THE GHOST BOX: “Born of Man & Woman” by Richard Matheson

Ghost Box

This is the seventh entry in a month-long series focusing on a horror anthology edited by Patton Oswalt called The Ghost Box (buy it here)The blog will resume its standard format in November.

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In July of 1950, a story appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction called “Born of Man and Woman.” The story was written by a young man named Richard Matheson. While Matheson would attain renown in time, this was his first professional sale, the story having been written when he was only twenty-two. Four years later it would become the title piece of Matheson’s first short story collection.

This is a very short story, clocking in at no more than three or four pages, but already Matheson’s talent is on full display. The story is told as a series of diary entries from the point of a view of a child, around eight years of age, kept chained in the basement by its parents (we are not given the child’s gender). The child is poorly educated – it describes sunshine as “goldness in the upstairs” – and writes in broken English. It is lonely and curious, and frequently escapes from its basement dwelling to spy on its parents and other children in the neighborhood. Upon discovering it has escaped, its parents drive it back down to the basement and viciously beat it.

Through casually dropped details, Matheson gradually reveals why the child’s parents treat it this way: it is not entirely human. It possesses great strength, repeatedly ripping its chains from the wall to free itself. It also drips “ugly” green fluid from its skin, which causes its feet to stick to the floor. When it is attacked by a neighbor’s cat, it crushes the cat to death with its bare hands. It has many legs and hangs from the ceiling like a bat.

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Reading this story, I was immediately reminded of Jerome Bixby’s “It’s A Good Life,” written three years later. Both are stories of inhuman children born to human parents and the fear they generate in the people around them. Although both children are capable of great harm, both stories treat them sympathetically, or, that is to say, as children: they do not understand that they are causing harm. In addition, neither story reveals the underlying cause of their physical/mental differences – I suppose that ultimately it does not matter.

What I found most impressive about Matheson’s story is that it presents no fewer than three fully-formed characters in as many pages. The child’s parents are not mere monsters, though they certainly act that way; Matheson shows us glimpses of guilt, shame, and deep sadness for their actions. We sense that they love their child, but they do not understand it and are terrified that they will not be able to remain in control. There are hints that the child has physically harmed them in the past, driving them to this extreme behavior. The child, meanwhile, does not understand why it is being treated this way, and feels shame for its own existence. Matheson evokes deep sympathy for the child even as he reveals more and more of its true nature. As the story goes on, we see it developing a sense of self-worth, and of anger at how it has been treated. When the child finally resolves to stand up against its abuse at the story’s end, we know that things will not go well for its parents.

Born of Man

Frightening, mysterious, and possessed of a surprising amount of human feeling, “Born of Man and Woman” is rightfully regarded as a classic. Like many of Matheson’s most famous stories, it has been reprinted dozens of times. In 1970, the Science Fiction Writers of America selected it as one of the best science fiction stories published before the establishment of the Nebula Award; in 2001, it was a finalist for the Retro-Hugo Award for Best Short Story of 1951. Matheson’s own opinions on the story were more muted. In an interview for Sci-Fi Station, he elaborates:

“I don’t recall what the circumstances were of how I got the idea for ‘Born of Man and Woman’. I think I just wanted to write a story about what would happen to an average set of parents if they had a monstrosity for a child. I did not mean for it to be science fiction. I assumed it was a fantasy, and as I have told people, I would not write it today, and I would not have written it for a long time in the past, simply because I could not have believed it with what I know now, having been a parent and having raised four children. I just wouldn’t be able to accept the logistics of it, which would be unfortunate, because it works out pretty good, and it somehow became a classic in the field, even though it doesn’t have that logic.”

I personally was very impressed with it, as I have been with all of Matheson’s writing. Seek it out and give it a read.

NEXT TIME: “Shadetree” by Michael Reaves!

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THE GHOST BOX: “The Pear-Shaped Man” by George R. R. Martin

Ghost Box

This is the sixth entry in a month-long series focusing on a horror anthology edited by Patton Oswalt called The Ghost Box (buy it here)The blog will resume its standard format in November.

