Book review: Communion by Whitley Strieber.


A typical ‘grey’ as depicted on the cover of Striber’s Communion: Fact, fiction or figment of the imagination?


First an admission: I don’t really have an interest in the whole alien question much beyond what most people (I’m supposing) would think, which are thoughts along the lines of ‘are we alone in the universe?’. And for what it’s worth, my own views on the matter are that a) I don’t know and b) if there were aliens it wouldn’t surprise me if they gave Earth a wide berth given the odd behaviour of so many of us earthlings.

Far more interesting to me is the (perhaps) associated phenomenon of UFOs, the emphasis being firmly on the ‘U’ in UFO. I once heard the Chief of Air Traffic Control in the UK interviewed on the radio about incursions of Russian military air traffic into UK air space.  At the end of his interview the presenter half jokingly turned to the topic of what proportion of craft in UK air space in any given month could not properly be identified. The Chief’s answer was, I think I recall rightly, some 5% of it.

Cue surprise from a presenter who had, it seemed, struck gold but who had run out of time to pursue this fascinating avenue.

Of course the Chief’s answer did not imply that we were being visited by inhabitants of another planet/ dimension/ whatever in their craft. But it did lift the lid on what might be flying around up there, whether it be military or secret service craft, unidentifiable civilian craft, spy drones, space debris, little green men and the like.

So anyway I have a vague interest in this stuff because I try to keep an open mind on all things, but wouldn’t say it’s a topic that engages my full attention.

However, having heard Whitley Strieber on a podcast interview some while ago, I finally decided to read on of his books. Communion dates from 1986 and remains something of a cause celebre for the author. Up until that point, Striber was mainly known for his thriller and horror novels.  However, Communion is a memoir of a set of his experiences which began in late 1986 when he was abducted by ‘visitors’. By visitors he means ‘Greys’.

At this point it gets tricky. Greys, of course, are by now firmly part of the modern culture, and they’re widely assumed to be those responsible for the majority of cases of alien abduction. Are the Greys real? Does abduction really occur?  Strieber says they are real, and the book is his account of being abducted. However, he is at pains in the book to point out that he doesn’t know really who they are or where they’re from, hence his use of the term ‘visitors’ rather than ‘aliens’, with its extra-terrestrial connotations.

The book gets off to a blistering start by telling you exactly what happened from his own perspective. Whether you end up believing him or not, this account of his being taken and what happened when he was in the visitor’s craft is really well done. Strieber the novelist is in control at this point in the book, and it shows in the level of detail and pacing. This is not the kind of thing you want to read by yourself late at night and the already dark nature of the material is given a stronger flavour by the fact that this is published as a memoir and not as fiction.

That said, while it reads extremely well, you still either believe him or you don’t. To stress the point that it was real to him, he includes as an appendix the findings of a lie detector test that he took. Even with this as evidence, if you are a sceptic about the UFO and abduction phenomenon, you may not come away from this book having changed your mind. In fact, Strieber’s experiences as described are so extreme that you may find it just too outlandish.

Clearly at the time of writing he was in torment and definitely confused about the real explanation for what happened, and so large chunks of this book are given over to attempts to explain who the visitors may be and what they may want. However, because Strieber won’t commit himself to one explanation this leads him into several layers of explanation. For example, he could have committed himself and said that he thought these were aliens from another galaxy, but he didn’t. I understand why he did this, but ultimately it makes for some rather wooly theoretical passages where he explores all the various possible origins and explanations.

All in all this is a very worthwhile book, but don’t come to it looking for any concrete answers. There’s plenty of insight, but then again you have to take a leap of faith and believe him in what he says for this to be of much value to you.

As for me, I rate it pretty high as a tale, less so as a work of science/ psychology, but it’s still worth dipping into nonetheless if you get the chance. I suppose what prevents me from dismissing it as all a figment of a troubled imagination is the fact that he published the story at all. He’s said on many occasions since that going public with his abduction story caused him a lot of aggravation. If the book is fiction masquerading as fact, then why publish and bring a lot of notoriety and ridicule down on himself?

Like the strange 5% of unidentified things floating round in UK air space, the answer perhaps is up in the air.


A review of The Complete Richard Hannay novels by John Buchan.

Review of The Complete Richard Hannay Novels by John Buchan.

George Orwell famously wrote an essay on ‘good-bad books’, works which you can’t help enjoying in spite of themselves. Today’s concept of the ‘guilty pleasure’ is something like a modern equivalent.

One of my own guilty pleasures are the Hannay novels of John Buchan. I’m not sure they would qualify as ‘good-bad’ books necessarily. One of the things that made a book good/bad by or wells reckoning was that it might be a rollicking story, but that the prose wasn’t really up to scratch.

Buchan, on the other hand, is by my reckoning a superb writer. Pace, clarity and readability are his hallmarks. The only times a 21st century reader might feel adrift comes with the dialogue in the first three novels, set in and around the First World War. A lot of the characters’ talk is peppered with what is basically Edwardian-era upper-class slang, but this isn’t really a complaint of mine since I find old slang interesting. It’s just a point for the uninitiated to bear in mind.

