H. F. Arnold (1902–1963) was an American pulp-era writer who wrote only three published stories. Despite this low output, ‘The Night Wire’ (1926), first published in Weird Tales, is considered the most popular story from the first golden age of that magazine. Lovecraft is said to have loved this story. ‘The Night Wire’ is perhaps remarkable in still being able to chill the reader today despite using elements that could have made the story feel dated. It is a perfect example of how the weird creates not just unease, but dislocation. Details about the writer’s life are scarce, without even confirmation that ‘H. F. Arnold’ was his real name. Some have speculated that he must have been a journalist.
New York, September 30 CP FLASH
Ambassador Holliwell died here today. The end came suddenly as the ambassador was alone in his study…
There is something ungodly about these night wire jobs. You sit up here on the top floor of a skyscraper and listen in to the whispers of a civilization. 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.
Alone in the quiet hours between two and four, the receiving operators doze over their sounders and the news comes in. Fires and disasters and suicides. Murders, crowds, catastrophes. Sometimes an earthquake with a casualty list as long as your arm. The night wire man takes it down almost in his sleep, picking it off on his typewriter with one finger.
Once in a long time you prick up your ears and listen. You’ve heard of someone you knew in Singapore, Halifax or Paris, long ago. Maybe they’ve been promoted, but more probably they’ve been murdered or drowned. Perhaps they just decided to quit and took some bizarre way out. Made it interesting enough to get in the news.
But that doesn’t happen often. Most of the time you sit and doze and tap, tap on your typewriter and wish you were home in bed.
Sometimes, though, queer things happen. One did the other night, and I haven’t got over it yet. I wish I could.
You see, I handle the night manager’s desk in a western seaport town; what the name is, doesn’t matter.
There is, or rather was, only one night operator on my staff, a fellow named John Morgan, about forty years of age, I should say, and a sober, hard-working sort.
He was one of the best operators I ever knew, what is known as a ‘double’ man. That means he could handle two instruments at once and type the stories on different typewriters at the same time. He was one of the three men I ever knew who could do it consistently, hour after hour, and never make a mistake.
Generally, we used only one wire at night, but sometimes, when it was late and the news was coming fast, the Chicago and Denver stations would open a second wire, and then Morgan would do his stuff. He was a wizard, a mechanical automatic wizard which functioned marvelously but was without imagination.
On the night of the sixteenth he complained of feeling tired. It was the first and last time I had ever heard him say a word about himself, and I had known him for three years.
It was just three o’clock and we were running only one wire. I was nodding over reports at my desk and not paying much attention to him, when he spoke.
‘Jim,’ he said, ‘does it feel close in here to you?’
‘Why, no, John,’ I answered, ‘but I’ll open a window if you like.’
‘Never mind,’ he said, ‘I reckon I’m just a little tired.’
That was all that was said, and I went on working. Every ten minutes or so I would walk over and take a pile of copy that had stacked up neatly beside the typewriter as the messages were printed out in triplicate.
It must have been twenty minutes after he spoke that I noticed he had opened up the other wire and was using both typewriters. I thought it was a little unusual, as there was nothing very ‘hot’ coming in. On my next trip I picked up the copy from both machines and took it back to my desk to sort out the duplicates.
The first wire was running out the usual sort of stuff and I just looked over it hurriedly. Then I turned to the second pile of copy. I remembered it particularly because the story was from a town I had never heard of: ‘Xebico’. Here is the dispatch. I saved a duplicate of it from our files:
Xebico, Sept. 16 CP BULLETIN
The heaviest mist in the history of the city settled over the town at 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon. All traffic has stopped and the mist hangs like a pall over everything. Lights of ordinary intensity fail to pierce the fog, which is constantly growing heavier.
Scientists here are unable to agree as to the cause, and the local weather bureau states that the like has never occurred before in the history of the city.
At 7 p.m. last night municipal authorities… (more)
That was all there was. Nothing out of the ordinary at a bureau headquarters, but, as I say, I noticed the story because of the name of the town.
