Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Night Wire (1926)

by H.F. Arnold

No less a luminary than H.P. Lovecraft is said to have enjoyed this story tremendously. And it is a good one. Little is known about the author, H.F. Arnold, and because of that there has been speculation that it may not even be the author’s real name. But some biographical material does exist. Born in 1901 and died in 1963, Henry Ferris Arnold was a journalist who published only three stories, two of them in Weird Tales magazine and one in Amazing Stories. This was his first, from the September of 1926 issue of Weird Tales, and “The Night Wire” remains one of the most popular stories in the magazine’s history. In begins on the night shift of a newsroom on an upper floor of a building in a big city. The first person narrator tells about the strangeness of taking down wire stories in the middle of the night, when the city is asleep, hearing events from all over the world as if they are happening right in front of him. But he also conveys a sense of boredom, that even though some of the events are horrible, natural disasters and murders, unless a name that the operator recognizes comes over the wire they rarely notice what they are typing.

The narrator is the night manager in the news office of a West Coast town on the water. San Francisco seems the most likely candidate, especially with the presence of the fog. The story he is relating is a strange occurrence that he wishes he could forget. It begins with one of the men who work for him in the office, John Morgan. His notoriety has come about because he can operate two wires at the same time, that is, listening to two Morse Code signals simultaneously and typing them out, one on each hand, on two separate typewriters. Arnold does a nice job of setting the atmosphere. “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.” One night, however, something strange happened that the narrator wishes he could forget.

Morgan is the only wire man on that night, and the narrator recalls that he said he felt tired, remarkable because the man had never said a word about himself for the entire three years he had been working there. Later in the evening the narrator notices that both wires are open, also unusual in that nothing major was happening to warrant it. So he picks up the piles of reports and goes to his desk to read them. The one wire was normal stuff, but the other was from a town called Xebico, a place he had never heard of. Apparently they were experiencing a fog of unusual density that had virtually stopped traffic. Fifteen minutes later, another batch of feeds came in. “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.” The fog in Xebico was now so thick it had darkened all the lights and was emitting a strange, unpleasant odor. An eyewitness account from the local sexton said that the fog was emanating from the cemetery. “‘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 . . . I turned and ran from the accursed spot. Behind me I heard screams coming from the houses bordering on the graveyard.’”

What Arnold does at this point is impressive. He manages to make the rest of the story like something out of a dream, where the protagonist experiences the horror from a distance but can do nothing to stop it, powerless to help. By now he is searching for further news from Xebico to the exclusion of the rest of the news. A search party was sent out to the graveyard and disappeared. Then another was sent out. Meanwhile the fog is now invading homes, coming inside and forcing residents to leave and gather in the church.

          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 . . .

And the wire cuts off there. While the narrator is a veteran of the news/disaster business, he admits to becoming a bit unnerved by the whole thing. When the reporter from Xebico comes back, he is now writing in first person. His office is cut off from all communication and he doesn’t even know if anyone is receiving his reports, but he can see what is happening out of the window of his office building.

          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 black-
          ness where customarily are lights and life . . . 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 . . . 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 report continues, describing the lights and the fog and the power that it possesses as it envelops the people in the town, eventually climbing up the building toward him. Then the wire stops dead. Morgan, hunched in his chair, has stopped typing and the narrator is so unnerved that he rushes to the phone to call the Chicago wire to find out where this town is. But Chicago informs him that they haven’t had their wire on all night. And this isn’t even the final shock. The ending is a wonderfully written reveal that, while not entirely unexpected, is still a terrific shock. Later, when the narrator can’t find the name of Xebico in the atlas, he decides to quit the night shift permanently though he will never be able to forget the incident.

The story as it originally appeared in Weird Tales had the wire copy set in typewriter type on the page, giving an added touch of realism as the narrator states that he saved all of the wires, the conceit being that they are being presented as the actual stories typed out by Morgan. The idea of the fog itself being alive, with some kind of prehensile ability to kill humans, would be explored later by Stephen King in his story The Mist as well as John Carpenter in his film The Fog, but this story really stands apart from those in construction and intent. Arnold’s second story for Weird Tales was a two-part story called “The City of Iron Cubes,” a science-fiction story about space invaders who land in Peru. It was serialized in the magazine in 1929, with part two appearing in the same issue as Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” His final story, “When Atlantis Was,” also appeared in two parts in Amazing Stories in late 1937. “The Night Wire” is frequently anthologized and deservedly so. It’s a story that is written for effect rather than character or plot, and in that respect the effect is entirely successful.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Monkey's Paw (1902)

