"There is something ungodly about these night wire jobs."
One of my very favorite scary stories. "The Night Wire" was written by H.F. Arnold (1902-1963) and published for the first time in the September 1926 issue of "Weird Tales."
In addition to the 1926 issue of "Weird Tales," this story has also been printed in the January 1933 issue of "Weird Tales," in "The Night Side" (an anthology collected by August Derleth in 1947), in the "Avon Fantasy Reader" in 1949, in the "Magazine of Horror" in June 1965, in the 1966 edition of "The Night Side," in a collection published by Barnes and Noble called "100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories," and in "H.P. Lovecraft's Favorite Weird Tales," an anthology compiled by Douglas A. Anderson in 2005. You can probably find it online somewhere, too. But you should try to find it in print, if possible, just because it's cool to own books.
"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."
The plot is simple. The narrator works as the night manager for a newspaper. His night wire operator is a man named John Morgan, whose job is to listen to the overnight news reports telegraphed over the wire and transcribe them for the paper. Morgan is a hard-working but unimaginative man who is talented enough to be able to listen to two different wires and type up simultaneous reports on two different typewriters. One night, Morgan types up, and the narrator reads, a series of wire reports from a city called Xebico. An ominous fog has shut down the city, making it impossible to drive in the streets. Strange shapes are seen in the fog, odd voices cry out from within it, and people are disappearing mysteriously. Morgan churns the story out, update by update, and the narrator reads along, growing more and more nervous, imagining fog on the streets below. And eventually, the wire updates from Xebico stop.
"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."
I've been fond of this story for years and years. The author's full name was Henry Ferris Arnold. He was an Illinois native who worked as a Hollywood press agent in the 1920s and '30s. It seems likely that Arnold spent time working night shifts at newspapers, too. Aside from his knowledge of how the wires worked, Arnold gets the mood down perfectly. If you've ever worked the night shift somewhere, you know what it's like to know that you're one of few people in the building, to sit in a brightly-lit room and know that the rest of the world is dark and sleeping, to hear little creaks, cracks, and moans in the building that you know are just the result of nighttime settling but that your imagination insists on spinning into haunts and ghouls and stealthy killers. You're all alone, your brain is sluggish, and outside, it's dark and quiet and anything could be happening out there and no one would come to help you in time.
I think Arnold was used to that feeling, and he knew very well how to get that mood of dread mixed with loneliness and sleepiness onto the page.
Arnold also understood that the readers of weird tales expected a bit of lurid descriptive terror with the spooky mood, and he provided that, too. While the narrator is a (mostly) calm and methodical recorder of facts, the man sending the wire reports from Xebico is a bit more inclined to sensationalism, especially as the end grows nearer and nearer. Like many of Lovecraft's protagonists, he frantically records his feelings, his sensations, his fears, right up to the point where he can no longer record anything.
"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."
Lovecraft himself reportedly liked this story. In letters to J. Vernon Shea, Richard Ely Morse, and "Weird Tales" editor Farnsworth Wright, Lovecraft picked "The Night Wire" as one of six stories from "Weird Tales" that he felt were the best recent works of (in Wright's words) "truly cosmic horror and macabre convincingness."
If you enjoy your Lovecraftian horror blended with an air of quiet, creepy dread, I think you'll enjoy "The Night Wire". If you can find it, read it. But wait 'til sometime after 3 a.m. on a dark, fogbound night.