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 piloted by aliens. He also hosts an elaborate World Wide Web site (www.strieber.com) that features the latest alien news bulletins.
In spite of Strieber’s notoriety, I hadn’t heard much about him until last September, when a friend invited me to a workshop that Strieber was giving at the Whole Life Expo in Austin. When I arrived, I was astonished to see a large crowd of quite normal-looking people lined up around the City Coliseum, a big Quonset hut, pressing to get inside. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised because TV shows like The X-Files are so popular beyond the fringes of kookdom and a recent Harris poll showed that 53 percent of Americans believe there may be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Then again, even my friend was stunned to learn that Strieber’s focus that day was going to be . . . brain implants. She had expected him to talk about the spiritual aspects of his contacts with the aliens, an important theme in his books. But he was intent on describing a new implant study program he had launched and on confiding that he, too, had discovered in his pinna an implant of unknown origin that sometimes would heat up uncomfortably.
Dressed in a conservative suit, his silver hair neatly trimmed, Strieber looked very much an ad executive, which he was back in the eighties at Cunningham and Walsh in New York. His voice had the sort of aggrieved, hectoring edge of someone who grabs you by the lapels to tell you about government conspiracies, but I was impressed by his apparent sincerity—he struck me more as a tormented soul than an out-and-out crank. I was intrigued when he talked about The Secret School and showed a clip from a TV documentary in which he actually rediscovered the spot in the Olmos Basin where he had attended his nocturnal lessons some forty years earlier.
A few weeks later, as I drove down Broadway in San Antonio, I had little trouble finding the upscale Terrell Hills neighborhood where Strieber grew up. The campus of Incarnate Word and the Olmos Basin were a couple of miles to the west. His mother, born Mary Drought, came from a prominent old San Antonio family. Strieber had spent his summers on the Drought family ranch near Comfort. His father, Karl, was a successful lawyer with interests in oil and gas. In an interview a few years ago for a book about horror fiction writers, Strieber described a traumatic childhood: The family home burned down, an uncle was murdered, and his father suffered from cancer of the larynx. (None of these events is described, however, in The Secret School.) According to what his mother told Ed Conroy, “Whitty” was an excitable boy prone to high fevers, falls from high places, and fits of crying. By his own account, he was a bright student, a rocket enthusiast, and a prankster. In The Secret School, he recalls sneaking into other people’s houses at night and leaving puzzling clues behind—rather like the aliens he would later describe.
One of those houses had a particular significance for Strieber, according to The Secret School. The rambling stone castle in downtown San Antonio belonged to former Texas poet laureate Aline Carter, who taught astronomy to children and let them peer at the stars through the telescope in her metalroofed observatory. Strieber’s recollection of Carter has a portentous quality; he finds himself wondering whether she had perhaps been the shadowy hooded figure who led more-cosmic classes in the secret school.
Strieber describes in detail the route he took at night on his bicycle from his home: down Broadway, across the San Antonio River, and over to the castle on Taylor Street. I followed the same route in my car and was startled as I drove across the Third Street bridge to see a small dome atop a big stone house—exactly as Strieber had written. Fortunately, Carter’s grandson Paul happened to be at the house when I arrived, and he graciously offered to show me the observatory. We climbed three narrow flights of stairs up to the roof, where I found that even the inscription on the revolving dome—“When I Consider Thy Heavens O Lord”—was just as Strieber had described it. Aline Carter, I learned, had been a well-known, rather eccentric figure who wore flowing white organdy robes and big hats. “My grandmother was very progressive,” Paul said. “If Einstein said something, she was on top of it. But she was also very religious.” He showed me a small chapel she had built inside the mansion—again, just as Strieber had described.
Later I spoke to Aline’s son David, who said that his mother had been “way ahead of her time” in trying to show “there was no conflict between science and religion.” When I asked him if he remembered Strieber, he replied, “The name is familiar,” and eventually he recalled a recent visit to the house from “someone who told me about his early sessions in the astronomy class.” Strieber, though, apparently hadn’t mentioned anything at the time about aliens. “I’d remember if he had,” David told me, “because I think anybody who’d say that is a nut. I hope he’s not insinuating my mother went along with him, chasing these fantasies. If he did say that, he misread her.” She was “too well grounded for that,” he said, though she “could really turn on your imagination. She had a line of bull that would intrigue you. The kids would stay spellbound with their eyes wide open.”
As Strieber reports in The Secret School, he was mysteriously spirited away from the Carter mansion one night for his first series of nocturnal lessons in the Olmos Basin, which Conroy’s book, Report on Communion, alleges is a hotbed of paranormal activity; Conroy says he found a number of other San Antonio residents who also describe anomalous events, strange encounters, and a sense of longing. Strieber writes that after age twelve, when he graduated from the secret school, he was spooked by the place and never returned until adulthood. (In an earlier book, however, he recalls taking girlfriends into the basin while in his teens, though he was never able to find the site of the “children’s circle.”)
Most of the basin is now covered by a golf course and soccer fields. As I drove around the neighboring residential streets, it was difficult to envision the wilder place that Strieber had once known, but I was able to narrow my search based on his accounts of entering the basin from Patterson Avenue. Parking my car on the Incarnate Word campus, I walked into the woods behind an outdoor swimming pool, and within about a hundred yards, I began to see details that appeared to fit Strieber’s description of his secret school. Down from the path leading into the woods was a dry creekbed. In the other direction were the fenced-in remains of a sort of grotto or quarry and the ruins of a small brick building. Poking up from the bushes were two large satellite dishes, which may or may not have been the property of a nearby luxury apartment building. I was surprised to find a group of large stones placed in a circle and the ashes of a recent campfire, whether the evidence of a wienie roast or a cabalistic circle, I couldn’t tell. (I later learned that the circle was recently set up by the faculty members.) Nearby was a pile of silvery cylindrical objects, which on closer examination turned out to be beer cans. (Obviously, students in the area still have their own nightly sessions pursuing forbidden subjects in the woods.) Around the bend was the fallen trunk of a huge, unusually gnarled oak tree. Later, as I walked back to my car, I even spotted a short, gnomelike being, who turned out to be a kid dressed up like an elf for a Christmas pageant taking place on campus that night. In the dead of night this place would have seemed eerie to any child.
A few days later I posted an anonymous question about the place I visited on the bulletin-board section of Strieber’s Web site, where he answers queries from his fans: Was it in fact the site of the secret school? Strieber eventually replied that the actual site had been destroyed a few weeks earlier—thus rendering moot any quest to find it. In response to another question, he wrote that since he had moved back to San Antonio, visits from his otherworldly companions had been few and all too brief. The sense of regret was almost tangible.
In my view the key to understanding Strieber is his statement in The Secret School that his work has been a way to flee from “the trap of ordinary life.” I can’t say that I blame him, really. An Olmos Basin full of magical spirits and the promise of infinite wisdom is far more interesting, after all, than a suburban golf course full of duffers and sand traps. As David Carter told me, “People love the mysterious. We love to get scared to death and have some Martian tap on the window. It makes good reading.”