Saint Sadist – Lucas Mangum
Reviewed by Ben Walker
Themes of religion, sanity and suffering flow like bloody communion wine through Lucas Mangum’s latest work of transgressive horror, Saint Sadist. Here, a young woman called Courtney goes through years of abuse at her father’s hand, until she becomes pregnant. Taking this as her cue to escape, she soon falls in with an Earth-worshipping cult headed up by the enigmatic Ambrose. When he turns out to be more sadist than saint, she starts listening to the voices in her head, hoping they hold the key to salvation.
Suffice to say, this isn’t an easy read. What pulls you through the heartbreaking horror is the style of the prose. Courtney’s narration is often interrupted by fragments of memory, bible verses and thoughts, throwing you deep into her mind with uncomfortable ease. Chapters are sometimes a few sentences long, and this unpredictable style accurately reflects Courtney’s broken mental state. You’re right there alongside her, through every terrible encounter, every moment of hard-fought glory, which makes the emotional punches all the harder to cope with.
Harder still are the repeated scenes of physical violence against Courtney. Not that they’re unexpected, the word sadist is right there in the title after all, but there are a lot of them. There’s a sly nod to Hellraiser at one point, and a similar kind of unrelenting brutality with religious elements to Barker’s early stories fills Courtney’s journey. Most of her tormentors are human, from sleazy johns to toadying cult members, and the evil they do is skin-crawling because you can believe it’s happening. It’s emotionally exhausting as well as graphic, from its violence to its sexual content. At one point you’re told there is no safe space in Courtney’s story, which is pretty bloody accurate.
Never is this more true than when the story delves fully into the religious side of things. Courtney is cursed with divine and hellish visions, with rivers of fire, scale-eyed demons and much, much worse appearing before her. At times those visions bleed into her reality, and she struggles to decipher their meaning. Honestly, so did I, seeing as I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to the bible. I feel like a lot of the deeper meanings and symbolic elements were lost on me – which isn’t to say you need to be a bible studies master to appreciate the book. There are moments of obvious symbolism, but I feel like readers with deeper knowledge of Christianity will do a lot more nodding and saying “aah, I see what that means” under their breath than I did.
Expect to be moved, horrified and at times overwhelmed by Saint Sadist, but ultimately, expect to be affected. It bothered me, and continues to bother me days after putting it down. I can’t give the book any higher praise than that. When a book worms its way into your headspace like that, it’s done its job.
Pregnant with her father’s child, nineteen-year-old Courtney is a girl on the run, willing to do anything to make her way on the road. When a car accident leaves her wounded by the side of a desolate highway, she is taken in by an environmentalist doomsday cult led by the enigmatic Saint Ambrose, a charismatic preacher and ex-environmental scientist who gave up everything after claiming to see the face of God. When he meets the seemingly vulnerable Courtney, he is taken by her beauty and her wounded soul. Now, with the promise of salvation hanging in the balance, Courtney must undergo a series of trials, each more painful and humiliating than the last, her incestuously conceived baby growing in her womb, a strange presence visiting her at night and telling her Ambrose has lost his way and it is she who must overthrow him.
A horror fan and writer since who knows when, Ben started dabbling in online reviews around 2001. Nowadays he has a booktube channel, which features bizarre book reviews and further nonsense. When he isn’t writing, he’s probably looking at GIFs and eating Mexican food.
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