General Introduction Cult Fiction 4

Cult Fiction
A Definition, a Concise History and an Analysis of its Place
in Literature
MA Thesis English Language and Culture, Utrecht University
Programme Western Literature and Culture
Marije Takens
Student number 0038210
Supervisor Dr. Onno Kosters
Co-reader Dr. Monica Jansen
May 2007
O Cult
“And as for you, we wanted only to
spare you the ridicule of those who would
use the word ‘occult’ to mean ‘evil cult’.
It means not ‘cult’ at all but ‘occluded’ -‘invisible to the eye’ -- what of it?
Even ‘cult’ means only ‘adoration’.”
“To spare you”, one went on, “accusations
of evil or insanity or sham.”
And then the pen rolled softly on the page.
“Sham is the pretense that you speak for us.
Sham is a fake way to a truer truth.
Evil is a notion nonexistent
in the realm of thought, for thought my love
is never evil, despite its ugliness.
Thought is idea, evil is the act.”
And insanity? “Lie down on your back
And count and bless the stars that you can keep
the count: there is no more terrible fate
than a mind whose several elements
will not combine, will no coordinate.”
“So like the vast of space”, one said, “beyond
the cosmic confines far away out there
in the realm of chaos where planets roll
at wild will and often smash where some stars
rise and others fall at random and some
implode. No, hidden as we are we cling,
as you do, to a sense of hope, a hope
of hope, a hope of sensible order.”
“And adoration is an attitude
of general adoring, objectless,
or angled toward an object out of sight,
more of adorer than of thing adored.”
Sarah Arvio
General Introduction Cult Fiction
Chapter 1 Etymology and the Critics
1.1 Etymology
1.2 The Anthologies and Thomas Reed Whissen
1.3 Clive Bloom
1.4 Reed Whissen versus Bloom
Chapter 2 Three Centuries of Cult Fiction
2.1 The 18th Century and The Sorrows of Young Werther
2.1.1 The 18th Century
2.1.2 The Sorrows of Young Werther
2.2 The 19th Century and The Call of Cthulhu
2.2.1 The 19th Century
2.2.2 The Call of Cthulhu
2.3 The 20th Century and Pulp
2.3.1 The 20th Century
2.3.2 Pulp
Chapter 3 Bourdieu’s Dynamic Model
Conclusion The Finale
Bibliography References
The front page features a photograph of H.P. Lovecraft
General Introduction Cult Fiction
This is an analysis of cult fiction and its place in literature. Analysing cult fiction is a
difficult thing to do, since what is meant by it is highly evasive and sensitive to many different
interpretations. After all, what exactly is cult fiction? On hearing the term, most people will be
able to come up with a certain idea or definition or to sum up a few titles, but ideas and
definitions always remain quite vague and why exactly the works mentioned are categorised as
cult largely remains a mystery. A clear definition is seldom given. Nevertheless, many have a
feeling about what it is. This is important, since, as we will see, feelings for and attitudes towards
literature are what characterises cult fiction to a large extent. It also means, however, that
interpretations vary enormously, since feeling is something very personal and subjective. In this
way, the riddle is not quite solved.
It is very likely that complexity of the cult fiction phenomenon is the reason why so little
has been written on the topic, and vice versa. The term cult is used very often nowadays, but
usually not in an analytical context. Literary works are simply labelled cult every day and
everywhere, without any explanation of why they are – probably because this is not clear, or
because people assume that everybody knows the reason. Admittedly, attempts to define cult
fiction are increasingly made nowadays, for example in anthologies, newspaper articles and, of
course, in these pages.1 However, on the whole these attempts are of relatively low frequency
when compared to straightforward labelling. Especially in academic discourse the amount of
literature on cult fiction is extremely small; the total score is only two specialist books written by
Thomas Reed Whissen and Clive Bloom.2 This poses an additional challenge for the determined
investigator, as small amounts of informational material are less likely to offer an insight than
extensive libraries. Nevertheless, it should be held in mind that quality counts, not quantity.
When dealing with such a complex topic as cult fiction it is always good not only to look
at specialist material – i.e. critical writings on and surveys of the topic itself –, but also at related
fields of study. Therefore, certain areas of historical and cultural studies – e.g. popular culture
theory – have additionally been looked into here when considered to be of importance. This
broadens the perspective and is indispensable when investigating a literary concept gearing into
One example is an article in the NRC, a leading Dutch newspaper, dated Friday 15 September 2006 (Veilbrief,
Arnoud. “Kom maar op, zombies!” EN: “Come on, zombies!”).
many cultural aspects of society. Reed Whissen states that “[…] an examination of cult literature
is much more than an exercise in literary analysis. In fact, the literary insights it provides, probing
as they may be, are often incidental to the cultural ones” (xii). Moreover, even when investigating
topics that are, at first sight, not directly relevant to an understanding of cult fiction, the identity
of the latter becomes clearer through difference and contrast.
Reed Whissen correctly observes: “Separately [cult books] might have no assured place in
literary history. Only time will tell. But together they constitute a genre as distinct as the gothic
novel or trench poetry or the theater of the absurd. To label this genre ‘cult fiction’ is to risk
confusion with the seamier connotation of ‘cult’ (as well as ‘occult’), but properly understood, it
comes about as close to identifying this rogue species as any label can” (xi). According to Reed
Whissen, it is possible to investigate cult fiction like any other literary or cultural phenomenon.
Such possibility of “identification” has given rise to this thesis. It has also strongly been
motivated by the conviction that the topic dealt with here has been underrated and – consequently
– ignored too often on an academic level.3 The phenomenon cult fiction exists and is of
importance for (contemporary) literature and culture. When its identity is more thoroughly
revealed, this does not only provide a better understanding of cult fiction, but also of literature
and culture as a whole. More specifically: an investigation into a genre often associated with
pulp, popular and lowbrow art and literature does more than saying something about the character
of the genre itself. It inevitably also offers an insight into the nature of highbrow art and the
literary canon as well as the way cult function functions in it. Therefore, this is more than a
search for a definition; it is also an attempt to show what the place of cult fiction is in literature.
At the same time, a concise history is given.
Chapter one defines the concept cult fiction. It opens with an investigation of the origin of
the word cult, and after this an overview of the work of the two most important critics who have
written about cult fiction follows. These theorists are compared and contrasted, and their theories
are subsequently linked to the etymology of the term. Before introducing the theorists, a brief
overview is given of the various anthologies that exist on cult fiction. Chapter two investigates
The various non-specialist anthologies published on the topic are left out of consideration here, as they do not
provide a solid definition. It should be noted that the exact nature of Bloom’s work is somewhat dubious as well. The
anthologies and Bloom are dealt with in chapter 1.
An acknowledgement of the growing importance of deviant literature in the academe is in place here. For example,
in 2006 I followed a course on contemporary Italian pulp writers and the Italian ‘noir’ (i.e. the Giovani Cannibali) at
three centuries of cult fiction, the 18th, the 19th and the 20th century, and deals with the place of
cult fiction in literature. Three novels – Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Lovecraft’s The
Call of Cthulhu and Bukowski’s Pulp – are used as illustrations of the cult fiction genre and the
definition from chapter one comes back. Chapter three applies the philosophy of Pierre Bourdieu
to the concept cult fiction. At the end of this thesis a conclusion is provided.
my university (Utrecht University, The Netherlands). Still, this was first and foremost a course on Italian
postmodernism (Tutorial Postmodernismo) in which the writers and their novels were used as illustrations.
Chapter 1 Etymology and the Critics
1.1 Etymology and Usage
The meaning of the term cult that is most important here is “very popular with a particular
group of people; treating sb/sth as a cult figure, etc.” (Hornby, 306). This description is essential
for our understanding of cult fiction. Something ought to be said about the original meaning of
the word in order to be able to fully grasp this later, ‘modern’ meaning. Cult is derived from the
Latin word cultus meaning ‘adoration’ or ‘care’, usually linked to a context of religious practice
(Pinkster, 249). The Romans also linked it to ‘cultivation’, and the word originally meant
‘tended’ or ‘cultivated’, evoking an agricultural atmosphere (Pinkster, 249).4 Subsequently
connecting the term to religious adoration or worship, which apparently happened in Latin
semantics, is not so strange, as this practice can be seen as a way of cultivating a certain belief. In
this literal, traditional sense of the term the context of religious practice more concretely takes
shape in “[an exclusive] system of religious beliefs and rituals” (“Definition: Cult”, 1). The
adherents of this system, in their turn, can also be considered a cult (“Definition: Cult”, 1).
All this sounds rather general and neutral, and it is. That is, in the first stage of their
existence cults were first and foremost religious groups simply practising their beliefs. There
were no negative connotations accompanying the term back then. There was, for example, the
ancient cult of Dyonisus, which existed in Greece since 1250 B.C. (“Dyonisus/Bacchus”, 2).5
About his character we can read: “Dyonisus was the Greek god of wine and ecstatic experience,
as well as vegetation, death and rebirth. As a nature god, he slept through the winter and awoke
with the spring. Thus he was identified with the springtime, and his emblems were the vine and
the phallus” (“Dyonisus/Bacchus”, 1). There were elaborate ceremonies in the cult and rituals
included wine drinking and a communal meal of a bull during which the adherents attempted to
break free from the fixed rules of society. The initiation ceremony involved a ritual of symbolical
death and rebirth (“Dyonisus/Bacchus”, 2). The cult became popular in the 7-6th centuries B.C.
and due to Alexander the Great’s conquests Dyonisus’ worship spread outside Greece and
eventually reached Rome. The Romans came to identify Dyonisus with Bakchos or Bacchus, who
This is also the root meaning of the word culture, which is, however, of no specific importance here (Pinkster, 249
and “Culture”, 1).
This, of course, was long before the Roman Empire took shape, and the Greeks will have called their ‘cult’
differently. The Romans only used the name later on, for the same phenomenon.
is originally thought to have been a Lydian historical figure, as well as with the old Italian god
Liber (Moormann & Uitterhoeve, 195).
It seems that some time after the Romans encountered the Dyonisus cult the trouble
began. The Romans did not always accept the cult because of its ecstatic rituals and restrictions
were imposed in 186 A.D. (“Dyonisus/Bacchus”, 2). This only increased when the Romans came
to embrace Christianity, essentially another, but newer cult. Constantine the Great was the first
emperor to dramatically christianise the Empire around 312 A.D. and became openly hostile to
the pagan cults. Some which were deemed sexually immoral were forbidden and repressed
(“Roman Religion”, 27). The orgiastic nature of the Bacchus cult must have caused it to be
among the first to have undergone this fate (Moorman & Uitterhoeve, 196).
Since this time, the negative connotation clinging to the word cult has been in existence in
common and popular language usage. A cult is formally “a system of religious beliefs and
practices” (Hornby, 306), but is generally thought to be “a small group of people who have
extreme religious beliefs and who are not part of any established religion” (Hornby, 306). Most
people see cults as closed religious groups usually lead by a charismatic leader whose members
collectively commit suicide at times. Another term for cult is sect, which can be described as “a
small group of people who belong to a particular religion but who have some beliefs or practices
which separate them from the rest of the group” (Hornby, 1154). Again, this definition is not
negative in itself, but in popular usage sect evokes as much repugnance as does cult.
It appears that at a certain moment in history the term cult also came to be used in a more
secular way rather than only in the sense of ‘religious practice’. In certain cases the explicitly
religious context went, but what remained was its essence of ‘worship’ and ‘devotion’,
transferred onto other, more ‘worldly’ topics. This has caused the ‘modern’ meaning of the word.
It has become common to refer to non-religious groups as displaying cult-like characteristics.
When, for example, people show great devotion to a famous singer, e.g. Madonna, it is possible
to speak of the ‘Madonna cult’. To summarise, when religious-like devotion towards someone or
something is exhibited by a group of people this can be called a cult, and the object of their
devotion receives the same adjective. Cult fiction is therefore fiction which is admired almost
religiously. Who first applied the term to fiction remains unclear, however.6
The emphasis is on literature here, to be more precise novels. It should be noted that fiction is a broad concept,
which also includes comic books, films, etc. In fact, as the word implies, it includes everything that is thought up or
imagined in storytelling.
1.2 The Anthologies and Thomas Reed Whissen
Many guides and anthologies have been written on cult fiction. For this reason, one would
think that much information exists on the nature of the topic. However, in reality this is not the
case. The authors of these guides usually give long lists of works – mostly novels – which
according to them can be considered cult fiction, without providing the reader with much
explanation of why exactly these are included. This is why it is easy for a reader to get lost among
all the titles in most guides, eventually drowning in their abundance while still not really grasping
it. The reader gets an idea of what cult fiction is, but this idea remains rather vague.
One of these works is The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction, the back cover of which promises
it to be “[…] an eclectic and essential guide to the literary world’s greatest cult authors and the
facts behind their fiction” (370). At the beginning of the guide an attempt is made to define “what
makes an author and a book cult” (3), which largely captures the essence of the concept: “[it]
implies lengthy and irrational devotion probably, though not necessarily, by an ardent minority,
to an author or book” (5). The hesitant ‘probably’, however, weakens this statement, and it is
unclear whether the word qualifies ‘lengthy’, ‘irrational’ or both. It is the only explicit
information given on the nature of cult fiction; no additional explanation or elaboration follows.
Moreover, the focus in its pages is mostly on the extravagant and rebellious behaviour of many
writers, which seems to imply that this makes their works ‘cult’ automatically. Although authors
can achieve a cult status because of their work or their behaviour (or both), this still seems a
rather superficial way of describing cult fiction. After all, as the term explicitly states, cult fiction
revolves in the first place around fiction, not around the person who has written it. As a whole,
this guide mainly gives short biographies of writers, with a condensed overview of what they
have written. This can be useful, but not when searching for a definition of cult fiction.
Another example is Cult Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, which is somewhat more elaborate
with respect to a definition of cult fiction. Cult fiction is connected to ‘popular culture’, ‘sacred
texts’, ‘highbrow and lowbrow’, ‘avant-gardism’, ‘great cities’, ‘pulp’, ‘loners’, ‘anti-heroes’,
‘outsiders’ and many other things (ix-xvi). This may all be true to a certain extent, but it does not
make things any clearer. What follows after the introduction to this volume is a summing up of
authors, which is very similar to the list offered by The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction. Again, a
clear definition is not provided.
There are other literary anthologies, which do not mention the term cult fiction explicitly,
but which do include work of many writers which can also be found in the two guides mentioned
above. Examples are William S. Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi, Samuel Beckett, Kathy Acker,
Poppy Z. Brite, Henry Miller, Chuck Palahniuk, Iceberg Slim, Hubert Selby Jr., Philip K. Dick,
Richard Brautigan – represented with poetry as well as prose – and countless others. The focus in
these anthologies is on rebellion and adversity in writers and their fiction – just like in The Rough
Guide to Cult Fiction. Consequently, these anthologies can be seen as dealing with cult fiction.
However, they are not very useful since what is sought here is a definition. Anthologies of this
kind are The Outlaw Bible of American Literature, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry and The
Evergreen Reader 1957-1966.
It is interesting to note that the editor of The Evergreen Reader, Barney Rosset, has also
co-edited The Outlaw Bible of American Literature. Moreover, he features in the latter as well,
with his short story Tin Pan Alley. Some work of Rosset’s co-editors of The Outlaw Bible of
American Literature, Alan Kaufman and Neil Ortenberg, is also included in it (Jew Boy and On
Dee Dee Ramone respectively). Kaufman, in his turn, has co-edited The Outlaw Bible of
American Poetry, in which he himself features many times (for example with “Bus”, “House of
Strangers”, “Who Are We?”, “The Slam” and “On Marvin Malone and ‘The Wormwood
Review’”). Additionally, Rosset and Ortenberg are also included in The Outlaw Bible of
American Poetry (Rosset with “Ernest Hemingway” and “The Little Sons of Fidel”; Ortenberg
with “An Aging Radical Muses on his Conjugal Visits”). It appears that these anthologies have
been put together by a small group of closely connected people who are experts in the field and
outlaws at the same time.
Accordingly, little descriptive information about the topic exists and it seems that other
sources are needed to learn more. Reed Whissen has written an overview of cult fiction works
which have become classics of the literary canon entitled Classic Cult Fiction: A Companion to
Popular Cult Literature. He defines the concept in a preface and long introduction. His main
argument in the preface is that a cult book speaks to and for its readers, meaning that readers need
to feel directly addressed and represented by it (ix). Reed Whissen states that “when a book has
this kind of effect on a sizable number of readers, then we can say it deserves to be called a cult
book” (ix). In the section on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye he states that “[…] a true cult
book is one that seems to address the reader directly and to say things in a way the reader would
wish to say them” (47). According to Reed Whissen, a reader has to fall under the spell of a cult
book (x), more specifically, the book has to be so influential that it “[…] gathers the sort of
worshipful following that can only be described as a cult” (xi, emphasis mine). This can be
compared to the etymology discussed above, and especially the more modern use of the term –
‘worship’ and ‘devotion’, transferred to a secular context (i.e. a book) – comes back here.
