"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, May 5, 2023

“This sure isn’t Jersey” – Wrong turns and Machenian perichoresis in Breakthrough: The Next Step (1995) by Whitley Strieber

Readers unfamiliar with Breakthrough: The Next Step (1995) by Whitley Strieber may prefer to read these notes only after reading the book.

As a reader of horror fiction my experience with Whitley Strieber goes back to the novel Wolfen (1978) and the film "Wolfen" (1981). Wolfen led to The Night Church (1983), Majestic (1989), and The Forbidden Zone (1993). 

I inconsistently read Strieber's nonfiction output of 1987-1997 as the books were published. His summations and obscurantist metaphysics made the experience unusually frustrating. However,  passages where horror-writer Strieber was allowed to make his aesthetic contribution always stood in compelling contrast to the more mundane and pontifical portions by experiencer-writer Strieber.

Strieber's fine short stories–preeminently "Pain" (1986) and "The Pool" (1988), both of which appeared in canonical eighties anthologies–sharply demonstrated the moire scree of motifs crossing between the fictional and nonfictional: occulted memories and the strange reality interpenetrations Arthur Machen termed "perichoresis."1

The high point for me of these passages comes in the eleventh chapter of Breakthrough: The Next Step. After Strieber recounts an eventful night shared by himself, his spouse, their young son, and the son's sleepover pal:

[....] I took my son's friend to meet his father at our usual place, a diner on Route 17 in New Jersey As we drove down the New York State Thruway into gradually more and more crowded areas, I mentioned the previous night again, but the boy still didn't remember what I'd said.

     We crossed the New York-New Jersey border and began to pass the almost continuous line of shopping centers, fast food restaurants, and stores that mark the part of Route 17 that goes through New Jersey.

     Seventeen is a divided highway and to get to the meeting place it would be necessary for me to take an exit, cross over, and backtrack about three hundred yards to the diner.

     We saw his father's truck in the parking lot as we turned onto the exit. There was nothing in the least unusual: we'd done this easily a dozen times over the past few years.

     The moment we took the exit, however, something very strange began to unfold.    

     The shopping malls around us disappeared. Suddenly we were going down a ramp that I had not been aware of before. I wasn't too startled; my initial assumption was that I'd taken a wrong turn. A moment later we entered a sunken highway. The roadway was concrete, and the sound in the car became suddenly much less loud. There were high concrete walls, and I could see foliage at the top.     The boy said, "Where are we?"

     I replied, "I think I took a wrong turn."

     He grew a little uneasy, obviously concerned by the radical change that had taken place. Nothing looked familiar to me, either. The road was quiet and empty, which was extremely strange considering where we were. We went beneath an underpass and I saw another ramp ahead. I could see that the boy was really nervous now, and I didn't blame him. I'd been up and down all these roads many times, and I was completely at a loss.

     When we reached the exit, we came out into a completely unexpected situation. I had never seen this area before, or any other place remotely like it. The streets were wide and strikingly empty. Although it had been quite hazy and cloudy as we left 17, it now appeared to be sunny, as light dappled  that turned the street into a tunnel.

     I pressed the automatic door lock. Although the boy wasn't saying much, I was afraid that he might jump out, because he seemed really upset at this point. I said something like, "I'll get us out of this."

     He looked at me with wide eyes, his expression a mix of fear, incredulity, and a trace of spunky humor. He was an admirable young man, and his strength of personality was very much in evidence.      

     "What in hell is going on?" he blurted.

The houses were set back from the street, in lawns heavily planted with shrubs and emerald-green grass. The house I could see most clearly was one story and had no visible roof, which made it look like a huge box. It appeared to be made of tan stone deeply etched with carvings of large serpents. I said, "Do you see that?"

     He said, "Yeah."

     "What kind of a house is that?"

     "They're all like that, Whitley."

     "Yeah." I observed another one just the same, then took a turn. The place was sinister, to be frank, and I really did not want to attract the attention of whatever it was that thought images of giant snakes were attractive decorations for a home.

     "This sure isn't Jersey," the boy said.

     "No, I don't think so." I was getting quite scared. The last thing I wanted to do was to disappear into the Twilight Zone with somebody else's child under my care.

