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Cult of personality – ‘Godshot’

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Belief is a powerful thing, rendered all the more powerful when it is uncompromising. Cults weaponize that uncompromising belief, using it to entangle the vulnerable and establish control.

That controlling entanglement is a big part of why we find cults so fascinating. From the outside looking in, so many of their doctrines seem patently absurd on their faces, and yet people on the inside unwaveringly accept those ideas as bedrock truth. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Chelsea Bieker’s debut novel “Godshot” (Catapult, $26) offers a look at one such perspective. It’s the story of a teenage girl swept up in the fervor surrounding a charismatic religious leader, a man who many in her small town believe to be something more than mortal. Through her eyes, we watch as a small town crumbles beneath the weight of faith – faith that may well be misplaced.

It’s a bleak tale of desperate hope, an illustration of the personal horrors people are willing to endure for any possibility of redemption – even an illusory one – as well as exploring the courage it takes to defy the lockstep beliefs of those around you … and the consequences of that defiance.

The California town of Peaches was once a booming agricultural provider, the self-styled raisin capital of the world. But a relentless and punishing drought has left the fields arid and barren. The town’s taps creak out a trickle of brown (when they work at all). It is a land of parched desolation.

The desperate populace turns to Pastor Vern, a self-styled religious guru who has found a way to seize upon the small town’s hope. He has propped himself up as not just a man of God, but a son of God; through flashy services and custom-printed Bibles, he sweeps the citizens into a fervor by promising them that he and only he can bring the rains that the townspeople desire. His plan to do so involves a number of mysterious “assignments” that he gives to various parishioners – assignments that are to be executed without question.

Lacey May is 14 years old, living with her alcoholic mother. She is a true believer – in Vern she trusts. But when her mother is exiled from the community and ultimately runs off with a man she doesn’t even really know, Lacey is devastated. She moves in with her grandmother Cherry, a true zealot … and the questions start to arise.

Those questions are only amplified as the true nature of some of Vern’s “assignments” become clear to her. Over and over, Lacey is expected to subvert her own thoughts and ideas and concede any agency to the male figures around her; as the full scope of Vern’s plan to restore fertility to the land comes into focus, Lacey realizes that she needs to fight back. She needs to find her mother. And she’ll have to enlist the help of some unlikely allies to do it.

But the passion of the true believer is strong; their faith is unwavering. And with most of the town devoted wholly to whatever rescue they believe Vern can bring, standing against him is dangerous indeed.

“Godshot” sneaks up on you. You’re carried along by the thoughtful characterizations and the slow burn buildup of the town, especially the church, only to be hit with moments of unsettling jaggedness. There’s an explosiveness to the revelations that we’re given; Bieker shows both great timing and great restraint with regards to how (and how often) she drops those narrative bombshells.

It’s also a heartbreaking portrait of how the relationships between mothers and daughters can go awry, souring due to reasons both large and small. Lacey’s lack of connection – and her striving to find ways to create one – drives her in unanticipated ways. It’s her search to be made truly whole that ultimately allows her the strength to make the break she seeks to make.

Cult fiction can feel exploitative, sensationalized and/or overwrought. The nature of the beast invites over the top treatment. “Godshot” largely avoids this; even in its more lurid moments, there’s an honesty of storytelling that keeps us from tipping over the edge into gratuitousness. Really, that’s another tip of the cap to Bieker. She finds a way to delve deeply into the cultist mindset; through Lacey’s eyes, we get to see not only the inflamed faith of the true believer, but also the painful perspective that comes with burgeoning doubt. Trapped between two worlds, Lacey is both and neither, a sadly spiderwebbed window offering a fractured view in either direction. The result is a jagged and raw look at a young woman forced to deal with the world despite never being given the tools to understand it.

“Godshot” is an engaging exploration of the complexities and contradictions that often accompany unquestioning faith, delving into just how desperate the measures are that can come with desperate times. Challenging and occasionally unsettling, it’s a book filled with striking moments that will likely linger in your memory long after you put it down.

Last modified on Thursday, 30 April 2020 06:30

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