"Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies" is Arthur Goldwag's no-nonsense guide to weird and wonderful fringe groups, societies and cabals, and is the kind of reference manual that the Internet cannot supplant.

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‘Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies’

by Arthur Goldwag

Vintage, 332 pp., $16

Guidebooks have taken a pretty serious beating during the information age. It’s not their fault, though. It’s just that nobody wants to squint into Leonard Maltin’s paperback film guide when the Internet Movie Database is just a few clicks away. But Arthur Goldwag’s “Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, the Illuminati, Skull & Bones, Black Helicopters, the New World Order and many, many more” is the kind of reference manual that the Internet cannot supplant.

A Google search on the Raëlians, for instance, gets pretty confusing. But Goldwag’s brief essay on the hedonistic UFO-inspired religion — filed alphabetically under cults, between The Process Church of the Final Judgment and Roch “Moses” Theriault — is straightforward and to the point. The same goes for his short takes on offbeat subjects like the Rosicrucians and the Face on Mars.

Lining up fringe societies and phenomena side by side does make one thing clear: Cabals can get pretty kinky. Indeed, cults and secret societies rarely seem to inspire G-rated behavior, as witness the cases of cult leader Aleister Crowley (his motto was “Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law”) and Yale’s secretive Skull and Bones Society (which is rumored to hold naked mud wrestling matches). Even Bohemian Grove — a rustic retreat attended by numerous elites and politicians — allows wanton public urination.

But Goldwag keeps the facts straight and gives the rumors — no matter how lurid and entertaining — about as much respect as they deserve.