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These days, George R. R. Martin (1948-) needs no introduction. The HBO program Game of Thrones, based on his long-running series A Song of Ice and Fire, has been a worldwide smash since its debut in 2011. This, along with his frequent appearances at conventions, has made Martin one of the most visible popular authors of our day. His work is characterized, in the words of Jeff VanderMeer, by “complex storylines, fascinating characters, great dialogue, [and] perfect pacing.”

“The Pear-Shaped Man” first appeared in the October 1987 issue of Omni, and won the ’87 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction. It was included in several “best of” fantasy and horror collections the following year, as well as a major retrospective of Martin’s work published by Subterranean Press in 2003 called GRRM: A RRetrospective (reprinted for the mass market as Dreamsongs in 2006). Since then it has appeared in Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, a 2010 collection for Tachyon Publications edited by Ellen Datlow, and Cemetery Dance’s 2012 release The Horror Hall of Fame: The Stoker Winners, edited by Joe R. Lansdale. Read it here.

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“The Pear-Shaped Man” is the longest story in The Ghost Box, so long that its chapbook is bound with glue rather than staples. The story concerns Jessie, a young woman who has just moved to the city for the first time. She paints covers for romance novels, and is very good at it. There’s a problem, though. There’s a man in the basement of her building. No-one knows his name; he is universally known as “the Pear-shaped Man.” He seems to subsist entirely on Coke and Cheez Doodles. At first he seems like a harmless eccentric, but Jessie quickly comes to suspect that he is obsessed with her. He follows her to the bus stop. He stands on the street and stares at her window. Cheez Doodles pop up in unexpected places. And he keeps inviting her down to his apartment. He has “things” to show her.

What a deliciously creepy story! I particularly like the opening, wherein Martin evokes a certain kind of man: pear-shaped (of course), socially awkward, perhaps of unscrupulous hygiene. He might not be pleasant to be around, but he’s harmless. We’ve all met a man or two like that, haven’t we? “Of course you know him. Everybody knows a pear-shaped man.”

Martin uses that awkward discomfort to his advantage throughout. The Pear-shaped Man is predatory without ever quite crossing the line. He never threatens Jessie. He’s never violent. He is simply ever-present, and uncomfortably friendly. Martin is a master of ambiance and takes his time in letting Jessie’s mounting fears reach the breaking point. Even as Jessie suffers a series of recurring nightmares about being attacked by the Pear-shaped Man, we are never quite sure that the menace he represents resides anywhere but in Jessie’s mind.

Pear-Shaped

This makes the ending somewhat disappointing. After discovering that the Pear-shaped Man has seemingly sabotaged one of her paintings, Jessie has a breakdown. One of her friends, who is studying to be a psychologist, argues that Jessie’s fears are irrational and that she has sabotaged herself. He argues that the Pear-shaped Man is a socially awkward, perhaps even developmentally challenged, person who must be profoundly lonely. He argues that if she goes and visits him, she can overcome her fear.

Jessie agrees and goes down to the basement. As she has feared all along, the Pear-shaped Man attacks her. She blacks out, and when she wakes up, she and the Pear-shaped Man have switched bodies. She begins to assume the Pear-shaped Man’s personality and mannerisms, and descends back into his (her?) apartment to wait for her (his?) own dream girl so the cycle can continue.

There are things I like about this ending, particularly how Martin subverts expectations. In Jessie’s nightmares, the Pear-shaped Man undresses himself and attacks her. She assumes, as do we, that he means to rape her. As we find out, the Pear-shaped Man does want her body – just not in the way we expect. In addition, the Pear-shaped Man is a monster of the sort I have not encountered in fiction before, in that it is a less a monster and more of a curse; the Pear-shaped Man is a prison, and you must imprison someone else to escape. How many Pear-shaped Men were there before Jessie came along? How many will there be after? From this perspective, the ending turns the Pear-shaped Man into (almost) a figure of sympathy.

