It was an unseasonably warm day last November when I headed down to San Antonio in search of the secluded setting where Whitley Strieber says he was first initiated, at age nine, into the mysteries of the cosmos—or, to put it in Star Trek terms, where he claims to have made “first contact” with beings from another world. Strieber, who grew up in San Antonio, left Texas in 1968, and returned in 1995 to write a book, “came out” a decade ago as an alien abductee. At the time, he was best known for his horror fiction novels; The Wolfen and The Hunger, about urban wolves and vampires, respectively, which had been made into movies. In 1987, however, he published his first nonfiction book, Communion, which described how assorted “visitors” painfully probed him at an upstate New York cabin. Despite the fantastic nature of his claims, or perhaps because of it, the book was an immediate hit, selling more than 10 million copies and turning Strieber into a cult figure.
In mid-January Strieber released his latest book, The Secret School: Preparation for Contact (HarperCollins), a prequel to Communion in which he recounts earlier run-ins with the visitors, and it is sure to generate its share of attention and controversy. Strieber, who is 51, writes of his phantasmagoric experiences in a “secret school”—a sort of preteen cabal, led by a mysterious hooded figure, that met in the Olmos Basin, the wooded flood-control area near the University of the Incarnate Word in north central San Antonio. It’s precisely the sort of story that begs to be investigated—after all, like Communion, The Secret School is billed as nonfiction—so last fall, armed with a map of the city and an advance copy of the book, I set out to find the key places he describes.
At first I thought I would ask Strieber to join me, but when I phoned him, he wasn’t willing to play along and hung up on me abruptly. His wife, Anne, had warned me that he prefers to do his interviews on television and radio since he has no control over how he is presented in print. Actually, Strieber has been treated rather gingerly by the mainstream media. When he made the rounds of TV talk shows to publicize Communion, only Phil Donahue was skeptical enough to make fun of him, suggesting that an odd whooshing sound Strieber had heard one night at the cabin might have been a flushing toilet. Strieber’s most vocal critics, ironically, have been other UFO buffs, who apparently resented the million-dollar advance he received for Communion and regarded him as an interloper. Not to be outdone, Strieber has written that he considers some ufologists to be “probably the cruelest, nastiest, and craziest people I have encountered.”
Whoever Strieber’s critics may be, they rarely accuse him of lying (in fact, Strieber has made a point of taking lie detector tests). Rather, they say that he may suffer from some organic brain dysfunction or, more likely, that he may have a few problems with his memory. The latter explanation is fueled by Strieber’s on-again, off-again claims to have been present on the University of Texas campus in Austin during the Charles Whitman massacre. In one interview Strieber, who was enrolled at UT in 1966, said he had watched two women get shot; he even described smelling the guts of one as they spilled out. Yet Jim Kunetka, who grew up with him in San Antonio and later collaborated with him on two works of mainstream fiction, doesn’t recall his being at UT on that day. And in Communion, Strieber says that he probably wasn’t there after all—although he has since changed his mind and decided that he was.
Kunetka says that as a young man, Strieber was “no more eccentric than anybody else,” though he hastens to add that he has never shared his friend’s interest in unexplained phenomena. “The only experience I’ve had like that has been seeing the Marfa lights,” he says. Moreover, he says, “In the thirty-odd years I knew Whitley before Communion came out, I never heard him say a word about aliens.” Still, Kunetka does not want to be considered a debunker, so he has withheld judgment on Strieber’s fixations. “People have tried to get me to say Whitley is crazy,” he says, “but I can’t.”
Kunetka assured me that if Strieber ever did talk to me, I would find him charming and sane. In a way, though, I was kind of glad he didn’t. Although he might have cleared up some contradictions and inconsistencies in his books (he’s never settled the question of just who the “visitors” are, for example) and the few interviews he has granted, he is, by his own admission, a sort of Typhoid Mary of abduction experiences—he spreads the phenomenon like a contagious disease. For instance, Strieber’s editor at William Morrow says that after Communion was published, he had a close encounter at a Manhattan bookstore with some strange, short people wearing very large sunglasses (although he did concede they spoke in New Yawk accents). Ed Conroy, a San Antonio journalist who undertook a study of Strieber around the same time, soon found himself with abductee symptoms, including a mysterious nosebleed and a conviction that helicopters were following him. (Conroy’s book about Strieber, Report on Communion: The Facts Behind the Most Controversial True Story of Our Time, was published in 1989, and he has since worked for Strieber on various projects. He, too, declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Strieber has kept a low profile of late, appearing mostly at New Age and parascience gatherings. One of his favorite forums has been Art Bell’s Coast to Coast show, a syndicated late-night radio gabfest for explorers of the paranormal; he recently went on the show to discuss a strange object lurking in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet—the subject of wild rumors and speculation on the Internet—and to advise prayerful meditation, just in case it was