October Flurry: War of the Worlds

You should all be so glad you can’t see the shameless happy dance I’ve been doing all around the treetop lair since early this morning.  IT’S OCTOBER!!!!!  You cheerful poinsettia-hugging, tinsel-waving types are welcome to The Silly Season; Halloween is the best holiday ever!  Screw that fat house-breaker Santa Claus, give me bloodsucking creatures of the night, and mind-breaking Lovecraftian horrors!

I grew up on a farm in a farming community.  Even now, my nearest neighbors (other than Big Sister) are half a mile down the road; back then, a mile between houses was average.  Trick or treat outings (and most other Halloween traditions) were just not gonna happen.  So our Halloweens were strictly family affairs:  we read scary books, watched scary movies together, told ghost stories (oral storytelling is an important and much-valued part of Appalachian culture), and dreamed up ways to scare each other.  Nobody went cow-tipping (which isn’t really possible, and very dangerous to try), but some delightfully elaborate practical jokes were indulged in that I’m not copping to this year, (because I might want to try them again!). Yeah, Halloween was great in the Clarkson treehouse lair.

I have big plans for ClarksonPunk to celebrate my favorite holiday.  I have decided to try and post every day for the entirety of October.  Fiction Monday will continue as before, so all y’all tuning in to hear more about the crew of Fortuna will not be left hanging for a month.  Fun Fridays will also continue, because I need my fix of pretties; I’ll try to stick to a spooky theme on Fridays, but no guarantees.  But every day between those two landmarks will be devoted to spooky stuff.  You might even get the occasional bit of very short (ie non-serialized) fiction!

I don’t know if I’m going to be able to manage 31 posts in 31 days; that’s a lot of writing on very tight deadlines. But I’m going to give it the old hillbilly try!

Okay, today is October 1, so let’s start things off with a bang.  One of my fondest memories of Halloween is my mother.  No, she was not a wicked witch who sacrificed small children on all Hallow’s Eve (though some of her students suspected it). She was worse:  she was a high school English teacher, the tough teacher who everybody dreaded seeing on their sophomore class schedule and who brooked zero nonsense in her classroom.  I am nearly fifty, and I still have classmates who wouldn’t come visit, for fear Mama was going to make them take a pop quiz or something.  Tough woman in a classroom.

For the record, she was not like that at home; she was a wonderful, funny, brilliant woman.  We lost her this past May after a long battle with Alzheimer’s and I am never going to get over it.

Anyway, as a treat for her students every year, Mama would check out from the library a copy of Mercury Theater on the Air’s performance of War of the Worlds, and play it for her classes on Halloween, instead of doing coursework.  It was always well received.  Moreover, she would play that same recording for us children at home at least once during Halloween week.  I remember sitting in the living room floor, playing cards with my sisters and listening to that scratchy recording of Orson Welles.  That says “Halloween” to me, it always will.

War of the Worlds started its life as a novel by British author H.G. (Herbert George) Wells.  Trained in biology, Wells is considered, along with French author Jules Verne and magazine publisher Hugo Gernsback (namesake of the Hugo Awards) to be one of the fathers of science fiction.  Only a minority of Wells’ writings were science fiction, but they’re the ones that everybody remembers:  The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, and, of course, War of the Worlds.  The story is pretty simple:  some meteors crash to Earth, one in Surrey, England (where our unnamed narrator lives).  Those meteors turn out to be spacecraft, and out of them come Martian invaders bent on conquest, driving three legged war machines that look something like this:

Scary stuff, right?  The English call out the military to fight this threat; yeah, that doesn’t work so great and the narrator, along with the population, flee, giving a pretty good impression of a zombie movie:  run, hide, be ugly to one another as resources dwindle, lots and lots of panicking.  Our narrator doesn’t fare terribly well, but he makes it to the end of the book, where the Martians succumb to Terran diseases they had no immunities to (this book is 117 years old, I think the statute of limitations has run out on Spoilers) and the Earth is saved by chicken pox (only not really; the book just says “microbes”).

It’s a good book.  Hell, it’s a great book.  But it’s a decidedly BRITISH book, and I mean that in the kindest sense of the phrase.  The world is going to hell, but our narrator never loses his measured, thoughtful tone of voice; apparently the Brits had a stiff upper lip long before Hitler came along.  For me, once I got used to it, the cool tone made it even more scary, and I can’t really tell you why.  Maybe….. it felt almost fatalistic, in a way, I guess.  it has a “The world is ending, I’m going to die, I must record this accurately before I’m crushed in the Martian War Machine” feeling to it.   I don’t know, it’s a bizarre feeling that’s hard to describe.  But it scared the hell out of me.  However, American readers used to the breathless adrenaline rush of the various movie adaptations might find it strangely distant and, well, measured.  Calm prose in the face of Armageddon; it’s jarring if you’re not expecting it.

