Summary: In The Night Wire, H.F. Arnold regels us with a story about an isolated town and the horrific fog that is engulfing it, told through a couple of people working a newswire late at night. Excellent stuff, but then the ending comes, and it's hard to know why.
BLOT: (07 Jan 2014 - 09:12:56 PM)
The worst ending for an otherwise great weird story probably goes to H.F. Arnold's "The Night Wire"
Let's get this out of the way: weird fiction is a mixed bag. If you want to debate this, we can talk later, but for now I'm going to state it as fact. I'd even go so far as to say that weird fiction is often a mixed bag within individual stories. Some stories have great ideas with bad execution. Some have great writing with mediocre set-ups. Some have great endings but nothing worth reading to the end. And some, like H.F. Arnold's "The Night Wire" have amazing build-ups only to come to an end that throws it all the way.
I'm going to spoil the story to talk about it, so if this bothers you, you might want to either read it (via The Nostalgia League) or listen to it (via Pseudopod). It is not long, at all, probably only about 3-4 printed pages and about 15 minutes as an audiobook (the podcast linked above is 19 minutes, and that's with additional materials).
I first heard of it after watching the movie adaptation of The Mist. Somewhere, probably Wikipedia, mentioned a "see also" of the "The Night Wire" as being also about a town engulfed by mist (see also: The Fog). Adding to the atmosphere is that the story is told by a narrator who is reading something transcribed (from the Morse code on the newswire) by a coworker, John Morgan, as told by an unknown dispatcher down the line. The whole thing, as far as the reader is concerned, takes part in an after hours newswire office, probably attached to some large news hub. The main plot is doubly distant from the reader.
Early on, a heavy mist pours into the town of Xebico, of which the narrator knows nothing. The report about the fog being his first glimpse of the name. Later, the mist starts getting thicker, and develops a stench "bearing with it a subtle impression of things long dead." A local sexton reports the mist starting from the church, and seeing something move in the mist. "Behind me I heard screams coming from the houses bordering on the graveyard." A rescue party is sent out, but does not return. Cries of unknown voices are heard at the outskirts of town. "The sounds resemble nothing so much as wind whistling through a gigantic tunnel. But the night is calm and there is no wind."
Up through this point, Arnold has used the format extremely well. With some of the dispatches, the narrator pulls away so that we get hints of a second rescue party, or of the sexton now being unconscious, but the story as a whole is denied us.
Then finally you get...
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...
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, they are a long way off.
All good and weird stuff, starting small and simple and building up something weird and inexplicable. Doing it quickly. It could have taken longer, but it set its pace and it delivered. A sense of dislocation and helplessness pervades the whole thing. Except, then, we get the story shifting at the very end, after the line from Xebico clicks cold. Morgan is staring straight ahead. The narrator contacts Chicago and finds out that there had been no transmission being sent out this whole time. However, when he tries to tell his coworker that it was all a hoax, we get...
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.
At the very end, it turns out that a dead Morgan (it was foreshadowed that he wasn't feeling very well right at the very beginning—"I reckon I'm just a little tired.") had somehow tapped into another place and time. Was he seeing a vision of Heaven or Hell? Was he seeing another world on the border of collapse? Was he seeing some future event? Was he simply seeing some variation of his own spiritual plight as his soul was swept away? Who knows? And while I normally like my weird to play with obscurity, the overall impact is deadened by this last bit. It could simply be nothing more than Morgan having a stroke, for all the story says.
How could it have ended? I can imagine a number of ways that could have preserved the mystery while being meatier than what we currently have:
- The people of Xebico, upon investigation, had simply vanished.
- Fog was spotted coming into a town on down the line.
- The town was never found on a map, but there was always the sense that it was there, before, and the older news men remember it.
Maybe simply end it with the final cable and Morgan falling dead (rather than having been dead or near it the whole time). Maybe there could have been dispatches from an unknown area, unlabeled, with no search being fruitful to find anything.
Anyhow, such a beautiful story. Such a lousy, abrupt end.
Hope you enjoyed the "night fog" images I found to flavor it. Thanks to the various photographers who put them up with a Creative Commons attribution. As a note, I've not read anything else by Arnold, but I think I'll see about hunting it down, to see how his other stories hold up in similar lights. Also, since 2014 resolutions are all about reading/writing, I might add to my Friday Horror Short series with something like a "Tuesday Horror Short Story" one. Not sure. Just something to mull.
OTHER BLOTS THIS MONTH: January 2014