That being said, however, there are also things I dislike about the ending. After building a sublime atmosphere of menace using little more than Cheez Doodles, Martin’s decision to go full-on supernatural for his climax feels a little underwhelming, as if he couldn’t conjure a more effective human horror to house in that basement. I cannot say the ending comes out of left field, though; the story is well-constructed and Martin foreshadows it throughout, particularly in those aforementioned dreams. Honestly, I think this is one of those stories where any ending might have been somewhat disappointing after such effective build-up.

Horror Hall of Fame

To sum up, I don’t think Martin entirely knocked it out of the park with this one – I felt the ending didn’t quite live up to its promise – but it’s still a great story, written by a skillful writer, with an atmosphere of threatening unease that never lets up. If you read it, I expect you might tread more carefully the next time you visit someone’s apartment. After all, everybody knows a pear-shaped man.

NEXT TIME: “Born of Man & Woman” by Richard Matheson!

THE GHOST BOX: “Opening The Door” by Arthur Machen

Ghost Box

This is the fifth entry in a month-long series focusing on a horror anthology edited by Patton Oswalt called The Ghost Box (buy it here)The blog will resume its standard format in November.

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The first review I wrote on this blog, way back in 2013, was for Arthur Machen’s “The White People.” It was my first time reading his fiction. Subtle, atmospheric, and ominous, it made me an immediate fan. Therefore, I was excited to see a tale of Machen’s unfamiliar to me in The Ghost Box: “Opening The Door,” from the 1931 anthology When Churchyards Yawn (read it here). The collection was edited by Cynthia Asquith, herself a noted writer of ghost stories, and includes tales by other such luminaries as Algernon Blackwood and Hugh Walpole.

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The plot concerns a clergyman who suddenly disappears from his study. He reappears just as suddenly six weeks later, attributing his absence to a misunderstanding. A newspaper editor, reading of this incident, senses there’s a deeper story here and sends a reporter out to investigate. Over time, the reporter and the clergyman develop a rapport, and the reporter is able to coax what really happened out of his subject…only the answers he’s looking for aren’t suitable for any newspaper.

I was reminded several times reading this story of “The White People,” although this is a subtler tale. “The White People” also follows a protagonist who is, or seems to be, drawn into a supernatural world. However, “The White People” provides a grand revelation at its climax; “Opening The Door” does not. This story is about a man who thinks that he may have had a supernatural experience – there is evidence to support the notion – but does not have the memory to say for certain. “Opening The Door” is ultimately about the fallibility of our minds, of our brains struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible and coming up short. The story answers our questions, but the significance of the answers eludes us.

There is a paragraph that caught my eye. It occurs at about the halfway point:

“You would really say that the great majority are like dreamers, like sleepwalkers. Yes; like men walking in a dream; shutting out all the actualities, all the facts of life. They know that they are, in fact, walking on the edge of a precipice; and yet they are able to believe, it seems, that the precipice is a garden path; and they behave as if it were a garden path, as safe as that path you see down there, going to the door at the bottom of my garden.”

In sentiment, this struck me as extremely similar to the opening of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” reviewed here. While Lovecraft makes no mention of “Opening The Door” during his extensive commentary on Machen in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, it seems likely to me that he read and was influenced by this story.

Holy Terrors

Ultimately, this is not my favorite work of Machen’s. It achieves a most disquieting atmosphere, but I didn’t find it as effective a work of horror as “The White People” or another of his more famous stories, “The Great God Pan.” However, I don’t think it’s a bad story by any means, and is still very much worth reading. If you’re looking for classic horror, you really can’t do better than Machen. Go, seek him out. Open the door.

NEXT TIME: “The Pear-Shaped Man” by George R. R. Martin!

THE GHOST BOX: “The Clock” by W. F. Harvey

Ghost Box

This is the fourth entry in a month-long series focusing on a horror anthology edited by Patton Oswalt called The Ghost Box (buy it here)The blog will resume its standard format in November.

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William Fryer Harvey was born in Yorkshire, England in 1885. He served as a surgeon-lieutenant in the Royal Navy during World War I, receiving the Albert Medal for Lifesaving. He was also a practicing Quaker. He died in 1937 at the age of fifty-two. As a writer, he is is best known for his short stories, particularly “The Beast With Five Fingers,” the basis for a 1946 film directed by Robert Florey and starring Peter Lorre. Harvey published a short story collection of the same name in 1928, which contained another story: “The Clock.”