Additionally, there is an overlap with the definition of the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction.
There is more to the term, however. Reed Whissen also points out that “[…] a cult book
becomes a cult book not because of what it really says, but because of what its enthusiasts think it
says” (xii). To a certain extent reader involvement plays a role in all fiction, but this is especially
so for cult books. It seems that the crucial factor defining cult fiction is therefore reader
response, which can be seen as a form of reception. Reed Whissen states that “what distinguishes
cult literature from other literary genres is primarily that a book acquires cult status on the basis
of reader response rather than the author’s intention” (xi). For this reason, Reed Whissen claims
that intentionally writing a cult book is impossible. Instead, cult books are initially written within
the framework of a conventional genre such as the detective story, the love story, etc. and only
later they become cult literature (Reed Whissen, xii). It requires the public to read a book and
respond to it as cult fiction is responded to – i.e. with worship and devotion – before it deserves
to be called cult.
In relation to reader response, Reed Whissen also speaks about the obsession readers
experience when it comes to the book they admire: “Cult books have a mesmerizing effect on
their readers, holding them in thrall with a passionate intensity that has much in common with
obsessive love” (xiii). Reed Whissen states it is indeed “[…] the obsession that characterizes the
relationship between a cult reader and a cult book” (xv). The obsession can manifest itself in
various ways, and in the most extreme case readers wholly identify with the book’s characters,
imitating their behaviour, which does not always end well (Reed Whissen, xx).
A cult book does not necessarily have to be a bestseller, however. The obsession
described above seems to imply that cult books and popularity go hand in hand, but this need not
always be the case. Cult books can be popular works of fiction, but there are also many cult
books that have a select group of ‘followers’ who are strongly drawn to it and know everything
about it. Reed Whissen claims that “[…] many cult books have small but special audiences and
are relatively unknown outside a narrow circle for either cultural or linguistic reasons” (xv).
These small audiences nevertheless display cult-like characteristics, which can go as far as
downright obsession and identification with the book, and possibly its writer. Today, this kind of
audience is labelled ‘underground’, which essentially means the opposite of ‘mainstream’.
Reed Whissen’s central argument that cult fiction speaks “to and for its readers” and can
be characterised by reader response brings the question to mind ‘how then, is this reader response
exactly stimulated?’ Reed Whissen observes that “varied as the literary qualities of cult books
are, they all share certain stock ingredients that trigger stock responses. Regardless of how they
are mixed, these ingredients must be present before readers take the books to heart and are
prepared to swear by them” (xiii). In other words, every cult book contains certain content-related
aspects, which cause a specific reader response. Moreover, these elements seem to be the same
for all cult books, no matter how different they are. This means that they are also relevant when it
comes to a characterisation of the genre; Reed Whissen even calls them “the foundations of cult
fiction as well as its components” (xiii).
These psychological components are “[…] idealization, alienation, ego-reinforcement,
suffering, behaviour modification and vulnerability” (Reed Whissen, xxiv). First something ought
to be said about their historical and cultural context, which Reed Whissen discusses in his
introduction to Classic Cult Fiction. He states that cult fiction is in the first place an outgrowth of
eighteenth-century Romanticism. Most importantly, the Romantic age was “[a] revolutionary
movement in art and thought that dethroned reason and objectivity in favor of emotion and
intuition” (Reed Whissen, xx). Additionally, cult fiction is influenced by the legacy of the great
political revolutions in France and the United States, which took place at the same time (Reed
Whissen, xx). These “[…] liberated the spirit as well as the body from bondage – whether real or
imaginary – and ushered in an age of democratic idealism with all the promises and penalties that
go with the dream of absolute freedom” (Reed Whissen, xx). Finally, a third factor is the
influence of the interest in mythology and its metaphysics, which grew from the eighteenth
century onwards. Reed Whissen claims that “instead of seeing myths as either religious fairy tales
or charming little stories, Romantics were beginning to recognize the spiritual and psychological
truths inherent in myths and myth-making” (xx-xxi). These varied cultural aspects all important
in relation to cult fiction.
The Romantic influence can be seen in the way readers responded to, for example,
Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) when it was published. Werther commits suicide
because of an unrequited love and the book inflamed many readers in such a way that they
imitated Werther’s emotionally driven, romantic behaviour and even his suicide (Reed Whissen,
xx). Romanticism is also present in the search for truth many cult fiction readers pursue. The
Romantic age was an age of individualism and resistance to consensus, and readers turned to cult
books in search of an individual truth. There is a contradiction, however, as cult books “[speak]
privately in a public voice, by creating the illusion of the fused experience […]” (Reed Whissen,
xxi). In this illusion “[…] the reader forms a bond with a seemingly unique book because the
book is as personal to the reader as a diary” (Reed Whissen, xxi). In reality, this experience is not
as personal as it seems, since there are many more readers who have also read the book.
Nevertheless, all of them feel unique and Reed Whissen speaks of a certain “individual
togetherness” with reference to this kind of experience (xxi). Moreover, it seems as if readers
crave some kind of “solitary conversion” (Reed Whissen, xxii), which is also a Romantic trait.
Democratic idealism comes back in how “[…] readers are eager for books that speak to
their innermost concerns but worry that there is only so much time available to find the Right
Book, especially when the next one just might be more ‘right’ than the last one” (Reed Whissen,
xx). After all, the promise of unlimited possibilities in a democracy can also cause many
frustrations and disappointments; “the corrupting power of freedom” (Reed Whissen, xxiii) is
never far away. Still, possibilities and the democratic equality of ideas are required for the
existence of cult fiction (Reed Whissen, xxii), which might be the reason why it has especially
been flourishing in the United States. The U.S. from quite early on had a society providing this
Reed Whissen notes that the growing interest in myths and the recognition of their
psychological truth has “[influenced] art and the subconscious [and] raised the possibility of
creating new myths for a new age” (xxi). This is an age “[…] in which belief in absolute truths
has given way to the more common assumption that everything is relative” (Reed Whissen, xxi).
Cult books re-invent reality and challenge accepted patterns of thought and behaviour. In this
way, they initially create rebellion and denial, dreaming of a different world, but in the end cult
heroes often “[…] turn [their] back, bite [their] tongue and bide [their] time” (Reed Whissen,
xxiii). The end, therefore, is usually one of passivity.
The psychological components are always linked to a character in the book readers can
identify with. This character offers readers the possibility to recognise their own alienation and
loneliness, boost their egos, etc. The idealisation of cult heroes is rather ‘neurotic’, since these
heroes often behave in a destructive way and sometimes exhibit a confused or perverted sexuality
(Reed Whissen, xxv). Nevertheless, these heroes are idealised, for example because they display
an extreme need to be free (e.g. Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road). This need has its
roots in the democratic ideal and readers can recognise it as their own.
The Romantic heritage comes back in the aspect of alienation: “In most cult books one is
likely to encounter at least one lonely figure living in self-imposed solitary confinement of either
a psychological, emotional, spiritual or intellectual sort – alone, aloof, apart; in a word, alienated”
(Reed Whissen, xxvii). This character is searching for his or her personal truth in a solitary way,
which readers identify with if they feel they are in a similar position. Additionally, they feel they
are the only ones taking this road, but, as we have seen, this experience is actually far from
personal. Again, there is a paradox when it comes to the term ‘alienated’ in this context, because
when whole groups claim to feel like this – e.g., in the sixties – the term becomes rather hollow.
However, alienation still is the main characteristic of the cult hero, who displays a detachment
from the world, a rejection of (and by) society as well as an extreme self-consciousness. Reed
Whissen notes that a good example of this is Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Salinger’s The
Catcher in the Rye (xxvii-xxviii).
Cult books also boost the egos of their readers; ego-reinforcement occurs. Reed Whissen
states that “a cult book must, above all, serve as the mirror in which the alienated see themselves
reflected – and rejoice” (xxx). Being alienated becomes a status symbol, since in the end it means
being different from and superior to ‘the mob’ (Reed Whissen, xxxi). Reed Whissen mentions
Colin Wilson’s The Outsider with reference to this element in cult fiction, as well as Heinlein’s
Stranger in a Strange Land and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (xxxi). The heroes of
cult fiction – and their readers – feel they possess a sensitivity most others lack. The influence of
the renewed interest in myths in the 18th century is also important here, as there are no moral
absolutes in cult books and their heroes. Nobody is simply good or bad and everything is relative
(Reed Whissen, xxxii). Cult fiction heroes and readers know this, but most others do not and as a
consequence, cult heroes and cult followers often feel superior to the blindness everywhere
around them.
Another component having its roots in Romanticism is suffering. Reed Whissen points out
that “ever since the dawn of Romanticism, suffering has been a sign of sensitivity, of deep
feeling, of moral superiority” (xxxiii). Suffering can be seen as the theme of many cult books, for
example that of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye,
King’s Misery, Plath’s The Bell Jar, and also Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
(Reed Whissen, xxxiii). The ‘masochistic reader’ enters the stage here, as cult readers tend to
suffer along with the characters and seems to enjoy this kind of torment. Maybe the cause of this
is that the suffering is not directly physical; instead it is caused by mental and emotional anguish
and therefore never an immediate threat. This is also the link between cult fiction and Gothic
horror stories, which came into existence in the (Romantic) eighteenth century (Reed Whissen,
xxxiii). The Gothic fiction genre, however, is different from cult fiction in that it puts an
emphasis on terror, the dark and the horrific. Cult fiction has more aspects to it and is more
complex. This does not mean that gothic aspects cannot occur in cult fiction. They are present in
many cult novels, for example in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
However, Shelley also added elements that made her story more than the next Gothic novel. Reed
Whissen, who has included Frankenstein in his Classic Cult Fiction, states that she made use of
the new interests of her day, especially those in science and the humanities. Shelley blended
horror and scientific romance and in doing so created a unique novel, which aroused a cult
interest (Reed Whissen, 104-105).
Cult fiction also offers its readers a model for behaviour modification or “[…] a program
for altering the way they look and act” (Reed Whissen, xxxiv). The Sorrows of Young Werther,
for example, as well as On the Road and the works of the Beats of the late fifties provided readers
with examples of alternative possibilities. Those who read cult books suddenly saw wholly new
options and modelled their behaviour according to the one(s) they chose (Reed Whissen, xxxiv).
This has its roots in the influence of the democratic ideal, which made people claim and assert
their freedom.
Finally, the component of vulnerability should be taken into account. As has been noticed
above, the influence of myths and their metaphysical dimension contributed to the development
of the idea that everything is relative. This conviction makes the cult hero vulnerable, as he or she
does nothing but turn his or her back and suffer in silence. The dream remains, but fighting spirit
and action is lacking. Reed Whissen calls these characters naïf, and applies this label to Werther,
Holden Caulfield and even Lou Ford, the madman in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.
They are “[…] a little too good for this world, but [their] charming innocence tempts us to follow
in [their] path” (Reed Whissen, xxxvi). Readers who are receptive to this kind of behaviour and
imitate it place themselves in a weak position as well: “This attitude of benign indifference,
amounting almost to a paralysis of the will, ultimately renders a reader vulnerable to the doctrines
and dogmas of the book in question” (Reed Whissen, xxxv). This is the reason why Reed
Whissen claims that the mind-set of cult fiction readers is “[…] a mind set that can best be
described as vulnerable in the sense of being receptive to oversimplified solutions and susceptible
to evasions of responsibility that pass for involvements” (xxv). Nevertheless, readers seem to
have a double agenda. They ‘surrender’ to the cult book, but also ally themselves with all those
who have read it with them, thereby acquiring a certain kind of collective power (Reed Whissen,
xxxvi). They like to believe they are alone – alienated, vulnerable –, but in reality they are not.
This duality constantly returns in the relationship between cult fiction and its readers. Taken
together, all psychological components interact in a complex network, which the ultimate effect
of cult fiction depends on.
1.3 Clive Bloom
Pulp elements are also important for cult fiction. Bloom is the author of Cult Fiction:
Popular Reading and Pulp Theory. According to Bloom, cult-and pulp fiction are exactly the
same thing. He does not state this explicitly in his book, but it shows that this is as a matter of
course to him because he uses the two terms interchangeably. Bloom considers the ultimate basis
of cult fiction to be its pulp elements – in other words, content is a decisive factor.
These ideas ought to be looked at more closely. First of all, what exactly is pulp fiction?
Bloom states that “pulp is […] a descriptive term for certain forms of publishing produced on
poor quality paper” (3). Moreover, it “[…] is exemplified by those forms of magazine and
paperback publication which flourished between the 1920s and 1950s in America and which
should be distinguished from both dime novels, paperbacks per se and comic books” (Bloom, 3).
Lee Server, in the Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers, claims something similar. He states that
“originally [the word pulp was] used to describe a mere physical characteristic of the periodicals
of the 1880s to 1950s whose pages were made from the cheapest grade of pulpwood paper” (xi ).7
In the course of time the term acquired an expanded meaning; it became “[…] indicative of
certain attitudes, reading habits and social concerns” (Bloom, 3). Server is more specific than
I.e. wood stamped to pulp and processed into paper.
Bloom and states that pulp came to be known as “[…] a genus of imaginative reading matter
distinguished my mass production, affordability, an intended audience of common as opposed to
elite readers [and] a dependence on formula and genre […]” (xi). Additionally, it is mentioned
that “[…] pulp as a literature aimed at the pleasure centers of the reader, primarily concerned
with sensation and escape, variously intended to excite, astonish or arouse” (Server, xi). This is
the reason why Server speaks about sensational literature as a synonym for pulp fiction.
According to Bloom in his chapter “Living in Technicolor: The Rules of Pulp”, pulp can
be popular fiction – i.e. the fiction of popular culture – but does not necessarily have to be so
(Bloom, 132).8 Commercial aspects do not always determine its character. Bloom states that pulp
is essentially illicit literature: “Pulp is what refuses respectability by its very craving for the
respectable. [It] is the illicit dressed up as the respectable, but it is not disguised, nor does it hide
its true nature from the consumer” (Bloom, 133). Pulp does not really want to be respectable; it
only pretends to want this and in the meantime enjoys its double character. This is also the reason
why pulp and the canon do not go well together; “[…] pulp is not to be defended, nor is it to be
made more available for serious study at the academy – pulp never went to school and hates the
academy. Academic respect kills pulp with kindness. Pulp does not wish to be part of the canon –
what does it care for the canon except to plunder and pastiche it […]” (Bloom, 133-134). The
essence of pulp is its illicit character, which resists assimilation into respectability. In order to be
authentic “it is essential for pulp to remain pulp and […] to retain its unassimilable nature,
thereby preserving the frisson of its secret passion enacted among fans, coteries, cults and
followings – the secret handshakes of the initiated” (Bloom, 134, emphasis in text). There should
be rebellion and a flirting with as well as a denouncement of respectability, as the canon is
simultaneously coveted and rejected. Pulp is the literature of resistance and neither highbrow nor
middlebrow culture has much to do with it; pulp rejects both (Bloom, 132 and 134). This does not
mean that pulp automatically aligns itself with the working classes: “Sometimes [pulp] will revel
in an unresolvable and irresolute illogicality […]” (Bloom, 135). In these instances it – almost
schizophrenically – uses all cultural hierarchies, maintaining its intangible character.
However, what exactly makes a book illicit? This question should not be overlooked.
Bloom claims that ‘forbidden’ topics such as the violent, the erotic and the sentimental are
Popular culture can be seen as the opposite of elite culture and is described in Hinds et al.’s Popular Culture
Theory and Methodology: A Basic Introduction, which is discussed in chapter 2.
characteristically present in pulp fiction. Like Server, Bloom also speaks of the sensational: “Pulp
is the eternalized moment of the now lived irrationally in the overtly sentimental, nostalgic,
sensational, erotic, romantic, violent and fantastic” (151). With “the now” Bloom means “[…] the
industrial and the metropolitan in history” (151). The form in which this literature manifests itself
can be a novel, a comic book or a tabloid newspaper (Bloom, 3). Examples that are given include
Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu books (The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, The Return of Dr Fu
Manchu) and H.P. Lovecraft’s stories (Bloom, 159-204). Server adds to this by stating that since
the birth (around 1880) and expansion (in the 1900s) of the pulp magazines many pulp genres
exist – among others crime, fantasy, romance, western and adventure –, which especially deal
with melodrama, lechery, crime and horror (xi-xii). After the introduction of the paperback in the
late 1930s – which replaced the old pulp magazine – a new kind of pulp fiction emerged that was
“[…] grittily realistic, often frankly erotic, with an iconoclastic eagerness to explore the
controversial and the taboo” (Server, xiv). This is the ‘modern’ pulp fiction.
