Nonfiction * Whitley Strieber * Aliens! * 1987
Before the publication of Communion, Whitley Strieber was (from what I can tell, I was a child at the time) a middle-tier novelist whose biggest hit was a book about vampires. I think he also did a werewolf one, but I couldn’t say for sure because I’ve never read those. I know of Strieber because of two inventive and well researched post-apocalyptic novels, Warday and Nature’s End. According to an aside within Communion, it seems that Strieber was working with his collaborator on another novel in this vein, though with a historical bent. We’ll never see that work, though, because before he finished, Strieber wrote a book about aliens.
That’s actually an unfair summation of this work. At no point does Strieber make a declarative statement about what happened to him. The book simply recounts events that happened how Strieber perceived them at the time. These events are of a fantastical nature, but he is adamant that what he writes is what he remembers. The retellings of his experience are augmented by transcripts from hypnosis sessions and with testimony from others who were with him when these things happened. Finally there is a section dealing with other people who have reported similar phenomenon.
The two main events that form the center of the story Strieber tells take place in upstate New York, in a semi-rural cabin. Strieber apparently spent a lot of time here with his wife and child, although during the first of the two events there were houseguests present as well. Later, once he begins to delve into these experiences he unlocks further memories for which he has no answers for. Some of these happened in rural areas, others in his apartment in Manhattan (and now that I think about it, he clearly has a lot of cash for a ‘middle-tier novelist’). Yet everything in the book circles back to the events of October and December of 1985. These are the dates where he claims abductions took place.
The nature of the memories Strieber puts forth are slippery by nature, and in recalling them the experience seems fractured and scattered. The author clearly has a difficult time in piecing things together, and throughout the book he reconstructs his experiences as he gains further insight into the phenomenon. Fundamentally, he was awaken in the middle of the night by something unusual. Either a loud noise or bright light or some little dude standing over his bed, staring at him in the dark. He is then rendered incapable of movement, and while describing acute terror is unable to act on it. Strieber is then taken away, although as to where that might be is a total mystery. They do a few things to him (yes, there is an anal probe, no, Strieber doesn’t make a big deal about it) and return him.
Whitley Strieber is an inquisitive, open-minded fellow who is prone to wide ranging thought and research. Like I said, at no point does he make any definitive claims as to what happened to him. At first he’s pretty sure he’s having a psychotic break. After a couple of psychiatrists tell him he’s sane, Strieber throws out a good many different hypotheses. These include aliens from another world, yes, but he also wonders about other intelligences from either this world or a dimension next door. His experience might be a function of the mind and/or shared consciousness. At the time this was written, there really wasn’t that much mass media surrounding this phenomenon (that came after this book, peaking with The X-Files and inundating much of the 90s), yet there were still many people that shared Strieber’s experiences. Communion is Strieber’s way of trying to come to an accord to deal with this unknown. He states that his only desire is for people to keep an open mind, and that unthinking dismissal only adds to the very real trauma that people who report visitation experience.
Yeah, but aliens, though. After living through and participating in aliens-mania during the nineties, it’s hard to look back and think of a time when the picture of the creature on the cover of this book wasn’t iconic. So what are we to make of this? There are those who have called Strieber a liar and a charlatan. Certainly the book is well-written, and it sold like a bazillion copies, so in the wake of its success one could look back and say it’s all a scam. Yet I don’t think this is the case. Perhaps if the novel were published ten years later, in the midst of the fad it would be easier to believe that this was a fictional story written to cash in on a trend. It wasn’t, and when it was published the book was probably seen as a risk. If the book were rejected by the public, Strieber very well could have found himself without a readership. Also, in the thirty years since this was published he’s never walked any part of his story back, and has in fact way doubled down on all of it. This is all to say that I take him at his word.
Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I was way into all this stuff as a teenager. Because it was the nineties and that’s what you did. At sixteen I not only believed every word, I wanted desperately for all of this to be true. To happen to me. Of course, it never did. In the end I was too practical minded and boring to trick myself into thinking I was abducted by weird little beige dudes with big eyes and smelled like cardboard. Yet that desire was there and it was real, and I think that’s a big part of the attraction to alien stories. There is something ripe in a post-modern society that yearns for something beyond our own scope and scale, despite the unhuman size that our own society has grown to over the last century.
At various points throughout Communion, Strieber invokes feelings of an impending catastrophe and/or apocalypse. One of the weird things the visitors do is give him visions and huge bursts of information. One vivid image was of the Earth cracking in half and blowing up. Another time Strieber claims to have been given detailed information as to how the holes in the ozone layer work and their detrimental effects on the planet’s ecosystems. Early in his therapy sessions, he has the following thoughts:
“…there is always the possibility that I was unconsciously eager to comply with an outcome that I might secretly have longed for. I might want powerful visitors to appear, to save a world that I’m pretty sure is in serious trouble. I’d spent the past three years working on books about nuclear war and environmental collapse. I knew full well that we are going to have a really rough time in the next fifty years. Maybe the idea of visitors coming along and saving our necks was more appealing to me that I might consciously have wished to admit. Maybe I hid my desperation from myself in order to live and raise a child with anything like a happy heart.”
That makes sense! And here’s the secret heart of this strange book: most of what Strieber says makes sense when you read it. These are not the ravings of some backwoods hillbilly, or the deluded whispering of a hippie sorceress. Something traumatic happened to this guy, and this book is his reaction to that. Whether it’s all in his mind, or is emblematic of something else, he doesn’t know. He has clear anxieties about a global catastrophe, or as he puts it in the epilogue “throughout the literature of abduction, there is a frequent message of apocalypse.” His experience, even shared with other individuals as it seems to be, could be a manifestation of this anxiety. As we see in fiction, the anxiety of living in such an absurdly complicated world has a serious impact on mental health. Even in the absence of actual threat, there is always the oppressive weight of what could be.
Like Strieber, I don’t have an answer for what he claims to have happened to him. I’m not so jaded as to glibly dismiss him. That seems rude. I’ve also been studying the shared feeling of apocalypse long enough to understand that these feelings of impending disaster have been with humanity for as long as we’ve been around. Our current civilization has been built larger and wider than ever before in our history, and our foundation is technological progress. The rest of our structures – social, moral, intellectual – have frankly struggled to keep up. More and more people are thrust against each other and randomness, chaos, and entropy enter the picture until all that is left is a general social anxiety. At the same time, however, life in this seemingly insane mish-mash of civilization becomes rote, routine. The machine has been set to run at full speed, and nobody knows how to do anything with it other than cling to in hopes that it doesn’t explode, but even this becomes normalized. So we look beyond our perceived reality in hopes of finding something to validate our way of life. Strieber’s visitors could be that validation, at least for him and others like him.
Or, you know, it could totally be aliens.