Reasonable Doubt

He Was Supposed to Be the Next Stephen King. Then the Aliens Came.

Reclusive writer Whitley Strieber reflects on his career — and ‘the visitors’ that interrupted it

Drew Millard
Published in
15 min readFeb 11, 2019
Whitley Strieber at an exhibition opening at the Annenberg Space for Photography in 2016. Photo: David Livingston/Getty

WWhitley 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…