We all home in on weird news: the father and daughter with a hidden house in a public park, a man addicted to electric shocks. When the 24-hour cycle turns, these people become lost to us—but not to Peter Rock. With preternatural curiosity and an ability to suspend judgment, he investigates the methods and motives of the fringe, turning their stories into fiction that could be called incredible realism.

In the late 1980s, Rock was mending fences on a Montana ranch abutting lands of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religion led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet. She forecasted a nuclear apocalypse and instructed acolytes to build subterranean shelters that would sustain life for seven years, after which time they would resurface and inherit the earth. Rock watched their excavations with interest. They burrowed and built, but on the day after they descended, there was an unexpected fallout: The world hadn’t ended.

In The Shelter Cycle, Rock explores this dumbfounding experience through characters Francine and Colville, who grew up together in the Church and are reunited after many years while searching for a missing girl. Francine is pregnant with her first child, and the coming of Colville and the baby force old issues to the surface: Do the old teachings have value for a new life? In the novel, Prophet advises Francine’s mother: “Your daughter will be the mother of a daughter of great Light indeed.” The thought gives Francine pause: “To think that the woman who wrote that was now the woman feeding apples to horses, the path from one to another running at the same time as Francine traveled around the canyons as a girl, in and out of the shelter and away, far away, to another life, until here she was again, circling back, a person with a person inside her.”

Francine’s preoccupations with parenthood may align with Rock’s own. “We’re always writing about ourselves in some way, the issues that we’re working out,” he says. “Now I have two daughters, and those questions come up: Why are we here? What are we doing? Are there actually a lot of invisible things happening around us that we’re ignoring?” The Church Universal and Triumphant taught so: that there were spirits, Elementals, who protected believers; that decreeing—praying aloud, often for hours on end—could alter the outcome of events.

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Decades removed from Montana, Rock, a professor at Reed College, learned that a former student had grown up in the Church. She introduced him to family and friends, resulting in over 30 hours of interviews with former Church members. “The people who were involved in the shelter cycle have disparate relationships to it now. Some people are still actively preparing, paying for the upkeep of their spaces,” Rock says. “Other people think [the main shelter] should be a bed and breakfast, are just trying to figure out how they feel about this thing that they did in their past,” he eRock Coverxplains. The children, now in their 30s, have mostly fond memories. “They had been children during the shelter cycle, and their memories were so positive. They had just a great time. They were left alone a lot; there were these spirits, Elementals, who would protect them,” he says. “Their parents were involved in these huge shelter building projects, which were like the coolest forts ever, the landscape was beautiful, and they were possessed of a knowledge that very few people had, and also a sense of what was going to happen and how they could impact that.” 

Rock made several trips back, including a memorable voyage underground to a still-standing shelter. Shaped like a doughnut, with curved hallways dotted with numbered doors, it would have housed 70 and their accoutrements: bunk beds, encyclopedias, “all these little tiny shoes getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” says Rock. “It was very much like being in the 80s. You kind of expect there to be a hot tub.... It was kind of musty. It was very musty.”

With all the input—the interviews, the trips, the collected works of Prophet, the newspaper stories, the notes—The Shelter Cycle initially came in at 1,000 pages. “It was vast, which is kind of the experience of being in a church like this: it’s overwhelming and impressive in a way and in a way it’s scary, too,” says Rock. It took time and distance from the sources to allow the story to soar. “My relationships with the actual people were so important to me, and their stories were so important to me, that I needed more time away from them....Emotional connection outside of this book had to atrophy a little bit, I guess, in order for me to figure it out.

“I’m looking forward to writing fiction that is completely fictional,” he adds.

Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. She is another of Peter Rock’s former students, but had a more typical upbringing than his student who grew up in the Church. Follow her on Twitter @mlabrise