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All the stories I have read in The Ghost Box thus far have been relatively short, but “The Clock” is the shortest one yet, a mere seventeen paragraphs in length (read it here). The story is written in the form of a letter. The narrator has received a message from an unnamed correspondent describing a seemingly supernatural event: the ringing of a bell in an empty room. “I believe you,” the narrator writes, sharing a story from their own life some years before.

In the flashback, the narrator is about to go on vacation. They are asked by an acquaintance, Mrs. Caleb, to stop by her vacation home and bring back a traveler’s clock that was left behind during her last stay. Considering this not much of an imposition, the narrator accepts. The narrator goes to Mrs. Caleb’s house – doors locked inside and out, furniture covered in white sheets, just as it should be – and finds the clock easily, but there is something amiss: the clock is ticking. A wind-up clock left behind weeks ago in a vacation home should not be ticking. The narrator notices an indentation on the bed, as if someone might have been sleeping there. Then odd noises start coming from the hallway…

With all the doors in the house locked, how could anyone be living there, let alone moving from room to room? Is it a ghost? Is there is a trespasser of some kind on the property? Harvey doesn’t say, and it’s a stronger story for that. Reading this sequence, my skin erupted in gooseflesh. I read a lot of horror; such a visceral and physical response is rare for me. Any tale that evokes such a reaction instantly earns a spot on my list of favorite horror stories.

Gahan Wilson

While Harvey is not a particularly well-known author these days, “The Clock” has proven to endure. In his 1976 anthology Favorite Tales of Horror, cartoonist Gahan Wilson wrote, “I think that for sheer menace this is the most powerful story I have ever read, though exactly what it is that is menacing, and exactly what it is menacing to do are entirely mysterious.” Editor Brad Leithauser included the story in the 1994 anthology The Norton Book of Ghost Stories, noting in an article for The New Yorker, “In some ways, my favorite in the book is W. F. Harvey’s ‘The Clock.’ It’s hardly the scariest of the lot, but it does have the simplest premise, and utilizes the fewest props.”

Genuinely unnerving, this is a simple story told with skill. In keeping with Harvey’s style, my concluding remarks will be simple as well: Read “The Clock.”

NEXT TIME: “Opening the Door” by Arthur Machen!

THE GHOST BOX: “N0072-JK1” by Adam Corbin Fusco

Ghost Box

This is the third entry in a month-long series focusing on a horror anthology edited by Patton Oswalt called The Ghost Box (buy it here)The blog will resume its standard format in November.

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Adam Corbin Fusco has been publishing fiction since the early ’90s, his work appearing in such publications as Weird Tales and Realms of Fantasy. “N0072-JK1” was first published in the 2003 anthology Borderlands 5, edited by Elizabeth E. Monteleone and Thomas F. Monteleone. Ellen Datlow included it in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection in 2004. Corbin Fusco expanded the title in 2015 to “N0072-JK1: Study of Synaptic Response of the Organism to Spontaneous Stimulation of Vulnerability Zones. Photographic Analysis” for its publication in the digital magazine Pseudopod. Read it here.

Borderlands 5

The story is presented as a series of notes from a research study. It begins benignly enough: we learn the focus of the study is laughter. Subjects have their feet tickled, or watch funny movies, and their responses are gauged. Seems simple. But as we read, we see that these tests are being taken to unsettling extremes – feet are tickled until the skin is worn away; subjects must watch funny movies for hours with their eyes forced open. We learn that subjects are restrained during testing. Then we learn about the surgeries.

What is happening here, precisely? The objective of the tests is to understand laughter, but the tests the research subjects endure are conducted under conditions least conducive to laughter. Who can genuinely laugh when they have been tortured for hours? The researchers don’t seem to understand the purpose of laughter, or even what it’s supposed to sound like. Moreover, the researchers tickle their subjects for fifteen hours or more manually with mechanical precision – what sort of person is capable of that?

