Weekly Spotlight On…Cult Classics in Literature

What, exactly, is cult fiction? In his book Classic Cult Fiction, Thomas Whissen defines it as “a reader-created genre. A cult book can appear within any type of literary genre–for instance, romance, mystery, science fiction–but will achieve cult status only on the basis of reader response. It has qualities that speak to a reader, who may feel that it has been written for him or her alone; yet this very personal appeal is widespread, and such a book may grow in popularity almost as an underground movement, inspiring a generation of readers and sometimes enduring as a mainstream classic.”

I was inspired to write this post by a list I stumbled across on Flavorwire called “10 Underrated Books Everyone Should Read”. When I scrolled through the list, I was ashamed to say that I had not heard of, much less read, a single one of the books on it. Click on the linked article title to see the full list.  The fall reading season is full of author heavyweights such as Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz, J.K. Rowling, Tom Wolfe, Barbara Kingsolver, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Justin Cronin…need I go on?  Sometimes a season filled with blockbuster names needs to be counterbalanced by something a little more unexpected.  Feel like going against the grain? Check out these books that many consider to be ‘literary cult classics’ and are guaranteed to satisfy the fiction reader:

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl

Yes, Roald Dahl wrote books for adults.  Yes, his books and stories for adults are exceptionally weird, quirky, and in this case surreal.  Like J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy that just came out today, don’t expect this material to be child-friendly.  DO expect a work of fiction that is as highly imaginative as any of Dahl’s works for children.

Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

Really, any Tom Robbins book will do, but this is considered to be one of his best.  Here is a short description: “Sort of a love story that takes place inside a pack of Camel cigarettes. It reveals the purpose of the moon, explains the difference between criminals and outlaws…and paints a portrait of contemporary society that includes powerful Arabs, exiled royalty, and pregnant cheerleaders. It also deals with the problem of redheads.” Who wouldn’t want to read this book?

A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A true crosser of genre-boundaries, this book is science fiction, horror, and literary fiction all rolled into one.  Winner of the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel and widely considered one of the most accomplished, powerful, and enduring classics of modern speculative fiction, Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a true landmark of twentieth century literature — a chilling and still-provocative look at a post-apocalyptic future.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

While not a fiction book, this biography/memoir/philosophical work is also considered to be a ‘cult classic’.  A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, this book becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live…the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Also, pretty much anything by Hermann Hesse can be considered a cult classic.  This is a work of fiction but some would argue that it belongs just as much in the philosophy section.  This classic of twentieth-century literature chronicles the spiritual evolution of a man living in India at the time of the Buddha—a spiritual journey that has inspired generations of readers.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

It accomplished for its own time and place what Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn did for his. Rents, Sick Boy, Mother Superior, Swanney, Spuds, and Seeker are as unforgettable a clutch of junkies, rude boys, and psychos as readers will ever encounter. Trainspotting was made into the 1996 cult film starring Ewan MacGregor and directed by Danny Boyle.

The Dice Man by Luke Rineheart

Here is a book description of this interesting little book: “The cult classic that can still change your life!  Let the dice decide! This is the philosophy that changes the life of bored psychiatrist Luke Rhinehart — and in some ways changes the world as well.  Because once you hand over your life to the dice, anything can happen. Entertaining,humorous, scary, shocking, subversive, The Dice Man is one of the cult bestsellers of our time.”

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Lou Ford is the deputy sheriff of a small town in Texas.  The worst thing most people can say against him is that he’s a little slow and a little boring.  But, then, most people don’t know about the sickness–the sickness that almost got Lou put away when he was younger.  The sickness that is about to surface again. An underground classic since its publication in 1952, The Killer Inside Me is the book that made Jim Thompson’s name synonymous with the roman noir.

Looking for more? I found this list from the Telegraph naming 50 cult classic books!


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