Eight Hideously Bad Mormon Novels You Should Read Because Perfect Awfulness Is Its Own Kind of Good

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2 Nephi 2:11 makes it clear. There must needs be a list of awful Mormon novels to balance the earlier list of great ones. God has spoken, and middling awfulness just won’t do. So I went in search of the worst novels in the English language ever to deal with Mormonism—paying special care to include all different kinds of awfulness because one just won’t do.

None of the usual suspects are here. A Study in Scarlet and Riders of the Purple Sage don’t make the cut; they are too well written to be genuinely awful.  The nineteenth century had much worse anti-Mormon novels to offer the true connoisseur of literary badness. But this is not just about reflexive anti-Mormon propaganda. Three of the eight books here are reflexive PRO-MORMON propaganda. Genuine suckiness can come from anywhere.

What emerges from this list is a kind of wonderfulness all its own: pure badness that can be appreciated like a fine vinegar. One need not look for literary merit or wonder what the authors must have been thinking. In none of these works is there any evidence that the author was thinking anything at all, resulting in the sort of spectacular awfulness that is much more fun than mere good literature could ever be.

  1. Boadicea, the Mormon Wife, by Alfreda Eva Bell (1855): In 1855-56, three bestselling anti-polygamy novels were published to national audiences made up of good Christians eager to revel in the sordid details of the newly announced Mormon lifestyle. Two of these novels—Maria Ward’s Female Lives among the Mormons, Metta Victoria Fuller’s Mormon Wives—make some gestures towards subtlety. Then there is Boadicea, the Mormon Wife, the amazing (and, we are assured, ABSOLUTELY TRUE) story of a pure and beautiful Mormon girl who marries her equally Mormon sweetheart and finds herself swept into the world of polygamy and murder. In this novel, both men and women can marry polygamously and divorce each other with a word. And just about everyone is willing to kill anyone who gets in the way.  Bell manages to portray 17 murders in less than a hundred pages—a body count three bodies higher than that of Titus Andronicus, Mr. Shakespeare’s bloodiest play.
  2. Mr. Durant of Salt Lake City: “That Mormon”, by Ben E. Rich (1893): Before Nephi Anderson and Susa Young Gates, before Mormon “home literature,” and before most Latter-day Saints had anything good to say about novels, Ben E. Rich, wrote Mr. Durant of Salt Lake City. Arguably the first novel ever written by a Mormon about Mormonism (depending on how one counts BH Roberts’ 1889 work Corianton), Mr Durant tells the story of a Mormon missionary politely demolishing the arguments of Protestant ministers and various onlookers in a series of public dialogues in the fictional Southern town of “Westminster.” Ben E. Rich’s masterpiece of bad was published in 1893 by Frank Cannon & Sons, making it the first work of fiction from the company that would become Deseret Book. According to Rich himself, his missionaries sold 150,000 copies of the book while he was president of the Southern States and Middle States missions.
  3. The Bradys among the Mormons; or Secret Work in Salt Lake City, by Francis Worcester Doughty (1903):  First published in 1903, this dime novel tells the story of two intrepid detectives—Old King Brady and Young King Brady (no relation to each other, just partners) who are hired to go to Salt Lake City to rescue a beautiful Mormon girl who has been kidnapped by the powerful “Elder Orson”—who (of course) intends to add her to his harem. The detectives are pursued by hooded Mormon soldiers (not Danites, who are just regular soldiers, the Mormon elite guard wear a red lion on their robes to represent the House of Judah). They work their way through an immense secret Mormon cavern underneath the Great Salt Lake, which can be accessed by tunnels in the homes of Mormon elders all over the city.  Through their wit, courage, and detectively intuition, the Bradys save the girl and earn their reward. Francis Worcester Doughty, is credited with writing 1500 novels, only a handful of which have survived the last hundred years on unimaginably cheap paper. I had given up hope of ever reading this book until I discovered that the BYU Special Collections Room had a copy of a 1920 reprint with the title The Brady’s and Mr. Mormon. I got notice last week that the BYU had approved my request to digitize the book and upload it to the Internet Archive, where it can once again be read by the hoi polloi. You’re welcome.
  4. The Mormon Lion: Chapters from the Secret Memoirs of David Ford (1915): It took more than 60 years for somebody to combine every single anti-Mormon trope of the nineteenth century into a single, 320 page novel, but that is what the anonymous author of this pseudo-memoir accomplished. David Ford begins the novel as a zealous convert willing to sacrifice everything for the Church in the trek across the plains. However, when he reaches Utah and learns that his beloved mother had died of shock after Joseph Smith proposed plural marriage to her, he starts to lose his faith. But how does one get out? From this point on, the novel presents an impressive parade of Mormon horribles: a man forced at gunpoint to marry plural wives, a woman killed for rejecting polygamy, blood atonement murders, and, of course, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Finally, David and his new wife (they are married by Captain Fancher just before the Fancher party is killed at Mountain Meadows) escape to California, pursued by and marauding Danites, where he presumably writes this book.
  5. Hell and Hallelujah, by Norton Parker (1931): This novel by a moderately well-known scriptwriter of the silent film era is of the most pro-Mormon novels ever written by a non-Mormon. It begins a few days before Joseph Smith is killed in Carthage Jail, when the Prophet himself heals the dying sister of the protagonist, Saul Dunster, a Carthage resident. Because of this action, Saul becomes a defender of Joseph Smith and the Mormons. He is baptized and moves to Nauvoo and becomes a blacksmith. He also courts and marries a beautiful Carthage girl named Faith Camden, who is blinded during the “Battle of Nauvoo.” (Blind faith, get it?). The novel was enthusiastically endorsed by both Reed Smoot and George Albert Smith and advertised in the Improvement Era as “a startlingly human word picture” by “a non-Mormon novelist.” Whoever wrote that line did not actually know anything about dialogue, which, in this novel, is about the worst I have ever encountered. It appears to have been a précis for a silent film at exactly the time in history when people stopped making such things and moved over to talkies. A very hard book to find, but, once found, is well worth a read in a deliciously awful sort of way.
  6. The Fighting Danites, by Dane Coolidge (1934): This novel opens in 1877, as Zachary Tarrant, a young federal soldier, is sent to Southern Utah to investigate the persistent rumors of a massacre 20 years earlier. While there, he falls in love with a young woman named Deseret who—though she does not realize it—was one of the children spared in the massacre. For most of the novel, Zachary and Deseret are harassed by Church officials and Danite mobs as they learn the truth about Mountain Meadows and try to bring it to light.  The Fighting Danites first appeared in 1925 as a magazine story.  Coolidge revised it into a novel that was published in both England and America in 1934 and has since been reissued in multiple editions, most recently in 2004 as a large-type edition for libraries.  It is, therefore, one of the very few Mormon-themed novels of the 1930s still readily available to casual readers. Unimportant but really cool side note: Dane Coolidge was the cousin of Calvin Coolidge, who was President of the United States when the short version of The Fighting Danites first appeared in 1925.
  7. Wives of the Prophet, by “Sidney Bell” (1936)This novel is told largely through the eyes of Emma Smith. It begins in 1926 when Emma first meets Joseph when he is digging for treasure. She is spellbound by Joseph and marries him against her father’s will. As the Church grows, Emma lives with the reality that Joseph regularly seduces and even rapes other women, some of them very young girls. Joseph is portrayed as a Tom Jones figure—basically good-natured, reckless, lustful, and proud. He rarely seems to care much about the Church he is creating and instead focuses most of his time seducing women—and bullying Sidney Rigdon into helping him by threatening to expose the hoax that they pulled off with Solomon Spaulding’s manuscript. “Sidney Bell” was a pseudonym for the writing team of Clarence R. Decker, an English professor who would later become the president of the University of Kansas City, and Mary Bell Sloan, who would later become his wife.
  8. Their Gala Days, by Lavon Cluff (1939): This adventur-ish defense of Mormonism is hands down the worst Mormon-themed novel I have ever read—and therefore one of the most wonderful. Its hero, Tod Speckles, is a straight-laced, thoughtful Mormon boy of 17 growing up in the Mexican colonies. He is passionate about his faith and wants to devote his life to refuting the lies and slanders that the writer, “Bane Gray” (obviously Zane Grey), wrote about the Mormons. Through a fairly bizarre set of twists and turns, involving a beautiful reporter, an escape to the mountains, an old prospector named Tony, and trip to Los Angeles, Tod manages to meet both Bane Gray’s daughter, whom he converts to Mormonism and marries, and Bane Gray himself, who respects him so much that he promises to take back all the nasty things he wrote about the Mormons.

