Weird #17: “The Night Wire” by H. F. Arnold (1926)

“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” (“The Night Wire,” The Weird, 154).

Such is the unforgettable opening of H. F. Arnold’s “The Night Wire,” published in Weird Tales magazine in 1926. The editors’ introduction to this story remarks upon its “still being able to chill the reader today despite using elements that could have made the story feel dated” (154), and this description suits the effect it had on me perfectly.

The opening encapsulates a sense of globalization that has not left us. The story as whole has the feel of a twenty-first century short story set in the 1920s. An Internet-aware author may have simply projected the mass interconnectivity of the Information Era onto a story about a lonely telegraph operator in New York City in the 20s and attributed it to a different author.

But if Arnold predicted our times, it was only because he wrote about his own.

A telegraph operator

The operator of a “night wire,” who I’m guessing is a telegraph operator working for a news service, listens to the news of the world, creating records of all incoming messages. With John Morgan, his one night operator staff member, he works late into the night transcribing information for the next day’s headlines.

On this particular night, he receives a message he would not have ordinarily noticed, except he has never heard of the city from which it originated: Xebico. The message, sent by another night wire man in Xebico, tells of a mysterious fog originating in a graveyard that slowly consumes an entire city, terrifying the residents.

The New York operator reads the operator’s copy in installments, each of which has already been typed by the oddly silent Morgan. “I will stay with the wire until the end,” the Xebico operator writes. “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! […] They are being consumed–piecemeal” (157).

The figures in the mist devour the people in the city as a set of rainbow lights of various spectra appear in the sky, announcing the arrival of entities completely outside of human experience: aliens, inter-dimensional beings, creatures born purely of light but who consume flesh. I was reminded of the light-globe people in A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit.” At this point, I was also beginning to see how Lovecraft loved this story. Certain similarities with his weird tale “The Colour of Outer Space” are apparent.

The operator’s account stops suddenly, at the moment where he presumably perished. However, the New York operator seems to believe it was a hoax–like a 1920s version of a creepypasta. But when he touches Morgan to shake him awake, he realizes he’s gone cold. He’s been dead for hours, and worse, the narrator seems to think his fingers might have kept recording the account even after he had perished.

Had the mists killed him somehow, just through the act of transcribing the news from Xebico? What does the expanding mist mean for the other cities on Earth? One is left with the sense that the planet itself could be doomed as the mists expand, much like the it is doomed by the expanding borders of Area X in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.

Though this story fits its 1926 context so well, it is also easy to see how it could be adapted to our own age. Perhaps the equivalent of a night wire operator today would be a reporter subscribed to a specific news feed, or even a doomscroller on Twitter working late into night, retweeting the major stories that emerge from across the globe as he slowly becomes jaded.

Today’s world is at a far more developed stage of inter-connectedness, but an earlier stage of that development of communications technology can be seen in this story. This is a weird tale that finds the weird and the disturbing in, among other things, the new frequencies of globalization and worldwide communication.

The editors make the author of this story sound rather mysterious, as though he were a name only known because it was associated with “The Night Wire” and two other published stories: one in Weird Tales and one in Amazing Stories. It’s not even known if H. F. Arnold was his real name, apparently. The editors seem to allow for a “weird” reading of his biography, as if the disturbing sense of dislocation the story creates could apply to the authorship of the story itself. One is left with the impression that Arnold is as mysterious as Xebico, a city not found on any map.

However, the blog Tellers of Weird Tales does supply a brief biography of H. F. Arnold that goes into more detail than the VanderMeers go into in The Weird. Some things, such as his wounding during World War II and the day of his birth and death, are known about the author, or about a man who shares his exact initials and last name. I’d like to know more about what exactly the controversy about his identity entails, and why this uncertainty as to his identity exists. Oddly, there is no hint on Tellers of Weird Tales that he might have worked as a journalist, as the VanderMeers say some have speculated–though Arnold did, apparently, work for Hollywood in PR.

H. F. Arnold

Next week, I’ll be tackling the father of weird fiction himself, H. P. Lovecraft, and his defining weird tale, “The Dunwich Horror” (1929). I also hope to say something intelligent about his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” a foundational text in the creation of the entity known as “weird fiction.”

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451It was a pleasure to burn.

The letters, the opening of Ray Bradbury’s seminal dystopian novel, glimmered flatly on my Kobo screen as I realized the irony of what I was doing. I realized swiftly that the battle of digital media versus print is a central point that burns down in Fahranheit 451. I will present to you my reflections on this question: Do Kobo readers create a real dystopia similar to the one in Fahrenheit 451?

Guy Montag, the protagonist, is a fireman. In Bradbury’s future in which all houses and buildings have been fireproofed, that means he sets fires, instead of putting them out. In effect, the firemen are the ideological police of their world, burning books in great bonfires of literature. Only fragments of the past survive–and Montag’s inner journey will lead him to discover more about that past world than his fellow firemen will dare allow.

Written during the turbulent McCarthy era in which supposed communists were hunted like witches and artists censored for their views, Fahrenheit 451 invokes myriad other historical instances of heresy and censorship. Whether it’s the Inquisition burning books placed on the Vatican’s infamous Index or the Nazis’ burning of tomes written by Jews, socialists, and other voices of opposition, burnings have been notorious throughout history. Though those who burn defend themselves by saying they are protecting “culture,” it is plain to others that burning books is antithetical to the fostering of culture.

