William S. Burroughs and His Search for the “Extraterrestrial Visitors”
“I get these messages from other planets. I’m apparently some kind of agent from another planet but I haven’t got my orders clearly decoded yet.” – William S. Burroughs
In 1989, the American author William S. Burroughs (1914–1997) wrote to Whitley Strieber, a writer previously best known for his successful horror fiction, such as The Wolfen and The Hunger, about his alleged experiences of alien contact and abduction.
In his first supposedly non-fiction book, Communion (1987), and its sequel Transformation (1988), Strieber asserts that he was abducted from his cabin in upstate New York on the evening of 26 December 1985 by non-human beings.
Although the books are generally thought of as accounts of alien abduction, Strieber draws no conclusions about his alleged abductors nature, referring to them as “the visitors” – a name he chose to be as neutral as possible. Burroughs read both Strieber’s first two books on his experiences with the visitors, and wrote saying he would very much like to contact them.
Strieber’s wife, Anne, wrote back, saying they received a lot of crank letters and had to be sure he really was who he said he was. His next letter, in which Burroughs assured the Striebers, “I am indeed really me,” convinced them, and they invited him to spend the weekend at their cabin in upstate New York, where the experiences were alleged to have occurred.
Burroughs later said:
“I had a number of talks with Strieber about his experiences, and I was quite convinced that he was telling the truth. He told me this. ‘When you experience it, it is very definite, very physical, it’s not vague and it’s not like an hallucination, that they are there”.
For his part, Strieber said Burroughs was almost overly polite during his visit, but was clearly genuinely interested, and very curious about every detail of his experiences.
Although the visitors he describes do travel in what appear to be ‘nuts-and-bolts’ physical craft, which manifest very much in the classic ‘flying saucer’ mode – and as for the beings themselves, roughly humanoid, mammalian beings, wearing at one point what appear to be blue overalls – Strieber himself had not ruled out the possibility they may not be extraterrestrials at all, but rather exist in his mind.
Burroughs, himself no stranger to altered states, other realms of perception, and psychic manifestations, and a lifelong champion of Count Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics – which opposes the so-called “Aristotelian straitjacket” of either/or thinking – could certainly concur.
Regrettably, the visitors did not choose to manifest themselves when he was around, but he remained open-minded about the possible reasons for this:
“It may mean that it was not propitious for them to come and pick me up at that particular time. It may mean that they would contact me at a later date or it may mean that they regard me as the enemy… We have no way of knowing what their motives are. They may find that my intervention is hostile to their objectives. And their objectives may not be friendly at all”.
Strieber referred to the visitors in his books also by the name “grays” – a meme which took on a life of its own, and has become very much the standard way of referring to at least one type of alien being that is apparently a regular visitor to our world: small, roughly humanoid, with a large, bald domed head, and usually large, black, wraparound eyes.
This idea and image soon found its way into Burroughs’ own personal cosmology. He continued to be fascinated by them, and in a diary-entry for 3rd February 1997, written just five months before his death, and later published posthumously as part of Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs, he wrote:
“The Grays apparently [are] Control Aliens, who have lost the ability to create, a dying race that needs blood and semen from humans. Bad folk those Grays.
“I recall that Whitley Strieber was accused of working for the Grays… Why are abductions and contacts always to mediocre or inferior minds? Why don’t they come and see ME?
“Because they don’t want to, are afraid to contact anyone with advanced spiritual awareness.
“The Grays want to make people stupider. Anyone with real perception is a danger to them. A deadly danger.”
The following exchange from an interview conducted by his friend, David Ohle, shows how much the whole business of Whitley Strieber and his experiences with “the visitors” had made an impression on Burroughs:
DO: You went to New York a few weeks ago to see some aliens. What happened?
WB: I talked to Whitley Strieber, who wrote Communion, and he invited me up to his cabin. I just read his book, Majestic, about the cover-up that followed the alleged crash of an alien ship [referring to the infamous Roswell, New Mexico case of 1947, as documented by Kevin D. Randle & Donald R. Schmitt in their UFO Crash at Roswell of 1991.]
They recovered a body which was taken to Los Alamos for autopsy. It had no stomach. Apparently these creatures are nourished by some kind of very sophisticated photosynthesis. Chlorophyll people. They also have very large eyes and they cluster together in their space-ships, which are like hives.
All this upset [then President of the United States] Truman a great deal: ‘They live in hives’. He said. ‘It makes my blood run cold. Got no stomachs and their genital organs are vestigial. Are they Communists?’ he wanted to know.
My God, the dumbness, to alienate the aliens.
The fact that the recovered alien body was allegedly taken to Los Alamos would have been a particularly portentous detail for Burroughs: it was where he had been sent to a ‘boy-scout’ style ranch school as a boy, which he had hated – and was the facility later taken over by the US military to be used as a Top Secret base for the development of the atom bomb, details that recur with ominous significance throughout a number of his works….
Later, towards the end of the same interview, Ohle asks, “Is there something out there?”, and Burroughs’ reply shows, among other things, an interesting knowledge of UFO lore:
“There’s something out there. It may be far away in Space and Time, but remember – Time itself is a human invention, as are measurements.
“Remember Betty and Barney Hill, the two people abducted by aliens in Exeter, New Hampshire? Well, the aliens noticed that Barry had false teeth… They asked about this, and Betty said, ‘Well, they’ve worn out. Age, you know. Length of time’. And the aliens said, ‘What is time? What is age?’ They had no concept of it. Time is both a human invention and a human affliction.”
