THE NIGHT WIRE and Other Tales of Weird Media edited by Aaron Worth
British Library Press, p/b, £9.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
The term media as expressed in the stories in this volume pertain to the transmission of information. People have always wanted to communicate with each other over a distance. In the past various methods were used, from drums and smoke to semaphore towers. As technology was developed, writers wanted to weave it into their stories. As with other volumes produced by the British Library Press, the stories give a snapshot of the time in which they were written, as well as the fascination both with the strange and the advanced technology of the period. What to us seems remote and outdated was cutting edge at the time. The stories are presented in date order, so give a timeline for development from 1890 to 1955.
An eidoloscope was an early attempt at producing moving images and comes at the start of the development of cinematography. In Robert Duncan Milne’s story ‘The Eidoloscope’ (1890), the machine can pick up images from the past and display them on a surface – a useful tool if you want to see what happened at the scene of a crime. This one is set up as Christmas entertainment in the room where a woman died. There is perhaps too much explanation of how it works at the start before the interesting aspects appear.
While early voice recording machines were around – Edison’s wax cylinder phonograph gets a mention, the inventor in ‘The Talking Machine’ by Marcel Schwob (1892) is attempting to create an artificial larynx and a mechanism to reproduce the speech of a human voice. As in the previous story, there is an assumption that the reader is not well versed in science and needs it explained.
Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays was a great medium for getting information, especially about the skeleton. The scientist in ‘Röntgen’s Curse’ by Charles Crosthwaite (1896) wants to take it a step further by finding a way of seeing through all matter (a precursor of Superman’s X-ray vision, perhaps). He isn’t a very sensible scientist as he paints the liquid he has invented onto the eyes of his dog and wonders why it becomes terrified. He has no idea why, so paints the same solution onto both his own eyes. A sensible person would have gone for one eye but his actions lead to his downfall.
Music has long been a means of communication. In ‘The Devil’s Fantasia’ by Bernard Capes (1902), the music is initially written on paper. The performer is unable to stop playing it over and over until the music score is passed on or the player dies. This is a neat story as a phonograph is casually introduced at the start as a New Year gift and it shows the worth of the new technology by helping resolve the dilemma at the end.
Marconi’s development of the wireless telegraph led to others attempting to achieve his success. In ‘“Wireless”’ by Rudyard Kipling (1902), there is an attempt to send signals between rooftops in Brighton (probably) and Poole. Not everything goes quite to plan, especially when a ‘sleeping’ pharmacist begins to transcribe poetry. The implication is that he is unconsciously receiving the transmission.
Another piece of tech later taken for granted in much the same way as computers are now was the typewriting machine. In ‘Poor Lucy Rivers’ by Bernard Capes (1906), the typewriter is haunted by the previous owner.
Photography is the medium employed in a number of stories, though in ‘Benlian’ by Oliver Onions (1911), it is a convenient tool to show the progress of the real thrust of the story. The narrator has a studio in a courtyard and at the other end is the workshop of Benlian, a sculptor. He claims to be putting himself into his artwork, the proof of which is the increasingly blurred photographs of the man. A form of photography is used in ‘Unseen – Unfeared’ by Francis Stevens (1919). The narrator stumbles upon a scientist who by the use of a special filter allows the viewer to see otherwise invisible, nightmarish creatures that swarm around us, invisible under normal circumstances.
Communications on the railways have always been vitally important. The semaphore-type signal arms were important for the drivers. Sound signals are passed along the lines from signal boxes to stations. In ‘Signals’ by Stefan Grabiński (1919), the station is getting a signal that suggests a disaster has taken place, but the investigation shows no incident on the line. The issue then becomes one of pinpointing which signal box the warning came from and finding out why it was given. While the railway was using a telegraph system, the characters in ‘The Statement of Randolph Carter’ by H. P. Lovecraft (1920) are using a field telephone as used for communication during WWI. The two parts are connected by wires so the narrator stays on the surface while his friend descends into an underground crypt in an ancient cemetery. He hears the horrors through the device and can only imagine them.
‘The Wind In The Woods’ by Bessie Kyffin-Taylor (1920) returns to photography but by now, small, portable Kodak cameras are available with film rather than glass plates. The narrator is an artist and uses his camera to catch scenes he may later want to paint. In this instance, he has an unsettling experience in the woods and photographs scenes from the past.
The story that provides this volume’s title is ‘The Night Wire’ by H. F. Arnold (1926). Good and fast communications are essential to the running of a newspaper. The night wire is the person who sits all night by the telegraph translating the messages that come in. This night, the message is the story of a mysterious fog in the town of Xebico.
As radio became more common it is to be expected that it would feature in stories. In ‘Surprise Item’ by H. Russell Wakefield (1929), a member of the haunted House Club is sent to investigate an incident where a programme is interrupted by a man appearing to be confessing to a murder. Another mass medium was the cinema. ‘The Haunted Cinema’ by Louis Golding (1934) is a ‘hand-of-God story in that three businessmen convert a synagogue into a cinema which then shows film of these three men doing things that no upstanding Jew would contemplate.
A gramophone is the central technology in ‘They Found My Grave’ by Marjorie Bowen (1938), as a spiritual medium uses it to channel the voice of one of the spirits she is in contact with. In an attempt to prove her a fraud, Ada Trimble goes out of her way to track down the grave of the purported spirit.
Televisions began to be the must-have technology in order to view the coronation of the new queen. Those who could afford one, invited in neighbours. It’s not surprising that the device quickly made appearances in horror stories. The set in ‘Uncle Phil on TV by J. B. Priestly (1953) was purchased with the insurance money left by Uncle Phil. His ghost did not approve and made its feelings obvious by inserting itself into programmes. Like the TV, telephones gradually became features of the home. In ‘The Telephone’ by Mary Treadgold (1955) the telephone is how the narrator’s husband tries to contact his first, now dead, wife.
Although these stories can only provide a snapshot of the development of communication technology over half a century they do show have it was embraced by the population in general and the way, writers saw the means to use it to write unsettling stories. This is a trend that still continues and to many, new technology continues to have a scary aspect.