A Charles Manson Reader

It’s a banner week for Charles Manson. Yesterday, Random House released Emma Cline’s genius debut The Girls, a phenomenal and phenomenally creepy novel about a teenager who gets caught up with a group of dirty hippies bearing more than a passing resemblance the Manson Family. Tomorrow, Dateline will air an hour-long Manson special. (The timing is coincidental, as it happens—I asked. You can watch a preview here.)

GirlsNearly 50 years after the bedraggled guru dispatched his followers to murder a bevy of Angelenos and decorate their walls with cryptic phrases written in blood, Manson—who, many speculate, became a killer because he failed to become a rock star—has conquered all media. Actual rock stars cover his songs. Documentaries and interviews have brought him to screens large and small. Last year brought a lamentable television series, “Aquarius”—inexplicably renewed for a second season—in which David Duchovny attempts to rescue a teenager from Manson’s grubby grasp; “Manson Family Vacation,” a charming, low-budget comedy about brothers visiting the Manson murder sites; and a juicy 12-part series about Manson’s Hollywood on Karina Longworth’s podcast “You Must Remember This.”

I didn’t know any of this before I read The Girls, a novel I found so absorbing and intellectually stimulating that it gave me full-bore Manson fever and sent me running for the stacks. For those who pick up Cline’s book—and really, everybody should—here’s a beginner’s guide to literary Mansonalia.

The Big Three: 

Helter SkelterHelter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry

The granddaddy of all Manson books, whose cover proclaims it the number-one true-crime best-seller of all time, is required reading for all Mansonites. Bugliosi, prosecuting attorney at the Manson trial, provides a comprehensive guide to the Family’s crimes. Written in 1974, the book’s sexist overtones can feel a bit dated—do we really need to know how attractive the prosecutor found the individual Manson girls?—but its tone, erring on the side of somber, presents a welcome antidote to the utterly lurid events described therein.


Life and Times of Charles MansonManson, by Jeff Guinn

This 2013 biography was the first to delve into Manson’s life before the murder spree. Learn how little Charlie scared the stuffing out of his actual family before embarking on a life of crime, how he gleaned brainwashing techniques from Scientology and Dale Carnegie, how he applied the skills he learned from the pimps he met in jail to his future career as a cult leader, how he convinced a bunch of people he was Jesus and that there was a bottomless pit in the desert from with they would emerge, triumphant, after the coming race war. Though Guinn provides scant details of Manson’s life after sentencing, his thorough exploration of the period he covers proves more than satisfying.


Taming the BeastTaming the Beast, by Edward George and Dary Matera

Those aching to know what happened to Manson in jail need look no further than this 1998 tell-all from the man in charge of Manson’s prison ward. From the Booklist starred review: “Imagine [George’s] glee when he discovered who his most famous charge would be! Imagine his further glee as he came to know the ‘chipper voice’ of Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, who on behalf of Manson’s still-loyal ‘family,’ unleashed a torrent of contact on George, who controlled access to Manson. Eventually, George came to know Manson’s whole rollicking gang in scary and intimate detail . . . [and] succeeds in horrifying his readers.”


Further Reading:

The Family, by Ed Sanders

The Manson Girl: The True Story of Leslie Van Houton, by Rose Duncan

The Manson Family, by David Pietras

Manson in His Own Words, by Charles Manson

Mindfuckers: A Source Book on the Rise of Acid Fascism in America, Including Material on Charles Manson, Mel Lyman, Victor Baranco, and Their Followers, by David Felton, Robin Green, and David Dalton

Restless Souls, by Alisa R. Statman and Brie Tate

Sharon Tate and the Manson Murders, by Greg King

Will You Die for Me? by Tex Watson



About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist. She worked in bookstores for twelve years, reviews books for The Boston Globe, and writes about books, culture, and politics for several other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Genie.

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