The Night Wire – Aaron Worth, Editor

The unfathomable spectres of The Night Wire

The light of science forever pushing the unknown further into the darker corners of the mind, human understanding does not change so rapidly as technology advances, new ideas and inventions themselves representative of the fears of those whose lives are changed without consultation, physicians historically predicting the human body could not withstand the force of acceleration of a steam locomotive and Luddites smashing the machines which they felt threatened their livelihood.

First published between 1890 and 1955, editor Aaron Worth has gathered seventeen examples where the novel messenger is as much a part of the story as the telling for The Night Wire and Other Tales of Weird Media as part of the British Library’s Tales of the Weird, now reaching its thirtieth volume of lesser-known and often difficult to find material by authors familiar and obscure.

Opening the collection, the modern wonder of electricity is applied to present evidence of spectral applications as merely “the result of an invariable and ordinary natural law,” for it is not ghosts which The Eidoloscope of Robert Duncan Milne displays but past events and misdeeds captured in the walls and furnishings of rooms unchanged since that time, an idea which resurfaced eighty years later in The Stone Tape.

A brief piece, the title explains the premise of The Talking Machine of Marcel Schwob, and while the novelty of the idea might have been shocking in 1892 it is now little more than a footnote among more ambitious inclusions such as Röntgen’s Curse of 1896, Charles Crosthwaite’s depiction of the single-minded pursuit of an idea, a fixation in the mind of a scientist achieved with terrible results which grants him the ability to see through objects, rendering his wife and child animated skeletons before his eyes.

Overwrought and tedious even at less than fifteen pages, The Devil’s Fantasia of Bernard Capes stands out only because the invention serves as the cure rather than the source of the anxiety, and from the same year Rudyard Kipling’s Marconi transmitter is almost a justification for the story, paralleling the vagaries of “Wireless” reception with the unconscious mediumship of an elderly pharmacist who receives from the ether the verses of Keats, presumably more immediately familiar to a reader in 1902.

A second-hand typewriter which disturbs its inheritor with the last terrified words of Poor Lucy Rivers, Capes’ second story dates to 1906 and is superior to his first though retains his tendency to regard women as inferior hysterics who require men to assist or save them; a very different dynamic is offered by Oliver Onions in the obsessive relationship between miniature painter “Pudgie” and the sculptor Benlian, he in turn bound to the creation which he conceived as godlike and now grows stronger and more complete even as the artist fades, a concept ahead of its time where the disappointingly common conclusion is very much of 1911.

Like a character from Poe, Francis Stevens’ narrator suffers from a permeating and inescapable fear of the other, both people and places, but justly deriding the tedious lecturer to whom they are beholden as giving a “wearisomely detailed account” of photographic techniques, but while much of Unseen-Unfeared is a hallucinogenic chose of phantasmagoria it redeems itself with its waking realisations of truth.

Also from 1919, the inexplicable Signals of Stefan Grabiński have no apparent origin, defying explanation yet reporting the same message of escalating and impending tragedy to the railway workers who try to trace them, the conclusion may be familiar but the story is effectively written, much the same as The Statement of Randolph Carter of the following year which bears all the hallmarks of H P Lovecraft, offering graveyards, a descending miasma, missing memories, madness and a lost friend, their final cry for help communicated by a field telephone.

The haunted cabin now so established it serves as a basis for parody and deconstruction of the horror genre, in 1920 Bessie Kyffin-Taylor felt the sinister effect of The Wind in the Woods which rises on the anniversary of a tragedy, a regular visitor to the Welsh countryside caught unawares outside of his customary season unwittingly documenting the aftermath on the plates of his camera.

Dating to 1926 and told as dispatches to an unidentified newspaper office, the account of the engulfing fog which enshrouds the town of Xebico is all the stronger for the efficiency and immediacy with which the anonymous operator at the other end of the The Night Wire distils events down to the details, H F Arnold presenting an early form of what has metamorphosed to “found footage,” those who receive the story incredulous until they realise the effect it has had on their colleague who transcribed it.

Another Surprise Item is H Russell Wakefield’s story of 1929 which anticipates what is thought of as a modern phenomenon, the broadcast signal intrusion, as an investigator of the Haunted House Club is sent to ascertain such facts as can be determined regarding a mysterious radio transmission and draw conclusions, while from 1934 Louis Golding offers a jolly anecdote of wrongdoing and the settling of scores with no apparent instigator other than the mysterious forces which project images on the screen of The Haunted Cinema.

Perhaps the story which best foregrounds character over atmosphere, Ada Trimble is determined to investigate the fraud she believes to be perpetuated by the medium Madame Astra Destiny and her coterie of hangers-on in Marjorie Bowen’s They Found My Grave, a work of 1938 which captures the flavour of the spiritualism movement and the friction between credulity and questioning, the latter tinged by the nagging doubt which asks – “what if?”

1953 the year the BBC broadcast the coronation and The Quatermass Experiment and television became commonplace, it also produced a most unusual haunting, a departed and unlamented relative returning to heckle his surviving family when the small inheritance he left behind is used to invest in the technological rage of the modern age, Uncle Phil on TV a devilishly humorous tale from the masterly pen of J B Priestley.

Concluding the collection is the antithesis of that piece as Mary Treadgold chronicles an indiscreet love affair of a young student and an older married man who finds himself suddenly a widower faced with the regret of his choices, haunted by the midnight ringing of The Telephone, the whispered words unheard by the narrator but unlike the stories which preceded it an opportunity for dialogue with the dead and the rare chance to ask their forgiveness.

The Night Wire is available now from the British Library

The unfathomable spectres of The Night Wire



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