There's something about cults, or large movements, that fascinates me. What makes so many follow a deluded, even dangerous, guru? Is it the charisma of the leader (Hitler and Manson — really? Charismatic?), or is it the need in a large percentage of the population for inclusion, even if inclusion flies in the face of sense and decency? Certainly, there are a lot of sad people who have a yawning lacuna in their soul, and there are religious doyens ready to take advantage of that. Why is religion so often the trap? Because people easily believe that something unseen, something mystical, will fill their void? But when the cult or movement begins to exhibit criminal, amoral behavior, why do so many still follow, even into the jaws of hell?
These questions seem to me to be at the heart of The Followers, the second novel by British author Rebecca Wait. The protagonists are a mother and daughter, Stephanie and Judith, who fall under the sway of a preacher who runs a "church" called The Ark, far away from the nearest town, on the remote outskirts of the dangerous and forbidding moorland, surrounded by bogs and forest.
Very often the leader of a cult presents himself (is it always a man?) as the only answer, the only prophet, the only hope. Such is the way Nathaniel controls and coerces his community. Everyone outside The Ark are living in Gehenna, in sin. They are bound for eternal damnation, fiery melting of soft tissue, punishments severe and eternal. Only Nathaniel has the ear of God. Only Nathaniel knows all and sees all.
Fear and faith form the backbone of this brainwashed sect's "structure," and its camp is somewhat reminiscent of the Branch Davidians' compound, as Nathaniel is reminiscent of David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians, who called himself the "final prophet." It is male-dominated. Women are not allowed to go to town or to make decisions that affect the group: "Men held the power, of course," Stephanie thinks. "Men were made for war and heroics, to fight and conquer for God. But women were made to suffer." It is a communal and totalistic organization, where the smallest misstep, the briefest bad thought, is met with a punishment called a "session." The description of Judith's session is particularly harrowing. As a stubborn teenager, she does not fall so easily for the emotional and spiritual coercion going on, much less the physical punishment doled out for errant comportment. She is chagrinned that her mother is under Nathaniel's thumb. Stephanie even lets Nathaniel rename her Sarah, but Judith refuses a new name. It is her strength and determination that make the chapters that take place in The Ark so compelling.
Judith is the book's heroine. She asks one of the other children in the community: "Is your God a good God?" She seems, for a while, to be the only freethinker, the only one willing to ask such things. Initially, her mother questions Nathaniel, "You mean — I'm not supposed to leave here ever?" But, soon, under Nathaniel's love and sexual attention, Stephanie becomes Sarah.
The Followers begins with a brief chapter called "After," meaning after The Ark. Judith is visiting her mother in prison. The riddle of the novel then is — what happened? What did Stephanie/Sarah do, and how did they escape Nathaniel's oppression and godly bullying? Wait masterfully slips in these short "after" chapters, deepening the mystery until she's ready for the big reveal. When it comes, it is jolting, though inevitable. Overall the story moves like a thriller, with a deep undercurrent of spiritual mystery and dread of the unknown. The reader cheers for Judith and genuinely fears for her safety.
The Followers reminds me of Emma Cline's The Girls, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. The Girls limned a Manson-like commune, using real details from that murderous madness for verisimilitude. The Followers is its British cousin, a story that seems so real, with empathetic characters and credible, convincing circumstances, you will be forgiven for thinking at times you're reading true crime. It will be interesting to see what Wait writes next. Her lucid, sharp, and sinuously subtle prose is the perfect conduit for this mesmerizing tale.