Welles & the Martians

October 30: On this day in 1938, the Orson Welles-Howard Koch-John Houseman radio adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds aired—the famous hoax eye-witness account of Martians landing on earth. The following passage is from near the beginning, reporter Phillips describing his first sight of…

…they look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it…. Ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move. It seems weighed down by . . . possibly gravity or something. The thing's raising up. The crowd falls back now. They've seen plenty. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can't find words . . . I'll pull this microphone with me as I talk. I'll have to stop the description until I can take a new position. Hold on, will you please, I'll be right back in a minute....

The broadcast was prefaced by material which should have alerted any listener to the joke, and immediately afterwards Welles offered this Halloween disclaimer:

This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be; The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying "Boo!" Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business.

The hour-long Mercury Theatre radio show returned to its regular diet of literary classics the following week, offering its listeners the more terrestrial horror of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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