Aliens rarely abduct the authors of mass-marketed paperbacks. Once in a while, though, a writer drives along an Interstate highway or recklessly vacations in a remote mountain cabin. Whitley Strieber, the author of The Hunger and most-recently co-author of The Day after Tomorrow, was one of the first to capitalize on the alien abduction memoir to create his bestseller Communion: A True Story (1987). Before Communion, abduction stories were most often offered to readers in surprisingly banal transcribed interviews of abductees, usually sandwiched between “eye-witness” sketches of insectoid aliens and blurry photographs of saucer ships. In the 1980s, Strieber distorted the genre’s themes to pen his self-declared autobiography as an American survivor traumatized by alien kidnappings, involuntary medical experiments, and memory tampering.
Since the 1950s, UFO books have appeared along side pulp and popular genres. They continue to be a marketable subgenre, one usually shelved discretely along side either occult books or science fiction. UFO book writers, often calling themselves investigators, infrequently claim to have any direct otherworldly experience; they allege, as dubious authorities, that they can offer scientific investigation into UFO cases and abduction phenomenon. Typically the book jackets titillate the reader with the expectation of newly discovered facts and uncovered secret documents. A sampling of cover advertising for such popular books as Missing Time (1981), Above Top Secret (1988), and The Alien Agenda (1974, 1988), promise the reader contact with the “real truth,” “true life,” and the “whole truth” about UFOs, and “startling revelations about alien-human contact.”
It pays to be abducted. Or, at least, it did for Whitley Strieber in 1986 when Avon publishers paid him an unprecedented one million dollar advance for Communion (1987). Avon was severely criticized by the publishing industry and accused of unethical practices when they chose to market the book as a “non-fiction” memoir. The publishers, of course, laughed all the way to the bank as Communion stayed on the New York Times Bestseller list for more than 23 weeks.
In the opening pages of Communion, Strieber engages his readers in a pre-X-Files quest for truth and self-discovery: “Something is happening, and intellectually well-grounded people need not shun it. Instead, the unknown can be faced with clear and open curiosity. When this is done something strange happens: the unknown changes. The enigmatic presence of the human mind winks back from the dark, and a little progress toward real understanding is made.” As clichéd as the words may read now, twenty years after its publication, Strieber still gives us one of the most disturbing (and compulsively readable) abduction stories in print.
The book’s continued popularity as a guilty pleasure depends in large part on Strieber’s talent as a fiction writer. Strieber knows how to generate plot tension and sustain anticipation. Even the most sceptical reader can find illicit pleasure in Strieber’s riveting accounts. He particularly obsesses on alien violation and loss of masculine control, often lingering over the infamous anal probe: “an enormous and extremely ugly object, gray and scaly, with a sort of network of wires on the end.” The book’s tension is often heightened and our gratification delayed by frequent interruptions of the plot with spurious scientific tangents. Elsewhere he tantalizes us with only partially witnessed images of aliens or half-remembered torments: “I could not see the face, or perhaps I would not see it. A few moments later, when it was close to the bed, I saw two dark holes for eyes and a black down-turning line of a mouth that later became an O.” This crude depiction, uncharacteristic for a horror writer, is all the more effective because it suggests that the events are untranslatable.
For the late night reader or the insomniac, reading Strieber’s Communion can be unsettling. If his first-person story, often presented in the immediate present tense, does not make you want to turn the pages faster, he insists on sharing the unwanted invasion into our ordinary world. We identify with the domestic context of the unfolding events: “I was reading at about half past eleven, when I distinctly heard footsteps….” Or, “I remember lying in bed, sweaty, sleepless. But I was shocked to discover four hours had passed….” Like voyeurs, we can vicariously thrill in the weird story of an author who claims to be abducted by aliens. Reading paperbacks in bed has never seemed so dangerous.
This month’s Gutter Guest has been Nancy Johnston, a Toronto writer and teacher. Her SF abduction story, “The Rendez-Vous: The True Story of Jeannetta (Netty) Wilcox,” appeared in Bending the Landscape: SF.
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