This week’s weird fiction selection . . .
Review: “The Night Wire”, H. F. Arnold, 1926.
A unique and classic tale of what could be termed cosmic horror, a brush with mysterious forces.
This 1926 story uses the then relatively new technology of radio to good effect though, in this case, it is not commercial broadcasting but news wire services.
The narrator monitors the night wires in a west coast American city, perhaps San Francisco. The night wires are international broadcasts with news stories. The broadcasts are transcribed and used by newspapers.
One peculiarity of this story is that it seems very modern in the sense that we are presented with sort of a virtual community.
New York, London, Calcutta, Bombay, Singapore – they’re your next-door neighbors after the street lights go dim and the world has gone to sleep.
But it’s bad news heard in the night:
You’ve heard of some one you knew in Singapore, Halifax or Paris, long ago. Maybe they’ve been promoted but more probably they’ve been murdered or drowned.
The usual news is fires, suicides, murders, crowds, and catastrophe.
The narrator works with John Morgan, a rare “double man” who can listen to two broadcasts, transcribe on two typewriters at once, and do this for hours without making a mistake. Significantly, the narrator describes Morgan as an “automatic mechanical wizard” with no imagination whatsoever.
One night, Morgan complains about being tired, the first and only time the narrator has ever heard him say that. Unusually, Morgan has opened a second wire – unusual because there doesn’t seem to be that much going on.
Morgan begins transcribing stories from the city of Xebico.
At 7 pm Xebico time, a fog begins to descend upon the city. It starts in a churchyard, rising from the ground above the graveyard. The fog seems to form “phantoms”, queer forms and figures and something is seen moving in the middle of the fog. Screams are heard from residents near the fog. The church’s sexton become unconscious and is taken to a hospital. An investigating party is sent into the fog.
Another dispatch comes in, and the narrator notes that Morgan is now slumped in his chair, his desk lamp turned to show only the keys of the typewriters. We hear the investigating party hasn’t returned, and another one has been sent. The fog seeps in everywhere. It’s heavy, has an oppressive feel and smell reminding people of the dead. Members of the city have gathered in a church surrounded by the fog. Strange sounds come from the outskirts of the city, from the fog. They remind people of the sound of a whistling wind – except there is no wind.
The dispatch cuts off.
The story is starting to get to the normally calm narrator. He even wonders if he sees fog in the streets below. Morgan now seems asleep but his fingers are still transcribing the messages.
The next Xebico dispatch says that no messages have reached the sender for twenty minutes. His location, on the 13th floor of a building, is now cut off by the fog. We then hear about events since the last dispatch.
The second investigating party did not return. Death cries come out of the fog which has grown even heavier and more oppressive. Unlike a normal fog, it “swirls and writhes” in “contortions of almost human agony”. Yet, the sender also reports seeing people running about, screaming. A “bedlam” of noise, the sound of rushing winds is heard.
Then Arnold kicks his story into another level, makes it more than a story of a strange, killer fog.
The fog lifts and is described not as vapor but living. Beside “each moaning and weeping figure” is a companion figure “of strange and vari-colored hues”. Men and women are flat on their faces. They have been stripped of their clothes. The “fog figures” kneel beside them, caress them. The humans are being “consumed piecemeal”.
Then a wall of “hot, steamy vapor” obscures the scene. The color of the fog is a reflection of strange lights in the heavens. The lights become painfully bright, weave themselves into intricate patterns and designs. Then the dispatcher says something strange and horrible: “There is nothing harmful in the lights. They radiate force and friendliness, almost cheeriness. But by their very strength, they hurt.” The dispatcher says the lights seem to be millions of miles off but the distance is closing at the speed of light. The light is described as the “quintessence” of light. The fog becomes a “jeweled mist”, and the dispatcher can no see the streets filled with people. The dispatch ends with the sender “enveloped in light”.
The narrator has been standing over Morgan as he types all this out. Morgan’s hands drop to his side. He’s dead. In fact, he’s been dead for hours. Did his “sensitized brain and automatic fingers hands” continued to “record impressions even after the end”? Also there is no place in an atlas called Xebico. We also learn that Wire Two, where Morgan was supposedly getting the Xebico dispatch from, hasn’t been on all night. The narrator never works the night shift again.
There are a many mysteries unexplained that makes this a classic weird story.
Was Xebico some place not on Earth with an improbable similarity to Earth given the references to skyscrapers and a church sexton? Did the fog emerge from underground? Did it break through – wherever Xebico is – from another dimension? Are those fog figures really as benevolent as the dispatcher ultimately believes? Are we witnessing predation or possession or beneficial transformation? Was it a hoax? Did the message kill Morgan? Or was he already being primed, with his complaint about being tired before he ever starts transcribing, to receive a psychic message, a radio message from another dimension?
There are some hints that what happens in Xebico is some kind of resurrection of the dead. The fog first is seen “clinging to the earth above the graves”. The sound of wind whistling through a tunnel hints at the wind rushing from below the earth. There is also the line about the appearance of the forms in the fog: “They are – but I dare not tell it.” Perhaps the forms are some kind of double of the collapsed humans, another version, a transfigured version.