It is interesting to see how illicitness has often been taken literally in the course of history.
Many attempts have been made to prohibit pulp fiction and ban it from society. Bloom, for
example, mentions “The Comics Code”, a set of rules introduced as a tool to control the
publication of comic books around 1950 in America (141-142). This code came into existence
because “[…] from the 1940s onwards, there had begun a noisy wave of protest against comic
culture from alarmed cultural guardians” (Bloom, 140). Additionally, “The Horror Comics Bill”
was brought before the British Parliament in 1955, and “The Obscene Publications Act” of 1959
was intended as a new ruling on obscenity (Bloom, 146). This led to the Lady Chatterley trial in
1960, which revolved around the alleged obscenity of D.H. Lawrence’s famous novel (Bloom,
145). Consequently, illicit works were an issue both in America and Britain – the two most
important countries of Western pulp fiction. Many American publishers and journalists were
forced out of their jobs at this time and in Britain many book prosecutions occurred which were
“[…] aimed at closing down the pulp paperback trade that had grown up by the end of the Second
World War” (Bloom, 144). The paperback was cheap and therefore readily available, also for the
lower classes. It seems that this was what disquieted the establishment, as these were the people
considered to be easily corruptible: “[…] expensive pornography was presumably less likely to
corrupt those with a classical education (that is, the upper class)” (Bloom, 149). According to
Bloom, a whole class of literature and its readers were suppressed in this way, and probably also
readers from a certain class (146).9
However, literary censorship crumbled in the 1960s and pulp experienced a rise again
(Server, xv). The pulp of today has maintained the dark, defiant and provocative character it
obtained around the end of the 1930s – think, for instance, of the work of the Italian Giovani
Cannibali writers, also dubbed Italian noir – and it has remained a “literature of the street”
(Server, xv). Consequently, many academics still do not think positively about it; for them, it
“[…] vaguely expresses a field of popular publishing neglected through the overemphasis placed
on canonic texts […]” (Bloom, 3). Bloom also points out that “[…] for cultural critics it often has
meant the exemplary instance of mass culture’s propensity to debase everything and to exalt the
lowest common denominator” (3). This is why pulp and cult fiction are relatively unknown and
under-investigated in academic studies. It seems it is quietly assumed that when a topic receives
little attention there must be a good reason for it, which is, of course, debatable.
Bloom notes that when pulp remains pulp and maintains its illicit character, the following
happens: “What canonical work or author ever aroused such inexplicable passion in the ordinary
consumer except when it became a lifestyle lived beyond the actual literature – a subculture for
readers?” (Bloom, 134). Pulp-cult touches the reader deeply and in such a way that he or she
develops a great passion for it and even begins to live according to the contents of the book.
Consequently, it is turned into a lifestyle: “Literature lived as lifestyle is pulp” (Bloom, 134).
This is the culmination of the pulp-cult experience; readers feel they are addressed individually
and identify with the work – some even choose to see it as the guiding principle of their lives.
Although Bloom claims that readers can feel touched by pulp-cult in a personal way, it
should not be overlooked that many of these works are initially produced for a mass market.
Server states that pulp fiction has always been popular fiction – as opposed to Bloom, who claims
that this need not always be the case. From its early existence onwards it has been mass-produced
and published to make profit, as “[…] publishers believed that the most likely guarantor of that
goal was a steady supply of thrills” (Server, xii). When seen in this light, pulp is the
quintessential fiction of popular culture, which is supported by the fact that many authors
included in the Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers have become very popular, mainstream
artists – think, for example, of Ian Fleming, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Raymond Chandler.
More about class distinctions can be read in the next chapter.
Nevertheless, according to Server, pulp can gain access to the canon, since some pulp magazines
have achieved distinction and status (xiii). To summarise, there are many similarities and
differences between the two pulp fiction theorists mentioned here. In the next section Bloom and
Reed Whissen are compared and contrasted.
1.4 Reed Whissen versus Bloom
Both Bloom and Reed Whissen state that cult can be popular fiction, but need not
necessarily be so. However, a striking difference is that Reed Whissen attempts to give a theory
of cult fiction, whereas Bloom seems to be more concerned with giving a history of the genre.
Secondly, Reed Whissen claims that cult fiction can be characterised by readers’ semi-religious
devotion to a book, which is triggered by a range of cultural and psychological aspects, while
Bloom sees this differently. Reader response, or reception, is of crucial importance according to
Reed Whissen, and this can to a certain extent also be found in Bloom’s theory. Bloom speaks
about an inexplicable passion, which is aroused in the reader when reading a book and which
ultimately causes the reader to turn what he or she has read into a lifestyle. This passion is not
stated to be the same as religious-like devotion, although it is possible – and likely – that this is
what Bloom has in mind. However, for Bloom it does not seem to be the most important factor
when it comes to cult fiction’s character. Bloom states that cult fiction is first and foremost
characterised by its contents, namely its pulp elements, which are illicit and unassimilable. This is
also what the title of his book indicates. When these elements are present the passion of readers
will follow automatically. According to Bloom, this is the essence of pulp fiction, and he
considers cult fiction to be the same phenomenon. Consequently, pulp suddenly and
automatically becomes cult in Bloom’s Cult Fiction. Reed Whissen, on the other hand, does not
even once speak about pulp elements while defining cult fiction, and instead focuses on the
importance of reader response.
The way both theorists look at the canon also differs. It is clear from Reed Whissen’s title
Classic Cult Fiction, that cult books can become classics just like any ‘normal’ novel can. In
other words, cult does not necessarily have to remain an ‘underground’ phenomenon. Reader
response determines whether a book becomes cult or not, and some become classics while others
do not. The latter wholly depends on how critics hail the works and whether there is academic
acclaim for them or not.10 Bloom, on the other hand, maintains that pulp-cult and the canon,
which consists of literary classics, simply cannot go together. Pulp-cult may flirt with
respectability by claiming that this is what it craves, but ultimately rebels against the canon by
maintaining its illogical and unassimilable nature. Still, pulp-cult in a sense derives its identity
from the canon: “Of course, trash art is always connected to serious art by those who judge one
by the other – like high art, trash is itself and always reflects its ‘other’” (Bloom, 150). This
passage also shows that Bloom considers cult, pulp and trash art to be interchangeable terms.
Because Reed Whissen’s argument can be supported with the etymological basis of the
term cult fiction, his theory emphasising the importance of reader response and devotion towards
a work of fiction is seen as the most important here. However, the pulp elements Bloom focuses
on should not be ignored, for they are indeed present in cult fiction.11 Equating pulp and cult
fiction in one go nevertheless seems a bit too simplistic, especially when the origin of the term
cult fiction is taken into account.
Since a cult book becomes cult in a certain time, with its own cultural, social and
psychological constructs, a full investigation of cult fiction should also take into account timerelated reader response. On the Road, for example, became so popular in the sixties because its
spirit of freedom corresponded to the Zeitgeist. Apparently, this book touched people in a
different way than other books of that era did, and it is this difference that makes it cult fiction
(Reed Whissen, xii). However, even taking on only a few cult books and analysing the contexts
in which they caught on (cultural, social, political, economical) would be too much work for a
thesis of this size. Moreover, analysing a few books would not tell us much about cult fiction in
general.12 This is the reason why a mere attempt to formulate a definition is made here, coupled
with a brief history and an analysis of cult fiction’s place in literature in the next two chapters.
The next chapter is an investigation of three centuries of cult fiction, illustrated with three novels.
Note that this is also an aspect of reception. This kind of reader response can be distinguished from ‘ordinary’
reader response in that critics and academics are usually not as devoted to and worshipful towards a book as cult
fiction readers are; they are critical and inquisitive. Nevertheless, with their response they determine the literary
canon, which is a concept dealt with in the next chapter.
This will be shown in the next chapter especially, in which concrete examples of pulp-cult fiction are be given,
e.g., H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu and Charles Bukowski’s Pulp.
In Classic Cult Fiction Reed Whissen studies a great number of cult works and specifically looks at their context
in order to “[…] understand and appreciate a phenomenon that from a distance might seem merely freakish” (Reed
Whissen, xiii). Those who would like to know more about context-related cult fiction I happily refer to Reed
Whissen’s work.
Chapter 2 Three Centuries of Cult Fiction
In the previous chapter it has been shown that the term cult is not new. Cult fiction, in its
turn, has existed since the birth of the novel. In this chapter issues such as when the novel was
‘invented’, the development of mass-and popular culture and literature, the division between
high-and low culture and literature, canon formation and postmodernism are touched on. At first
sight, these seem to be very diverse issues, but they are inter-related and each has its own,
intricate relationship with cult fiction. The main question asked here, is when and how cult fiction
exactly developed. In other words, which were the most important factors influencing it, and at
what juncture did this happen? Posing this question and answering it will not only give a
historical overview, but also offer an insight in the position of cult fiction in literature.
The development of cult fiction has been a long process spanning the 18th, the 19th and
the 20th century and still goes on in the 21st century. Each of these eras is briefly dealt with here
and the phenomenon of cult fiction is illustrated with three novels – one from each of the three
centuries described: J.W. von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des Jungen
Werthers, 1774), H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu (1928) and Charles Bukowski’s Pulp
(1994).13 These novels all represent cult fiction, but in different ways. Goethe’s Werther is
especially important in relation to reader response, Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu is typically
cult when it comes to its ‘underground’ status and Bukowski’s last novel Pulp contains – not
surprisingly – many pulp elements. As can be seen, the cult status of these three novels is
emphasised by different prominent aspects. It should not be forgotten, however, that reader
response remains the decisive factor with all three novels, since irrational devotion towards a
work of fiction is what makes it cult in the first place. These novels have been chosen in order to
show how cult fiction ‘works’ when it comes to reader response, underground status and pulp
aspects respectively. One European and two American novels feature here, because the focus is
on Western Europe and North America. Cult fiction is a ‘Western’ phenomenon, because this is
where industries and large cities first took shape. Bloom notes that cult fiction belongs to the
Although this story – as well as most of Lovecraft’s other work – was written and published at the beginning of the
20th century, Bloom claims that Lovecraft (1890-1937) was essentially “a 19th-century man” who preferred the past
to the present as he “[…] yearned for a past age into which he could escape” (192 and 195). Bloom does not
elaborate on this further, which makes his argument quite vague. Here the view is taken that Lovecraft can most
accurately be described as a turn-of-the-century writer, who can be classified as belonging to the 19th and the 20th
century. It should be noted that Pulp is a novel written on the verge of a new century as well.
industrial and metropolitan age (151). In Bloom’s and Reed Whissen’s work the emphasis clearly
lies on these two geographical areas. Other reasons are the following: Werther was the very first
cult novel, and after the Second World War the golden age of cult fiction took place in America.14
As stated above, there are three consecutive periods or centuries in which cult fiction
developed. However, although it is easy to distinguish centuries from each other by simply
looking at timetables, it is not so easy to separate periods with their own, characteristic identity. If
boundaries between relevant periods have to be set, one can say that the first lasted not the entire
18th century, but from the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther until the
beginning of the 19th century. The second period lasted from the beginning of the 19th century
until immediately after the Second World War, i.e., halfway into the 20th century. The third and
final period lasted from the period after the Second World War until the present.
2.1 The 18th Century and The Sorrows of Young Werther
2.1.1 The 18th Century
In his preface to Classic Cult Fiction Reed Whissen points out that cult books have
existed since the novel became a genre in the 18th century (ix). The first cult novel was Goethe’s
The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), setting the standard for judging what constitutes a cult
book (Reed Whissen, ix-x). Goethe's Werther contains many Romantic elements, and this is how
Romanticism became the basis of cult fiction. All cult books have certain romantic elements in
them, e.g. romantic hope and longing, romantic disillusionment and melancholy (Reed Whissen,
x), which makes this founding era very important in the history of cult fiction.
More factors have been influential – for example the democratic revolutions taking place
in the 18th century in France and America (Reed Whissen, xx). The French Revolution revolved
around the wish for democracy and began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789 during which
revolutionaries exclaimed the well-known slogan liberté, egalité, fraternité. The echo of these
terms, especially that of the first, has sounded through cult fiction ever since. The American
Revolutionary War (1775-1783), in which America claimed its independence from England,
confirmed America’s final maturity. The American war was an indirect cause of the French
In the following pages more can be read about this; Werther is dealt with in the section on the 18th century and the
golden age of cult fiction in that on the 20th century.
Revolution, because it created an atmosphere of freedom and democracy – also across the
Additionally, there was the growing interest in mythology and its spiritual and
psychological truths in the 18th century (Reed Whissen, xx-xxi). This fuelled a different way of
looking at things, for example at the importance of dreams, folklore and fairy tales. Traditional
religion and related ways of thinking became less self-evident, and new ideas took hold of people
(Reed Whissen, xxi). The most important of these was the notion that everything is relative;
absolute, usually religious ‘truths’ had to give way to a more secular view on reality. People
based their daily lives less on religious dogmas and became more self-reliant.
The printing press had already existed for many centuries in the 18th century; the German
printer Johannes Gutenberg had invented it in 1447. However, at the turn of the 18th century the
Industrial Revolution started and the process of printing became industrialised. Because this was
also the time in which cult fiction was born the cult fiction genre expanded – first in Britain and
then in the rest of the world. Mechanisation of the print industry also meant the beginning of
mass book production.
Bloom mentions that from the 17th century onwards and certainly from the 18th, a massor popular literature existed. He states that this literature was “[…] cheaply produced and widely
consumed by a growing population” (19). An example is Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732-1757),
“America’s first work of mass literature” (Bloom, 19). What to think, indeed, of early, large
British newspapers such as The Times (1785-present) (Bloom, 20)? All this is relevant for cult
fiction, because mass production and affordability to large extent characterise pulp fiction
(Server, xi). According to Bloom, as noted before, Bloom pulp-cult specifically belongs to the
industrial and metropolitan age. Therefore, it can be seen as an exponent of industrial mass
culture and a form of mass literature.
Mass production is “[the production of consumer] goods in large quantities, using
machinery” (Hornby, 787). It is therefore rather straightforward that mass-literature is literature
created in large amounts through mass-production, aided by the mechanisation of the printing
press in an age of industrialisation, growing consumption and mass-culture. However, somewhat
more can be said about popular fiction, which is an outgrowth of popular culture. For what are
popular culture and popular literature exactly?
According to Bloom, popular literature is “cheaply produced and widely consumed” and
can also be called mass-literature (19). Additionally, terms such as ‘commercial’, ‘profit’ and
‘print’ are important. Popular Culture Theory and Methodology: A Basic Introduction offers an
introduction to popular culture studies and consists of a collection of essays edited by H. E. Hinds
Jr. et al. From this work it can be concluded that a general working definition of popular culture
is rather difficult to establish, since there is no agreement among academics on what the concept
exactly entails. Some contributors mainly see it as the opposite of elite culture (Browne, 21 and
Harmon, 62-65). Browne, for example, notes that “[…] a viable definition for Popular Culture is
all those elements of life which are not narrowly intellectual or creatively elitist and which are
generally though not necessarily disseminated through the mass media. […] ‘Popular Culture’
thus embraces all levels of our society and culture other than the Elite – the ‘popular’, ‘mass’ and
‘folk’” (21).15 In one of the last essays of the collection, however, the editor himself states that
popularity is the sine qua non of popular culture. According to him, popular culture consists of
“[…] those aspects of culture, whether ideological, social or material, which are widely spread
and believed in and/or consumed by significant numbers people, i.e., those aspects which are
popular” (Hinds Jr., 363). This last definition, which largely links up with Bloom’s words on
popular literature, is most valid for the 18th century. This was the era in which the beginning of
popular-and mass culture-and literature appeared, and popularity seems to have been a decisive
factor in this process. The newly invented novel genre became very popular, as well as subgenres such as the Gothic novel. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), for example,
was widely read, just like many other novels of the same genre. It should also be noted that the
meaning non-elitist as linked to popular became particularly widespread in the 19th century,
which witnessed the division between highbrow-and lowbrow culture and which was – not
coincidentally – also the era in which pulp fiction experienced its rise.16
The mass media are “sources of information and news such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television, that
reach and influence large numbers of people” (Hornby, 787).
