The Shelter Cycle (2013)
"The Shelter Cycle is a stunning novel about faith and disillusionment and the lingering power of the past. In spare, lyrical prose, and with immense compassion, Peter Rock illuminates a strange and little-known chapter in American religious history. At times, Rock's uncanny ability to combine mysticism with blunt realism is reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor."
"As luminous as it is sinister and innocent, The Shelter Cycle is a book not quite like any other. Peter Rock renders masterfully the ferocity and intensity of bonds between childhood friends as well as adults, coupling also the inescapable loneliness and yet hope within the human soul."
I worked on a cattle and sheep ranch in the mountains of Montana, just north of Yellowstone Park, between 1990 and 1992. The members of the Church Universal and Triumphant resided on an adjacent ranch. Their guru, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, communicated with the “Ascended Masters,” a pantheon of beings who had once been human and who now distilled wisdom at a frequency that only she could hear (or physically withstand). She “dictated” this wisdom to her followers; among her teachings were warnings that the spring of 1990 was an exceedingly dangerous time, and that preparations must be made.
I was stretching barbed wire fences, tending bum calves and chain-sawing firewood; meanwhile, close by, the members of the church were working much harder. The fear of an impending Soviet nuclear strike drove the church to build underground shelters—some small enough for a family or two, others costing millions of dollars, built for hundreds of people—and to store enough food and clothing for seven years. The foothills above Paradise Valley became pockmarked with excavations; the landscape was humped up, changed, paranoid; steel doors were pressed into hillsides, ventilation pipes jutted up amid sagebrush.
On the night of March 15, 1990, thousands of people went underground, decreeing and praying for peace. They surfaced the next day, assured that the immediate danger was past (even if the threat remained imminent). The church persisted. Some believers wavered, some fled, some stayed. Everyone was forced to confront life in a world they hadn’t expected to continue.
I met a young woman, a student at Reed College (where I teach), a few years ago. She had been a child in the church at the same time I’d lived in Montana, and her father had built a large shelter. She’d gone underground when she was a young girl, and was still haunted by the memories and the complicated cosmology that was her birthright. She has generously helped me understand this world, even as she herself tries to come to terms with it.
I have been back and forth to Montana several times, over the last four years. I have conducted over thirty hours of interviews, been into shelters, and read the books of Elizabeth Clare Prophet (who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the early 1990s, even as the church went on without her; she passed away in the fall of 2009) and others, trying to understand these beliefs as well as a nonbeliever can. I’ve been lost under the ground and up in the air.
The Shelter Cycle dramatizes the experience of a small group of children as they and their families prepare for the end of the world in Montana in 1990. It also focuses on the complicated and surprising interactions of these same individuals, twenty years later, as they try to integrate the lessons of their past with a much different world. This novel does not sensationalize or parody, but attempts to humanize and understand, to follow what seems an extreme collection of beliefs to where they make sense.
"Pete Rock has done it again. The Shelter Cycle is a beautifully crafted, beautifully felt novel. Rock's rendering of place is, as usual, flawless. He knows terrain so well, both geographical and human, where we hide and where we can be found. The writing is fierce, smart and moving. This is the real deal."
"Pete Rock is not a normal novelist — he simply refuses to tell a story that is predictable or that permits us to put it aside … Certain writers are so unnervingly original their work secedes from our shared world and makes up a world of its own. With The Shelter Cycle it's clear that Pete Rock's world is the most singular and wondrous of them all."
"Peter Rock is marvelous at revealing both the insightful strangeness and the madness erring on the outskirts of civilization, and at showing with great sympathy how quickly we can slip from one to the other. A wonderfully humane book about the weirdnesses that make up people's pasts, and the way they persist into the present."