Thursday, March 04, 2021

"D-Day" (1945)

Robert Trout was a radio newsman most famous for his work as a broadcast anchor during World War II, including coverage of the D-Day Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. This very short story appears to be Trout's only fiction, as far as the internet is concerned. I don't even see it listed among his papers. But the typically scrupulous ISFDB shows no sign of doubting the authorship. At any rate, "D-Day" is presented as a transcript from a radio broadcast in the early hours of some kind of attack on the US (in "196–"). Little is known about what is happening so the broadcaster is just going with what he sees coming in over the wires. The enemy in this story is entirely unknown. This story was published in 1945, in the Saturday Review of Literature, years before the Soviets had nuclear capability. It could even be aliens from outer space. But a nuclear attack seems most likely. The context sketched in as we go is that by the 1960s the end of warfare has been accepted as a practical imperative. It's still early hours but the attacks on Pittsburgh, New York City, Detroit, and D.C. sound devastating. The basic premise coupled with the terse dramatized you-are-there feel of midcentury media make the story effective, even scary. It has a natural home in a horror anthology. The brevity helps too. Yes, "D-Day" is kind of gimmicky and easy with Robert Trout imagining Robert Trout doing his greatest-hits job like shtick at the end of the world. But not many could put this across as convincingly as the experienced radio broadcaster. I grant it may have been ghostwritten but Trout must have had some hand in it. What's weird to me is that something this well done and this primary and even foundational—credibly channeling the zeitgeist of October 1945 direct—has been buried inside an Alfred Hitchcock-branded collection of short stories from 1961. With the story's publication date less than 90 days after the nuclear blasts that ended WWII, you almost have to take it as an early example of nuclear anxiety, possibly the first of its kind, with a whole generation's worth to follow. In Trout's imagined near-future of the 1960s there is already the familiar theme of all-out war is no longer possible accompanied by the equally familiar theme of there has always been all-out war in human history. In a nutshell (and in a nut's hell!) that is nuclear anxiety. Cynical human nature intrudes as usual to ruin the party with the final familiar note, which is that the idea of ending war is naïve. Case in point: "D-Day," as ultimate destruction appears to be raining down at story's end and the audio finally cuts out. Broadcast over. Trout may not have been best at this game—you can take your pick, from UFO mania to TV's The Day After to Cormac McCarthy's utterly convincing apocalypse in The Road—but Trout was probably first to get right to the point. That counts for a lot in journalism but it also made for a pretty good horror story too as it happens. (Note: H.R. Arnold's 1926 story "The Night Wire" is an earlier example of a tick-tock teletype-based story, as is Orson Welles's 1938 prank version of The War of the Worlds for that matter, but the nuclear payload is missing from both.)

Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night, ed. Robert Arthur (out of print)
Story not available online.

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