More about this can be read in the next section, which deals with the division between highbrow and lowbrow
2.1.2 The Sorrows of Young Werther
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) has been
chosen here as an example of 18th-century cult fiction. Why is this work the quintessential cult
book? First of all, this has to do with the Romantic elements it contains. Romanticism revolved
around intuition and emotion and the novel is full of strong emotions. Its plot, the majority of
which is presented as a collection of letters, can be summarised as follows. Werther, a young and
sensitive painter, sends letters to his friend Wilhelm while staying in the village of Wahlheim. In
these letters, he tells how he falls in love with a beautiful girl named Lotte. She, however, is
already engaged to another man called Albert. Werther befriends Lotte and her husband-to-be,
but after a while he cannot endure the torment any longer. Lotte will never be his and he sees no
other option but to take his own life by shooting himself in the head with a pistol. As can be
derived from this brief summary, emotions abound in the story. The text also shows this, for
example when Werther exclaims:
Often do I strive to allay the burning fever of my blood; and you have never witnessed
anything so unsteady, so uncertain as my heart. But need I confess this to you, my dear
friend, who have so often endured the anguish of witnessing my sudden transitions from
sorrow to immoderate joy, and from sweet melancholy to violent passions? I treat my
poor heart like a sick child, and gratify its every fancy (3).
Goethe’s style of writing merges with the described emotions and seems to predict the passionate,
tragic ending.
His romantic audience must have been sensitive to the contents of the novel and Goethe’s
style of writing. They developed an extreme devotion towards it, which went as far as committing
suicide in exact imitation of the protagonist (Reed Whissen, xx). As a result, in the course of
time the phenomenon of copycat suicide has become known as the Werther effect. Apparently,
Goethe’s work appealed to its readers in an extraordinary way, which, coupled with the effect of
the Zeitgeist, led to many a dramatic effect of the novel’s reading. In this case, then, reader
response is the main factor turning Werther into cult fiction.17
Additionally, the influence of the renewed interest in myths can be found in Werther.
Werther lives according to his dreams: “I examine my own being, and find there a world, but a
It should be noted that The Sorrows of Young Werther does not contain pulp elements that contributed to its cult
status; as discussed earlier, pulp fiction as a genre only came up in the 19th century.
world rather of imagination and dim desires, than of distinctness and living power. Then
everything swims before my senses, and I smile and dream while pursuing my way through the
world” (5-6). Moreover, Werther struggles with the feeling that life is futile. He states: “When I
consider the narrow limits within which our active and inquiring faculties are confined; when I
see how all our energies are wasted in providing for mere necessities, […] when I consider all
this, Wilhelm, I am silent” (5). This is an exaggerated version of the idea that everything is
relative and that absolute truths do not exist anymore. This was “a new [myth] for a new age”, as
Reed Whissen calls it (xxi). In both passages quoted above, it is also implied that Werther does
not directly do anything to change the world, although he appears to dream of a different one (i.e.
one matching his dreams and one less futile). This makes him the archetypal cult hero, as cult
heroes dream, but do not act (Reed Whissen, xxiii). They are generally silently rebellious and
Thirdly, “the corrupting power of freedom” (Reed Whissen, xxiii) can also be found in
Werther. After all, he is not poor and condemned to a life of hard labour; he has enough freedom
to do as he pleases and to indulge his senses – but in the end he only seems capable of killing
himself. It seems as if Werther is unable to deal with his freedom and looks for an excuse that
forces him into the direction of one fixed, definite thing. Although the outcome will be suicide, at
least the road he takes is clear and – as he tells himself – an inevitable one. In this way, his
freedom is restricted: he has to die.
Accordingly, all three cultural founding aspects of cult fiction (i.e. Romanticism,
democracy and myth-dream) can be traced in Werther. However, this is not all, as the
psychological components that characterise the genre can be distilled from the novel as well.
Obviously, Werther was idealised in the 18th century. If this were not the case, then why did so
many people take their own lives in imitation of him? Apparently he appealed to the 18th century
Romantic audience, most likely because of the extreme emotions he displays. Secondly, Werther
is an alienated character; he withdraws into Wahlheim and eventually concludes that there is no
place for him in the world. After all, he wishes to be in Albert’s position – one that is already
taken. This drives him to suicide. Readers could identify with him, if they felt the same way.
Thirdly, Werther’s extreme sensitivity offered readers an opportunity for ego-reinforcement.
Those who felt as sensitive and alienated – in a word: different – as Werther could read a book in
which they saw themselves mirrored and affirmed, and possibly this gave them a feeling of
superiority when they compared themselves with people around them. Fourthly, there is also
much suffering in the novel, which is caused by the protagonist’s restless spirit as well as his
unrequited love. Fifthly, Goethe’s work offers its readers a model for behaviour modification,
although it is quite a dramatic one. Finally, vulnerability is present, as Werther does not really
take action to change the life he does not like and to avert his ‘fate’; he remains inert, allows life
to submerge him, and the only real action he takes is committing suicide.
2.2 The 19th Century and The Call of Cthulhu
2.2.1 The 19th Century
The 19th century is somewhat more difficult to summarise than the 18th, as it abounds in
important developments relevant for cult fiction. Many think of the 19th century, which is
commonly referred to as the Victorian age in relation to Britain, as a historically static era in
which moral rigidity prevailed.18 This, however, could not be further from the truth. Indeed,
certain moral values were important in Victorian society, but the great changes that took place in
this era – both in North America and Europe – should not be overlooked. This especially
happened in the field of the print industry, and they were a continuation of what had been
initiated in the previous century. Bloom considers this period to be of crucial importance with
respect to the development of pulp fiction, which is why the third chapter of his book Cult
Fiction is entitled “Turning the World Round: The Print Revolution”. He states that the ‘voice of
the nineteenth century’ was “[…] a voice often both startling and unfamiliar – […] a voice
without anchor: a voice on the edge” (49). According to Bloom, the 19th century was an era of
great change and therefore its beginning can be seen as the advent of the second important period
for cult fiction.
What did these changes consist of? Bloom claims that “through looking at Victorian
literary publishing, purchasing and reading habits we can see the appearance of a new literary
sensibility produced by, and a consequence of, market forces and commodity production” (49).
What changed was that “[…] the book [became] both product and work of art, decided both by
unit cost and critical taste, an object of purchase and a process of reading. Books were not new,
fiction was not new, what was new was the emergence of new fictions, new types of books and a
Actually, the Victorian era is the period of Queen Victoria’s reign over Britain (1837-1901), and ought therefore
not simply to be equated with the 19th century.
new reading public” (49). Bloom states that in short “novelty dominated Victorian literature; the
literary arts were firmly rooted in, indeed one condition of, the Victorian entrepreneurial business
spirit” (50, emphasis in text). These quotes contain a great deal of information and ought to be
approached systematically. Therefore, let us look at the developments Bloom mentions step by
Firstly, there was the print revolution, which occurred on both sides of the Atlantic
(Bloom, 51-54). At the beginning of the 19th century no such thing as a vast, or even large,
publishing industry and reading public existed. These phenomena were still in their infancy,
despite the onset that was given at the end of the 18th century. Publishing houses were still
mainly printers; relatively few published books existed and fiction was relatively rare. Because of
this, and because few people were literate at the time, books were read by only a small amount of
people. Moreover, distribution was difficult due to poor roads (Bloom, 51). However, around
1875 all this had entirely changed – not in the last place because of the Industrial Revolution.
Printing specifically became the area of printers, who embraced new, mechanical printing
techniques and business attitudes. Publishing houses grew in size and the railways made it
possible to distribute printed books. Additionally, the British Education Act of 1870 caused mass
literacy, which led to an increase in the amount of books that were read (Bloom, 51 and 71-72).
The commercialism or “entrepreneurial business spirit” of the printing-and publishing
industry also influenced the way books were seen. This is what Bloom means when he speaks of
“a new literary sensibility”. A new rationalism entered the areas of printing, publishing and book
selling, characterising books as products alongside their original status of work of art. In other
words, the literary world became largely market-driven (Bloom, 50). Literature itself was also
influenced by the developments taking place in this era. Because the audience for books grew due
to a growing literacy and reading public “[…] a demand for new forms of expression and
therefore new forms of content […]” (Bloom, 50) was created. As a consequence, new literary
genres and sub-genres emerged – for example horror, detective, science fiction, spy thrillers,
westerns, women’s romances and imperial adventures (Bloom, 50 and 64). Not only new genres
emerged, however. The form of fiction, and especially novels, became rather different under the
influence of the appearance of the short story, serials and literature aimed at train passengers
(Bloom, 53 and 64). Literary magazines were not new, but the 19th-century periodicals were also
very suited as carriers of the newly dispersed fiction (“Guide to Research: Nineteenth Century
Periodicals”, 1-2).
Additionally, if the subject matter of books appealed to the reading public, many of them
could be sold. For this reason, publishers began to print what the majority of their audience
wanted to read – namely escapist or sensational literature. Literature had to represent and
entertain; these were its primary goals (Bloom, 58). The reason for this large demand was that in
the second half of the 19th century the interests of the working classes spread across all classes.
Stories about crime and sex were eagerly read – people were, in other words, interested in the
sensational. Bloom gives the following explanation for this general consensus: “Economic
distance and snobbery do not change the simple facts that science fiction and detective stories
appeal to all social groups […]” (93, emphasis mine). It is very likely that not only these stories,
but also those about, for example, murder and sex appealed to the ‘lower’ instincts of the upper
classes. This was the context in which the emergent popular-fiction industry took shape. Bloom
states that “the result was a thriving popular publishing industry […]” (54). This popular, mass
literature, which had developed itself and matured since the 18th century, predictably was the
basis of pulp fiction.
The position of writers also changed in the 19th century. Copyright, for example, became
increasingly important as writers realised they owned their work. At the same time, certain
authors became celebrities and their name a trademark ensuring money (Bloom, 64-65).
Furthermore, the popular fiction magazines created the need for a new kind of writer, the hack
(Server, xii). This pejorative term came to be used for “a writer […] who does a lot of low quality
work and does not get paid much” (Hornby, 576). The articles and books these writers produced
were quickly put-together, often because of a short deadline, and their speciality was sensational
fiction such as ‘true crime’ and erotic novels. Especially after the pulp fiction magazines came
into being around 1880 this kind of writing became a flourishing industry. The first pulp
magazine, Frank Munsey’s The Golden Argosy, appeared in 1882 in America (Server, xii) and
another important early pulp magazine is Weird Tales (Bloom, 201). This magazine was also
American and the first to publish H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.
In the second half of the 19th century another development took place which is of great
importance to the topic investigated here. Whereas the social-, cultural-and literary climate had
been liberal at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, this changed around the
end of the latter. Due to an increased literacy and capital many successful and learned people
came to see themselves as élite. They were “[…] the authors, publishers, academics and critics
who were made by this new world [and who] also sought to hierarchize it, restrict it, stabilize it
and divide it […]” (Bloom, 51). Of course, industrials, corporate heads, politicians, etc. also
considered themselves to be members of this group. These individuals closed ranks and the
economic social class system with working-class, middle-class and upper-class as we still know it
today emerged – both in Britain and America (Bloom, 8 and 104). This also affected culture:
“Just as the classes separated so taste was divided and redistributed among the deserving”
(Bloom, 104). Culture became fragmented and “low-, middle-and high-brow tastes were born
together out of economic, social and cultural desire for forms of recognizable stability in an age
of inherent instability” (Bloom, 104). Due to everything that was happening at the cultural level,
many feared that culture was under threat, and that “taste alone would make culture safe and
would above all preserve civilization […]” (Bloom, 104). One reason for fear was, of course, the
way in which the tastes of the working classes filtered upwards in literature.
This is when pulp fiction really became pulp, in the sense that its expanded, non-literal
meaning of low quality, sensational literature for the lower classes came into force (Bloom, 3 and
Server, xi). From this moment onwards it was not just popular literature anymore, written on
cheap paper it derived its name from; the upper classes came to look down on it and the term pulp
was assigned a negative connotation. At the other end of the divide what was considered
highbrow and high quality literature found its place. The concept of culture was needed in order
to distinguish oneself from the lower classes and their fiction.19 Pulp literature now came to be
seen as the literature especially found in the inexpensive pulp magazines such as Argosy – first
existing as The Golden Argosy, All-Story and Popular Magazine. However, despite the cultural
divide, pulp flourished like never before at this time, and many specialised pulp-publishers and
writers emerged. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Max Brand, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan
Doyle and H. Rider Haggard can be seen as examples of the latter (Server, xii-xiii). It is
interesting to see how the cultural elite especially feared middle-class taste, which was not as
“colourful, exotic and authentic” (Bloom, 11) – in other words, as easy to recognise – as that of
the working classes, but which produced “[…] middle-brow literature masquerading as high19
It is interesting to note how this term evolved semantically in the 19th century. By 1898 culture was no longer
primarily associated with agriculture, but came to stand for refinement. This was also the meaning entering the
dictionaries at the time (Bloom, 105-106).
brow art […]” (Bloom, 117). According to highbrow cultural guardians this kind of fiction did
not belong in the canon, and ought to be recognised and renounced.
Lawrence W. Levine, in his book Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural
Hierarchy in America writes about how the cultural divide that appeared at the end of the 19th
century came into existence in America. As his main example he takes the case of Shakespeare,
whose person and literature were slowly appropriated by the upper classes around the turn of the
century, while before that time he was one of America’s most popular playwrights. He describes
how he slowly came to the realisation that “[…] Shakespeare actually was popular entertainment
in nineteenth-century America” (4, emphasis in text), and how the currently revered Bard used to
be “[…] part and parcel of nineteenth-century American culture […]” (6). The American public
appreciated him not only for the spectacular action his plays offered, but also for his eloquence
and his moral sense and worldview (Levine, 45).
However, at the end of the 19th century all this changed and Shakespeare gradually
disappeared from American popular culture. Various reasons caused this. Firstly, Shakespeare
was “[…] divorced from the broader world of everyday [nineteenth-century] culture” (Levine,
33). In the 19th century Shakespeare was usually played alongside a whole range of other
contemporary entertainment – for example music, acrobats or other, short plays (Levine, 22). The
public consisted of all social classes, which saw the same plays in the same theatres. In this way,
the whole stratum of American society was represented in a nineteenth-century theatre (Levine,
25). Around 1855, however, Shakespeare plays began to be separated from their additional
entertainment, which turned them into relatively expensive events for the richer, upper classes.
Additionally, the oratorical mode, which dominated the 19th century and popularised
Shakespeare, came into disuse at the end of the 19th century (Levine, 46). Finally, there were
changes in taste and style; Shakespeare came to appeal less to the public, for example because of
the melodramatic mode often to be found in his plays (Levine, 48). The result of all these factors
was that Shakespeare became culture – seen and revered by few.
Shakespeare had entered the literary canon, which appeared at the end of the 19th century
as a product of the new cultural hierarchy (Bloom, 107). This canon “has come to designate – in
world literature, or in European literature, but most frequently in a national literature – those
authors who, by a cumulative consensus of critics, scholars, and teachers, have come to be widely
recognized as ‘major’, and to have written works often hailed as literary classics” (Abrams, 29,
emphasis in text). In the 19th century the canon came to include works from classical culture as
well as contemporary classics. The latter were chosen with taste as a guideline; relatively newly
created works were considered valuable or not after certain rules had been applied to them.
Longevity and recognition by the public did not seem to suffice anymore, and the rules were used
to “[…] measure the new literary work and place it in the canon or expel it into the abyss of
popular taste” (Bloom, 107). Especially avant-garde literature was deemed important, as it
appealed to academics and other educated literary critics who shared a taste for the experimental,
the modern and the futuristic. A definition of avant-garde is “new and very modern ideas in art,
music or literature that are sometimes surprising or shocking” (Hornby, 70). Additionally, it is
“[the] group of artists, etc. who introduce new and very modern ideas” (Hornby, 70). Literature
created or influenced by the avant-garde was admitted to the literary canon. Pulp, on the other
hand, was denied this, alongside popular-and mass culture’s other literary products such as gothic
fiction and sentimental love stories aimed at women – to name but a few.
Accordingly, avant-garde and pulp fiction were far from alike in the 19th century,
especially when it comes to their places in the cultural hierarchy continuum. Pulp was lowbrow
fiction, whereas avant-garde literature belonged to highbrow culture. The canon, therefore, was
only reserved for avant-garde and other cultured literature. It is striking that both 19th-century
pulp and avant-garde fiction have maintained their respective positions until this day. The work
of H. Rider Haggard, for example, will not be found in contemporary literary anthologies of note,
whereas Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) has secured a place in them. This last
work was avant-garde in that it offered a wholly new view on late Victorian England by implying
that there was something seriously wrong in it through the portrayal of his monstrous anti-hero
Dorian Gray.
