"The enigmatic presence of the human mind winks back from the dark..."
Communion Turns Thirty
by Don Stradley
In February 1987, Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story hit bookstores with the subtlety of a metal sliver working its way under the skin. This peculiar item belongs on the roster of controversial confessionals – Gong Show host Chuck Barris writing in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind that he was a CIA assassin, for example. It also stands alongside the more memorable UFO and alien literature, such as Major Donald Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucers Are Real (1950) - which slipped onto newsstands as a cheapo Gold Medal paperback, but seriously explored the growing phenomenon of discs flying across our skies – or Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (1968), the launch of an ongoing fascination with “ancient astronauts.” Strieber's book sparked the usual derision, but it’s a small marvel. Most who write on this subject are enthusiastic clods, while Strieber used his background as a novelist to create a narrative that was both chilling and poetic.
Part of what made Strieber’s account of being visited by strange beings was his reluctance to use terms like “UFO,” or “aliens.” He never comes out and says men took him aboard a spaceship from another planet. He maintains throughout the story that he doesn’t really know what happened. Through hypnosis, he belches forth a handful of murky memories, and eventually feels that some sort of recurring “strange event” has been going on since his childhood, and may have also involved members of his family. The biggest immediate difference between Communion and other books like it is Strieber’s suggestion, rather ahead of its time for 1987, that there may be many factors at work, everything from inter-dimensional time travel to folklore. We may know Communion as the book that kicked off the 1990s interest in UFOs, The X-Files, and government conspiracies - Strieber doing for alien abduction what Elvis Presley did for sideburns - and we may scoff, but even a skeptic should agree that it’s a dazzling piece of work, heavy concepts floated across like notes from Chinese woodwinds.
To some degree, it’s understandable that Strieber came under such scrutiny. Communion centers on a pair of “visitations” Strieber experienced in his rural New York home in 1985, encounters that introduced him to several small, runty beings, and one large bug-like creature who seemed, to Strieber, to be the female head of a medical team. They were, he writes, “fierce little figures with eyes that seem to stare right into the core of being.” The female presence at the front takes on a special resonance for Strieber, in that he senses she’s trying to make him feel at ease. This was no easy feat as the visitors yanked him out of bed, probed him, and stuck things into his brain. Yet, this female presence becomes the star of the story by default; she’s the one who haunts Strieber, appearing in his mind’s eye during his waking hours, and seeming to communicate with him. She’s an intriguing character, with only minimal tinkering from Strieber.
Writers generally till the same ground throughout their careers, and Strieber had already written a series of horror novels involving ancient visitors, ancient vampires, and even a race of intelligent beings descended from wolves. There appear to be hints in his early work of themes that he’d touch on in Communion, as if his earlier writing had been informed by encounters that had taken place in his childhood and were buried, or replaced by “screen memories.” He writes that much of his adult life involved moving restlessly from place to place, which he discovers is common among people who have had experiences similar to his. The female presence is also common, as Strieber finds out. For Strieber, she’s as elusive as a woman you see at a party who gives you a secretive smile, only to disappear into the opaque night. Of course, he describes her as looking something like a preying mantis, but there’s a feeling of benevolence to her, friendliness; she's playful the way a rancher is when he gives a playful pat on the rump to a steer he’s just branded. If it’s not exactly love, it counts for something.
In Communion, she is the object of affection. Strieber doesn’t say as much, but he writes in a way to make her mysterious, vulnerable, mischievous, her company almost desirable. Though only appearing in a few sections of the book, she is the story’s biggest presence. I imagine she was the model for Ted Jacob’s beautiful cover portrait, which tantalized us from bookshop windows 30 years ago and was probably responsible for at least some of the book’s sales. That and, of course, Strieber’s writing. For instance: “…something very real had emerged from our own unconscious mind, taking actual, physical form and coming forth to haunt us. Maybe belief creates its own reality. It could be that the gods of the past were strong because the belief of their followers actually did give them life, and maybe that was happening again. We were creating drab, postindustrial gods in place of the glorious beings of the past. Instead of Apollo riding his fiery chariot across the sky, or the goddess of night spreading her cloak of stars, we had created little steel-grey gods with the souls of pirates and craft no more beautiful inside than the bilges of battleships.”
Though the final section of the book deals with Strieber’s philosophical outlook and the transcription of his meeting with others claiming to have been visited – which takes on the tone of a self-help encounter group meeting, and was probably more useful to the participants than the reader (though in ’87 I’m sure it was cutting edge stuff, with victims coming forward and all) - it’s in the first half where Strieber is like a jockey, pushing his horse to the limit, relying on his skills as a writer of horror novels to whip up the reader. The first line: “This is the story of one man’s attempt to deal with a shattering assault from the unknown.” He may as well be Edgar Allan Poe setting the tone for “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The first chapter begins with a lengthy hunk from Dante’s Inferno, and Strieber titles chapter three, “The Color of the Dark,” reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space. This doesn’t infer that the author of The Wolfen perpetuated a fraud, but he knew which sauces to dip in.
The alien abduction phenomenon has become part of our culture’s fabric, and as such, is near the point of saturation. Like film noir, rockabilly, the Grateful Dead, fantasy baseball, and professional wrestling, it went from being an interesting niche market to a bloated, moneymaking, theme parkish gimmick. It's been overwhelmed by a frighteningly large group of people compelled to attend conventions dressed as saucer men. Strieber, meanwhile, has dedicated much of his life to the subject, and has written more books about it. His later work hasn’t matched Communion - not in impact, not in flair - but it would be impossible to recapture what he did in ’87. Now, he presides over a weekly podcast, and where he was once a lone voice in the wilderness, he's now one of many. But imagine him 30 years ago. Let’s say, for the sake of this article, his experiences were real. It's hard to imagine the loneliness Strieber felt as he set out to describe these figures that smelled of moldy cardboard, violated him in ways he never quite describes, and left him uncertain if it was all “a message from the stars, or the booming labyrinth of the mind…”