Whitley Strieber was supposed to be the next Stephen King, a pop-horror writer whose golden pen produced books begging for big-screen adaptations. His first novel, the 1978 werewolf-realism procedural Wolfen, was turned into a movie by the filmmaker behind Woodstock. In 1983, his sex-vampire thriller The Hunger was adapted into a movie starring David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, and Susan Sarandon. It was directed by Tony Scott, who subsequently made Top Gun. A year later, Strieber’s fifth novel — a faux-journalistic account of life following a minor apocalypse called War Day, which he co-wrote with his friend James Kunetka — was optioned for nearly half a million dollars before even being published.
Whitley Strieber was going places, and it was going to take something absolutely crazy for him to not get there.
That’s when something crazy happened. Namely, one night at his cabin in upstate New York, Whitley Strieber had what he perceived to be an alien encounter. Or rather, an encounter with a group of nonhuman beings he refers to as, “the visitors.” His hesitation about calling the little beings who abducted him and performed gruesome experiments on his body “aliens” didn’t stop his publisher from slapping a gray alien on the cover of Communion, the 1987 memoir Strieber wrote about the experience. The book was a phenomenon, remaining atop the New York Times bestseller list for months. Communion, too, was adapted into a film, starring Christopher Walken, portraying the mild-mannered and urbane Strieber as, well, Christopher Walken.
But being the horror novelist who meets aliens and gets played by Christopher Walken in a movie has its price, and that price is relegation to the fringes of society. Whitley Strieber understood this, but didn’t care. He wrote another memoir about the visitors, then another, all while sales of his novels slipped, and he began to fade into a permanent state of, if not obscurity, at least cultural ostracization. By the late 1990’s, Whitley Strieber was no longer the next Stephen King. He was now the guy who was once the next Stephen King who let his obsession with the paranormal torpedo his ability to be taken seriously.
Then, one night on book tour, Strieber says that a mysterious man knocked on the door of his hotel room and told him that our understanding of global warming was inaccurate. Instead of just making the earth hotter, it would cause extreme weather on both ends of the spectrum. Whitley got to talking to his friend Art Bell, host of the legendary conspiracy radio show Coast to Coast AM, and they decided to write a book on the subject. It was called The Coming Global Superstorm, and despite being a nonfiction book with a few fictional interludes, Hollywood adapted it into a movie. That movie was called The Day After Tomorrow, and it made half a billion dollars at the box office.
“There’s a lot about my life I cannot talk about,” Strieber told me shortly after he let me into the living room of his Santa Monica apartment. “There’s more that I don’t wish to talk about.” And yet, over the next three hours, he talked about it anyway. About being a broke aspiring writer in New York in the 1970’s. About quantum physics and classical music. About the mysterious biomechanical implant behind his ear that helped him knock out a multi-volume book about Hitler that he sees as an allegory for Donald Trump’s evil deeds. About the death of his wife Anne, whose spirit, he believes, remains with him. “She’s in some ways closer to me now than she ever could have been when she was physically alive,” he told me.
It is entirely possible that Whitley Strieber is insane. He is certainly paranoid. But there’s something there, behind it all, worth interrogating. If nothing else, Strieber is a remarkable writer, whose prose is erudite, funny, and above all, deeply heartfelt and humane. Strieber and I spent an afternoon together in early December, a couple weeks after the Woolsey Fire burned nearly 100,000 acres just up the Pacific Coast Highway. An increase in the severity and frequency of wildfires on the West Coast is just one of the side effects of climate change, a topic Strieber has been warning us of since the 1980s, when such a prospect seemed about as feasible as a chance encounter with aliens.
Whitley Strieber is willing to go out on limbs that few others are even down to so much as glance at. He has not been right about everything, but he has been right about one thing. For that, if only, he’s worth listening to.
Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Medium: You’re from Texas originally, right?
Whitley Strieber: I grew up in a neighborhood in San Antonio called Terrell Hills. My family was fairly wealthy and it was an extremely quiet family. It was very orderly. The only rule was to be home at 6 p.m. and at the dinner table, clean and dressed, or you would probably be better off dead. So mom and dad were very permissive. We played all kinds of games and went all kinds of places that we shouldn’t have gone, did any number of things that no child should have done. It was all wonderful fun.
