Had enough of being told what to read by endless literary supplements? Then let me take you deep into the world of cult pulp fiction.
I began reading proper grown-up literature when I was 14, and have never been without a book on the go since. Among the earliest were paperbacks passed on to me by my elderly, bedridden Auntie Betty, including Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury and The Pirate by Harold Robbins, which she warned me was ‘a bit saucy’: pretty soon, my feverish teenage brain was boiling over with descriptions of high-class orgies, anal penetration and amyl-nitrate-fuelled orgasms. ‘I wish I could write as well as Mr Robbins,’ my English teacher said sarcastically when he caught me reading The Adventurers under the desk. I bet he did – in the ’70s, Robbins was probably the world’s bestselling author, and the doe-eyed, high-cheekboned models on his book covers perfectly evoked the world of money, sex and glamour that he obviously moved in.
Nowadays, you’re not likely to find much by Robbins in your local W.H. Smith’s, and while a handful of Spillane’s books have recently reappeared in omnibus editions as ‘classic crime’, he’s just as likely to be remembered for playing the murderer in an old episode of Columbo as he is for his hard-boiled thrillers.
Does that now make them cult authors, given the definition of a cult book as one that most people have heard of but haven’t read? If the name lives on after people have stopped reading you, does that confer cult status?
Other definitions found online include:
- a book that you take very seriously when you’re 17;
- a book often found in the pockets of murderers;
- a book our children just won’t get;
- a book that touches the nerve of its time with uncanny accuracy;
- a book with a small but very passionate fan base.
Quite a lot of pulp fiction could fit one or more of these descriptions. In the late 1970s, New English Library specialised in trash fiction such as the Skinhead and Suedehead novels written under various pen names by James Moffat (who influenced Stewart Home, author of the 1999 novel Cunt –now there’s a cult title if ever I heard one). NEL also produced a neat line in trash horror with books such as James Herbert’s The Rats and Guy N. Smith’s Night of the Crabs. Smith has penned well over a hundred works, mostly horror but also much else, from soft porn to Walt Disney novelizations. But even his prolific output is dwarfed by that of Walter B. Gibson, who, as Maxwell Grant, wrote 282 novel-length stories, from the 1930s to the 1950s, about US comic-book hero The Shadow. These were my favourites on NEL’s ’70s list, and I still regard it as a pity that they only reprinted the first four or five in the series.
Like Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s most famous creation, The Shadow, may live on through films and television – the 1994 movie with Alec Baldwin frequently crops up in the schedules – but when did anyone last read one of the books, and where are they now? I can’t walk past the second-hand book market beneath London’s Waterloo Bridge without devoting another half-hour of my life to the search, so far in vain. A couple of recent finds raised some excitement, however. One was the ’60s cold war/sci-fi thriller Hauser’s Memory by Curt Siodmak, an overlooked sequel to his earlier book Donovan’s Brain, which, in addition to two movie adaptations, spawned Steve Martin’s spoof, The Man with Two Brains, and a Star Trek episode called ‘Spock’s Brain’. The other find was a sci-fi tale called The Last Continent by forgotten ’70s author Edmund Cooper; his novel The Overman Culture still haunts me, from when I first read it thirty-odd years ago, as a far-sighted forerunner to the fictional worlds of The Matrix, A.I. and Blade Runner – though, of course, when it comes to cult sci-fi gods, no one beats Philip K. Dick.
The 2007 publication The Book Club Bible defines cult novels as books that dispense with conventionality, yet its list of the top ten looks conventional in content, featuring, as it does, such old stalwarts as On the Road, Valley of the Dolls, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Naked Lunch and The Dice Man. All books that broke the mould, and yes, we’ve all heard of them, but I’ll bet there are a lot of ST readers who’ve read at least three of those titles, which breaches the third arbitrary criterion.
A similarly themed top-fifty list compiled by The Telegraph – while including some sci-fi in the form of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, as well as a slew of non-fiction milestones like The Female Eunuch, No Logo, Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care and, ahem, Chariots of the Gods – predictably included Catch-22, The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird.
With a few exceptions, the lists smack of ‘literature’ with a capital L. Not that literary, timeless writing earmarks a book as potentially dull or unworthy of the kind of word-of-mouth celebrity that cult books are born out of – a status I would gladly confer, for instance, on Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
‘Cult’, though, to my mind suggests something a little more leftfield, exclusive and personal. So if you’re looking for something off the beaten track, and if you can manage to hunt them down in an obscure corner of your local charity shop or second-hand bookstore, here are ten personal recommendations, in no particular order.
- The Owl Service – Alan Garner
- The Tenant – Roland Topor
- The Day the Queen Flew to Scotland for the Grouse Shooting – Arthur Wise
- Doctor Rat – William Kotzwinkle
- The Nothing Man – Jim Thompson
- Bullet Train – Joseph Rance & Arei Kato
- Hit Man – Lawrence Block
- Out – Natsuo Kirino
- God is a Bullet – Boston Teran
- The Death of the Dragon – Sakyo Komatsu
And the people’s choices . . .
