Past the streams of Oceanus they went, past the rock Leucas, past the gates of the sun and the land of dreams, and quickly came to the mead of asphodel, where the spirits dwell, phantoms of men who have done with toils.
-- Odyssey XXIV, A. T. Murray trans.
In Communion, Whitley Strieber's famous 1987 memoir of his interactions with apparently non-human "visitors," there is a scene in which one of the visitors strikes him between the eyes with a wand-like instrument and causes him to see terrible visions: the planet earth exploding, his father choking to death as his mother looks on impassively, and -- I would have sworn if you had asked me yesterday -- his son, Andrew, in a field of yellow flowers that represents death. And I would have said that, while the exact species of yellow flower is unspecified, some of Strieber's fiction (Majestic, if memory serves) suggests the evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) as the likeliest candidate.
But in my recent rereading of Communion, I noticed for the first time that this memorable image never actually occurs. He sees his son simply in "a park," and green is the only color mentioned; the yellow flowers are from another book, and they aren't primroses.
The park of death in Communion
The park is first mentioned on p. 57, during a hypnosis session with Dr. Donald Klein to retrieve memories of the events of December 26, 1985 -- with a spontaneous regression to October 4, which is when Strieber saw the various wand-induced images.
"Oh . . . green. Shows me a park. I see my son. What's this got to do with him? Is this the devil? What the hell is this?"
After the hypnosis session, Budd Hopkins asks Strieber some follow-up questions (p. 57).
"It's a beautiful, green expanse. Was immediately relaxing when I saw that. And my boy. My boy is in the park. My boy is there. And he's happy. That's what I saw. But--"
"Because I think the park represents death, and he's there because he's dead. That's what I think."
"Why should the park represent death?"
"I don't know. That's just my impression."
A later hypnosis session returns to this same material (p. 62).
"Now I see . . . a park. . . . My little boy is sitting there on the grass . . . he's all wobbly, and he's like he can't move his arms right. He's all wobbly and his eyes look funny." (They appeared entirely black, without any whites at all.) "I have to go over and pick him up and help him. If I don't help him, he's gonna die. [Long pause.]"
There seems to be a little confusion here. Is the boy happy, or all wobbly? Is he going to die, or is he already dead? At any rate, there is no hint whatsoever of yellow flowers. The only descriptive details refer to "grass" and "a beautiful, green expanse."
The field of yellow flowers in Transformation
In Transformation (1988), Strieber's second "visitor" book, he relates another visitor-induced vision (pp. 134-135). This one has the field of yellow flowers, but Strieber's son is not there, nor is it explicitly called a symbol of death.
The next thing that happened was that my deck and pool dissolved into a magnificent vision. In this vision I was standing before a field of yellow flowers that rose up a low hill. The sky was black and full of stars so large and bright that it seemed as if I could reach up and touch them.
Even though the sky was dark the flowers were bathed in bright sunlight. As I watched I felt a wind blowing around me from behind. Suddenly children of all ages and sizes were running past me and out into the field, running and laughing through the sunlit flowers and up the low hill. They ran in a dense column, laughing and waving, and I felt an anguish to join them.
They ran up the hill and right into the sky, a glowing column of children, and when they reached the top of the sky they exploded into new stars.
A voice said to me, "This is the field where the sins of the world are buried." I wanted to go out to it but I could not, and that was painful, but I was filled with joy just to know that it was there. [. . .]
Later I told my brother about this experience, and he said "The odd thing is that I've had a private fantasy of a field of yellow flowers all of my life. When I'm relaxing I often imagine that field."
The following spring we were to make a lovely discovery at the house. After an absence of three or four weeks we returned to find that there actually was a field of yellow flowers where I had seen one the previous August.
It turned out that the landscape architect had planted the area with bulbs in October-without, of course, knowing of my vision. I had not even known that she had done the planting, let alone what kind of bulbs she had used.
By coincidence she had chosen yellow daffodils.
Is this another version of the same park? I guess a field is a bit like a park, and there are children, but that's about where the similarities end. The children are running and laughing, not sitting there "all wobbly" like Andrew in the park. There are no direct references to death, but the hints are there: The sins of the world are described as "buried"; and the image of children running up into the sky and becoming stars recalls the posthumous fate of many a mythical figure. Daffodils are, etymologically, asphodel, the flower of the underworld. Even the little detail of the wind blowing calls to mind Homer's description of the Elysian fields in Odyssey IV.
Still, the links to the park of Communion are by no means obvious. Why had my memory conflated the two visions?
The Wordsworth connection
Later in Transformation (pp. 180-181), Strieber is on a flight which, due to an ambiguous prophecy from the visitors, he believes may well end in his death. As the plane flies into a storm and begins to shake, Strieber wonders what fate awaits those who die unmoored from any traditional beliefs regarding the afterlife.
What would be my way of death? What if in another moment there was a great roar and I found myself disembodied but still alive, hanging in the air of another sky? Where would my judges be, where my guardian angels? I would wander as helplessly as a cloud. I would drift, waiting for something to happen. But what if it was intended that we create our own realities after death? A man who dies with no expectations would be in danger of oblivion.
The sentence "I would wander as helplessly as a cloud" immediately jumps out at me. Wordsworth is not a poet I am at all familiar with, but I do know two of his poems. One, a poem close to many a Mormon heart, is "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" -- which, as it happens, Strieber had previously quoted from in an epigraph to Part Three of Transformation (p. 161). The other, short and much anthologized, is known by its first line -- "I wandered lonely as a cloud" -- and is, as everyone knows, about a field of daffodils.
