Reviews / August 24, 2017
GRASSO: Whitley’s Strieber’s Communion is another formative object for me. Well, maybe “formative” is a bad choice of words. After all, I was 12 when the shelves of every bookstore I frequented groaned with the weight of the uncanny Grey staring out at me from the book’s cover. But Communion distilled and reflected a deep-seated childhood fear of UFOs and aliens that I’d had since a very early age. I’ve talked before about how much UFO content there was in media in my early childhood (in fact, I’ve presented on the topic at an academic conference). Communion broke the UFO phenomenon into the widest part of the mainstream it had occupied since Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) a decade earlier.
As soon as I could get my hands on Communion, I read it. I can’t remember if it was my dad (a UFO buff himself) who bought it or me, but it was definitely the paperback edition. Again, this may be a conflated childhood memory, but I definitely remember reading it in likely the worst possible environment: my godfather’s cottage up on an isolated lake in central Maine. Every night that summer vacation I was convinced the Greys were coming for me, their saucer silently gliding across the lake as they plotted how to paralyze and abduct me. Communion is, admittedly, a rip-roaring yarn; I didn’t know Strieber’s history as a horror writer at the age of 13, but now that I think back, I could slot him right alongside Stephen King as a colossus of my junior high-era “literary” explorations. But Communion is so unlike the books of alien abduction experiences that came out in the ’60s and ’70s. Those books, like The Interrupted Journey (1966) and The Andreasson Affair (1979), were presented and shaped like case files, featuring clinical evidence first and foremost: dry documentary accounts of alien contact, the hypnosis transcripts that followed, artists’ sketches, and so on. But Communion, despite its extensive hypnosis transcripts, was without any question a narrative first and foremost. And a riveting and uncanny and frightening one at that.
ROBERTS: I’ll start out by making a couple of things clear. First, I didn’t read Communion until a couple of years ago, and it scared me in a way that I haven’t been scared since I saw The Exorcist as a child; and second, I don’t believe for a second that Strieber saw aliens, and I certainly don’t believe he was abducted at any point in his life. Having these feelings side by side—the primally invasive fear of being visited by demons, and the belief that the source of that fear is bullshit—is not unusual; I’m an atheist, but The Exorcist to this day scares the hell out of me, as it does lots of other nonbelievers. I was born and raised in a Christian milieu, went to Christian schools, and my mother converted to Catholicism when I was 10 (she tried to take me along, but I flunked out): once the fear of God and the Devil takes root, not even the legacy of Voltaire can eliminate it completely.
So how did Communion touch a nerve as deeply embedded in Western consciousness as Christian anxiety? I think it’s because the abduction narrative is essentially dependent on Christian concepts and Christian Scripture (as I’ve written elsewhere), specifically the idea of the Messiah (the chosen savior), sin, and the Second Coming. For many facing this mindlessly digital, technocratic, and capitalist age, ufology and its implicit postulation of advanced extraterrestrial beings has replaced the earlier, supernatural conception of God, who we have infantilized, rationalized, and pestered into insignificance. In the words of R.L. Dione in God Drives a Flying Saucer (1969), “God is not supernatural but supertechnological and is capable of all acts and all characteristics hitherto attributed to miraculous powers.” The brilliance of Communion is that it upholds the wonder and dread of the ancient world of magic and mysticism, while at the same time claiming the cover of scientific materialism. It is an unforgettable horror novel.
MCKENNA: I’m going to recount an anecdote, so hold back your groans: after my nascent interest in UFOs was radicalized by Close Encounters, I began obsessing about the Hopkinsville Goblin (as beautifully portrayed in the Usborne Book of UFOs). A like-minded schoolfriend and I built a plasticine Hopkinsville Goblin head (with detachable brain, for some reason) which we became convinced had become sentient and was watching—perhaps even controlling—us. We started seeing Hopkinsville Goblins everywhere: observing the school playground, walking up the outside walls of the house at night. Briefly, my unremarkable life became hugely exciting and traumatically frightening.
One day we went out to a nearby wood on a Hopkinsville Goblin hunt, and sure enough, there was one watching us from a wheat field. At this point, some self-defence mechanism in my brain engaged and the whole thing began provoking a feeling of disgust—even through the fog of self-generated blarney, I knew it was all bullshit: we’d been lying to ourselves, and I was scared by how easy it had been. This is one of the reasons that Communion—and the whole “I want to believe” mindset—evokes profound uneasiness in me: it smells of mechanisms of dangerous self-delusion I’m prey to, and I think plenty of other people are too.