It must have been fifteen minutes later that I went over for another batch of copy. Morgan was slumped down in his chair and had switched his green electric light shade so that the gleam missed his eyes and hit only the top of the two typewriters.
Only the usual stuff was in the righthand pile, but the lefthand batch carried another story from Xebico. All press dispatches come in ‘takes,’ meaning that parts of many different stories are strung along together, perhaps with but a few paragraphs of each coming through at a time. This second story was marked ‘add fog.’ Here is the copy:
At 7 p.m. the fog had increased noticeably. All lights were now invisible and the town was shrouded in pitch darkness.
As a peculiarity of the phenomenon, the fog is accompanied by a sickly odor, comparable to nothing yet experienced here.
Below that in customary press fashion was the hour, 3:27, and the initials of the operator, JM.
There was only one other story in the pile from the second wire. Here it is:
2nd add Xebico Fog
Accounts as to the origin of the mist differ greatly. Among the most unusual is that of the sexton of the local church, who groped his way to headquarters in a hysterical condition and declared that the fog originated in the village churchyard.
‘It was first visible as a soft gray blanket clinging to the earth above the graves,’ he stated. ‘Then it began to rise, higher and higher. A subterranean breeze seemed to blow it in billows, which split up and then joined together again.
‘Fog phantoms, writhing in anguish, twisted the mist into queer forms and figures. And then, in the very thick midst of the mass, something moved.
‘I turned and ran from the accursed spot. Behind me I heard screams coming from the houses bordering on the graveyard.’
Although the sexton’s story is generally discredited, a party has left to investigate. Immediately after telling his story, the sexton collapsed and is now in a local hospital, unconscious.
Queer story, wasn’t it. Not that we aren’t used to it, for a lot of unusual stories come in over the wire. But for some reason or other, perhaps because it was so quiet that night, the report of the fog made a great impression on me.
It was almost with dread that I went over to the waiting piles of copy. Morgan did not move, and the only sound in the room was the tap-tap of the sounders. It was ominous, nerve-racking.
There was another story from Xebico in the pile of copy. I seized on it anxiously.
New Lead Xebico Fog CP
The rescue party which went out at 11 p.m. to investigate a weird story of the origin of a fog which, since late yesterday, has shrouded the city in darkness has failed to return. Another and larger party has been dispatched.
Meanwhile, the fog has, if possible, grown heavier. It seeps through the cracks in the doors and fills the atmosphere with a depressing odor of decay. It is oppressive, terrifying, bearing with it a subtle impression of things long dead.
Residents of the city have left their homes and gathered in the local church, where the priests are holding services of prayer. The scene is beyond description. Grown folk and children are alike terrified and many are almost beside themselves with fear.
Amid the wisps of vapor which partly veil the church auditorium, an old priest is praying for the welfare of his flock. They alternately wail and cross themselves.
From the outskirts of the city may be heard cries of unknown voices. They echo through the fog in queer uncadenced minor keys. The sounds resemble nothing so much as wind whistling through a gigantic tunnel. But the night is calm and there is no wind. The second rescue party… (more)
I am a calm man and never in a dozen years spent with the wires, have been known to become excited, but despite myself I rose from my chair and walked to the window.
Could I be mistaken, or far down in the canyons of the city beneath me did I see a faint trace of fog? Pshaw! It was all imagination.
In the pressroom the click of the sounders seemed to have raised the tempo of their tune. Morgan alone had not stirred from his chair. His head sunk between his shoulders, he tapped the dispatches out on the typewriters with one finger of each hand.
He looked asleep, but no; endlessly, efficiently, the two machines rattled off line after line, as relentlessly and effortlessly as death itself. There was something about the monotonous movement of the typewriter keys that fascinated me. I walked over and stood behind his chair, reading over his shoulder the type as it came into being, word by word.