by W.W. Jacobs

The Monkey's Paw” by William Wymark Jacobs, is one of the most familiar stories to readers of weird fiction, if not in its original form, then in the multitudes of mutations it has undergone in film and fiction. It’s such a familiar tale that it would be difficult for it not to have lost much of its original power over the last century, but those with the ability to suspend their “delighted glibness,” to use a phrase by Lionel Trilling, will be rewarded by their own imagination in a greater way that all the more explicit horror stories put together. The story actually holds an exalted place in the history of horror fiction. H.P. Lovecraft, in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, introduced his subject by stating that, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” What Jacob’s tale, which Lovecraft called melodramatic but still praised, gives the reader is just that, the unknown on the other side of the door. But Jacobs also succeeds in one of Lovecraft’s other injunctions. “Serious weird stories are . . . made realistically intense by close consistency and perfect fidelity to Nature except in the one supernatural direction which the author allows himself.” These are the reason’s that “The Monkey’s Paw” will always remain one of the classics of the genre.

The story opens on the small home of Mr. and Mrs. White and their son Herbert. It’s a dark and stormy night and, while they are expecting a guest, Mr. White seems surprised when he actually hears the gate and realizes his guest has arrived. Sitting by the fire, Sergeant-Major Morris regales the family with tales from his time in India, and one story in particular Mr. White asks him to tell is about the monkey’s paw. Though initially reluctant, he pulls the shriveled paw from his pocket and tells how an Indian fakir put a spell on the paw that would grant three wishes to three different men. The old magician, he said, “wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.” Morris is the second to have owned it and when Herbert jokingly asks if he received his three wishes Morris blanches. He confirms that he did and then throws the paw on the fire. Horrified, Mr. White retrieves it quickly, the implication being that he’s intrigued with the possibility of the three remaining wishes. One of the important aspects of the story is that after Morris leaves, Mr. White has difficulty thinking of something to wish for. “It seems to me I’ve got all I want.” This is the real idea that the story revolves around.

Unlike similar tales where the lesson is about greed, here it is simply attempting to interfere with fate. Mr. White is already a happy man and has everything he wants. Fate, it would seem, has been kind to him. When his son suggests that if he could pay off the house that might make him happier, Mr. White goes ahead and wishes for two hundred pounds. The three wait for a moment, but nothing happens, and then he puts the paw on the mantle and they forget about it. The next morning there are jokes about the wish and then Herbert goes to work at his factory job. Later that day a man comes to the door from the company Herbert works for. There’s a small element of foreshadowing when the man comes inside and the couple wants to know what has happened to their son. “‘Is he hurt?’ demanded the mother, wildly. The visitor bowed in assent. ‘Badly hurt,’ he said, quietly, ‘but he is not in any pain.’ ‘Oh, thank God!’ said the old woman, clasping her hands. ‘Thank God for that! Thank—’ She broke off suddenly as the sinister meaning of the assurance dawned upon her and she saw the awful confirmation of her fears in the other’s averted face.” Herbert, it turns out, has been caught in a machine and killed, and the company wants to give them two hundred pounds as compensation.

The fascinating thing here is the use of the words themselves. While Mr. White wishes for two hundred pounds, there is a sense in his getting it that the money must come from somewhere. It can’t just appear out of nowhere. In scientific terms it is the idea of conservation of mass, that despite whatever chemical reaction occurs the same number of molecules exist afterward and so nothing is lost. But further than that, the fakir’s intent of making one pay to interfere with fate makes the attaining of the wish that much more cruel. In the delivery of the news of the death of their son, the man also demonstrate the same kind of twisting of words as he says that Herbert is in no pain, but leaves out the fact that his death is the reason. From here the story marches grimly to its conclusion. Two miles down the road is the cemetery, and the two hundred pounds seemingly a coincidence, paltry compensation for the loss of their son. It is in her grief afterward that Mrs. White suddenly embraces the potential of the monkey’s paw in demanding that her husband bring their son back to life with another wish. But by now the husband knows the way the paw works. He was the one to identify the body and knows that this is the wrong thing to do. “He has been dead ten days, and besides he-—I would not tell you else, but—-I could only recognize him by his clothing. If he was too terrible for you to see then, how now?” Nevertheless, the wife is not to be denied this chance to get her son back.

          He went down in the darkness, and felt his way to the parlour, and then to the mantelpiece. The
          talisman was in its place, and a horrible fear that the unspoken wish might bring his mutilated son
          before him ere he could escape from the room seized upon him, and he caught his breath as he
          found that he had lost the direction of the door. His brow cold with sweat, he felt his way round the
          table, and groped along the wall until he found himself in the small passage with the unwholesome
          thing in his hand.