For what it’s worth, like Kelly, I don’t believe any of this particular story happened outside of Strieber’s head. I’m a product of the Catholic spook show myself, though with a bit of gloomy Baptist paranoia thrown in for good measure, and that feeling of living in an existential panopticon, constantly under surveillance—by God, by aliens, by MI5—and on the edge of the paranormal is always lurking, just waiting for something to rev the engines. I was a miserable, inadequate teenage punk who’d stopped paying attention to UFOs years before when a friend lent me Communion in 1988. I wasn’t expecting much, but it scared the living shit out of me, returning me to that state of anxiety and borderline delirium that kept me awake at nights, and even carried over into the day that I’d experienced with the Goblin, and again in the early ’80s when I’d read The Interrupted Journey. I was, therefore, somewhat wary of reading it again. Surely, though, the maturity/fatigue of being nearly 50 would protect me from the night terrors? No such luck: Communion‘s a monster.
GRASSO: Fear. That’s what the experience of reading this book seems to be all about, isn’t it? Primal, uncanny fear. Strieber works well within the 40 or so years of the Western UFO experience in Communion; there are elements of his experiences with the aliens that echo ’50s contactee tales as well as the Hill-Andreasson-Walton abduction narrative. The “medical experimentation” narrative was fast becoming standard in the 1980s and ’90s with books like Missing Time by Budd Hopkins (1981), and, later, with Dr. John Mack‘s pair of books on the abduction phenomenon. And the hypnosis portions of Communion (in fact undertaken by Hopkins) tack pretty closely to the usual abduction experience. The emotional connections of Strieber’s alien experiences as an adult and the ones from his childhood revealed in the latter parts of Communion connect strongly through common issues of security, family, and maternity: a desire for safety as seen in the person of the distant, enigmatic, maternal alien figure.
So what Strieber is able to give to the standard experience is a feeling of personal, creeping dread. And the dread is, I think, only partially related to the uncanny alien abduction experience. I think it’s worth noting Strieber’s daytime, “rational” need to secure his home and family against the preternatural nighttime predations of the beings. But it’s not his Manhattan apartment he seeks to protect from invasion, which would make more rational sense; it’s the cabin in far upstate New York where the most profound of his abduction experiences are centered and, thus, his anxiety. Strieber says, “As early as the summer of 1985, I had become nervous about ‘people in the house,’ even to the point of buying expensive burglar alarms and, in October, a shotgun.” Strieber’s fears echo larger cultural fears among the white middle and upper classes in the 1980s; the affluent began to worry about crime, burglary, and home invasion so much that guns and security systems became de rigueur. And in Strieber’s tale, it is a lingering feeling of physical and sexual violation that compels him to investigate his lingering subconscious memories further. The psychological connections between fear of the home’s threshold being violated and sexual violation are strong, and can be observed widely in pop culture in the 1970s and ’80s.
ROBERTS: Anyone interested in debunking Communion or the alien abduction narrative in general should seek out UFO skeptic Philip Klass’s definitive UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game (1989), though I think the debunking instinct misses the point—in fact, it fuels to some extent the backlash against scientism that drives anxious throngs to the occult in the first place. The better question is: why were there were so many people reporting, consuming, and believing abduction tales from the late 1960s to the early 1990s? The answer is made clear in Strieber’s “true story”:
We just don’t know enough about hypnosis to call it a completely trustworthy scientific tool in a situation like this… 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…
Though he only says so to undermine the assertion, his end-of-the-world terror resonates throughout the book, and for me defines the narrative. From the Book of Revelation to the Book of Mormon, nascent religious movements thrive in moments of crisis and uncertainty. Compare Strieber’s comment above to this Carl Jung quote from 1959’s brilliant Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies:
In the threatening situation of the world today, when people are beginning to see that everything is at stake, the projection-creating fantasy soars beyond the realm of earthly organizations and powers into the heavens, into interstellar space, where the rulers of human fate, the gods, once had their abode in the planets…. Even people who would never have thought that a religious problem could be a serious matter that concerned them personally are beginning to ask themselves fundamental questions. Under these circumstances it would not be at all surprising if those sections of the community who ask themselves nothing were visited by ‘visions,’ by a widespread myth seriously believed in by some and rejected as absurd by others.