Did you have any experiences during those years that could be considered paranormal?
There were occasional intrusions from a strange reality. One time when I was 11, my parents suddenly said, “We’re going up to the country house but you’re going to stay here in San Antonio.” They packed up my sister and my little brother, who was then a baby, and off they went.
Night fell and I watched television for a while, and it got quite dark in the house. I wanted to turn on lights. I went into the hall and then went up to my room and when I turned on the light in my room, I saw the window above the air conditioner — there was a window unit in the room — had been pulled down. That window was closed with insulation. It wasn’t meant to be opened.
I was scared because I hadn’t opened it. It hadn’t been open when my parents left. So I telephoned the country house and my mother said, “Well, if you think there’s somebody there, call the police.” It wasn’t like calling the police in some big city. So I called over there and said what I was seeing and he said, “Well, I’ll come right over.” And he stopped in the front of the house, came up the walk with his gun in his hand, and he was terrified. Terrified. And he went upstairs. I followed him and he shone his flashlight out on the roof and I thought I saw someone. But I was a little boy, I could have just been scared. He said, “Well, there’s nobody there,” and he literally ran down stairs and drove away.
The next thing I remember it was morning. My family came home at about 11 a.m. That’s the sort of thing that would happen. But I liked my life. There were moments that were very unpleasant but mostly it was wonderful.
Did you have a road map for becoming a novelist?
I was very interested in books and literature and I was writing like crazy when I was in college. Then I went to the film school in London called the London School of Film Technique. It’s now called the London Film School. England and I were made for each other. The English never expect anything unusual to happen but they’re also very tolerant of eccentricity. I ended up hanging out in Eric Clapton’s flat at the Pheasantry in London. I didn’t know him, but kids came and went in that flat all the time, and I happened to have mutual friends who hung out there. Eric would come and go. He didn’t care who was there. I heard a lot of cool music played live by some very famous people and I chatted one or twice with some big stars, but you know, I was just another kid hanging out.
The way you’re describing it almost makes it sound like the London version of Warhol’s Factory.
It wasn’t as intense as that. There were some drugs, obviously, but it was a milder scene than The Factory. I think I might have been at The Factory once or twice in the early 1970’s and it was very different, much more intense. When I moved to New York, I hung out at Max’s Kansas City. I was sort of peripheral to that scene. Very peripheral. I briefly met Lou Reed back then. Many years later, I got to know him through mutual friends. We used to have fabulous, completely paranoid conversations together at dinner.
What were you writing about at the time?
I’d written two novels by then. One called Ginger, then a novel called Little Paradise. Then I guess I must have been writing a book called Stranger in the Earth. These are all trunk novels. Any writer who says he doesn’t have trunk novels is lying.
What do you mean by “trunk novels?”
Novels that will remain forever in the trunk and will be perhaps destroyed when death impends.
The passage in “Communion” about how you were able to vividly recall your experience of the encounter through remembering the scent of one of their hands is really striking. It reminds me of Proust in a way.
Well, you know, odor is very powerful in the mind. I kept thinking to myself, “If I can just smell this, I would know if this a physical experience or not.” Then, because I put that in the book, all of the debunkers started saying, “Oh well, he has temporal lobe epilepsy,” because the sense of smell is often affected by that.
So I took all these tests for that and many other diseases. There was nothing wrong with me at all. The only thing is that the psychological tests showed a lot of stress, which is consistent with the experience I was having. But the physical tests were fine. There was no sign of neurosis or psychosis or anything in the psychological tests. But that didn’t matter. Those people were frantic to say it didn’t happen, and it wasn’t true, and I was making it up and everything.
As someone who wasn’t alive when the book came out, something that seems remarkable is that you must have known that people were going to claim you were making it up, or at least think you were crazy, but you stuck to your guns.
Well yeah, because something did happen. I was physically injured and roughed up. That doesn’t happen to you when you’re having a dream. When you have a dream, you wake up and you’re the same as you were before you dreamed, unless you fall out of bed or something, which is not what happened to me.
And then the book was adapted into a movie starring Christopher Walken not too long after.