What does make me class these books as a guilty pleasure (and what constitutes the ‘bad’ in them I suppose) are a lot of the attitudes and political views on display. Let me get one thing straight: I do like these Hannay novels as stories, but as I read them I find myself looking at them from two different perspectives simultaneously. Firstly I enjoy them for what they are, which is straightforward thriller/ suspense/ espionage tales. But given that they’re the products of a very, very different time, I can’t help but see them almost as historical documents too, very often ones that raise a wry smile (and the fact that a very popular stage version of The 39 Steps has toured Britain and had a West End run for the last few years, and is played largely for laughs, shows I’m not alone).

So why laugh indulgently at them? For me it is because they’re imbued with a ‘boy’s own paper’ spirit of derring-do. In large part they belong to a different age entirely, and Hannay is one of those larger than life fictional creations who embody all that confident grit and stiff-upper-lip courage that was so central to Britain’s view of itself before World War Two. Indeed, these stories give you a window on a very, very different Britain. Buchan’s hero is a patriot in a way that a lot of British people would find misplaced. The comments on the First World War also made me raise my eyebrows in two of the books, Greenmantle and Mr Standfast.  You get lots of army slang tosh referring to various battles as ‘shows’ and references to one’s duty and the courage of the ‘chaps’ on the front line.

Politically, too, I think these books are pretty dodgy. There are a handful of tedious and predictable references to Jews, for example, which take the form of their supposedly controlling the purse strings of Government. It’s things like this which remind you of how commonplace such stereotypes were at the time. I’m not so sure that this is out-and-out anti-semitism though (you could imagine Hannay doing his bit against the Nazi, for example) rather than being lazy thinking and a belief in taking the orthodox line for orthodoxy’s sake. In moral terms I think these books are twentieth century Conservatism write large.

But at the core of each book is a great story. Make no mistake: the plots of these novels transcend their time. Starting with the first Hannay novel, The Thirty Nine Steps is an absolute classic, and unlike a lot of spy/ espionage novels you could mention, something actually happens in this story. This isn’t various bored Civil Service types lurking in 70’s London doorways or having muffled conversations in the back of a Ford Granda. Oh no. In fact a whole slew of things occur and I’d go so far as to say that the whole book is a masterclass of story telling. It sees Hannay as a reluctant hero in the months leading up to WWI, but he soon rises to the challenge as he finds himself pursued up to Scotland, as the dastardly Germans try to get him before he can divulge the secret information he has suddenly come by. I still think it’s the best story in this volume, but then I think it’s one of the best stories from the last century.

Greenmantle is more of a ‘ripping yarn’ type of plot, and is altogether more fantastical. In fact I think the whole thing is gloriously deranged in its way. This story is set during the Great War itself. Hannay is taken out of his regular fighting unit and charged with undertaking a desperate mission to find out the true identity of the mysterious ‘Greenmantle’ who, it is feared, will spearhead a Muslim uprising in the east, which the Germans will try to tap for their own ends. The story introduces a new cast of characters who crop up in later stories: ace Boer tracker Peter Pienaar, enigmatic master of disguise Sandy Arbuthnot, and the bluff but honourable American, Blenkiron. The story takes them all on a mission through the heart of Germany, central Europe and into Turkey itself. It also contains some incredible co-incidences that stretch credulity to breaking point. But what the hell. Buchan keeps you reading with his trademark enthusiasm and gusto.

Mr Standfast is also set- and like Greenmantle largely written- during WWI and so can be considered as a bit of throwaway propaganda. It’s a two-part plot, firstly concerning Hannay undercover in Scotland trying to weed out a spy who is feeding secrets to the Germans. The second half is set on the Continent, and takes us into the trenches with Hannay. I found it a bit uneven: I liked the Scottish part better than the Continental scenes, and the villain character is so much a master of disguise that I hadn’t got a clue what he would look or even sound like. Anyway, he’s German and dastardly, so ’nuff said. I do thinkm though, that it’s the weakest novel in the series.

The Three Hostages is for me the best story after The Thirty Nine Steps. Hannay is again cast as a reluctant hero, this time settled in the Cotswolds in domestic seclusion, but drawn back into a dangerous world of espionage, as he is charged with trying to rescue three hostages,  the clock winding down to the date of their death. It’s a real classic, tightly plotted and tense, tense, tense. This time the villain is (ostensibly) an english gentleman. There is a German in it, but as if in recognition that he shouldn’t be beastly to them all the time, Buchan makes him a thoroughly good egg. The spectacular and gripping denouement is set oh so effectively again- where else?- in Scotland.

The Island of Sheep is a great way of bookending the series, concerning a thrilling case that unites figures from Hannay’s past with newer acquaintances, a crazy Dane with certain important information whose life is threatened by a criminal gang, and a showdown on the eponymous Island.

All in all, I read Buchan because he writes so well and knows how to plot a novel. The man is a master. My only caveat is that you may roll your eyes at some of the political attitudes on show, but that’s no reason to shun Buchan the writer or the characters he created. It’s just part of the mindset of the time. What is paramount, however, is Buchan’s greatness as a storyteller, his love of language and of a good yarn.