Courtney is the daughter of a sexually abusive father, and shortly after her nineteenth birthday she finds that she is pregnant. Despite her mother’s pleas, she runs away from home, and her travels begin with a spiritual experience:
On the side of the main drag, some five miles from Daddy’s property, I have a vision:
A genderless angel falls, wings on fire. When it hit the ground, the sky turns red. I’m caught in the internal blast radius. My child swims like a fish in my belly. Tongues of fire rise alongside me like burning buildings. They line the road ahead, and I walk on.
A prophetess whore in exile, onward to Canaan.
Her subsequent exploits form not only an escape, but also a religious journey. Courtney earns money as a sex worker, all the while being haunted by visions that channel her emotional state through religious imagery: the demonic figure of Baphomet; a puritan witch-hunter eager to punish her transgressions; an Aryan Jesus; the hanging of a female Judas. Eventually she meets a strange yet charismatic individual named Brother Ambrose, who claims to be a prophet. After joining Ambrose’s religious commune, Courtney hopes to find a safe space to give birth to her child – but it soon turns out that she has traded one abusive environment for another.
While Saint Sadist is subtitled “a Southern Gothic thriller” this is not a particularly accurate description. Certainly, the rape-revenge narrative puts its protagonist through enough peril to provide material for a solid thriller, but the novella’s main purpose is never merely to get the reader’s pulse pumping with suspense or action. Instead, the story – as narrated by Courtney – has a hazy, detached quality quite unlike a conventional thriller.
This should not be taken as a weakness, of course, as author Lucas Mangum is able to convey Courtney’s emotions with prose stylings that are at least as engaging as any chase scene. The novella opens with the twelve-year-old Courtney accidentally dropping a soapy mug while washing up: “As I stare down at the glistening shards in the sudsy puddle at my feet, something inside me breaks too.” Over the following chapters this passage is repeated in fragmented form, so that the references to slippery objects and internal breakage come to refer to Courtney’s abuse and trauma.
The novella’s dreamlike subjectivity also suits its spiritual themes. Saint Sadist tells the story of Courtney’s religious voyage, starting in her fundamentalist household before she sets out in search of a different path with only weird visions to guide her. Her rigid Christian upbringing contrasts with the spirituality of Brother Ambrose, whose Earth-centred cult has a deeply unorthodox viewpoint on the Gospels:
Had Christ been hung from a living tree and not dead wood, his true Mother God would have placed him at her right hand, making him Lord of the Earth. Instead he died for an imagined world beyond. Focus, brethren, on his agony, and mourn for the futility of it.
Pain and suffering are integral to the beliefs of Brother Ambrose. “And that’s all we really want, isn’t it? For our hurt to have meaning”, he says. “You can believe it matters to some bearded man in the sky who doesn’t like it when you masturbate, or you can offer it to the true source of life, your Mother God, the Earth.”
Courtney’s spiritual development is inextricably bound to her sexual development. We learn of her childhood, when any thoughts about sex were only half-understood and – even before her father began molesting her – accompanied by guilt and shame. But running away from home, Courtney comes to find empowerment in her sexuality:
Perhaps I should feel more vulnerable, but in my naked state, a sense of immense power washes over me. It was the contours of this body that brought an end to my father’s violence. This body that I know how to use, to manipulate for my own purposes, for my own survival.
She later enters a lesbian relationship with Marley, a member of Brother Ambrose’s commune, and even this has a religious dimension, the sex scenes intercut with excerpts from the Song of Solomon. Finally, inevitably, Courtney’s religious visions take on an erotic aspect during the story’s climax.
Saint Sadist has an almost Bunyanesque quality to it, depicting as it does a spiritual journey in heavily symbolic terms. But this is a pilgrim’s progress shorn of any religious certainties. While the narrative’s seven sections are granted Biblical names (Harlot, Iscariot, Paradise, Tribulation, Exodus, Prodigal and Armageddon) and Judeo-Christian imagery abounds, it is ultimately a story of personal survival in the face of sexual abuse. Like any rape-revenge protagonist, the saviour that Courtney finds is herself.