His hand was on the door handle. 

     "What are those places?"     

     "Don't be scared."

     He glanced at me, and there was that brave twinkle in his eye again. "Why not?"

I took another turn, then another, then saw an entrance onto the highway. "I think we're back," I said.


     When we went down onto the highway, it was suddenly full of traffic. It was all very familiar— except that it was Route 80, which was about twenty miles from the diner! We'd gone all that distance in just a few minutes, and on back roads.

     I returned to 17 and let the boy off with his father. Of course, he excitedly told him the whole story, and they spent a good bit of time looking for the mysterious highway and the bizarre neighborhood. They never found the place, and neither did I, although I went back later and methodically followed maps until I was certain that I had covered every road in the area. I used a pen to mark off streets as I went down them, until I had covered every street on both sides of 17 near the diner. Then I went down to Route 80 and discovered that the entrance ramp we'd used to reach it apparently doesn't exist.

     This was one hell of a hard experience to swallow. A year later, I brought it up with the boy and he had a vivid memory of those strange houses. He told me that he and his father had also gone back, but they'd never located a neighborhood remotely like what we had seen. His father did not believe that my stories were anything but mental, and he wanted very much to prove to his son that the whole thing had been imaginary.

     So where did we go? Certainly it was somewhere. Two people saw it at the same time, and agreed later on what we had seen. It wasn't that the neighborhood was a little odd. In every detail, it was radically different. I vividly remember the strange serpentine designs on the houses, the lack of windows, the lack of roofs that made the buildings look like boxes. Also, the foliage was so lush, so green….

Readers of Arthur Machen's late fiction, principally the sublime story "N." will find much to appreciate in Strieber's anecdote. I am also reminded of two of Stephen King's strongest stories: "Crouch End" (1980) and the superb "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" (1984).2 

*   *   *


30 April 2023


[1]  Regarding Machen's use of "perichoresis," Thomas Kent Miller writes in his 2012 essay "Some Thoughts on 'N'":

[....] in 1906 in the introduction to his seminal compilation of some of his best works up to that time, Machen told his readers in the clearest possible terms that

almost every page [of The House of Souls] contains a hint . . . of a belief in a world that is not that of ordinary, everyday experience, that in a measure transcends the experience of Bethel and the Bank.

And to illustrate that point, he served up 'The Great God Pan', 'The White People', and the others that time has now sanctified….

[....] in his third autobiography, as Machen scholar John Howard has pointed out, Machen makes an unequivocal statement (prompted by the principle metaphor of a Henry James story):

Here then is the pattern in my carpet, the sense of the eternal mysteries, the eternal beauty hidden beneath the crust of commonplace things; hidden and yet burning and glowing continually if you care to look with purged eyes.

I would argue that these above quotations, though they sound much the same, are fundamentally different. The first, I submit, assumes the existence of conjoined realties and of the avenues between them, and the second refers to a vivid, even transcendental, but not entirely uncommon state of mind.

To further illustrate, in 1936 Machen declared (albeit through a character's conviction at the end of one of his last stories, 'N'):

I believe that there is a perichoresis, an interpenetration.

—which is a state of being, not a state of mind. However, in the same story, he has another character reflect:

Has it ever been your fortune . . . to rise in the earliest dawning of a summer day, ere yet the radiant beams of the sun have done more than touch with light the domes and spires of the great city? . . . If this has been your lot, have you not observed that magic powers have apparently been at work? The accustomed scene has lost its familiar appearance. The houses which you have passed daily . . . now seem as if you beheld them for the first time. They have suffered a mysterious change, into something rich and strange [and] now 'stand in glory, shine like stars, apparelled in a light serene.' They have become magical habitations, supernal dwellings, more desirable to the eye than the fabled pleasure dome of the Eastern potentate, or the bejewelled hall built by the Genie for Aladdin in the Arabian tale.

This latter passage, in my view, is an example of that subtle and transitory enhancement in perception that many of us have experienced, and which can be precipitated by anything from various kinds of intoxicants and hallucinogens to being vouchsafed exceedingly good news…

[2] I have blogged partially about the perichoresis motif in Lovecraft here and John Keel here.

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