Comments

  1. There isn’t enough popcorn in Zion to sustain me as I settle back in my easy chair to read through this list.

  2. Paul Reeve says:

    Love me some Boadicea. Pure gold. It is filled with all kinds of racialization of Mormons including an illustration–pictorial proof–of Mormons dressed as Indians killing travelers, published two years before the MMM.

  3. So much glorious awfulness in one short list.

    Never having read Mr Durant or any reviews of it, I had no idea. That’s a real snoozer, almost impossible to read as fiction, but as I page through, I see that it’s all based on reality, including how the missionaries interacted with the people of the Southern States, the amiable interactions but lack of engagement with the African American population, and mob actions including beatings of the missionaries. I’m not tracking his description of the beating on pages 152-155 to any specific beating mentioned in the history of the Southern States through 1888, but it was typical of many such events.

  4. Strike that last comment. The event in the book is the 1888 beating of Elders James Douglas, Thomas Holt and Asahel Fuller at the home of James Brooks in Crockett County, Tennessee, in September 1888.

    http://amateurmormonhistorian.blogspot.com/2013/04/four-missionaries-beaten-in-west.html

    I wonder how much more of the book is entirely historical.

  5. “the Mormon elite guard wear a red lion on their robes to represent the House of Judah). They work their way through an immense secret Mormon cavern underneath the Great Salt Lake, which can be accessed by tunnels in the homes of Mormon elders all over the city. ”

    This is so cool. Reality pales, by comparison.

    “middling awfulness just won’t do.” Indeed. As President Kimball said, “where are our Michael Bays, our Uwe Bolls, our M. Knight Shymalans?”

  6. Also, if Notre Dame has “the Fighting Irish”, why can’t BYU adopt “the Fighting Danites” as our mascot?

  7. No “Study in Scarlet”?

  8. Peter LLC says:

    “None of the usual suspects are here. A Study in Scarlet and Riders of the Purple Sage don’t make the cut; they are too well written to be genuinely awful.”

  9. How about a list of current good and bad LDS novels?

  10. maustin66 says:

    Sharee, I have a fairly hard and fast rule that I only write about dead authors. I broke the rule once for Terry Tempest Williams, but that was a clear outlier. Dead people are much more agreeable as subjects of literary analysis, and they don’t write angry e-mails or send lawyers.

  11. This is wonderful. Thanks.

    I’ve never sat down and proved it, but I’m pretty sure that the “Mr Brown” in Durrant is the predecessor of the “Mr Brown” in memorized missionary discussions from the mid-20th Century.

  12. Edje, thank YOU for putting the cover of “The Bradys among the Mormons” in a Juvenile Instructor post a few years ago. I came across this several months ago and it began my obsessive quest to find and read the actual story, which (as the article states) has just been made available to the world by the good archivist folks at the HBLL. Couldn’t have done it without you.

    And also, I think you are probably right about Mr. Brown.