Cult fiction of the 19th century, however, is not so easy to classify and seems to occupy a
special place in literature. The reason for this is that it could enter into the canon despite its initial
status of popular literature with the occasional pulp elements, albeit not directly. Works like
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against
Nature – originally titled A Rebours – (1884) and Philippe Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s
Axel (1890) began as popular, cult fiction and finally found a place in the canon of classics (Reed
Whissen, 3-9, 20-24 and 102-107). How did this happen? Shelley’s Frankenstein became very
popular after its publication and even contains pulp elements: it is essentially a thriller and
features rather horrific, ‘illicit’ scenes in which Dr. Frankenstein roams cemeteries in search of
bones and other body parts for his creation (Reed Whissen, 102-105). Moreover, the work gained
a cult following (Reed Whissen, 103).20 It was not only popular fiction though, because it also
contained avant-garde elements; the way Shelley combined the horror story and modern science
was wholly new to her age (Reed Whissen, 105). Avant-gardism can also be found in Axel and
Against Nature, two other works that became popular, cult favourites in their day. The state of
mind and way of life Des Esseintes displays in Against Nature went against everything ordinary
Victorians believed in and appealed to those who saw the era they lived in as stifling and
hypocritical (Reed Whissen, 4-6). Axel, in its turn, offered an exalted, neo-Romantic
counterbalance to the prevalent Naturalism of the age, which appalled many artists and other
sensitive souls because of its unimaginative dreariness (Reed Whissen, 20-24). Apparently, the
avant-gardist elements were not just present; they were also precisely what caused these works to
become so popular and achieve cult status. This shows that the labels popular fiction and avantgarde were not as stable and easy to separate from each other as 19th century highbrow cultural
guardians liked to believe. There was interaction between high and low in the field of literature,
especially where cult fiction was concerned.
These works, which became part of the canon after some time, also received critical
acclaim in their own day. Especially Against Nature was praised by fellow-artists such as Oscar
Wilde, George Moore, Arthur Symons, Paul Valéry, Paul Bourget and James MacNeill Whistler
(Reed Whissen, 8). The novel also features in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (Reed
Whissen, 3). Axel was seen as “[the] bible of symbolism and ‘a true summa of mystical idealism’
[…]” as well as “[…] the only true example of a French [ideological tragedy] in the nineteenth
century” (Reed Whissen, 21). Accordingly, by looking at the titles mentioned, it can be stated
that cult novels of the 19th century which contained avant-gardist elements began as popular, cult
fiction and ended up as literary classics. Of course, in reality this does not hold for all 19th-and
turn-of-the-century cult fiction, but it certainly does for some. Their avant-gardist aspects were
probably the reason why they eventually became canonic, but it is also important to note that
these cult works began as popular fiction, some even with pulp elements in them – e.g.
Frankenstein. Despite this, they became classics. This is striking, and it seems to imply that the
Reed Whissen does not further comment on this; he merely states: “Because Frankenstein has been made such a
part of our popular culture, it is difficult to imagine it as the cult favorite it became in its own time, a time now
halfway between Shakespeare’s day and our own” (103).
cult fiction genre is extremely dynamic, as it can move from one side of the cultural continuum to
the other. It should be noted that Goethe’s Werther, which was popular, cult fiction in the 18th
century and entered the literary canon alongside Shakespeare’s plays and many other works in
the 19th century, went through the same transformation. However, Werther could not become
canonic in the 18th century, since at the time there was no canon (yet) to begin with.
2.2.2 The Call of Cthulhu
H.P. Lovecraft was an American writer, who lived from 1890 to 1937. His story The Call
of Cthulhu, which was published in February 1928 in the pulp magazine Weird Tales (“H.P.
Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’”, 4), has been chosen as a representative of 19th-century cult
fiction here. Lovecraft has been a major influence on many other writers, including Stephen King
and Colin Wilson (Bloom, 192). The reason for this was that he was a visionary writer who
invented the basis of modern science fiction with his emphasis on the insignificant place of
humanity in an endless, incomprehensible universe. S.T. Joshi discusses Lovecraft’s philosophy
of cosmicism in the introduction to The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories and points out
that it developed out of his belief in mechanic materialism. This is “[…] the belief that the
universe is a ‘mechanism’ operating according to fixed laws (although these may not all be
known to human beings), and that there can be no immaterial substance such as a soul or spirit”
(in Lovecraft (1928), xiv). The core of this thought can be traced as far back as ancient Greece, to
philosophers such as Epicurus and Democritus (in Lovecraft (1928), xiv). Lovecraft’s philosophy
of cosmicism, in its turn, states that there is no recognisable God in the universe – Lovecraft
claimed to be an agnostic in theory and an atheist in practice – and that man is not the centre of
this universe (in Lovecraft (1928), xiv-xvii). Moreover, it holds that the cosmos is vast and that
humans, due to their insignificant position in it, risk being wiped away at any moment.
Additionally, because of the limiting uniformity of space, time and the forces of nature humanity
fails to understand its role in the universe and the powers that shape it (in Lovecraft (1928), xv).
In order to temporarily escape from this rather nihilistic train of thought, Lovecraft wrote
weird fiction – a name for horror fiction that Lovecraft sometimes used for his own stories.
Lovecraft once stated: “I choose weird stories because they suit my inclinations best – one of my
strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange
suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space and natural law” (in Lovecraft
(1928), xv, emphasis mine). Lovecraft found these limitations – which he saw as the cause of
man’s failure to unravel the secrets of the universe – imprisoning and frustrating. Lovecraft’s
stories are often about human civilisation being under threat by the impending return of ancient,
destructive extra-terrestrials. Surviving cults that worship them call these aliens ‘gods’, and in
Lovecraft’s stories an inquisitive, detective-like individual generally finds out about these things.
However, the cults aim for total secrecy and pursue everyone who might reveal their existence.
One of Lovecraft’s stories in which these themes are present is The Call of Cthulhu,
which is among his best-known works. The aliens are worshipped as the Great Old Ones: “They
worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and
who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth
and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who
formed a cult which had never died” (Lovecraft (1928), 153). These Old Ones are neither good
nor evil and human concepts of morality do not have any meaning for them. As a consequence,
humans cannot understand them. They are symbolic for Lovecraft’s notion of cosmicism, in
which humanity is insignificant and lives without understanding the machinations of its
existence. In The Call of Cthulhu the Old Ones are described as wild, violent beings with Cthulhu
as their leader:
That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take
great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time
would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free
and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men
shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them
new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame
with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom (Lovecraft (1928), 155).
All this means the Great Old Ones, Cthulhu in particular, are a threat to mankind and its
civilisation, as humanity is likely to destroy itself when the Old Ones return.
This is where the horror-aspect to Lovecraft’s fiction becomes important. Lovecraft’s The
Call of Cthulhu – like most of his other stories – first and foremost aims at scaring the reader.
Lovecraft focuses on the horrifying nature of what cannot be fathomed and explained, which is
why his work is often denoted as supernatural horror fiction. Lovecraft himself has written an
essay about his inspirations, entitled “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (Lovecraft (1935)). The
horror aspect of The Call of Cthulhu can clearly be recognised in the way Cthulhu is described
when he is accidentally set free:
The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and
immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force and cosmic order.
[…] The Thing of the idols, the green, sticky spawn of the stars had awakened to claim its
own. The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a
band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu
was loose again, and ravening for delight (Lovecraft (1928), 167).
Cthulhu, who is made out of a sticky green substance, is clearly not of this world and a terrifying
atmosphere accompanies him. As a consequence, all humans who behold him are overcome with
The Call of Cthulhu is full of this kind of passages, and Lovecraft has a preference for
words such as horror, fright, menace, lurking, perverse and suspense. Just before Cthulhu
breaks loose, for example, Lovecraft describes the mud city of R’lyeh where Cthulhu lies
waiting: “[…] and twisted menace and suspense lurked leeringly in those crazily elusive angles
of carven rock where a second glance shewed concavity after the first showed convexity”
(Lovecraft (1928), 166). The result is that “the very sun of heaven seemed distorted when
viewed through the polarising miasma welling out from this sea-soaked perversion […]”
(Lovecraft (1928), 166). Another way in which Lovecraft tries to scare his readers is by
presenting his story as reality. The Call of Cthulhu is presented as a manuscript “found among
the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston” (Lovecraft (1928), 139). The
manuscript consists of three parts, which deal with the alternate discoveries of Wayland’s uncle
professor Angell and Thurston himself. After his uncle’s mysterious death, Thurston has pieced
together a large amount of information about the Cthulhu cult, which can be linked to what his
uncle has found out. However, all this is supposed to remain secret and it can be assumed
Angell became a victim of the cult – the more because others who also ‘knew too much’ seem
to have undergone the same fate. At the end of the story Thurston says “but I do not think my
life will be long. As my uncle went, as poor Johansen went, so I shall go. I know too much, and
the cult still lives” (Lovecraft (1928), 169). The story finishes with Thurston’s words: “Let me
pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and
see that it meets no other eye” (Lovecraft (1928), 169). Of course, this has not happened, if we
assume this story to be ‘real’ for a moment. Thurston indeed died; at the beginning of the
manuscript he is mentioned as the late Francis Wayland Thurston. Moreover, his ‘executors’
have ignored his final warning and even published the manuscript. Lovecraft aims at having an
effect on the solitary horror reader, who finishes the story and while still under its spell briefly
thinks ‘now they are also coming after me’.
Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, however, is not just horror fiction; it also falls into the
category of pulp. This was already the case when it was first published, because Lovecraft
published his stories exclusively in pulp magazines such as Weird Tales (Bloom, 192). S.T. Joshi
mentions that “[Lovecraft’s] work was once dismissed because it appeared in the cheap pulp
magazines of the 1920s and 1930s […]” (in Lovecraft (1928), xix). Lovecraft, however, did not
have any other choice, because he wrote supernatural horror fiction that dealt with terrifying
extra-terrestrials and violent cults. S.T. Joshi states that his stories were written “[…] at a time
when ‘genre’ fiction in general, and weird fiction in particular, was slowly being banished from
mainstream venues, and the pulps offered the only market for those who wished to work in these
literary realms” (in Lovecraft (1928), xix). However, The Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraft’s other
stories were not only considered pulp because they could be characterised as weird fiction, but
also because they were clearly sensational, entertaining and very readable. These aspects,
alongside the terror and violence in stories such as The Call of Cthulhu are characteristics of pulp
fiction. Consequently, Lovecraft’s stories were denied a place in the highbrow literary canon.
Lovecraft’s work can also be seen as avant-garde, as he invented the foundation of
modern science fiction. Nevertheless, up to this day his place in literature remains one outside the
canon. The reason for this is the dismissal of his stories as ‘weird’ horror-and pulp fiction at the
beginning of the 20th century. However, Lovecraft’s work, including The Call of Cthulhu, was
and is also underground cult fiction. When his stories were published Lovecraft soon gathered a
cult audience largely consisting of admiring fellow-writers (Houellebecq, 38). Moreover, many
of them have dedicated their careers to the preservation and publication of his work after his
death, as well as the continuation of the myths he created – most importantly the Cthulhu myth
(Houellebecq, 34-35 and 38-42). These writers were gripped by the ‘gods’ and the fantasy world
Lovecraft had evoked and tried to imitate and continue his writing. August Derleth, Donald
Wandrei, Robert Bloch, Lin Carter, Fred Chappell and Belknap Long are among the many
examples (Houellebecq, 34). Their admiration even went as far as ‘reverence’, as S.T. Joshi
points out (Joshi, 3). This is what the cult in cult fiction is all about; religious-like admiration
towards a literary work or, in this case, a whole oeuvre. While living Lovecraft had a
considerable amount of admirers – Houellebecq calls them ‘disciples’ –, but this was a select
company mainly made up of writers and other devotees. When he died, he was still not very
popular, which has continued until this day (Bloom, 192). Lovecraft’s work was and still is
underground fiction, which means it “[has] a small but special [audience] and [is] relatively
unknown outside a narrow circle […]” (Reed Whissen, xv). Bloom puts it this way: “In many
ways Lovecraft has been an influence on film makers […] and on other writers […], but
Lovecraft himself remains locked away – a cult interest for fantasy fanatics (who are rare) and
academics or intellectuals (who are rarer)” (192). This underground status is another
characteristic of many works of cult fiction. Houellebecq is part of Lovecraft’s select audience;
he describes how he discovered him: “Like most of those contaminated, I myself discovered HPL
at sixteen through the intermediary of a ‘friend’. To call it a shock would be an understatement. I
had not known literature was capable of this. And, what’s more, I’m still not sure it is” (34).
These are the words of a true disciple.
It should additionally be noted that not only his fiction, but also Lovecraft’s personality
plays an important role when it comes to his cult status. Houellebecq states:
He was fundamentally racist, openly reactionary, he glorified puritanical inhibitions, and
evidently found all ‘direct erotic manifestations’ repulsive. Resolutely anti-commercial,
he despised money, considered democracy to be an idiocy and progress to be an illusion.
The word ‘freedom’, so cherished by Americans, prompted only a sad, derisive guffaw.
Throughout his life, he maintained a typically aristocratic, scornful attitude toward
humanity in general coupled with extreme kindness toward individuals in particular (39).
All this fascinates Lovecraft’s audience, which has constructed web-sites dealing with, among
other things, his extremely reclusive nature, his possible homosexuality an even the food he ate
(“H.P. Lovecraft Misconceptions” and “H.P. Lovecraft’s Favorite Foods”). Nevertheless,
Lovecraft remains a mystery: “No degree of biographical detail has succeeded in dissipating the
aura of strange pathos that surrounds the character. And five hundred pages into his book,
[Lovecraft’s biographer] Sprague de Camp is forced to admit: ‘I do not pretend to completely
understand H. P. Lovecraft’” (in Houellebecq, 41). This aura of mystery has made Lovecraft
“[…] almost as mythic a figure as one of his own creations” (Houellebecq, 41). Many members
of his audience are obsessed by him, and it can be claimed that he has become a cult figure. This
taken together with the effect Lovecraft’s stories have on his readers and his underground status
makes him the epitome of the cult writer.
2.3 The 20th Century and Pulp
2.3.1 The 20th Century21
At the beginning of the 20th century the developments of the end of the 19th century
described above continued. The industrialisation and the expansion of mass-and popular culture
and literature only grew. Books were increasingly seen as products alongside their original status
of works of art. Moreover, the highbrow-lowbrow cultural divide and the newly instated literary
canon proved to be no ephemerae; they were there to stay and still exist today.
Pulp magazines continued to flourish; at the beginning of the century they further
expanded in volume and number (Server, xiii). Additionally, the genres of the 19th century took
shape more concretely in the pulps. The science fiction story and the characteristic detective story
evolved into their modern shapes and became common features in magazines such as Amazing
Stories, Astounding and Black Mask (Server, xiii-xiv). At the same time, individual pulp
magazines began to specialise in genres such as “[…] crime, western, romance, adventure [and]
fantasy” (Server, xiii). Server notes that the ‘true-crime’ and ‘confession’ magazines of this
period can also be seen as pulp (xiv). Because of this expansion and variety of content many
enthusiasts consider pulp fiction to be “[…] exemplified by those forms of magazine and
paperback publication which flourished between the 1920s and 1950s in America and which
should be distinguished from both dime novels, paperbacks per se and comic books” (Bloom, 3).
The paperbacks were introduced in the late 1930s, and came to replace the old pulp magazines
(Server, xiv). These softcover books – to be distinguished form hardcover books from that
moment onwards – were portable and cheap. Moreover, they were sold “[…] in the same
locations as the pulp magazines, and appealed to […] the same audience, with their lurid cover
illustrations and stories concerned with sex and violence” (Server, xiv). Whereas the first
paperbacks were all reprints of hardcover editions, the New York publisher Fawcett was the first
Various items in this section, for example quotes from Bloom and Server, can also be found in chapter one in
section 1.2 on Bloom. They ought to be repeated here for an adequate overview of 20th century pulp fiction.
to issue original paperback fiction in 1950 (Server, xiv). This was the beginning of the pulppaperback industry.
