Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review: The Cult of Me by Michael Brookes

Blurb of The Cult of Me from Goodreads:

For too long he dwelt apart, watched those who passed him by. With his unique abilities he entered their minds and inflicted terrible suffering upon them. They didn't even know who he was. The game has lasted for years, but now the game has become stale. On an impulse he decides to make a final and very public last stand. After surrendering himself to the police he enacts his plan to seize the prison for his final bloody act. There he discovers that he's not as unique as he once thought.

My favorite books combine a great story with a piercing look at society and the human condition, and The Cult of Me does this brilliantly.

It’s the story of a killer, but Michael Brookes uses no tired clichés, no supernatural possession, no born-the-spawn-of-the-devil, and no mental illness to explain his unnamed narrator’s bad behavior.  The character’s perfectly sane, just completely amoral.  He possesses a psychic power enabling him to read the minds, and later control the thoughts and actions, of those around him.  In the first half of the book, the author adroitly balances the current story (where the character’s in prison awaiting trial) with childhood experiences and the slow increase of his powers and disaffection with society.  With the exception of his mother’s violent death, there are no moments that catapult the narrator into hating society.  Rather, it’s the fact he has too much power and no normal societal constraints that create this “monster.”

In 1953, Jerome Bixby wrote a story called “It’s a Good Life” that was made into a Twilight Zone episode of the same name in 1961 (not to mention being voted one of the 20 best stories ever written by SFWA).  It’s about a boy who has mental powers, but lacking sufficient maturity and empathy for others, forces his family and town to fulfill his every juvenile wish.  He isn’t exactly evil; he’s just a spoiled narcissist.

The most fascinating thing about The Cult of Me is it explores the idea of what might happen if this type of character grew up.

Aristotle theorized that, by nature, man is blind to morality and inherently an amoral creature.  Freud believed that man was born impulsive, at the mercy of his unconscious drives -- his “id” -- selfish, irrational, and blind to the world.  It’s society that must teach men to stifle these impulses and conform to societal norms of right and wrong.

Since ancient times, the two most powerful influences on socialization have been religion and the rule of law.  And these are exactly what Brookes chooses to set against his “amoral man” -- the Church, symbolized by Friar Francis, and the law, embodied by Hammond, an ex-military man and prison guard.  Unable to force the narrator to feel guilt or to change, they try to enlist him in a greater cause: the destruction of an even more dangerous man who threatens to end the world.

Keeping with his arrogant and self-serving ways, the narrator pretends to go along with the plan while seeking a way to escape.  But a surprise encounter with the villain stirs up a thirst for vengeance, almost a competitive lust, that sets the narrator on the path to a pulse-pounding showdown.

The book is filled with unexpected twists and turns, guaranteed to keep you reading.  Despite being not-quite-likeable, the narrator is at times charming, funny, and always easy to understand.  He could probably be any of us on certain days when we'd like to sear an exceptionally rude stranger with our imaginary laser death-glance.  (You know you have those days! lol)  There are a few bumps before the ending.  At the three-quarters mark, the story bogs down with excessive details about the character and his monk cohorts plotting to overcome the antagonist and the character slowly learning psychic techniques.  But the shocking ending is perfect for the book and opens up the possibility of sequels.

The Cult of Me is clever and entertaining. Well worth the read.

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