War of the Worlds was written in 1897, so it’s firmly planted in the land of Steampunk.  Since then, there have been bunches of adaptations of the book:  radio broadcasts, movies (the best known is the 1953 film starring Gene Barry. Spielberg did one in 2005 with Tom Cruise in the lead; it got good reviews, but I personally didn’t like it), comic books, TV series, and video games.  There was even a Twitter version in August of this year that supposedly got a lot of buzz.

But the most famous adaptation ever is Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of 1938.  In fact, it’s considered one of the most famous radio broadcasts, of anything, in the history of the medium.  In 1937, writer and actor Orson Welles and his fellow actor John Houseman founded Mercury Theater, a production company that performed stage shows out of a small theater in New York City.  They had an offshoot called Mercury Theater on the Air, and had been picked up by CBS, which was still a radio network at the time.  They had a good reputation for good shows, both on the stage and on the radio; you can listen to a bunch of their radio shows here.

Orson Welles’ version of War of the World moved it up to 1938, and to America, specifically Grover’s Mills, New Jersey.  The broadcast itself is stage as a series of breaking news reports, interspersed between sections of what is supposed to be a normally scheduled music show, with Orson Welles, of course in the lead role as the primary reporter on the scene as the Martians appear.  And this format, faux news reports breaking into a regular broadcast, is what caused a lot of fuss. Apparently, lots of people tuned in late, not hearing the bit at the beginning that told that the news reports were pretended.  According to newspapers at the time, lots of people panicked over a “real” Martian invasion, some killed themselves rather than be taken by the invaders, and supposedly the police and emergency services, as well as CBS switchboards were lit up by people calling for help or information.

Nowadays, it’s generally agreed that the “nationwide panic” was widely exaggerated, which makes sense, seeing as how CBS only broadcast to parts of the Atlantic seaboard.  But it sold a lot of papers, it caused a lot of talk, and it made Orson Welles a household name.  It was rumored that he was fired from CBS because of that.  But if I was him, and had caused that much ruckus over a single radio show I wrote, yeah, I’d be sporting a nerd boner for the next fifty years.  It caused the FCC to crack down on radio (and later television), and put a multi-decade moratorium on shows staged to sound like news broadcasts (it’s been a couple times since then, but the TV shows I’ve seen have a constant crawling text at the bottom confirming the story is fictional).

For a good example of a similar event in the UK, check out Ghost Watch, a notorious BBC1 show from 1992.  It purported to be a “live” show about a haunted house, and caused such a fuss that it has never been aired inside the UK since then (though it’s been aired in the U.S. and Canada, is available on DVD, and is bootlegged onto YouTube).  I found it not that scary as I watched it, but it gave some nice creepy nightmares.

BTW:  according to Wikipedia (and more reliably, Jonathan Rosenbaum), Orson Welles and H.G. Wells actually met in person one time.  H.G. supposedly said that he liked the radio broadcast and approved, which no doubt was another nerd boner for Orson.

Do you want to hear the original broadcast?  Here you go:

I enjoy this show and try to listen to it at least once a year, usually during October.  Interestingly enough, it has been remade a couple times, complete with the faux news breaks.  Most of them have tried to duplicate the 1938 feel, the music, the reporting style, etc.  But in 1968, WKBW Radio out of Buffalo, New York, really rebooted it.  They moved the whole story to western New York (to make it local to the radio station), they used modern music and broadcast styles, used real reporters instead of actors, and those reporters worked from an outline rather than a script so that their own modern reporting styles and practices would sound more authentic.  Amazingly enough, it did the same thing again, despite pundits saying such a panic would be impossible in today’s world.  Lots of people thought it was real, and there was a bit of a fuss about the event.  Despite that, it was well received enough that they rebroadcast it several more times.  The 1973 broadcast is available on the Internet Archive here, but I, your intrepid blogger, have found a copy of the original 1968 broadcast, on YouTube.  And here it is:

Okay, that’s about it for me today.  If you’re interested in learning more about War of the Worlds and all its wonderful incarnations, go here:  All things War of the Worlds.  But before you click, do take a moment to share, tweet, comment.  If you have a recommendation for Fun Friday, give me a shout at the email address listed on my About AJ page.  And I’ll see you tomorrow for Day 2 of The October Flurry!

For you, Mama.  I love you.  We all miss you.

Categories: books, Classic pulp, Horror, October Flurry, Pulp, Radio, Science Fiction, Steampunk | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “October Flurry: War of the Worlds

  1. Lillith

    Love love love this post! Also, you forgot In The Days Of The Comet. Comet was certainly another foray into Scifi for H.G. Wells.

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