I have a theory. What if aliens arrived on Earth and didn’t know what laughter was? What sorts of measures would they take to understand? What we are reading, I think, are the research notes of aliens trying to understand humanity in purely scientific terms, unable to comprehend the intangibles of the human experience. Corbin Fusco, of course, does not reveal the ultimate context of these experiments. Your theory might be different.

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Of the three stories I have read thus far for The Ghost Box, “N0072-JK1” is my favorite. It is only a few pages in length, but it is ruthless and precise. Every detail is revealed at exactly the most effective moment. Subtle and horrifying, it’s an easy recommendation.

NEXT TIME: “The Clock” by W. F. Harvey!

THE GHOST BOX: “The Late Shift” by Dennis Etchison

Ghost Box

This is the second entry in a month-long series focusing on a horror anthology edited by Patton Oswalt called The Ghost Box (buy it here)The blog will resume its standard format in November.

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Have you ever been out really late at night? I mean late, like two in the morning, when almost nothing is open and nobody is out. Have you ever found yourself in, say, a gas station, or one of those 24-hour diners? The employees behind the counter don’t really seem all there, do they? Sure, they’ll ring up your order and give you change, but they seem to look right through you. Like zombies, almost…

Dennis Etchison was born in Stockton, California in 1943, and has been publishing fiction regularly since 1961. The Viking-Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror & The Supernatural describes him as “the most original living horror writer in America.” He has won the British Fantasy Award three times for his writing and two World Fantasy Awards for his editorial work. “The Late Shift” first appeared in the legendary 1980 anthology Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley (the same collection that gave us Stephen King’s “The Mist”). It was later included in Etchison’s 1982 collection The Dark Country.

Dark Forces

The basic thrust of the story is that a man named Macklin discovers a clandestine corporation that reanimates corpses during the 48-or-so hours before they are buried and shops them out to gas stations, garages, convenience stores, and the like for cheap nighttime labor – a literal graveyard shift. In an interview, Etchison elaborates:

“The idea was how the capitalist system can extract its pound of flesh from you in labor even after you died. There is that mysterious period of time, two or three days between the time you died and the time that you’re cremated or buried. In a true capitalist system, which is interested in utilizing its resources to the max, they might find a way to make money off of you during that time, before your body is planted in the ground.”

In concept, this struck me as a sort of extension of George A. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead. In that film, Romero used zombies mindlessly wandering a shopping mall as stand-ins for the American consumer. Etchison’s story broadens that idea to include the people who sell to those consumers as well.

Etchison’s anti-capitalist message is fully expressed in an extraordinary moment late in the story. Abducted by the corporation – its name is never revealed – Macklin finds himself in a van full of living corpses. Realizing the scope of the violations that have been committed, Macklin tells the corpses that their abuse will end, that they will soon be reclaimed by their loved ones and their lives will be celebrated. The depth of feeling in this passage, its compassion and rejection of exploitation, transcends mere pulp horror; the entire story is elevated by its presence.

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In the introduction to Etchison’s short story collection Red Dreams, Karl Edward Wagner writes that Etchison’s fiction typically focuses on “an individual adrift in a society beyond his control, beyond his comprehension, in which only sheeplike acceptance and robotlike nonawareness permit survival.” There is an element of this idea in “The Late Shift.” Macklin’s friend Whitey is the first to recognize that something is wrong with the local convenience store clerk, and investigating those suspicions costs him dearly. Macklin likewise does not find himself in danger until he begins his own investigation. If the primary theme of the story is that capitalism commodifies everything, its secondary theme is that the systems of power that control our lives can and will respond violently to challenge.

Etchison’s prose is largely no-nonsense, though there are moments of poetry, as when he compares quiet voices to “the opening and closing of paper.” There are some elements of the writing that have not dated well, such as his use of the term “Amerinds” to describe Whitey, who is Native American; the term is considered offensive. I would like to hope, given the humanity Etchison displays elsewhere, that this was not deliberate on his part, but reading the story today it cannot be ignored.

