is one of those that just, forgive me, feels culty. That is, it’s political and irreverent and sometimes banned, and people go crazy for it. So, it’s getting counted.
Why Did I Ever, Mary Robison
Because when you read this, it feels like an initiation.
Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar
A cult classic of postmodern brilliance in choose-your-own-adventure (sort of) style.
Anthropology of an American Girl, Hilary Thayer Hamann
A novel that gained a cult following when it was independently published in 2003 and only picked up more fans when it was reprinted by Random House’s Spiegel & Grau seven years later. Plus, reviewers constantly refer to it as a girl’s version of Catcher, not to mention “a stern rebuke to chick lit everywhere.”
Ice, Anna Kavan
A surreal end-of-the-world novel first published in 1967, before such things were all the rage, and secretly passed from apocalyptic youth to apocalyptic youth ever since.
The Magus, John Fowles
Some turn their noses up at this lengthy postmodern psychological novel, but the ones (mostly young, mostly men) who fall for it fall hard. And hey, it’s pretty sexy, so that doesn’t hurt.