It is this thought, of his son still mangled by the machinery and yet knocking on the door for his eager wife to let in, that accounts for the dramatic conclusion. It’s still a story that can pack a lot of punch if the reader allows it to. Stephen King even devotes a section of his book Danse Macabre to the importance of “The Monkey’s Paw” as a horror archetype in its ability to evoke terror, the finest of the fear emotions. “We actually see nothing outright nasty . . . It’s what the mind sees that makes these stories quintessential tales of terror. It is the unpleasant speculation called to mind when the knocking on the door begins in the latter story and the grief-stricken old woman rushes to answer it. Nothing is there but the wind when she finally throws the door open . . . but what, the mind wonders, might have been there if her husband had been a little slower on the draw with that third wish?”

In addition to the plot itself, there are some nice atmospheric touches to the story as well. When Mr. White is making his first wish he drops the paw on the floor when he feels it moving in his hand. “‘It moved,’ he cried, with a glance of disgust at the object as it lay on the floor. ‘As I wished, it twisted in my hand like a snake.’” Then later, when he is sitting alone watching the fire die, he began “seeing faces in it. The last face was so horrible and so simian that he gazed at it in amazement . . . His hand grasped the monkey’s paw, and with a little shiver he wiped his hand on his coat and went to bed.” There is also the most chilling part of the story, for me, and I’m not sure it was even meant to be. After wishing their son alive and nothing immediately happens, the couple goes to bed, the wife in disappointment, the husband with relief. But when they both hear the knocking on the door, the wife utters the most disturbing line in the story: “ ‘It's my boy; it’s Herbert!’ she cried, struggling mechanically. ‘I forgot it was two miles away. What are you holding me for? Let go. I must open the door.’” The thought of the formerly dead son shambling along the road from the cemetery two miles away is absolutely breathtaking. What makes it so, as King would say, is the fact that it is not explicitly shown in the story.

W.W. Jacobs was primarily known as a humor writer, but like many writers of the era he did essay several ghost stories as well and they are collected in his book, The Lady of the Barge. RKO produced a version of his most famous story in 1933 when they were riding high on the success of King Kong. Like that film, it was also directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, and starred Ivan F. Simpson, Louise Carter and C. Aubrey Smith, but much to the dismay of fans it is now considered a lost film. The story was also filmed a couple of times during the silent era and again in 1948 by the aptly named Butcher’s Film Service, for television in 1965 by Alfred Hitchcock for his television program, and most recently in 2013 starring Stephen Lang and Charles Dutton. Like Dracula and Frankenstein, the entrenchment of the story into popular culture does not diminish its importance. In fact, it reinforces it. It’s a short tale but, given a leisurely read, “The Monkey’s Paw” still has the power to terrify over a century later.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Bully of Brocas Court (1921)

by Arthur Conan Doyle

One of the most interesting things about Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Bully of Brocas Court” is something that has nothing to do with fiction at all. Though this is one of the author’s ghost stories that I read in a collection of his supernatural fiction, it’s primarily a boxing tale and it was originally included in his collection on boxing, Tales of the Ring and the Camp. The first couple of pages are actually an engaging summary of boxing in England in the late eighteen-seventies. Bare-knuckle boxing had already been outlawed because of the gambling involved, but “the era of the reserved building and the legal glove-fight had not yet arisen, and the cult was in a strange intermediate condition. It was impossible to regulate it, and equally impossible to abolish it, since nothing appeals more directly and powerfully to the average Briton.” In watching the most recent film version of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr., I always wondered about the ad hoc nature of the boxing match in the film, but Doyle’s story provides the answer: “Therefore there were scrambling contests in stableyards and barns, hurried visits to France, secret meetings at dawn in wild parts of the country, and all manner of evasions and experiments.”

In this story, however, the official sparring is to take place within the confines of the military. A farrier-sergeant by the name of Burton has bested everyone in the military and so an army captain, a baronet by the name of Frederick Milburn, nicknamed Mubles, is sent to London to procure the services of a professional boxer who can best Burton. But because of the nature of boxing at the time, this is not an easy task. Nevertheless, he finds a young man by the name of Stevens, an undefeated middleweight who gives up a few pounds and inches in reach but still looks quite confident. “He was a man who had never yet met his master and was still upheld by the deep sustaining confidence which is never quite the same after a single defeat. The Baronet chuckled as he realized what a surprise packet was being carried north for the Farrier-Sergeant.” As the two head north Milburn remembers a legend about a boxer along the road who had won a number of informal matches, the Bully of Brocas Court. “Some say they’ve seen him, and some say he’s a fairy­tale, but there’s good evidence that he is a real man with a pair of rare good fists that leave their marks behind him.” Thus, when they are stopped by a pair of men wearing old-fashioned clothing and speaking in an odd way, it seems strange that it takes Milburn so long to recognized that they’ve been stopped by the Bully. It only takes a few minutes of taunting, however, before Stevens is ready to tangle. “‘If you want a fight you’ve come to the right shop,’ said he; ‘it’s my trade, so don't say I took you unawares.’”

