Dead Certain

The Breakthrough
By Whitley Strieber
William Morrow, 256 pp.

Okay, Campfire Kids, zip your parkas up tight, hunker down by the embers, and let the wind lull you into the requisite state of saucer-eyed credulity. Whitley Strieber is back with the latest scary installment of his aliens-ate-my-brain saga.

You may recall that when we last met Mr. Strieber, back in June 1987, he was perched atop the best-seller lists and a fixture on the talk-show circuit, the author of a spiffy little number titled Communion. Previously known as a novelist specializing in horror (The Hunger, The Wolfen) and apocalyptic science fiction (Warday, Nature’s End), Strieber in Communion purported to have written nothing less than a documentary account of how he had been abducted by aliens – not once, but repeatedly since his early childhood as part of some grisly long-running experiment.

What made Communion so compelling was that it had none of the panting tabloid sensibility about it. This was no former Fleet Street hack pounding the word-processor keys down in Lantana, Fla., for enquiring minds. This was a skilled professional weaving a tale of a haunted, terrified man powerless to protect himself or his family from a malevolent, possibly predatory force.

It didn’t hurt that Strieber also was smooth on television. He didn’t look at all like the sort of person who would claim to have been sexually molested by munchkins from another world – which is to say, he didn’t look like a character from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.”

If one supposed for a moment that the things Strieber described actually happened to him – and his earnest candor made it impossible not to – then the yarn became blood-curdling. Not to mention rollicking good fun.

The aliens were nasty little gremlins who stole out of the bedroom shadows with long silver needles and pain. They immobilized their victim, tampered with his memory, toyed with his son. And Strieber was convinced that he was not the visitors’ only target – all over North America, possibly the world, were folk whose dark experiences matched his own.

But what was it the techno-critters wanted? They had some interest in us, he was sure, but it was so impenetrable – so alien – that he doubted we’d ever comprehend it, and we probably wouldn’t like it if we did.

Strieber took considerable pains in Communion to establish that he was neither mad nor a hoaxer, even going so far as to reproduce the results of a lie detector test. Personally, I’d rather see his tax returns, but then I’m pretty much of a killjoy in these matters.

Transformation repeats the success of its predecessor: there are spine-chilling visitations and a good many quirky Zen-like passages on the meaning of life (as we know it). After all, a man who sincerely believes aliens have nightly access to his cerebral cortex is naturally compelled to wrestle with some jumbo-sized questions.

The MacGuffin this time round is that Strieber thinks he’s made a breakthrough: he thinks he knows, at least in part, who the visitors are and what they’re trying to teach him. Wait for it:

The visitors are from a place that exists beyond death; they’re trying to teach him not to fear death by making him confront precisely his worst terrors.

Bravissimo. In one fell swoop Strieber has combined the Outer Space and Beyond the Grave wings of the lunatic fringe into one all-encompassing Scary Monster hypothesis. The spirits of the dead are aliens. Aliens are poltergeists. This is probably how monotheism started.

It also explains why the visitors sometimes act so irrationally – the strange electrical disturbances, the pounding inside walls, the faces appearing in windows. They are not creatures from another star system at all, but beings from a dimension beyond our physics, from which they can cross over only by using corporeal technology.

Zowie. It’s an altogether fabulous tale, and one that’s wide open to derision. But, then, both death and the universe remain profound mysteries. Perhaps Whitley Strieber is telling the truth as best he can. Perhaps there is a realm beyond our own, and perhaps we are being visited by unearthly beings in flying saucers.

And maybe, just maybe, I am Marie of

  • Montreal Gazette October 8, 1988