‘Junky by William Burroughs. Lifted from Austicks bookshop at Leeds Uni sometime in the mid-1970s. I wanted to read anything “beat” related at that time and thought it pretty cool to pilfer my reading materials.’ John Hunter, Leeds.
‘Joy in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse. Still the funniest writer around. His perfect prose is a pleasure to read.’ Sue Weakley, London
‘Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry by B.S. Johnson. Not sure how obscure this book is, but I suppose if a lad from Bramley has read it, it can’t be too obscure. I love it because to me this is the quintessentially postmodern novel.’ Mike Best, Leeds.
‘Nicholson Baker’s U & I: A True Story. Toe-wrigglingly luscious mental dawdling on a writer’s love and awe of Updike. It’s a story that carries on. And I used to stare at the cover for hours.’ Steve Mitchell, Duffield.
‘Does Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole count as a cult book since it is simply the finest work of fiction ever? What about Trainspotting? I am not familiar with the cult parameters, but have you heard of Hot Knife?’ Martha Hall, Massachusetts.
‘Listening to The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks at the moment – that could be a contender. Also The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell and GB84 by David Peace.’ Alan Harvey, Leeds.
‘I thought The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart was going to change my life but then I couldn’t manage to throw a six.’ Andy Horton, London.
‘Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes. Could give you a convoluted explanation about freedom of colloquial expression and a stylised multiculturalism but the more honest answer would point the finger at Bowie and Weller simultaneously marketing, proselytising, and catching me at an impressionable age.’ Alex Griffiths, Manchester.
‘The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. Unrequited love and gender confusion, a beautiful book.’ Michael Brown, Leeds.
‘Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. And I will reveal all to you via Facebook on Friday when I return from the dead.’ Roman Remeynes, Leeds.
‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Wow, man, like, yeah. A psychiatrist friend told me this is the best book he’s ever read on mental illness. I really got into this book and just sat like in an old leather armchair and devoured it. Great because it blends philosophy and plot.’ Todd Anster, Berlin.
‘Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Love the laid back narrative and the swing of the story going back and forward in time, swings your emotions too, very funny and very moving – trying to see and make sense of the craziness around you. Bought the book at a reading in York by Vonnegut in 1980 I think – he signed it for me but sadly I got divorced from my copy in my divorce – so it goes. Jo Timson, Cambridge.
‘I know what a cult film is, less sure with books. Settled on Naked Lunch, William Burroughs. Iconoclastic/iconospastic, dark farce, psychic horror, sick irony, hated by/inaccessible to authority, hit or even defined a subcultural zeitgeist.’ Tony Harrison, Greece.
‘I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger a couple of times years ago when I was in my teens and loved it. About a year ago I tried to reread it and stopped about halfway through. It was awful.’ Iain Cumming. Albuquerque.
‘I suppose It by Stephen King, cos it’s one that you said, “Paul, read this,” and I said, “I don’t read,” and I read it in about three days, about a thousand pages or summat. Also Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. A poacher’s handbook. If you’re starving, buy this book because you’ll never want to eat again.’ Paul Hazelgrave, Leeds.
‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Wow, man, like, yeah. A psychiatrist friend told me this is the best book he’s ever read on mental illness. I really got into this book and just sat like in an old leather armchair and devoured it. Great because it blends philosophy and plot.’
‘I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings three or four times when I was a teenager and now I’m rereading it after seeing all the film versions. It really makes you see all the changes they’ve made and all the months of discussion and decisions that must’ve gone into that. So in the end the films and the book get mixed up in your mind.’ Damien Hindmarch, Leeds.
My best cult novel is Augustus Carp, Esq., Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Sir Henry Bashford. Beautifully observed, painfully funny and the most brilliant debunking of Victorian calss and religious morality ever written. Given the current political state of the country, it also tells us a lot about where we are now. Bob Chedzoy, Weymouth, Dorset.
And with apologies to forums at urban75.net and Facebook . . .
‘The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. I loved it when I read it about 15 years ago.’ Maggot
‘Q by Luther Blisset. Best piece of fiction I’ve read, though admittedly I don’t read a lot of fiction.’ revol68
‘Hubert Selby Jr’s The Room.’ ViolentPanda
‘Washer Mouth: The Man Who Was a Washing Machine by Kevin L. Donihe is a masterpiece.’ Cheesypoof
‘Zenobia by Gellu Naum.’ danny la rouge
‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. A magnificent mind-fuck.’ Cloo
‘Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Has stayed with me forever.’ Liza Brett
‘The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson. Cult and incredibly rare… do I get extra points?’ Dorcas Pelling
‘J.G. Ballard’s Crash. Or Enid Blyton’s Noddy and the Magic Rubber – which is funnier for Americans.’ Tim Pilcher
‘The Gas by Charles Platt. Dan got this when we were about 15… unbelievable.’ Sam Cook
‘Douglas Coupland – Generation X and Generation A. Can I have two?’ Ayesha Ahmed Bennett
‘The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas. Norwegian modernism – as grim as it sounds!’ Heather Hill