With the horses are clearly agitated, the Bully leads the men to a clearing of grass where they can do battle, but the atmosphere is something else again. “It was a sinister place, black and weird, with the crumbling pillars and the heavy arching trees. Neither the Baronet nor the pugilist liked the look of it.” As the battle begins, the Bully takes off his hat and Stevens is even more unnerved by his visage than he is by the surroundings. “Stevens gave an exclamation of surprise and horror. The removal of the beaver hat had disclosed a horrible mutilation of the head of his antagonist. The whole upper forehead had fallen in, and there seemed to be a broad red weal between his close-cropped hair and his heavy brows.” Once they begin brawling, however, it’s clear the Bully is an exceptional fighter. He seems to have an endless store of energy and no matter how long the rounds go, he never seems to tire.

          Young Stevens sprang forward and rushed at his man with all the strength that was left to him.
          By the fury of his onset he drove him back, and for a long minute had all the better of the
          exchanges. But this iron fighter seemed never to tire. His step was as quick and his blow as
          hard as ever when this long rally had ended. Stevens had eased up from pure exhaustion. But
          his opponent did not ease up. He came back on him with a shower of furious blows which beat
          down the weary guard of the pugilist.

But before Stevens can be defeated, the Bully becomes frightened of something and he and his partner run off into the woods. A few seconds later a white dog emerges from the brush and follows them. As with most ghost stories of the period, it is the denouement where the real import of the episode becomes clear. The two race for the cart and whip the horses to get away as fast as they can. At a pub a few miles away the innkeeper finally relates the story of the Bully, as well as the dog, who had been killed in a roadside accident over fifty years before.

In his introduction to The Best Supernatural Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, fantasy editor E.F. Bleiler says that this is Doyle’s only traditional Victorian ghost story. It was written relatively late in the author’s life and published in The Strand Magazine in November of 1921. One of the nice things about the story is the way that the viewpoint character, the Baronet, is so intent on the boxing match between Stevens and the Bully that he doesn’t have much time to think about the supernatural implications of his presence there. In terms of the story itself, it isn’t the most compelling story ever written. Bleiler even says as much in his introduction. “Arthur Conan Doyle, it must be admitted, was not the towering figure in supernatural fiction that he was in the detective story or the historical novel . . . Not a new vision, his was merely respectable accomplishment.” But that is only an admission of fact rather than a judgment, and he continues by suggesting, “this is not to say that his supernatural stories are not worth reading.” In particular, he praises this story because Doyle’s love of boxing shines through and, “not surprisingly, since it strikes a sports note that Doyle delighted in, it is one of Doyle’s best stories.” Economical as it is, the story does have a surprising vigor.

One of the things that struck me while reading was thinking about the class system in England, something that is present in some way in all British fiction. The protagonist of the story is Sir Frederick Milburn, whom the reader is eventually told is a captain in the army. He is therafter referred to as the Baronet, by Doyle, which continually makes clear the difference in station between him and the young boxer, Alf Stevens. “Twilight was already falling and the light dim, but what the Baronet saw pleased him well. The man was a fighter every inch, clean-cut, deep-chested, with the long straight cheek and deep-set eye which goes with an obstinate courage.” It’s not an obvious distance between them, but there is still the implication in the description of the man that Milburn is in charge, not only in the obvious sense of anyone who hires men for sport, to entertain at the behest of their employer, but by rank and privilege as well. In the middle of the boxing match, however, loyalties quickly become established and the Baronet becomes less of an employer and more of a ringside coach. “‘He knows a lot,’ said the pugilist. ‘I don’t know where he learned it, but he’s had a deal of practice somewhere.’” to which the Baronet replies, “‘Keep him at out-fighting. I think you are his master there.’” It doesn't seem much here, but in the context of the story there is a real sense of camaraderie between the two in facing the Bully together.

Ultimately it’s an enjoyable story, and because of its brevity it reminds me more of Ambrose Bierce than anyone else. “The Bully of Brocas Court” is a very competent ghost story and as such I’m looking forward to reading more of Arthur Conan Doyle’s supernatural fiction.