The coming of the paperback also changed pulp fiction in relation to its content. Pulp
became “[…] grittily realistic, often frankly erotic, with an iconoclastic eagerness to explore the
controversial and the taboo” (Server, xiv). These paperbacks laid the foundations for modern pulp
fiction, as they “[…] developed new genres around such shocking subject matter as drug
addiction, juvenile delinquency, racism and homosexuality. Escapist reading took on a weird,
nihilistic edge in the work of such paperback pros as Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford”
(Server, xiv). This atmosphere can also be found in, for instance, the work of today’s Italian
Cannibali writers.22 Bloom describes the rise of the paperback in this way: “From now on fiction
and human interest material would feed directly into paperback production, just as it had done
previously with the pulp magazines which paperbacks had mainly replaced by the 1940s.
Aggressive marketing, lurid covers, violent and erotic stories about money, drugs, the city
teenage delinquents, mobsters and action combined with a very low price gave these paperbacks
an air of sleaze, and cheap soon stood for nasty” (43). This development did not only occur in
America, but also in Europe; here the French noir editions and Italian giallos, for example, were
popular (Server, xiv-xv).
The reaction of the cultural establishment or highbrow part of Western society towards
this development was one characterised by anxiety. The reason for this was mainly the aversion
to obscenity and the feared corruption of the lower classes (Bloom, 144-149). Consequently, a
stern censorship was embraced during the 1950s with reference to many products of popular
culture such as written pulp fiction and comic books (Bloom, 140-144). The obscenity trial about
D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 is exemplary for the situation in Britain
at the time (Bloom, 145). Bloom notes that these suppressing measures were indeed successful
(146). They were, however, only temporarily successful, as literary censorship waned in the
1960s and the pulp paperbacks proved to be highly resilient; they “[…] became increasingly
explicit as that decade wore on” (Server, xv). Especially the American publishing house
Holloway House came to publish “[…] brutally realistic novels about inner-city crime and vice
and various aspects of the black experience as recounted by such authors as Iceberg Slim and
More about these authors can be read at the end of this section. They have entered the literary stage relatively
Donald Goines” (Server, xv). Literature regained her freedom in the atmosphere that emerged,
which was also influenced by the widespread student uprisings of 1968.
This is also the time of the golden age of cult fiction (Reed Whissen, x-xi). This period
started around 1945; Reed Whissen points out that this age occurred during “[…] those decades
immediately following World War II, especially the prolific sixties” (xi). This is when the centre
of cult fiction became located in the United States, for this was where “[…] the growing number
of books that became underground or campus favorites turned the phenomenon of the cult book
in a discernible movement” (Reed Whissen, x). According to Reed Whissen, between 1945 and
1975 a large number of cult books appeared. He states:
Their readers were usually college students who felt that these books had, in some
mysterious way, been written exclusively with them in mind. They would become wildly
enthusiastic about a current favorite, reading and re-reading it, borrowing and lending it,
broadcasting their enthusiasm to others, discussing it eagerly among themselves, carrying
copies around with them, adopting the attitudes expressed in the book […]. Gradually the
book would catch on – to the surprise of everyone, including the publisher – and become a
best-seller (xi).
Examples of these books are The Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger, 1951), The Killer Inside Me
(Jim Thompson, 1952), Lord of the Flies (William Golding, 1955), The Outsider (Colin Wilson,
1956), On the Road (Jack Kerouac, 1957) and Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov, 1958). Other works
that deserve a place in the list are Catch-22 (Joseph Heller, 1961), A Clockwork Orange
(Anthony Burgess, 1962), The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath, 1963), Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965), Been
Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (Richard Fariña (1966), Trout Fishing in America
(Richard Brautigan, 1967) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur Clarke, 1968). Additionally, Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson, 1971) and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance (Robert M. Pirsig, 1974) should be mentioned (Reed Whissen, 305-307). All these
works, which are strikingly varied when it comes to genres and writers, gathered a cult audience.
A great number of them were rebellious, controversial novels – e.g. The Catcher in the Rye, On
the Road and Lolita. Apparently, they appealed to the leftwing, liberal ‘hippie’ readers of the
time. These works also contain pulp elements – think, for example, of sensational elements such
as the provoking savagery in Lord of the Flies, the ‘illicit’ violence in The Killer Inside Me and A
Clockwork Orange and the drugs in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Nevertheless, they have all
become classics, as their inclusion in Reed Whissen’s Classic Cult Fiction indicates.
Another important development in this period was postmodernism. Postmodernism as a
philosophical movement has greatly been influenced by Gianni Vattimo’s theory of pensiero
debole or weak thought – dealt with in his book The Transparent Society. Vattimo claims that the
mass media have caused a “‘weakening’ of the very notion of reality” (59). With this, he means
that that a pluralist conglomeration of voices has emerged and that there is not just one,
authoritative voice anymore. Instead, there are many – each with its own truth. A postmodernist
network of interpretations has become important – which is not binary and can therefore be called
weak – where a modernist, linear rationality has lost its appeal. According to Stefano Rosso this
implies that “[…] we can no longer speak of one way of thinking, but only of many” (81,
emphasis in text). In other words, there is not one reality or truth anymore; there are many. 23 In
her book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, Linda Hutcheon elaborates on
this further by stating that “[postmodernism] refuses to posit any structure or, what Lyotard
(1984a) calls, master-narrative – such as art or myth […]. It argues that such systems are indeed
attractive, perhaps even necessary; but this does not make them any the less illusory” (Hutcheon,
6). Hutcheon emphasises that for Jean-François Lyotard “[…] postmodernism is characterized by
exactly this kind of incredulity toward master or meta-narratives […]” (6). According to
Hutcheon, postmodernism can be seen as a movement challenging “[…] all that is considered
universal and eternal [in our culture], and therefore unchangeable” (8).
Indeed, many structures that were shaped by consensus and considered natural, universal
and self-evident came to be questioned in the postmodern age (Hutcheon, 6-8). This especially
happened with the “[…] master narratives of bourgeois liberalism […]” (Hutcheon, 6). Labels
such as highbrow and lowbrow, for example, were no longer seen as obvious, and the concept of
the literary canon was challenged as its position of “[…] a stable, fixed body of eternally and
universally accepted ‘great’ works [was contested]” (Hutcheon, 224). It was stipulated that the
literary quality of a work did not depend on the text as such, but on the value it was assigned as a
consequence of the text’s properties (Hutcheon, 224). Moreover, postmodernism inevitably
caused a re-evaluation of popular culture. Although the 1960s were the years in which many of
Note that this resembles the state of mind existent in the 18th century, which had developed under the influence of
the renewed interest in myths.
the basic ideas of postmodernism took shape, they did not experience their full bloom until the
1980s (Hutcheon, 8). This is, not coincidentally, also when scholars such as Ray B. Browne and
Michael Schudson attested to a renewed interest in popular culture. In his essay “Popular Culture
as the New Humanities”, Browne argues for an incorporation of the popular arts in the
humanities and states that they ought to be taught in the academy because of their impact on
people’s everyday lives (75). Moreover, the study of popular culture can offer an insight in and
deepen the understanding of the society it belongs to (Browne, 80). Browne also mentions other
critics who “[…] are modifying their attitudes toward the arts and culture” – among them Susan
Sontag and Roger Rollin (79). By 1987, in his essay “The New Validation of Popular Culture:
Sense and Sentimentality in Academia”, Schudson points out that “popular culture is now studied
more often, in more different courses, in more departments, and with more sympathy than before.
In literature, serious scholars can write on science fiction or on detective fiction or on romance
novels, in short, on what is still often labeled as ‘trash’” (85). Additionally, he states that “the
concept of popular culture has been revised entirely, and revitalized, by these developments. The
result has been, in my opinion, a salutary new valuation of popular culture […]” (85). Bloom says
something similar: “[…] the postmodern age is the age of popular art become high art,
commercial comics transformed into icons for a literate and visually and semiologically
sophisticated audience” (137). Accordingly, it seems that around 1985 popular culture had finally
However, this observation, which many made at the time, also caused worries about the
consequences of this new valuation of popular culture and its arts. Shortly after describing
popular culture’s new position, Schudson states the following: “This development raises a
fundamental question […]: what rationale remains for distinguishing ‘high’ or ‘elite’ culture from
popular culture? If popular culture is valid for serious study, is there still a high culture that is
more valid? That is, what rationale remains for teaching – and thereby legitimating, even
enshrining – some texts rather than others in university courses in the humanities?” (86).
Schudson thinks this “enshrining” is mainly caused by a “sentimental view” of popular culture; it
is deemed fresh and important (85-86). He does indeed raise a difficult issue, which inevitably
arises with the ‘secularisation’ of the humanities and the canon. Barry W. Sarchett further
elaborates on it in his essay “The Joke(r) Is On Us: The End of Popular Culture Studies”. Sarchett
claims that, after a period in which popular culture-and fiction were welcomed in the humanities
and academy, it is now time to acknowledge that the end of popular culture studies has arrived as
the concept of popular culture has lost its legitimacy. According to Sarchett, “[…] traditional
cultural hierarchies have collapsed” (127), which has caused the terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ to
become meaningless. Moreover, “[…] if the category of elite art is menaced culturally and
theoretically, then, given the diacritical relationship of binaries, the category of the popular is also
necessarily menaced. The end of elite art (‘Literature’, in this case) […] entails the end of the
essentially ‘popular’ as well” (Sarchett, 128). Sarchett states that “[…] in the context of the
academic study of cultural texts, the use of the term ‘popular culture studies’ to denote any
discreet disciplinary or sub-disciplinary arena can no longer be convincingly sustained in either
institutional or theoretical terms” (128). He therefore chooses to “[…] reject the category of the
popular […]” (128). Instead, Sarchett argues for a “symmetrical” critical approach in relation to
the study of all cultural texts: “[…] each preference involves values which can be explained
symmetrically, and thus can carry no formally privileged epistemological or methodological
status” (141). He illustrates his argument with a scene involving the Joker from Tim Burton’s
film Batman (1989), but his reasoning would take us too far here.
Schudson and Sarchett’s arguments closely resemble Bloom’s in his final chapter of Cult
Fiction: Popular Reading and Pulp Theory. This chapter is part three of the book, and is
introduced as “Requiescat”. It is titled “The Death of Cult Fiction and the End of Theory” and
Bloom intends it as a “[…] requiem for pulp culture [...]” (221). This deserves some explanation.
Bloom too thinks the division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and art disappeared at the end of
the 20th century and that this has caused the symbolical death of both.24 He is concerned with
literature, and immediately takes pulp-cult fiction as a representative of popular culture without
dwelling on the latter in any specific terms. According to Bloom, because high-and popular
culture have disappeared, pulp or cult is also dead: “Any requiem for pulp culture will inevitably
also be the requiem for the old high literary culture that defined itself as its implacable enemy”
(221). The reason for the death of former high literature can largely be attributed to the influence
of Hollywood: “Filmic cross-fertilization had movie-ized the novel, has hijacked the literary
qualities of fiction (as basic formal properties) and transformed them” (Bloom, 223). Bloom also
claims that popular art has taken on characteristics of former high art, which is another reason for
Note that Bloom’s book was published in 1996, which is also the year of publication of Sarchett’s essay. It appears
that much was written about the end of traditional cultural hierarchies at the time.
its demise: “Ironically, popular art itself is becoming more self-referential and in so doing is
effacing itself as ‘popular’ as it appropriates high literary style” (227). 25 High literary criticism
does something similar, but in the other direction: “Even as cult fiction has become self-aware
and thereby lost its nature as pulp, so theory, that most self-reflexive of activities, has been
colonized unawares by the very sensational, erotic and violent language of the pulp enterprise”
(Bloom, 233). As an example, Bloom gives a quote from critic Arthur Kroker:
What is the bimodern condition? It is the contemporary human situation of living at the
violent edge of primitivism and simulation, of an indefinite reversibility in the order of
things wherein only the excessive cancellation of difference through violence re-energizes
the process. The bimodern condition, then, as a time of excessive tendencies towards
violent boredom and suicidal nihilism: driftworks between ecstasy and terminal
catatrophe (235, in Bloom, emphasis in text).
As a consequence, Bloom argues, criticism in the kind of style Kroker uses can be seen as the
new pulp: “Here the banal becomes sensationalised […]: the language of the post-structuralist
critic becomes quite consciously that of the tabloid and the pulp thriller” (236). Bloom concludes
his book by saying that both popular literature and cultural criticism “[…] have reached their
outer limits on the edge of a certain cybernetic imagination” (240). In other words, at the end of
the 20th century the end of cult fiction and the end of theory are witnessed.
Some remarks are in place here. Firstly, as outlined above, after the Second World War
the third important period for cult fiction commenced. This is when the second period ended,
which did not simply consist of the 19th century but lasted halfway into the 20th. Bloom even
states that the Victorian age did not end until 1968 – the year of the global student revolutions:
“[…] the Victorian age was an age dominated by the radical disestablishment of an older
sensibility and a continuing revolution in another and newer sensibility which lasted until 1968”
(49). After the war, many changes took place that had an impact on the development of pulp-and
cult fiction: the decline of censorship, the golden age of cult fiction, postmodernism, the reevaluation of popular culture and “the end of popular culture (studies)” as well as that of pulpcult. The combination of all these factors caused the advent of a new period that greatly differed
from the one that went before. Especially the influence of postmodernism should be taken into
Bloom does not give any examples here, but when looking at, for example, Bukowski’s Pulp, it can indeed be seen
that this novel is self-referential in that it is “dedicated to bad writing” (5) and in that Bukowski plays with all kinds
of pulp elements.
account, as it caused a way of thinking that allowed popular culture and pulp to emancipate after
a long time of disdain.
Secondly, Bloom’s statement about the end of pulp and cult is a rather strong one, for it
depends on how one looks at things. When considering pulp and cult to be one and the same and
inextricably bound up with popular culture-and art, as Bloom does, the end of pulp and cult has
indeed come with the re-evaluation of popular art and culture. Bloom reasons as follows: cult is
pulp, and pulp is popular fiction – an outgrowth of popular culture. According to this train of
thought, pulp and cult do not have legitimacy anymore after the collapse of traditional cultural
hierarchies, because these terms have become meaningless due to the erosion of the significance
of terms like ‘high’ and ‘low’. However, we have seen that the main characteristic of cult fiction
is the degree of reader response it can boast of; readers’ religious-like devotion towards a book is
what makes it cult fiction. It is very likely that responses like this continue to appear, even after
hierarchies of taste have collapsed, simply because they occur independently of phenomena such
as ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ culture and art. Enthusiastic responses towards books are unlikely
to disappear because the cultural background against which they exist has changed. Moreover,
there are indications that the changes as described above are exaggerated. Are there really no
cultural and literary hierarchies anymore today? It seems like there are if you look at university
reading lists world-wide, which still do not feature pulp authors such as H. Rider Haggard,
Lovecraft or Stephen King on a large scale. Shakespeare, James Joyce and Gustave Flaubert are
among the chosen, to name but a few, but these are traditionally canonical writers. Apparently, it
is still the canon that is taught, which means that traditional cultural divisions are still in place. In
the introduction to the essay collection Italian Pulp Fiction: The New Narrative of the Giovani
Cannibali Writers (2001), Stefania Lucamante is far from believing that the hierarchies of taste
have disappeared in Italy. She states that “[the essays in Italian Pulp Fiction] uncover the
interesting networks of relations between canonical and non-canonical writings, between tradition
and avant-garde, between ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ literature” (14). Interestingly, Hutcheon
claims that “[…] we now query those boundaries between the literary and the traditionally extraliterary, between fiction and non-fiction, and ultimately, between art and life. We can interrogate
these borders, though, only because we still posit them” (224-225). According to Hutcheon, we
can only question our cultural hierarchies because they still exist. This questioning is the essence
of postmodernism, and Hutcheon’s argument makes sense. She emphasises that postmodernism
has not offered us a poetics or set of rules, but rather a problematics: “[…] a set of problems and
basic issues that have been created by the various discourses of postmodernism, issues that were
not particularly problematic before but certainly are now” (224). It is impossible for
postmodernism to give us a poetics, as this would be contrary to its questioning nature.
Finally, something ought to be said about late 20th century cult fiction. When looking at
important cult authors writing at the end of the 20th century such as the Giovani Cannibali
(Young Cannibals), Chuck Palahniuk and Haruki Murakami, it appears that the geographical
centre of gravity shifted away from North America. Other regions, such as Europe, became
important as well. Palahniuk, admittedly, is American, but the Cannibali are Italian and
Murakami is Japanese.26 This is a change, since from the golden age of cult fiction onwards cult
fiction was mainly something of North America. Europe did play a role before this period, but
after the Second World War the emphasis came to lie on the United States. At the end of the 20th
century cult fiction seemed to be spreading across the globe, which still goes on today.