There were a lot of things about it that could have been a good bit better. I think that they had financial problems, and the special effects aren’t very effective. I think that Christopher Walken played me like I was a complete jerk.
It must be a truly bizarre experience to be played by Christopher Walken.
Dan Aykroyd apparently wanted to play me. I think he would have been perfect.
When was the last time you had an experience with the visitors?
The visitors are still in my life. They returned in a big way after Annie passed away. When she was sick, they weren’t with us much, but after she passed away, two things began to happen. The first thing was, it was about an hour and a half after she died that the first indication that there might be an afterlife came. A friend telephoned and said, “Whitley, I just had the strangest thing happen. I heard Anne tell me to call you.” And I said, “Anne died an hour and a half ago.” Over the next few days, it kept happening with different friends. Some knew she had died, some didn’t.
Then I remembered back in the 1990s, one day Anne had come out of her office and said, “Whitley, this all has something to do with what we call death. The visitor experience and seeing and interacting with your dead are interrelated.” We made a pact that the first one of us to die, if possible, would try to reconnect with the other one, but not directly. We would do it through friends, because if Annie came back to me, I would assume it was my imagination, and she would definitely have done the same. The idea was, we would come back to friends, and we didn’t tell anybody about this. Not anyone, not even our son. Suffice to say, I learned a hell of a lot about life and death after my wife died.
What do you mean by that — that you’ve learned more about life and death?
I meditate twice a night, at 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., because if I don’t, the visitors will react. They’ll start doing things that will wake me up. They’re very insistent, but usually it’s very sweet. In any case, I hardly ever see them. In the past two weeks, I’d say they have tugged me on the ear, blown in my face, and kissed me to wake me up at 3 a.m. This happens routinely. I don’t know why it happens. I don’t know who “they” are. It could easily be Anne, for all I know. But I do know that this meditation that I do is a powerful, strong, good, healthy meditation, and it’s damned good for me, and I’m lucky to have them, whoever it is, is doing this, even if it’s just me, myself, in my own inner world. I don’t care whether people believe me or not.
In your book “The Key,” you write of meeting a man you call “The Master of the Key,” who warned you about an impending climate catastrophe, among lots of other seemingly prophetic stuff. What happened?
The doorbell in the room rang, and I thought it was room service. I hadn’t realized it was 2 a.m. So I answered the door, and this man walked in, and walked straight across the room, and turned around, standing in front of the window where the air conditioning was. And, I thought, “Holy shit, it’s a fan.” There is no such thing as a fan you want to meet after midnight.
Especially one who comes into your hotel room unannounced, I’d assume.
Oh yeah. My alarm bells were blasting, let me put it that way. But then he said something that really stopped me — he said that we were bound to the Earth because the child who would have understood the secret of gravity had never been born, because his parents had been killed in the Holocaust. And that made an incredible amount of sense to me immediately — I understood that a species that could do that to themselves maybe does not yet have the right to leave its planet and expose others to its problems. And that we might go extinct here, if we can’t fix ourselves. It made terrifying, clear, and logical sense. I’ve had too many weird experiences in my life to not realize, at that moment, that this is probably one of them.
Given that you’ve written a good bit about the potential deadly consequences of climate change, do you feel vindicated in a way?
It’s a horrible vindication. But yes, it is a vindication. A dreadful, nightmarish vindication. I would infinitely rather be wrong. I have a 6-week-old grandson, a 10-year-old grandson, and a 7-year-old granddaughter. All of them are so beautiful and full of life and so eminently deserving of a future. It’s being stolen from them by that train wreck, Donald Trump. I have to tell you, when I saw Trump say about the recent climate change report, “I don’t believe it,” I thought to myself, “That is Evil Incarnate.” Those three words will probably cost the lives of millions of people and cause untold amounts of suffering. We are in the last few years where leadership might help. It’s going to be too late soon.
I’m interested in what you think of the idea of the “Western canon,” both the literary canon as well as the canon of scientific knowledge.
Well, I have two entirely different opinions. First of all, the Western canon in literature is precious and very valuable and benefits from being challenged. I think it’s being challenged now in a lot of interesting ways, in writing, and that’s a good thing. I’m very interested in poetry, and I’m forcing myself to go back into poetry, especially the poetry of the early 20th century.
