I’ve always been fascinated by the practices and the thinking behind religious cults. By how their (often flawed) logic frequently leads to broken families and disillusionment, which is why I picked up Peter Rock’s new book, ‘The Shelter Cycle’.
The story centres around The Church Universal and Triumphant (TCUT), a religious group based in the Montana area that prepared for the End of the World in the late 80s. They believed the world would end in the spring of 1990 and so built underground shelters to house the members of their community. The group disbanded when the world (obviously) did not end, its members losing their faith when they had to go back to the same problems (and large debts incurred through the building of these bunkers) they had thought they’d be leaving behind.
The novel opens with the reader being told that a 9 year old girl has gone missing from her backyard – her little sister, also out in the backyard, was not taken. Their neighbour, Wells, along with the rest of the neighbourhood, is out searching for the missing girl. Also out searching is Francine, Wells’s heavily pregnant wife who used to belong to TCUT when she was a child. Colville, Francine’s childhood friend mysteriously shows up on their doorstep, claiming he is there to help find the girl and that a newspaper article detailing her disappearance is one of the many ‘signs’ that lead him to Francine. Reconnecting with Colville allows many of Francine’s childhood memories to come to the surface so she feels compelled to write them down – sections of which are interspersed through the novel – and also to secretly revisit the site of the bunkers.
Colville’s secret surveillance of Francine’s house, his subsequent journey to the Montana site of the shelters (laced with touches of magical realism, or indeed hallucinations), along with other sneaky behaviour leads us to believe that he has a plan – though what this plan is remains mysterious right up until the end – and to be honest, even then I wasn’t really sure what his intent was.
The beginning of this novel is highly enjoyable – the sinister mysteriousness of a stranger appearing on the doorstep made it very atmospheric (has a feeling of eerie unease throughout), and the desire to understand Colville’s motives will keep you going.
And so comes my very big BUT: this book feels unfinished and not properly thought out. I didn’t feel that I necessarily understood what this cult was fully about after having read this story. This is partly because no explanations are given when using cult-specific terminology so it can be quite confusing at times, and whether it’s a case that I completely did not understand it, but I felt that the novel was building up to a twist/climax that never came. It’s as if it almost got there and then receded. A very unsatisfactory ending that made me feel all that reading was for nothing.