When it comes to the content of their novels, these writers show they have been
influenced by postmodernism. The loss of absolute truths can be recognised in, for example, the
stories of the Cannibali. Lucamante states that “the portrait these new writers offer of the Italians,
particularly of Italian youth, is a desperate and alienated one […]” (13). Indeed, the stories of
Aldo Nove, one of the best-known Cannibali, portray young people who seem to have lost all
faith in the ‘truths’ of their parents and grandparents and who live an empty existence without
ideals or illusions. In The World of Love (Il Mondo dell’Amore), also published in Lucamante’s
Italian Pulp Fiction, two friends fill their days with drugs, alcohol, watching TV and hanging
around in order to do something and escape from inertia. The following quote describes their trip
to a large shopping centre: “We go there whenever we don’t know what to do, so we can watch
everyone else who doesn’t know what the fuck to do […]” (197). All goes wrong when the two
protagonists watch a porn video absurdly titled The World of Love, on which a sex change
operation is shown. Under the influence of alcohol, drugs and what they see on the video, they
both decide to cut off their penises in imitation of the operation they are watching. Their
There is no source (yet) in which the work of the Cannibali, Palahniuk and Murakami is jointly denoted as cult
fiction, but when consulting the Internet it can be seen that separately it is described as such. The Cannibali can first
and foremost be seen as pulp writers, as Lucamante’s title indicates, but also as cult fiction authors (“Rubriche Libri:
Mangio Cannibali”, 1). Palahniuk’s Fight Club gained a cult following after the release of the DVD of the film that
was made about it (“Chuck Palahniuk”, 2) and Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is mentioned as a cult
motivation is just the ‘fun’ of it: “The professor from the video said that you could make a really
nice cunt from the skin left over from the cock amputation, and blood kept on spurting from
between the guy’s thighs. Me and Sergio decided to cut our cocks, too; just for laughs later in the
evening” (203). After they have cut their penises, they subsequently “[…] try out a lesbian
experience” by licking each other’s “[…] amateurish [cunts]” (203), apparently bleeding to death.
This is pulp fiction taken to its (absurd) extreme. Contemporary cult fiction appears to be grim,
nihilistic and full of alienated characters, and in this it resembles the first pulp paperbacks. One
can think of Nove’s The World of Love, but also of Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996, violence) and
Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997, an alienated protagonist). The cause of this
grimness, nihilism and alienation is probably the influence of postmodernism.
Nevertheless, there is also a humorous side to this fiction: the penis-cutting scene in The
World of Love is so extreme and absurd it becomes funny. This characteristic can be seen in other
contemporary cult fiction as well – not necessarily books alone –, for example in films such as
Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction
(1994). Both are over-the-top and ridiculous in many ways, which appears to be the goal of the
directors.27 Consequently, being ridiculous can be a characteristic of a cult film, and its grotesque
aspects can turn its viewers into great fans. Many of these fans describe cult films as being ‘so
bad they are good’. It seems that this is very important for the way an audience experiences cult
fiction nowadays, as it is commonly seen as something weird. Many people today feel that when
a novel or film is strange and/or has underground qualities it can be qualified as cult. 28 This is the
reason why currently so much literature and so many films are labelled as such. Still, although
this way of thinking might be frequent, it is an incorrect one. Cult first and foremost has to do
with the response of the audience – be it a book reader or a film viewer. Only when the
characteristic ‘cult reverence’ is present, something deserves to be called cult.
Cult fiction’s place in the literature of the 20th century and that of today is difficult to
define, although its position has never been a straightforward one due to the pulp elements it
classic (“Cult Classic”, 4). It is, however, not certain whether these sources have all taken reader response as a
decisive factor when using the label cult.
Note that the violence in a film such as Pulp Fiction, and the absolute strangeness of The Rocky Horror Picture
Show can be amusing because of its absurdity, but also unsettling for the same reason.
The fact that various publishers now advertise their more ‘edgy’ books as cult novels does not help here. The label
cult is used for commercial purposes in this way in order to be observed by an audience interested in underground
literature. However, it is impossible to present a work as cult fiction before an audience has decided it is worth of this
often contains. Some claim that traditional cultural hierarchies have disappeared nowadays
causing the re-evaluation of popular culture and fiction and the end of the literary canon. Others
comment that this may not be the case – not in such a rigorous way as their opponents claim at
least. If cultural hierarchies have indeed disappeared, cult fiction’s place in literature is one of a
genre specifically being defined by reader response. The canon and other cultural-hierarchical
concepts such as highbrow, lowbrow and pulp simply do not play a role then anymore. I find this
rather unlikely and tend to agree with Hutcheon and Lucamante in believing that the hierarchies
of taste and the literary canon continue to exist. This means that some cult works may be
incorporated in the canon in the future when considered worthy of this by critics and academics,
as happened to Goethe’s Werther, while others may not. When they are not included, they will
continue to exist outside the canon as popular, underground cult works, like Lovecraft’s stories.
Contemporary cult fiction’s position is uncertain, as it was in previous centuries, but there
are indications it can be as dynamic as it was in the 19th century. It can move along the cultural
continuum, as if walking a tight rope from ‘low’ to ‘high’. Murakami’s fiction, for example,
seems already to be part of the canon; he is hailed as an important novelist and has won
prestigious prizes for his work – the Japanese Yomiuri Prize and the Czech Franz Kafka Award.
At the same time, it should be taken into account that Murakami’s work is heavily influenced by
Western pop-and pulp culture. His novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, for
example, owes much to the American hard-boiled detective story. Apparently, Murakami’s
stories began as popular fiction and were soon incorporated as ‘serious literature’ by the literary
establishment.29 The re-evaluation of popular culture-and literature seems to be helpful in this
The Italian Cannibali, on the other hand, do receive critical attention – Lucamante’s
Italian Pulp Fiction is proof of this –, but Italian cultural guardians do not seem to accept them.
Lucamante writes that “[…] academics [tend] to discount and trivialize the importance of their
work” (14) and that “these critics, with rigid and entrenched opinions about literature, suffer from
a kind of intellectual limitation that makes them unwilling to evaluate such writers within the
context of their time and sub-genre” (17). She concludes this attack by stating that “the only kind
of literature that can even hope to enter the realm of the canon consists of works that embrace the
Indeed, Murakami’s first audience consisted of youths, who were wildly enthusiastic about his fiction and clothed
themselves in the green and red colours of the book that meant his breakthrough in 1987: Norwegian Wood (“Haruki
Murakami”, 4). This sounds very much like a cult audience.
traditional tenets of erudition, high culture, a strong sense of ethics, language and style. Nothing
else is worth serious consideration or analysis” (18).30 It should be noted that outside of Italy the
Cannibali are not as well-known as inside the country, which prevents them from entering the
Western canon as well. Still, Lucamante’s plea in itself is a sign that the Cannibali are gaining
respect from the literary establishment; she currently teaches Italian and comparative literature at
the Catholic University of America and thus represents the establishment herself. Moreover, it
can be assumed that those who have contributed to the collection Italian Pulp Fiction – also
academics – are sharing her view.
2.3.2 Pulp
Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was a poet and writer from Los Angeles who was born in
Germany. He has been labelled “[…] an American street poet” with a “[…] masculine, in-yourface, blood-and-guts style”, who celebrated being a “poet laureate of the down-and-out” (“His
Find Is Poetry in the Making”, 1). Bukowski has written many poems, short stories and novels
and Pulp (1994), his last novel, has been chosen as a representative of 20th century cult fiction
here. As its title might predict, it abounds in pulp elements and is “dedicated to bad writing” (5).
The story is very readable and entertaining. The plot revolves around private detective
Nick Belane who is hired by Lady Death. She asks him to find the writer Céline, who ought to be
dead but has escaped the Lady’s clutches. At the same time, he has to locate a Red Sparrow for
somebody named Barton, and to find out whether Bass’ wife Cindy is adulterous or not. The
cynical, cursing and boozing Belane tries to solve these cases, while the thugs of the city are
continuously after him – mostly because he owes them money. Belane walks around carrying a
gun and has a violent temper: “Then I noticed his belly. It was like a soft mound of dead shit and
I slammed my fist deep into it. His face doubled over into my upcoming knee. […] I thought
about killing him” (16). The novel is full of this kind of scenes, and thus the book contains a large
amount of violence – an important pulp ingredient. Additionally, Belane feels attracted to the
seamy side of life: “That newsstand had been there as long as I could remember. I recalled
standing there two or three decades ago with 3 prostitutes. I took them all to my place and one of
them masturbated my dog. They thought it was funny” (18). This scene can be called ‘illicit’.
Lucamante appears to be referring to the Italian ‘canon’ here, which the Cannibali need to be included in before
they can become part of the larger, Western canon.
Moreover, Belane relates the story in the first person. This makes it sensational and therefore
‘pulpy’, as the reader is a direct witness to Belane’s violent, strange life. Overall, the story can be
seen as a pulp detective with a twist, for it is not just entertainment. Belane also has a
philosophical state of mind, which he sometimes shares with the reader: “All in all, I had pretty
much done what I had set out to do in life. […] I wasn’t sleeping on the streets at night. Of
course, there were a lot of good people sleeping in the streets. They weren’t fools, they just did
not fit into the needed machinery of the moment” (152). This shows Belane’s gentler side.
Bukowski’s whole oeuvre, including Pulp, can be considered cult fiction. This is mainly
due to the fact that during his lifetime Bukowski was already considered a cult figure – a
reputation which only grew after his death. Bukowski’s writing is raw and explicit, dealing with
everyday, working life, and it is not always flattering towards women. In Pulp, for example, he
writes about Cindy: “She was in heat, the bitch was in heat! Cindy, Cindy! […] I’d nail her ass,
I’d nail her ass like it had never been nailed before! (39). Of course, these are the words of Nick
Belane, “super dick” (39), but still. When reading his biography, written by Howard Sounes, it
becomes clear that Bukowski’s personality and writing mingled, as his pessimistic worldview,
heavy drinking, quarrelsome nature and appetite in women shine through in his books. Think, for
example, of his novels Post Office (1971), Factotum (1975) and Women (1978). All his poetry
and books are based on his own life, and the name Henry Chinaski, which is the hero of a number
of Bukowski’s novels, closely resembles the writer’s own name.31 When he became famous
during the 1970s, this blending of fact and fiction caused him to attract many fans – mostly
women – who greatly admired his work, who wished to meet him in person in order to see what
he was like and who often wanted to have sex with him. His biography documents many of these
encounters, for Bukowski – who lost his virginity to a prostitute at a relatively advanced age (23)
and who felt he had been deprived of the ‘normal’ amount of sexual experiences – happily
received his visitors. Sounes writes: “He invariably invited his callers over, whatever their
motivation, so long as they could bring a six-pack of beer, and Brad and Tina Darby often saw
young women following Bukowski up the path to the door of his apartment. ‘It would just amaze
me sometimes’, says Brad. ‘Some of them were gorgeous and he had a constant parade’” (152).
Pulp is the only novel Bukowski mentions as being different from the rest of his work in that it is ‘entirely
fictional’: “‘I don’t know what made me write it. I guess I got tired of writing about myself, about what happened to
me. So I wrote this entirely fictional thing about this fifty-five-year-old detective. Of course, part of the way he acts
and talks is also me’” (in Sounes, 240).
Bukowski’s poetry readings, in their turn, were notorious: “‘Fuck you guys’, he said, as he left
the stage. Claire Rabe, the owner of the club, had watched the performance in astonishment.
‘People were absolutely glued’, she says. ‘He was the first kind of punk event’” (Sounes, 145).
All this contributed to Bukowski’s fame, and when he died many revered him: “When Bukowski
died of leukemia on March 9, 1994, at the age of 73 in his San Pedro home, some of his cultish
followers staged coffeehouse vigils. Others, mad with grief, drank and howled in the streets”
(“His Find Is Poetry in the Making”, 1). Today, Bukowski still has a large cult following, which
especially shows itself on the Internet through the hundreds of web-sites dedicated to him and his
work. One blog captures some reactions to his writing and one of them is the following: “‘This is
the one that speaks to me to the point where each time I read certain pages, I cry’” (“The Pulp
Poetry of Charles Bukowski”, 1). Most importantly, people feel that Bukowski’s writings have an
impact on their lives, as another reader states that “‘This book is one of the most influential books
of poetry in my life’” (‘The Pulp Poetry of Charles Bukowski”, 1). This is what cult fiction does;
it directly influences the lives of its followers.
The position of Bukowski’s fiction in literature is difficult to determine. John Martin, the
owner of Black Sparrow Press, thinks that “‘he is not a mainstream author and he will never have
a mainstream public.’ […] ‘The kind of writing he does offends too many people. It’s too honest
and too direct’” (in Sounes, 243).32 Sounes states that at the time of his death “aside from the
occasional good review for his novels, and the attention paid to Barfly, the mass media had
always treated him in [a] dismissive way” (243).33 Moreover, although he has written evocatively
about recognisable topics such as the consequences of a twisted childhood (Ham on Rye),
relationships (Women) and a life dominated by manual labour (Post Office) critics nevertheless
continue to see him as little else than “[…] our singular American troubadour of the down-andout […]” (Nericcio, 791). This might be the reason why the place of his work appears to be one
outside of the literary canon. Nevertheless, he is often mentioned as an influence by
contemporary authors and it should also be borne in mind that he is a relatively recent author who
might still enter the canon at a later stage. It is possible that the contemporary authors he has
Black Sparrow Press is the publishing house publishing most of Bukowski’s work. John Martin founded Black
Sparrow Press specifically to publish Bukowski’s work, because he admired it and, being a businessman, felt there
was a market for it (Sounes, 80). He was right: because of Bukowski Black Sparrow Press became a very successful
publishing house, and Martin published Bukowski for thirty years (Sounes, 241). The Red Sparrow in Pulp refers to
Black Sparrow Press.
influenced will cause his work to be re-valued. At the moment, however, he appears to be a cult
writer with a select audience revering him – in other words, an underground writer. Whether he
will become a widely respected, canonical writer in the future remains to be seen. Note that
Bukowski’s underground status is an indication that traditional cultural hierarchies have not
ceased to exist. He is popular among his fans and many contemporary writers, but is still not
accepted as a serious writer. If this is caused by the pulp elements in his writing, its unrefined
character and its emphasis on everyday life – i.e. characteristics that ought to be respected in an
age allegedly valuing popular culture – this might point to the continuing existence of cultural
and literary hierarchies.
Barfly (1987) is a film based on Bukowski’s life, featuring Faye Dunaway and Mickey Rourke, for which
Bukowski wrote the screenplay (Sounes, 215-216).
Chapter 3 Bourdieu’s Dynamic Model
This is not a ‘real’ chapter when compared to the previous two in that it is much shorter.
There is, however, a good reason for the inclusion of this additional section, namely Pierre
Bourdieu’s sociological and philosophical thoughts. These deserve some separate attention, as his
book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste and his additional ideas about
social dynamicism can be linked to the concept of cult fiction as described in these pages.
Because Bourdieu’s writings are extremely difficult, Richard Shusterman’s Bourdieu Reader and
Nicholas Garnham’s extended review of Bourdieu’s Distinction are used here.
Bourdieu (1930-2002) published Distinction in 1979 and it was subsequently translated
into English in 1984 and 1987 (Garnham, 423). This translation seems to have occurred rather
late when considering that Distinction is a “provocation” of and a “frontal assault” on the
intelligentsia, as Bourdieu “[…] is concerned to demonstrate […] that patterns of cultural
production and consumption are determined by the socio-economic structure” (Garnham, 423).
This asks for an explanation. According to Bourdieu, capital is the main motivation for all social
classes, who jointly aim to “[maximize] material or symbolic profit” somehow (Garnham, 426). 34
The bourgeoisie attempt to gather power in the shape of money and the intelligentsia symbolic
power, especially in the cultural field. Both kinds of power can be seen as capital. Bourdieu is
concerned with the intelligentsia and focuses on the cultural theories they have constructed: “[…]
all essentialist theories of cultural appropriation (taste) and cultural production (creativity) […]”
(Garnham, 424). Bourdieu states that these theories, which generally deny their economic
determination and claim to be “[…] disinterested or gratuitous, and hence non-economic […]”
(Garnham, 426), are in fact “[…] central weapons in the exercise of that symbolic power which is
the main defense of the socio-economic status quo (Garnham 423, emphasis in text). Bourdieu
tries to show us that the intelligentsia have cleverly constructed notions of “[…] absolute,
universal cultural values […]” (Garnham, 424) in order to safeguard their specific interests.
