In which something goes terribly wrong at the local office of an international news service.
By H. F. Arnold
First published in 1926
Available online at Wikisource
Someone (I don’t know who) once said that the goal of any reasonable writer isn’t literary immortality, but simply to be in print ten years after first being published. By this yardstick, H.F. Arnold has measured up.
The sole work for which he’s known, a six-page long story called “The Night Wire,” is still being anthologized almost ninety years after its first appearance in Weird Tales magazine. Most recently, it was included in The Big Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Otto Penzler, the proprietor of New York City’s renowned Mysterious Bookshop and a truly outstanding anthologist.
Penzler’s editorial note proceeding the story is perhaps the best source of information about Arnold, who left remarkably few traces of himself behind. A web search adds a few facts, but not many:
- His full name was Henry Ferris Arnold
- He was born in 1901 or 1902
- He died in 1963
- He might have been from Illinois
- He moved to Hollywood to be a press agent sometime during the ’20s
- He was likely a newspaperman at some point (more on this in a moment)
- He published three stories in his lifetime (in addition to “The Night Wire,” these were a two-part Weird Tales serial called “The City of Iron Cubes” in 1929 and another two-parter, “When Atlantis Was,” that appeared in Amazing Stories in 1937)
And that is the total set of facts available to the public regarding H. F. Arnold.
The only reason that anyone outside of his family and friends knows of his existence is this small chunk of writing. Don’t judge “The Night Wire” by its length, though; it has a power that its brevity belies. Readers of Weird Tales considered it the most popular story ever published by the magazine, and H. P. Lovecraft called it one of his favorites. With fans such as these, certainly Arnold had something going for him.
His writing is lean, unlike the purple prose that was so typical of Weird Tales in the 1920s (see Clark Ashton Smith). The wire service office where his story is set is concisely drawn; it could have come from any of the hardboiled crime stories that appeared in Black Mask magazine during the same period.
Otto Penzler wrote that Arnold might have worked in such an office. I believe it. This story is filled with small details that seem to come from firsthand experience, such as the reference to “double men” who could transcribe the feeds coming across two telegraph lines at the same time.
The unnamed narrator of “The Night Wire” supervises a double man named John Morgan, a “sober, hard-working sort” who, during one early-morning shift, begins to type out some odd — and increasingly disturbing — news flashes from a town called “Xebico.” What follows is five or so pages of dread-building brilliance that make me regret that Arnold wrote so little.
In addition, this story presages many later developments in horror fiction. There are elements in “The Night Wire” reminiscent of Fritz Leiber’s urban supernatural stories, such as “Smoke Ghost.” There are also plot developments that reminded me of Stephen King’s “The Mist” and even The Walking Dead. Though it’s set in the 1920s, “The Night Wire” could easily be reprinted in a modern horror magazine as a period piece and not seem dated at all.
Whenever I read this story, I get the sense of a real potential that was lost. Arnold was more highly talented as a writer than many others who rose to greater fame, simply because they ground out more copy than he did. In the end, why he was such as shadowy presence, and so anti-prolific, remain mysteries as unanswerable as the ones he deals with in “The Night Wire.” And perhaps that’s appropriate.
One final thing: If you pay attention to the dates of the news flashes in “The Night Wire,” you’ll see that the story is simultaneously taking place on September 16th and September 30th. This is no doubt a type or an oversight, but it does add to feeling of unease that the story creates.