What makes a book a cult classic? Is it the genre it belongs to? Perhaps it’s the themes that it examines? Or is it the author that wrote it?
The fact of the matter is, cult classics span multiple genres, explore many different themes, and are written by disparate authors. What makes a cult classic a cult classic is its reception. Cult classic novels often have a band of devoted followers that swear up and down that they see and understand something about the work that others simply don’t.
If you want to be in the know, or just want to see what all of the fuss is about around cult classics, check out the ten titles below.
House of Leaves
Fans of the Doctor Who series will be all too familiar with the concept of a dweller that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. But the labyrinthian structure at the center of Danielewski’s novel holds more horrors than delights for its inhabitants. House of Leaves contains a multitude of narratives, with two conflicting stories in conversation with one another. At the outermost layer Johnny Truant completes a manuscript left behind by Zampanò, a deceased author.
Truant picks up where Zampanò left off, digging into a documentary film, The Navidson Record. Having recently moved into a new home, everything ought to be status quo for the Navidsons—but the home keeps spawning doors, rooms, staircases that seem to go on forever. As Truant picks apart Zampanò’s manuscript, altering the text as he notates it, he comes to the conclusion that The Navidson Record simply doesn’t exist.
Valley of the Dolls
Do you remember the Shirley Temple film collection infomercials that used to be on television all the time? Clip after clip of the gold-headed starlet singing about the animal crackers in her soup? Yet Shirley Temple faced difficulties throughout her Hollywood career—from sexual abuse to an assassination attempt. As glamorous and idyllic as Hollywood seemed when we were children, we’ve come to know better.
Set in both New York and Hollywood, Susann’s Valley of the Dolls follows three women learning the difficult truth about show business. Anne, Neely, and Jennifer make their way up the entertainment ladder, only to learn that things aren’t nearly as glamorous at the top as they thought they would be. Valley of the Dolls is a classic rags to riches tale—but it’s one that reminds the reader that all that glitters is not gold.
The Master and Margarita
Written in two parts and intertwining four narratives, Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita encapsulates the stifling nature and fear of Stalinist Russia. Written between over the course of nearly 20 years, the novel is set in two different periods: Moscow in the 1930s, and Jerusalem while under the rule of Pontius Pilate.
When the Devil comes to Moscow, disguised as a man named Professor Woland, he wreaks havoc among the literati and their union, the Massolit. The time that Woland spends causing chaos in Moscow is continued in Jerusalem, where the Devil attends the trial of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Catcher in the Rye
Classically considered a definitive work exploring teen life and society, The Catcher in the Rye follows the story of Holden Caulfield. Holden is a privileged, lazy, immature sixteen year old who gets kicked out of one prep school after another. (No wonder he's one of the most hated characters in books.)
His lack of focus and his short-sightedness lead him to make choices that are less than advisable. Holden is confronted with human nature, both his own and others, and wrestles with loneliness, sensitivity, and the inevitable: growing up.
On the Road
One of the defining voices of the Beat Generation, Kerouac’s novel defined the angst and aimlessness that a lot of his contemporaries felt in the wake of the Second World War. Like the Lost Generation of the 20s, Kerouac and his ilk grappled with what to make of themselves in an ever-shifting post-war society.
Broken into five parts, On the Road follows Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they traverse the country. A recent divorcee, Sal turns to the open road in search of a sense of adventure that he’s lost. He soon learns that the freedom that the road offers isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
This book is perfect for those of us who never could get the hang of Thursdays. Arthur Dent’s day should be like any other—but then he finds out that the local council plans on demolishing his house to make way for a bypass. This is a bad enough way to start a day, but it only manages to go downhill when Arthur’s good friend, Fred, reveals that he’s an alien. And worse, Earth is being demolished for an interspace bypass.
Fred and Arthur manage to hitch a ride on an alien ship before Earth is demolished entirely. And so begins Arthur’s raucous intergalactic adventure.
Yoshimoto’s Kitchen explores the profound pain of grief, and the power of a found family. Mikage finds comfort in the warmth and familiarity of kitchens. Having recently lost her only relative, she makes friends with one of her grandmother’s friends, Yuichi Tanabe. Yuichi invites Mikage to come and live with him and his mother, a transgender woman named Eriko.
Mikage finds comfort in this untraditional living arrangement, growing closer to Yuichi and Eriko. But when tragedy strikes the Tanabe household, Mikage and Yuichi find comfort in one another, and in the kitchen.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is told from the perspective of Chief Bromdon, a patient in an Oregon State psychiatric hospital in the 1950s. The hospital is ruled with an iron first by Nurse Ratched, a tyrannical administrator that operates with little medical oversight. If a patient defies her, they’re punished with electroshock treatments until they fall back in line. The order of the facility is thrown with a new arrival: Randle Patrick McMurphy.
McMurphy defies Ratched’s authority, leading an internal rebellion among the patients. The struggle between patients and staff escalates, challenging the staff’s authority, and the patients’ resolve.