These cultural systems “[…] are based upon ‘difference’ or ‘distinction’” (Garnham, 425).
Bourdieu sees them as “[…] arbitrary, undetermined taxonomies, structuring structures in the
sense that they do not reflect or represent a reality, but themselves structure that reality”
(Garnham, 425). However, they are not arbitrary in their social function, as they “[…] serve to
Bourdieu’s choice of capital “[…] as the fundamental designer of social dimension […]” shows a background in
the Marxist tradition (Dyke, 194).
reinforce class relations” (Garnham, 425). How exactly do they do this? Bourdieu takes the view
that there is a divide between the dominant class and the dominated class: “The dominant class is
those possessing high amounts of economic and cultural capital and the dominated class those
possessing exiguous amounts of both” (Garnham, 428). The intelligentsia and bourgeoisie can be
seen as the dominant class, whereas the dominated class consists of those people who are part of
neither. The intelligentsia distance themselves from ‘the masses’ in the cultural field. They use
the following tactics: “The primary distinction operated by the dominant culture and the cultural
practices it legitimates (and by so doing those practices it delegitimates) is of culture as all that
which is different from, distanced from the experiences and practices of the dominated class
[…]” (Garnham, 428). More specifically, the dominant culture considers these experiences and
practices common, vulgar and popular, and rejects them (Garnham, 428, emphasis mine).
Consequently, a divide is created, which reinforces class relations: “The cultural field serves as a
marker, and thus a reinforcer, of class relations […]” (Garnham, 427). In this way, although they
assert their disinterestedness, the intelligentsia gain symbolic power or capital. Moreover, this
power may ultimately be converted into concrete, economic capital – think, for example, of their
control over the educational system, the acquisition of research grants and the occupation of high
professional posts. Rigid as this divide may seem, Bourdieu is of another opinion and tries to
“[reveal] the historically defined limits of available truth” (Garnham, 424). For as we have seen,
he points out that these structures do not reflect or represent reality, but only structure it
(Garnham, 425). They are, nevertheless, hugely influential and this is why Bourdieu suspects
them to be historically determined in order to reinforce class relations (Garnham, 423). Bourdieu
very much seems to entertain a postmodern way of thinking – fixed ‘truths’ and cultural
hierarchies ought to be looked at critically –, which is not surprising as Distinction was published
in 1979, a year clearly belonging to the era of postmodernism.
To come back to Bourdieu’s “limits of available truth”: his structures structuring reality
are very important in his theory. Chuck Dyke, who has contributed to Shusterman’s Bourdieu
Reader with the essay “Bourdieuan Dynamics: The American Middle-Class Self Constructs”
notes that Bourdieu sees them as structured structuring structures shaping the social domain
(Dyke, 195 and 199-201, emphasis mine). Dyke uses Bourdieu’s theory to illustrate “[…] the
cultural space of the nineteenth century United States” (195). This concrete example, however, is
not of any specific relevance here. More importantly, Dyke explains that Bourdieu’s is a
dynamical model with its focus on structured structuring structures and individuals as social
agents (195, emphasis mine). The latter comes back in Garnham’s review, who notes that
Bourdieu considers the position of a social agent to be relational, in other words “[…] a shifting
position determined by the totality of the lines of force specific to that field” (425, emphasis
mine). These concepts – structuring structures and social agents – come together in that Bourdieu
considers the edges of the structures he describes to be dynamic and not static. For “the edges of
structure are the home for the marginal: the unstably entrained, the socially mobile for whom the
eventual occupation of a region of social space is problematic – extremely sensitive to ambient
contigencies” (Dyke, 200). As a consequence, “[…] the dynamics at the boundary between rich
and poor is active and fractal, while that lying deep in the attractors of wealth and poverty is
constrained and predictable” (Dyke, 200).35 As can be seen, when individuals are acting agents on
top of this, Bourdieu’s model indeed becomes a very dynamical one. It should be held in mind
that Bourdieu thinks the main cause of this action is the struggle between groups, classes and
class fractions, which is carried out “[…] to maximize their interests in order to ensure their
reproduction” (Garnham, 425). This struggle centres on control over the social resources of the
intellectual field, the educational field, the economic field, etc. On the whole, Dyke states,
Bourdieu’s theory entails that “[…] the edges of social structures are dynamically active” (Dyke,
201). This is why Bourdieu’s model can be called a dynamical one.
It is time to ponder on what all this has to do with cult fiction. When simultaneously
looking at Bourdieu’s dynamical model and his thoughts as exposed in Distinction, first of all it is
important to note that Bourdieu focuses on social and cultural boundaries. More precisely, he
sees the cultural divide between the dominant and dominated classes as a reflection of the
underlying socio-economic structure, in which capital motivates all parties involved. The
intelligentsia – who are part of the dominant class and control the cultural field – generally deny
this motivation. They state to be economically disinterested and to hold certain ‘absolute’,
‘universal’ cultural values, rejecting the experiences and practices of the dominated class as
popular, common and vulgar – in short, of low quality. In this way, they create a cultural
division, which is based on ‘difference’ or ‘distinction’ and reinforces class relations. What
Bourdieu tries to show is that this structure is not fixed, but only shaping or structuring reality.
These edges are also called fractal basin boundaries. They are “the most interesting edges to have been identified
by the dynamicists […]” (Dyke, 196).
This means that the cultural divide is not as fixed as the intelligentsia would like to believe.
Moreover, the edges of social structures are not static but rather dynamic in that social mobility is
possible there. Individuals or social agents who are not very rich or very poor and who attempt to
gain wealth in the struggle Bourdieu mentions can change their position along the social
continuum. In other words, the social division is not wholly stable either. When applying
Bourdieu’s socio-dynamic model to the cultural field – which is possible, as he sees patterns of
cultural production and consumption as being determined by the socio-economic structure –
movement is possible along the cultural continuum. Individuals can change their cultural position
in that somebody might, for example, first be rather poor and only able to attend certain concerts
that are free of charge, whereas when he or she gets somewhat richer expensive musical festivals
are available to him or her. This can be called cultural mobility.
Moreover, it seems that cultural practices and products can also possess a certain degree
of cultural mobility. Bourdieu does not explicitly comment on this, but it is likely since, after all,
the cultural divide is not rigid but merely thought up. Secondly, when people have social and
cultural mobility, why would the latter not be the case for cultural products and practices such as
novels, films, visiting expositions, etc.? Indeed, cult fiction appears to have such cultural mobility
in some of the instances we have encountered here. Not all cult fiction deserves consideration, of
course, but some definitely does – think, for example of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther,
Shelley’s Frankenstein and Haruki Murakami’s novels. First they were simply popular fiction,
but they also came to be considered ‘respectable literature’.36 Applying Bourdieu’s terminology:
these works appear to exist at the edge of the contemporary literary structure, which mainly
works with a highbrow-lowbrow division. They can move between ‘high’ and ‘low’, and what
the intelligentsia denounce as ‘low’ art might after a while become ‘high’ art, just like individuals
can change their position along the socio-economic and cultural continuum. It nevertheless
remains difficult to pinpoint cult’s place in literature, for not all cult fiction shows this dynamic
ability. H.P. Lovecraft’s and Bukowski’s work, for example, seem destined to remain
underground cult fiction, their pulp elements playing a large role (i.e. it is generally seen as
lowbrow literature) – although in Bukowski’s case this is not definite yet because he can still be
seen as a recent writer. Accordingly, cult fiction is a very unpredictable genre, its literary position
This implies that not just their readers found them worthwhile, but critics and academics as well. As we have seen,
readers or fans determine whether a book becomes cult or not, whereas cultural guardians determine its place in-or
outside the canon.
remaining rather unclear. Nevertheless, Bourdieuan thought is very interesting, as – when applied
to cultural products such as literature – it can place cult fiction’s ‘behaviour’ in a theoretical
Conclusion The Finale
A conclusion for a thesis like this cannot be straightforward and is inevitably many-sided.
After all, three main questions were investigated: what is the definition of cult fiction, how did
cult fiction develop throughout history and what is cult fiction’s place in literature. By now, it
seems that all three questions have been answered. Let us begin with the definition of cult fiction.
As we have seen, the etymology of the word cult leads us to religious adoration or worship, and
for cult fiction this means religious-like devotion towards a book – usually a novel. Reed
Whissen, one of the two most important cult fiction theorists dealt with here, also explains the
term in this way and speaks of a cult book’s worshipful following. Reed Whissen emphasises that
a work of fiction becomes cult dependent on reader response: only when readers display the
worship that is typical for a cult book, it can be called as such. This can most clearly be seen
when looking at the reception of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is the first of
the three cult novels used as illustrations here. When Werther was published at the end of the
18th century, a great number of readers committed suicide in imitation of their idol – young
Werther. This extreme reaction shows how deeply the book touched its readers, and how far their
devotion went. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu (19th-20th century) and Bukowski’s Pulp (20th
century) are also cult fiction; both have gathered a cult audience since their publication. Many
more cult novels can be mentioned, for example those from the 1960s and 1970s – the golden age
of cult fiction according to Reed Whissen. All of these novels gathered a cult following. It should
be observed that an author’s cult status also seems to contribute to the cult status of their fiction.
Both Lovecraft and Bukowski were and are known as very eccentric individuals, which might be
a factor contributing to their audience’s interest in their books. In Bukowski’s case this is
especially so, since he mainly wrote about himself and his own life, thinly veiling his source of
Although semi-religious devotion towards a book is the decisive factor with reference to
cult fiction, both Reed Whissen and Bloom – the second of the two most important theorists dealt
with here – state that a book does not necessarily need to be hugely popular in order to become
cult. Instead, many cult books are very popular among a select group of ‘followers’. In other
words, they are underground fiction as opposed to mainstream fiction. Examples are Lovecraft’s
The Call of Cthulhu – Lovecraft being the quintessential underground cult writer – and
Bukowski’s Pulp. Both novels, and both writers, are relatively unknown and unappreciated
outside a certain narrow circle. Underground-status and cult-status often go hand in hand.
As Bukowski’s title Pulp indicates, there is another aspect to the character of cult fiction,
namely its pulp elements. According to Bloom, cult fiction is first and foremost characterised by
its pulp elements and he labels these elements ‘illicit’ because they deal with forbidden topics
such as violence, sex and the sentimental. In other words, Bloom mainly focuses on content and
does not pay much attention to reader response. He does say something about reader’s
‘passionate’ reactions towards pulp, but considers them to be inherent to ‘the pulp experience’.
Bloom sees pulp-and cult fiction as one and the same thing, which I disagree with because he to a
large extent plays down the importance of reader response. The etymology, Reed Whissen’s
argument and the examples of cult fiction mentioned here show that devotion towards a book and
reader response are relevant indeed. Nevertheless, pulp elements are also important for cult
fiction and they should not be ignored. In many cult books pulp elements occur – concrete
examples given here are Shelley’s Frankenstein, Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, Bukowski’s
Pulp and the work of the Italian Giovani Cannibali writers.
It is impossible to briefly summarise cult fiction’s historical development because this has
shown to be a very intricate process. Still, the most important factors that influenced it can be
summed up here. The history of cult fiction covers three centuries – the 18th, the 19th and the
20th. Moreover, it is not finished yet, as it continues into our 21st century. Cult fiction was ‘born’
with the invention of the novel in the 18th century, and Goethe’s Werther was the very first cult
novel. Late 18th-century Romanticism – as found in Werther – became the basis of cult fiction,
and the democratic revolutions taking place at the time as well as the renewed interest in
mythology were also influential in relation to the taking shape of cult fiction’s character. In the
18th century popular and mass literature developed due to a combined effect of printing press and
Industrial Revolution. In this literature pulp fiction has its roots, because mass production and
affordability largely determine it. The reason why cult and pulp can mainly be found in Western
Europe and Northern America is that it was in these areas that industrialisation and urbanisation
first took place. Bloom claims that pulp and cult belong to the metropolitan, industrial age.
In the 19th century great changes occurred in the fields of printing and attitudes towards
literature. Specialised printing and publishing industries emerged, which created a large
publishing industry and reading public. Moreover, book publishers began to listen to the demands
of their audience, and especially came to publish sensational entertainment. This can be seen as
the birth of pulp fiction. Nevertheless, pulp only really became pulp – that is, in the negative
sense of the term – after the emergence the great social, cultural and literary divide at the end of
the 19th century. Highbrow and lowbrow divisions caused pulp to be denounced as ‘low’
literature and as un-canonic. For the literary canon was also something that came into existence at
the time. Still, pulp flourished in this era, for example in the 19th century inexpensive pulp
magazines. Additionally, many new pulp writers produced a large amount of fiction and became
famous as a consequence.
In the 20th century the developments of the 19th century continued, because the
expansion of mass-and popular literature did not diminish and the highbrow-lowbrow divide with
its literary canon remained. Pulp experienced its heyday – especially after the introduction of the
paperback (in the 1930s) and the decline of censorship (after the 1950s). In the 1960s and 1970s
the golden age of cult fiction occurred and the centre of cult fiction became located in the United
States. At the same time postmodernism – which had come up after the Second World War – left
its mark on the genre. Inspired by postmodernism, which attacked fixed ‘truths’, many critics and
academics began to question the validity of traditional cultural hierarchies and the literary canon,
causing a re-evaluation of popular culture and pulp fiction. Bloom supports these ideas and
applies them in his own way by claiming that the end of cult fiction has arrived. After all, when
there are no fixed truths and no literary hierarchies anymore, the difference between ‘serious’
literature and pulp-cult has also disappeared. I do not believe that cultural hierarchies and the
canon have evaporated as yet, and it should be noted that Bloom’s argument is based on the
conviction that pulp and cult are one and the same thing. When reader response is taken as a
basis, cult is not threatened with extinction because a cult audience is enthusiastic about a book
independent of its cultural background. At the end of the 20th century it seemed that the
geographical centre of gravity did not lie in North America anymore. Other regions, such as
Europe and Japan became increasingly important, and it appeared that cult fiction was spreading
across the globe due to writers like the Giovani Cannibali and Haruki Murakami.
Finally, something ought to be said about cult fiction’s place in literature. Here, this place
has been analysed while focussing on cultural and literary hierarchies and the canon. Because it is
first and foremost dependent on reader response and can boast of pulp elements, one would think
that cult fiction inevitably belongs to the lowbrow part of literature, existing outside the canon.
However, things have proved to be somewhat more complicated than that. For cult fiction can
indeed gain the respect of academics and critics and become part of the canon. In the 19th
century, when the hierarchies mentioned here came into existence, many cult novels became
classics. A concrete example analysed here is, of course, Goethe’s Werther. This book was
published in the 18th century, but could not become a classic before that time because there was
no literary canon yet. Other cult novels coming to mind are Shelley’s Frankenstein, Huysman’s
Against Nature and Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axel. This is striking, because these novels
also have pulp elements in them. They seem to possess a certain dynamicism, which allows them
to move along the cultural and literary continuum. Still, this dynamicism does not exist for all
19th century cult fiction. Many cult novels did not make it into the canon and one of these is
Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. This novel has remained underground cult fiction – maybe
because its pulp aspects are very present. In the 20th century the dynamicism of cult fiction can
be found as well, for example with the work of Haruki Murakami. Bukowski’s work, however,
with Pulp as an example, seems to be destined for an underground life outside the canon. It
should be noted that this is not certain yet, because he can still be seen as a recent, contemporary
writer and his work might still receive the label ‘serious literature’ someday. The Italian Giovani
Cannibali writers, in their turn, do receive critical acclaim but still seem to be unable to find a
place in ‘serious’ literature. It can be concluded that cult fiction’s place in (contemporary)
literature is difficult to define because the genre is so fickle and unpredictable. Nevertheless, this
unpredictability is also important to observe, because it is very interesting in itself and unusual to
witness. When additionally using Bourdieu’s dynamic model, it can be stated that certain cult
novels have cultural mobility. Moreover, they can be said to exist at the edge of the contemporary
literary structure, which defines itself by means of a highbrow-lowbrow division.
Reed Whissen can be quoted again here. The following words could already be read in the
general introduction and are also in place at this stage: “[…] these books […] have no assured
place in literary history. Only time will tell” (xi, emphasis mine). Some cult novels may become
classics, while others may not. Their cult status will be gained through the devotion of their
readers, while the critics and academics of this world will confirm or deny their canonic status.
A concluding remark: in this thesis the emphasis has been less on the context in which
cult novels flourish and the precise reason why they become cult at a certain moment in time than
on a definition of the genre, the construction of a concise history and an analysis of its place in
literature. This is very interesting material for further studies, and more research is needed on the
exact nature and behaviour of cult fiction – a wonderful genre.
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