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.