The nuclear arms race peaked in the mid-1980s, and the alleged behavior of UFOs and their inhabitants became more aggressive, as if in response. The nuts-and-bolts flying saucers of the early Cold War—elusive, watchful, but generally benign—took on a sinister new dimension. The largely unseen beings controlling the crafts revealed themselves. They began waging a hidden invasion, a eugenics experiment, a revaluation of values, with many “abductees” excusing kidnapping and rape in exchange for their identification as “chosen ones.” The alien abduction phenomenon affirms the superiority of the human race while simultaneously rescuing the tawdry species from its extensive moral shortcomings.
MCKENNA: Or in this particular case, the moral shortcomings of Whitley Strieber, because one thing that really strikes me reading Communion now is how blatant the discrepancy is between Strieber’s description of himself and his life and the tangential details he provides of both: head of a happy family, except for those “bad periods” and his constant impulsive decisions, doting father who takes his son—and other people’s kids!—to stay in the cabin in the middle of nowhere where terrifying, traumatic things were done to him, someone with a history of “remembering things that didn’t happen,” like claiming to have been present at the 1966 University of Texas shooting even though he wasn’t (“They are not lies. When I tell them, I myself believe them”). All of which Strieber dismisses with breezy disingenuousness. In fact, a lot of the second part of Communion feels like a cocktail of retrospective ex culpa and childish importance fantasy: a privileged baby boomer dream of being at the center of everything: “you don’t understand, I wasn’t wrong – it was that the spacemen wanted to talk to me!”
Communion’s a book of two parts, though, and all that stuff—the hypnosis sessions, the Gurdjieffian soul searching, Strieber staring pensively at the stars trying to work out if he’s the prophet who can save humanity—is part of the sort-of reassuring self-discovery narrative where the terror and incomprehension get new-aged and “rationalized” (pretty counterintuitively, it has to be said) into something vaguely positive. As Kelly says, it certainly raises a lot of interesting points about the psychology of the times (and the author), but as far as I’m concerned it still feels a bit like something bolted onto the transcendent heart of the book—the “irrational” narrative of abduction. As Mike pointed out at the beginning, Communion‘s different from the best-known abduction narratives that preceded it: as well as being reported in an adult fashion, the Hills and Betty Andreasson were both going about consummately adult business—driving cars, working in the kitchen—at the moment their lives were interrupted. Whitley Strieber was tucked up in bed when his Modigliani-esque visitors (as mask-like and empty as much of that artist’s output) arrived. Where the two narratives overlap, I think, is that it’s the same childishness that informs Strieber’s vision of himself that makes Communion so nightmarishly brilliant at evoking those delirious (mis)perceptions and sensations of powerlessness of childhood and the subconscious—the ecstatic yet terrifying feeling of “letting your imagination run away with you”—in this case (allegedly) literally.
GRASSO: I do feel a bit bad that I have this tendency lately to get so damned dialectical and materialist in these round-robins. I don’t want to disassemble and deconstruct the dark magic of Strieber’s work too much; there’s too much authentic dread and primal fear there. At the same time, the two of you analyzing the UFO myth as an outgrowth of American exceptionalism and privilege in the Cold War era is kind of fascinating. And then I think about my primal fear of UFOs and aliens, and how that fits into a generational reading of the UFO myth. Greatest Generations, Silents, and even Boomers like Strieber had these simultaneously rationalist and mystical experiences of visitors beyond the stars. But from the beginning of Generation X, we were given a repackaged and remixed version of this epic myth that diluted the immediacy of these phenomena. We had to dig ufology up ourselves, either through faint childhood memories of media—feature films, documentaries, books—from an arguably more magical time like the 1970s, or through fictional Gen-X proxies like Fox Mulder.
We missed the boat; we came of age as Super-8 footage of flying saucers began disappearing, as omnipresent digital recording devices brought the UFO era to, arguably, its end. Strieber’s messianism becomes literal as his experiences close out the final years of the Cold War, with its fantasies and nightmares of global thermonuclear war and the kind universal alien mother who will save us from our own folly. The “end of history” brings with it the end of a neat, clean, Manichean age and the beginning of a far messier time, where our problems lose their cataclysmic and cosmic meaning. The ontological certainty that Strieber manages to dig out of his horrific experiences is almost something to be envied in a post-postmodern age where all our cultural narratives seem to lead to the same place: slow, inexorable dying. We live in the midst of an Eliotic whimper where no saucers will save us, no prophets will lead us away from our endless, and ultimately deadly, all-encompassing consumption.