Coming as it does in a book that quotes Wordsworth and prominently features a field of daffodils, this "wander . . . as a cloud" line is surely not a coincidence. But is it a deliberate allusion -- is the reader intended to recognize it and think, "ah, Wordsworth, daffodils!" -- or is it a case of subconscious influence, a result of the author's having had Wordsworth and daffodils on the mind?
Anyway, the story continues. While on the plane, Strieber confronts his fear of death head-on, overcomes it, and disembarks a changed man, for whom the world is once again enchanted and death no longer (for the moment, anyway!) holds any terrors. And this -- after a few paragraphs of Traherne-esque rhapsodizing on the wonder evoked by every ordinary thing in the world -- is how the author chooses to describe his new attitude toward death: "When I would turn my thoughts to death I was like a child amazed by a field of daffodils" (p. 184).
For me, this clinches it. The reappearance of the field of daffodils, in a rather unlikely simile, just a few pages after the cloud-like wandering, shows that the Wordsworth allusion is in fact conscious and deliberate. It also links the field of daffodils with death, and thus with the park in Communion.
Here is the complete text of the Wordsworth poem, interspersed with my notes.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
In addition to daffodils and the wandering like a cloud, there is a reference to "the breeze"; cf. Strieber's "I felt a wind blowing around me from behind" -- and, as already mentioned, the wind that blows through Homer's Elysian fields.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
Cf. Strieber: "The sky was black and full of stars . . . [The children] ran in a dense column . . . . They ran up the hill and right into the sky, a glowing column of children, and when they reached the top of the sky they exploded into new stars."
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
The children were laughing, and Strieber "was filled with joy just to know that it was there."
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Strieber's brother said, "I've had a private fantasy of a field of yellow flowers all of my life. When I'm relaxing I often imagine that field."
Update: I found a passage in Transformation (p. 155) that mentions the park of death. It is presented as a transcript of a letter from one Yensoon Tfai, "a very traditional Chinese," relating how Jo Sharp, a family friend, had been visited shortly before her death by "seven little Chinese men" who lifted her up to the ceiling. The letter itself was transcribed from Yensoon's diary.
She protested and ordered them to put her back to bed, but to no avail. In a trice, she found herself in a verdant park. The sun was setting. Although the surroundings were a joy to her eyes, no living things were visible, only the wind was soughing amidst the trees. It struck a note of desolation to her. She felt a sense of despair. The little blue man presented her with a blue silk flowing robe, which she happily put on because it was her favorite color. [. . .] After this episode, Mrs. Sharp's condition declined rapidly.
Strieber adds (p. 156),
Yensoon also pointed out that the deceased wears a blue silk robe in a Chinese funeral. [. . .] They effortlessly translated her from the physical world into another reality, one that seemed to be a sort of archetypal place of death.
Upon reading this account, I remembered my hypnosis session covering the events that occurred on the night of October 4, 1985. During that session I had seen my son in a beautiful but strangely desolate park. I had thought him dead and had experienced emotional devastation.
Could there be an actual place somewhere, in some parallel reality, where the dead linger in sighing gardens?
At first I had some doubts regarding the authenticity of this letter. Tfai
is not a possible name in any Chinese language, and the vocabulary she uses seems to be Strieber's own. Soughing
, for example, is quite an unusual word, unlikely to be in the active vocabulary of many non-native speakers of English, but it occurs in several of Strieber's own works (qv
). On the other hand, the diary transcript (only a small part of which I have reproduced in this post) does contain subtle and characteristically Chinese grammatical errors regarding the order of adjectives ("the yellow little man," "a blue silk flowing robe") and the incorrect use of and
to link attributive adjectives ("a stern and icy cold look," "a slimy and soft body"). I also thought that the name Tfai
, while obviously wrong, was the sort of error that served to confirm rather than debunk. It's certainly not the sort of thing any American would come up with if he tried to invent a Chinese-sounding name; more likely, the letter had been written in somewhat old-fashioned longhand, and Strieber had misread Tsai
(a common Chinese surname, but not one particularly well-known in the West) as Tfai
Fortunately, part of the diary passage in question also appears in Lowell Tarling's 2017 book Sharper 1980-2013: A Biography of Martin Sharp. (Jo Sharp was Martin Sharp's mother.) In Sharper, Yensoon's surname is given as Tsai, and she is described as Martin's girlfriend (euphemized by Strieber as "a close family friend"). The diary passage as quoted by Tarling is identical to Strieber's version with two exceptions: It once uses Mrs Sharp where Strieber has she, and it has sighing instead of soughing. I found it very satisfying to have my speculations vindicated in this way; Tfai was indeed a misreading of Tsai, and soughing was indeed Strieber's word rather than Tsai's own.
So the diary entry is authentic and is not Strieber's work. The chance of its being influenced by Communion
seems remote. Strieber did not know Tsai -- didn't even know her name! -- and hadn't had any contact with her boyfriend Martin Sharp since they were in London in the sixties (coinciding, according to this post
, with Sharp's only period of interest in UFOs). Strieber found out about Jo Sharp's strange experience because Martin had contacted Philippe Mora (who would later direct the film version of Communion
) about it and Mora had called Strieber. Communion
was a bestseller, of course, and Jo Sharp may have been exposed to it, but it seems unlikely that she would have borrowed the little detail of the park of death while still describing her visitors as "little Chinese men" in "coolie hats" rather than as greys.
Notice also the wind in Sharp's park -- a detail not mentioned in Communion but tying it to the field of yellow flowers in Transformation (and, of course, to the Homeric afterlife).