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury

I believe it was Neil Gaiman who said, “Libraries are the thin red line between civilization and barbarism.” An apt point when taken in the context of Ray Bradbury. (To read Gaiman’s tribute to Ray Bradbury, which he wrote upon his death in 2012, click here. For the Guardian article, click here.)

But burning is only one example of society’s dystopianism in Bradbury’s novel: there are also Seashells—basically a 1950s conception of what would eventually become earbuds for your iPod/MP3 player—and full-wall television screens. Bradbury never imagined in his novel the numerous computers currently in existence, and certainly not the distracting potential of social media websites, or the Internet in general, but he did get the sense that Western society was being bombarded by visual/auditory stimulation that would only get more intense and distracting. Whether the book burnings or media bombardment are more effective at creating Bradbury’s dystopia is a debatable point. I say the two go hand in hand.

Bradbury saw the transition from print media to the dominance of visual and digital media. In essence, Fahrenheit 451 is about that fundamental change in culture taken to an extreme. So I suppose it must be an ironic book to read on a Kobo, a digital platform. Am I a traitor to Bradbury’s ideals if I read his novel on a Kobo? I certainly hope not. But reading it on a Kobo did influence my experience of this novel in a way that underlines its theme, revealing some subtle effects in my reading experience that may, perhaps, be troubling.

For starters, I read the novel a whole lot faster, I suspect, than if I had had a physical copy on hand. Flipping the pages was easy; I just had to touch the right-hand side of the screen with my thumb. Furthermore, I could change the font and margins to enable faster reading and page turning. Reading it on the bus and metro also made it necessary to read faster in order to finish at a good spot to leave off whenever I would make a transfer. While reading the novel on a bus may appear to be a factor external to the digital experience, it was also the situation in which I feel most natural reading a Kobo.

Secondly, it was harder to browse through Fahrenheit 451 on my Kobo. While with physical book, you can open it randomly in the middle of the book and flip through the pages, you cannot do that on a digital book–at least not until an appropriate “page flipping” interface is designed and put into future models. Though the search function enables a certain amount of ease in finding passages, navigation forces you on a more linear path while flipping through the book beginning-to-end. This makes Kobo great for airport novels that you read through once and don’t bother with again, but less good for nonfiction and novels that you want to examine closely. As a literature student and book reviewer, I have a beef with this limitation.

Lastly, you cannot make comments on a Kobo easily, or write in the margins. Yes, you can make bookmarks. But to label the bookmarks effectively, you must leave the ebook and do a lot of back-and-forthing. If you have installed Calibre on your computer, you can make comments on your computer, but I was not able do this on my Kobo, even though the highlighting function says you can supposedly do this.

While these three points can potentially be fixed by developers, at present my Kobo makes a certain type of reading of Fahrenheit 451 easier rather than other types. And that type of reading says a lot about our society and the society in Fahrenheit 451.

Kobo is good for straight-through reading, for example, while on a bus: a way to quickly read a book that does not take up too much physical space. It is a portable library—a personal “bastion of civilization” that you can bring around with you. However, Kobo makes it difficult to read a book that you dearly love with the attention it deserves. Due to this limitation, “Kobo reading” is a kind of reading that is complicit to an extent with the hasty, media-overwhelmed, lower-attention span world that Bradbury warns us about.

Kobo rushes us along a highway (often when actually travelling on a highway), rather than allowing us to stroll, to stop, and to think.

In a way, this makes Kobo reading analogous the fast cars so prevalent in Bradbury’s utopia. Traditional readers are like pedestrians—people like Clarisse, the strange teenager Montag meets who walks on sidewalks asking “why?” and “how?” about things she sees. But Clarisse is later killed by a fast car, which bear no regard to pedestrians. Whereas Kobos have you rush through a book, traditional reading can be like a stroll through the suburbs—it involves a lot of stopping, smelling of roses, observation, and above all, opinion-forming.

Fahrenheit 451 is all about how media saturation, passive consumption, and a fast-paced society makes it harder to become a dissident of society and its ideology—not just about burning literature, but by ensuring new books are never written. Since we are all kept happy by comsumption and reassured that the world will take care of itself, we find less and less reason to challenge that order. But the “pursuit of happiness” cannot be the be-all-and-end-all of human existence: sometimes it is necessary to become disturbed, in order to make social change.

Outlawing literature and pedestrianism are two ways in which Bradbury’s society silences dissidence; it destroys opinions formed in the past and makes it difficult to develop opinions in the present. It is therefore not always necessary to burn in order to silence a heretic; an Inquisition founded on pleasure instead of torture is far more effective at domination.

And reading about such a dystopia on a Kobo forces you to become aware of the fact that how you read depends on where you read it, and in what format. Our consummerist society has made it harder to read books critically by developing ebook interfaces that do not promote critical and nonlinear reading styles. Physical books represent a freer way of reading. If all books end up going digital, our society will become closer than ever before to Bradbury’s dystopia.

burning book

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Photo Credits:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Bradbury

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fahrenheit_451