Ah, here was another:
Flash Xebico CP
There will be no more bulletins from this office. The impossible has happened. No messages have come into this room for twenty minutes. We are cut off from the outside and even the streets below us.
I will stay with the wire until the end.
It is the end, indeed. Since 4 p.m. yesterday the fog has hung over the city. Following reports from the sexton of the local church, two rescue parties were sent out to investigate conditions on the outskirts of the city. Neither party has ever returned nor was any word received from them. It is quite certain now that they will never return.
From my instrument I can gaze down on the city beneath me. From the position of this room on the thirteenth floor, nearly the entire city can be seen. Now I can see only a thick blanket of blackness where customarily are lights and life.
I fear greatly that the wailing cries heard constantly from the outskirts of the city are the death cries of the inhabitants. They are constantly increasing in volume and are approaching the center of the city.
The fog yet hangs over everything. If possible, it is even heavier than before, but the conditions have changed. Instead of an opaque, impenetrable wall of odorous vapor, there now swirls and writhes a shapeless mass in contortions of almost human agony. Now and again the mass parts and I catch a brief glimpse of the streets below.
People are running to and fro, screaming in despair. A vast bedlam of sound flies up to my window, and above all is the immense whistling of unseen and unfelt winds.
The fog has again swept over the city and the whistling is coming closer and closer.
It is now directly beneath me.
God! An instant ago the mist opened and I caught a glimpse of the streets below.
The fog is not simply vapor – it lives! By the side of each moaning and weeping human is a companion figure, an aura of strange and vari-colored hues. How the shapes cling! Each to a living thing!
The men and women are down. Flat on their faces. The fog figures caress them lovingly. They are kneeling beside them. They are – but I dare not tell it.
The prone and writhing bodies have been stripped of their clothing. They are being consumed – piecemeal.
A merciful wall of hot, steamy vapor has swept over the whole scene. I can see no more.
Beneath me the wall of vapor is changing colors. It seems to be lighted by internal fires. No, it isn’t. I have made a mistake. The colors are from above, reflections from the sky.
Look up! Look up! The whole sky is in flames. Colors as yet unseen by man or demon. The flames are moving; they have started to intermix; the colors are rearranging themselves. They are so brilliant that my eyes burn, yet they are a long way off.
Now they have begun to swirl, to circle in and out, twisting in intricate designs and patterns. The lights are racing each with each, a kaleidoscope of unearthly brilliance.
I have made a discovery. There is nothing harmful in the lights. They radiate force and friendliness, almost cheeriness. But by their very strength, they hurt.
As I look, they are swinging closer and closer, a million miles at each jump. Millions of miles with the speed of light. Aye, it is light the quintessence of all light. Beneath it the fog melts into a jeweled mist radiant, rainbow-colored of a thousand varied spectra.
I can see the streets. Why, they are filled with people! The lights are coming closer. They are all around me. I am enveloped. I…’
The message stopped abruptly. The wire to Xebico was dead. Beneath my eyes in the narrow circle of light from under the green lamp-shade, the black printing no longer spun itself, letter by letter, across the page.
The room seemed filled with a solemn quiet, a silence vaguely impressive, powerful.
I looked down at Morgan. His hands had dropped nervelessly at his sides, while his body had hunched over peculiarly. I turned the lamp-shade back, throwing the light squarely in his face. His eyes were staring, fixed.
Filled with a sudden foreboding, I stepped beside him and called Chicago on the wire. After a second the sounder clicked its answer.
Why? But there was something wrong. Chicago was reporting that Wire Two had not been used throughout the evening.
‘Morgan!’ I shouted. ‘Morgan! Wake up, it isn’t true. Someone has been hoaxing us. Why…’ In my eagerness I grasped him by the shoulder.
His body was quite cold. Morgan had been dead for hours. Could it be that his sensitized brain and automatic fingers had continued to record impressions even after the end?
I shall never know, for I shall never again handle the night shift. Search in a world atlas discloses no town of Xebico. Whatever it was that killed John Morgan will forever remain a mystery.