‘There is something ungodly about these night wire jobs’ says the narrator. ‘You sit up here on the top floor of a skyscraper and listen in on the whispers of that civilisation’ (154). There is so much packed into the first two sentences of this story. The narrator is simultaneously connected to the world and distant from it. The wire puts him in touch with the world, while his job physically removes him from it; he’s working in a different time frame to everyone else, on the night shift. His location is deliberately obscure, and he is detached from the world, lifted high above it in his skyscraper, cocooned in his office, dozing, almost working in his sleep.
The work itself is repetitive, the transcribing of reports as they come down the wire, something that almost requires the brain to be bypassed. It is significant that the narrator describes his colleague, John Morgan, the man at the centre of this story, as ‘a mechanical automatic wizard which functioned marvelously but was without imagination’. That ‘which’ transforms John Morgan into something other than human, a machine perhaps. The ‘without imagination’ is a signal that Morgan himself is unlikely to be the originator of what is to come, except that, as we discover later, he couldn’t have originated it anyway. How many more walls can the author insert between the characters and the real world?
At first glance, there is a wonderful simplicity to this story. It is in fact two stories, carefully twisted around one another. On the one hand, we have the account of the night manager, who witnesses John Morgan’s remarkable feat, using two typewriters to transcribe what he hears coming down the wire. On the other hand, we have the story that Morgan transcribes, the frantic reports from Xebico as the drama unfolds: a heavy mist has swamped the town, people are disappearing within it, and later it is determined to be alive, containing mysterious figures. And the lights arrive …
There is, I think, something strangely compelling about mysterious events recounted at a remove, as they unfold. Orson Welles recognised this in his dramatisation of Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but Arnold has also understood this, and doubled the effect; the narrator comments how it was ‘almost with dread that I went over to the waiting piles of copy’, and we feel the same, reading the narrator’s account. And of course the effect is doubled yet again as the unknown correspondent is reporting from a distance too. It is shocking when he is swept up into the action and the transmission ceases abruptly.
The story itself is dramatic, a heavy mist, later a fog, that envelopes the town, cuts it off from the rest of the world, contains nameless threats. Anyway who has been out in a thick fog knows that strange sense of detachment from the world, the cocooning, the uncertainty as to what might be out there. And then the denouement, the revelation that Xebico doesn’t exist plus, even if it did, Morgan couldn’t have taken down the messages because he had already been dead for hours. And how on earth had the narrator not noticed?
You begin to realise just how intricately constructed this story really is, yet how compressed that detail is – as it should be, because economy of words is the telegraphy game (which makes the length of the reports from Xebico all the more remarkable, and indicates how dire the situation is).
Indeed, the more you look at the story, the weirder it gets. The narrator attempts to remain aloof, but there is a wonderful little moment when he walks to the window: ‘Could I be mistaken, or far down in the canyons of the city beneath me did I see a faint trace of fog?’ (156). I think too the story taps into the idea of the mystery of telegraphy, of messages emerging from the ether. Who knows what wires were crossed in this instant, but the result is a remarkably compelling story, as though the fog might at any moment seep out of the wires, into the office, or off the page.
This story also reminds me a little of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Wireless’ perhaps because of the underlying theme of inexplicable messages. One of Kipling’s lesser-known stories but well worth reading.