The Branch Davidians. Heaven's Gate. The Manson Family. The Peoples Temple (Jonestown). Our history is littered with groups of people who fell under the sway of a charismatic leader and fulfilled his bidding, be it death by their own hand or the murder of others. And each time one of these groups is brought to light, we watch the parade of bodies on the evening news and cluck our tongues and wonder how people could listen to a leader that was so obviously full of it. Eric Shapiro's The Devoted takes us inside such a cult, led by just such a leader, and gives a little insight into how people can be so easily swayed.
In The Devoted we meet Edgar Pike, a cult leader who isn't quite as accomplished in the role as Charles Manson and Jim Jones were. On what is to be the "Last Day" for his group – the day in which they will all achieve "Ascension" (by suicide, of course) – Pike is down to nine loyal members; and, of those, the closest to him is beginning to have some serious doubts. Matthew Barrett is Pike's second-in-command (a position he obtained after the first second-in-command fled the group), a man long estranged from his real family who sought – and found – a measure of peace and acceptance in Pike's inner circle.
Barrett is not alone in his adoration of Pike. When Barrett thinks about Pike, he thinks of him as "Him;" when others in the group speak to Pike, they call him "Leader." But Pike's journal entries (which Shapiro weaves into the narrative along with personal correspondence from family members of the other "Missing Nine," expert testimonials, interviews from the cult's former members and other such asides) reveal a man driven by base desires, dime-store philosophy and an enormously inflated sense of self-worth. As Shapiro peels the onion back layer by layer, it's easy to see Pike's rules and ramblings for the carefully constructed prison they really are.
Even as the worldview Barrett has held for the last several years begins to crumble, the clock is ticking inexorably toward the group's end. Shapiro creates a sense of nearly unbearable tension as the hours (and pages) race by, and he does a good job of placing the reader on the same rollercoaster ride of emotions that Barrett himself is going through. With even the most casual gestures or the smallest show of confidence, Pike inspires feelings of pure love and devotion in Barrett and the others; yet, given a few moments away from the Leader's influence, Barrett is assailed by doubts and insecurities. It's a fascinating, sometimes maddening experience – there are times you want to reach through the page and slap some sense into Barrett, a feeling similar to those you might have had upon hearing about the mass suicides of real-life cults.
Pike is interesting because he seems to not only struggle with keeping peace within the group, but also within himself. It's as though he knows on some level that his teachings and methods are hollow drivel, and he has to work just as hard to convince himself of their "truthfulness" as he does to convince the others. We get a glimpse of that through his journal entries, but otherwise Shapiro keeps Pike at arm's length.
Shapiro does a masterful job of keeping the conclusion in doubt right up until the final explosive pages. He also does a great job of writing the different parts of the narrative – the interviews, the emails, etc. – so that they all feel authentic and distinct. This is a method that many writers attempt but few get right, so it was refreshing to see it done right and done well.
The Devoted is available now from Ravenous Shadows.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country , and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.