In a collection of essays published in 1986 as The Adding Machine, Burroughs summed up a lifetime of musing on the intricate and mysterious relationship between the creative impulse he had explored, both as a writer and, in later years increasingly as a painter, and the mysterious ‘other’ realms of altered perceptions and expanded consciousness that he had long sought to come to terms with, characterised in terms of the impulse to get into Space – in which he contrasts the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ efforts of the Space Program, with perhaps more subtle and creative methods:
“We are not setting out to explore static pre-existing data. We are setting out to create new worlds, new beings, new models of consciousness. As Brion Gysin [painter, poet, and Burroughs’ long-term friend and collaborator] said, When they get there in their trillion dollar aqualung they may find that artists are already there.
” What you experience in dreams and out of body trips, what you glimpse in the works of writers and painters, is the promised land of Space.”
Towards the end of the 1980s, not showing any signs of slowing down and still reaching out to new forms of creative expression, Burroughs collaborated with American avant garde theatre director, Robert Wilson, on an opera called The Black Rider.
It was based on a German folktale, Der Freischütz, in a version that had come down via “English Opium Eater” Thomas De Quincey, and Burroughs wrote the libretto to accompany music by Tom Waits. Flushed by the apparent success, towards the end of 1991, Wilson approached Burroughs about a further collaboration, and Burroughs put forward an idea he was calling Paradise Lost:
“I had an idea… of an opera based on Paradise Lost, where Lucifer and the fallen angels have been the victims of an atomic attack and they’re picking themselves up out of the ruins of Hiroshima.”
Based in part on Milton’s original poem, it would also include material to do with aliens, abductions, UFOs, and in particular, the infamous crash alleged to have taken place at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. [Although nothing came of this at the time, following Burroughs’ death, his former companion and manager – now literary executor – James Grauerholz gave the material to former Hüsker Dü drummer, Grant Hart, who used it as the basis for his 2013 album, The Argument.]
As part of the promotion and publicity for The Black Rider, Burroughs was interviewed at home in Lawrence, Kansas, on 10 June 1991, by Nicholas Zurbrugge. Asking him about his current interests and reading material, Burroughs showed the interviewer some books on Native American Indian Shamanism, then explained:
“So I’m interested in shamanism. I’m also very interested in all of these space aliens – their flying saucers, and all that… I’d just like to see some myself, that’s all. As a matter of fact, there’s been sightings in Kansas, and some out at the lake – where I have my house on the lake – but I have not been favoured.”
That same year, the writer Victor Bockris visited his old friend at home in Lawrence to talk with him for Interview magazine. During a discussion about Strieber’s alleged experiences – and how Burroughs was finding the Nineties “a very un-funny… very grim decade” – at one point Bockris was very upset about “a sense of being invaded,” and the reply shows that for William S. Burroughs, many of the old concerns about Control and possession had not gone away:
“You are no more invaded than the rest of us. When I go into my psyche, at a certain point I meet a very hostile, very strong force. It’s as definite as somebody attacking me in a bar… What you have to do is confront the possession. You can do that only when you’ve wiped out the words.”
For Burroughs, any escape into the altered state of consciousness that he saw represented by the freedom of Space would always be achieved in SILENCE. Back in the 1960s, amid the all-too-often drug-fuelled paranoia of Sci-Fi Conspiracy Theories, in which he seriously considered the possibility women were an alien species, and that, famously, “Language is a virus from Outer Space,” Burroughs had written:
“To travel in space you must leave the old verbal garbage behind: God talk, country talk, mother talk, love talk, party talk. You must learn to exist with no religion, no country, no allies. You must learn to live it alone in silence. Anyone who prays in space is not there.”
As the decades progressed, and the Space Race failed to deliver on its promise of Brave New Worlds and the High Frontier of the Stars, Burroughs’ interest waned in the possibility of ‘nuts ‘n’ bolts’ solutions to getting out of the body and off the planet.
His already longstanding interest in magic, the occult, and psychic phenomena took him further in the direction of astral projection, dream control, remote viewing, and the like, as well as actual forays into ritual magic.
During his final years in the Midwest, as well as his interest in UFOs and possible alien contacts, such as those written about by Whitley Strieber, Burroughs explored the possibilities offered by an encounter with an anthropologist neighbour who was working with a Lakota Indian Medicine Man, Black Elk, and was also initiated into the Chaos Magic order, the Illuminates of Thanateros. [All of this is detailed at length in my book, The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs (Mandrake of Oxford, 2014.)]
Later, in the collection of Notes from his dream-journals and related musings that were published as My Education: A Book of Dreams (1995), Burroughs wrote:
“I was convinced that the aliens, or whatever they are, are a real phenomenon. The abductions, in several accounts, involved sexual contacts. Indeed, that would seem to be their purpose.”
After some consideration, Burroughs came to the opinion that the aliens – if “the visitors” were indeed beings that originated physically outside of the collective unconscious, or some other such psychic realm – were, in fact, abducting people primarily to have sex with them. He was struck by the fact that in one of Strieber’s accounts of just such a “close encounter,” the beings wanted him to get a bigger erection than the one they had somehow been able to induce in him.
In an attempt to attract them to his home in Lawrence, Kansas, Burroughs decided to let the grass grow long on his lawn, and then had somebody cut a patch of it into the shape of an erect penis – like making a crop-circle – in the hope this would attract their attention. Although Whitley Strieber continued to receive further visitations, which he would write about in subsequent works such as Breakthrough: The Next Step (1995) – and, latterly, Solving the Communion Enigma: What Is to Come (2011) – the visitors never came for William S. Burroughs.