And with regard to science, something fascinating happened to me recently. You know, I have this implant in my ear.
I’m sorry, an implant in your ear?
It happened in May of 1989. About 11 p.m., some people invaded my house in upstate New York and ended up putting a thing in my ear using a means that is not known — there wasn’t a scar or anything. But the thing is there, and for many years, would occasionally turn on. My ear would turn bright red and —
When you say “people,” what sort of people do you mean?
It was a man and a woman, in dark clothes. They were accompanied by people outside; I could hear them talking. I do not know who they were, if they were in league with aliens or if they were some kind of military group or what. But I do know that the means they used to put it in my ear were unusual, because there was no scar. And when I tried to get it taken out, the doctor made an incision and [the implant] proceeded to go from the top of my ear down into my earlobe on its own, avoiding the doctor’s scalpel. He got a corner of it, which was analyzed. It had a metallic base with motile proteinaceous cilia attached to it — in other words, it was a biomechanical device of some kind.
Instead of trying to get rid of it, I began to focus on attempting to figure out what it was and whether or not I could make use of it. I made no progress for nearly 30 years. Then suddenly, I noticed that when I’m writing, if I look against a white wall, I see a slit in my eye and there are words racing through the slit faster than I can read them. But they are subliminally readable by my brain, and they are reflecting and working with my writing. The implant doesn’t tell me things. But if I think about something I want to know, it comes in funny ways.
About two weeks ago, I said to the implant, “Tell me something that is essentially important to the new book I’m working on but which I know nothing whatsoever about.”
I proceeded to get the most important piece of information that I have probably ever gotten, in one time, in my whole life. The implant came back with the number 137. It was an obsession of Wolfgang Pauli, one of the greatest physicists who ever lived. It led to his relationship with Carl Jung, the psychologist. My next book is about the nature of ambiguity in reality, and this goes right to the heart of it. There’s something called the fine-structure constant, which is 1/137th. Is there a reality beyond what we can see and feel? The fact of 137 argues that this must be the case.
What kind of meditation do you do?
I do something called the Sensing Exercise that I learned in the Gurdjieff Foundation. It’s a very simple exercise to start. I’ve been doing it now for over 50 years and over time, you get to the point where you have sensation of more than just your physical body.
It starts with an idea, that the human attention is sacred for a very simple reason. It is the only attention on this planet that can be intentionally directed. When you place your attention on your body, it causes your nervous system to change suddenly so that you, in another level of reality, can be seen more clearly. I asked the visitors, when they first came to me, why they came. They said, “We saw a glow.” After Annie died, she made it clear to me that she could see me when I was sitting in the chair doing the exercise. That was when she could see me and I realized that the glow they were talking about was the glow that comes from placing the attention on sensation.
That’s a beautiful thought.
It’s the truth. Anne was the most conscious person I have ever had direct contact with. Just as she had lived, she made a very conscious decision to die. She had a series of strokes and a brain tumor that had not been fully removed. She was losing functionality and was going to either die a painful, difficult death, or turn into a zombie. Or she could make a decision. And she decided she would stop eating and drinking. She wasn’t scared, she wasn’t angry, she wasn’t sad. She was just doing it, and she did it beautifully. I would have followed her if I didn’t have my son and his family. His kids are counting on their granddad to be a bridge. They love me very much, and I love them dearly. So I keep on, rowing against the current as best I can.
Would it be fair to say you’ve had an influence on pop culture?
I would be very disingenuous not to say that I’ve had an influence on pop culture. I’ve also, unfortunately, had an influence on modern UFO folklore. I think it’s all folklore — it’s something that people don’t understand, and they generate stories about it. What I’m interested in is the something that’s there — what’s behind them?
It seems like trying to lend meaning to unexplained phenomena comes from a human impulse, and the details are often a reflection of the historical moment.
There’s something behind it — there is an objective reality of some kind. The one thing Annie used to always say to me is that she signed on for an interesting life, and she hit the jackpot with me. I’m usually broke, no one will pay me for anything, publishers won’t publish me because they look down their noses at the Communion man. I’ve had a lot of trouble. But at the same time, I’ve also had this incredibly interesting life. It’s a wonderful experience, to be alive.
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