The rare problematic moment aside, I enjoyed “The Late Shift.” It’s an effective blend of mystery and horror (though I know I’ve spoiled the mystery here), given extra dimensions by its social commentary. Will Errickson, writing for Tor, described it as “one of [Etchison’s] most lauded and original works.” Seek it out. I know that I will be exploring Etchison’s dark country for a long time to come.

NEXT TIME: “N0072-JK1” by Adam Corbin Fusco!

THE GHOST BOX: “The Night Wire” by H. F. Arnold

Ghost Box

This is the first entry in a month-long series focusing on a horror anthology edited by Patton Oswalt called The Ghost Box (buy it here). The blog will resume its standard format in November.

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Not much is known about Henry Ferris Arnold. He was born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1902 and graduated from Knox College in 1923, serving as a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II. He married a woman named Margaret Ives, but the marriage ended in divorce. He died in Orange County, California in 1963 at the age of 61. From 1926 to 1937, Arnold published three stories in the magazine Weird Tales, and these constitute the entirety of his published fiction.

The first was called “The Night Wire,” and appeared in the September 1926 issue. It ended up being one of the most popular stories the magazine published during the period – so popular, in fact, that it was reprinted in the January 1933 issue. Read it here.

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“The Night Wire” is about a man who works the night shift at a telegraph office. His job, and that of his single co-worker, is to monitor and transcribe the messages that come in over the wire. His co-worker, John Morgan, is so skilled that he can transcribe from two machines simultaneously. There’s usually no need for that, though; the news is slow while the world sleeps.

Tonight, however, Mr. Morgan’s skills are needed. Strange messages start to come in over the wire. It would seem that in a town called Xebico – the narrator has never heard of such a place – a strange fog has appeared from nowhere. It hangs over the town, growing ever more dense. Screams are heard from within. Those who enter the fog to investigate never return. Strange lights appear in the sky. Inhuman figures are seen in the mist. There are reports of townspeople being “consumed – piecemeal.” Whatever is going on, it is unprecedented and apocalyptic.

Weird Tales Jan 1933

Up until the ending, “The Night Wire” is an astonishing bit of storytelling. A good deal of its power comes from its economy. Telegraphs, when they were still in operation, were all about brevity, squeezing the most detail into the fewest number of words. This scheme is reflected in Arnold’s prose. The story is no more than five or six pages, and every paragraph is essential, every detail precisely chosen. This is contrasted with the actual telegraphs the narrator reads in the story – while the initial dispatches from Xebico are terse and mysterious, as the story proceeds they grow ever longer and more elaborate, until entire paragraphs are coming over the wire.

Arnold’s decision to separate his narrator from the action is a stroke of genius. It is a terrific method for generating suspense: like the narrator, we are helpless, waiting breathlessly for updates from the wire. Orson Welles would use the same device to similar effect twelve years later in his 1938 radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The mood that is conjured by all of this is extraordinary – Arnold convincingly evokes the panic, confusion, fear, and horror that accompanies a sudden attack by an unknown foe, maintaining an atmosphere of dread that is the hallmark of the best weird fiction (in their anthology The Weird, Anne and Jeff VanderMeer praise the story as “a perfect example of how weird creates not just unease, but dislocation”).

Masterpieces of Terror

Now, onto that ending. After reading the last update from Xebico, the narrator discovers that Morgan has been dead for hours, apparently typing his dispatches from beyond the grave. A subsequent search of a world atlas reveals no town called Xebico. Was Morgan tapping into broadcasts from another reality? Did the fog travel through the wire and kill Morgan? Was it all just the fever dream of a dying man? Arnold steadfastly refuses to say.

This, to me, presents something of a problem. On the one hand, I respect Arnold’s instinct to keep his mysteries hidden. It is commonly accepted that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. In that sense, the ending – with all its troubling implications – is effective. On the other hand, I think the actual twist is a cheap one, the equivalent of the writer shouting “boo!” at the reader. There are other endings that would have cohered more strongly with what came before. If I had written it, it would have ended with the narrator looking out the window to see the fog has reached him too (a twist that is even suggested by Arnold at one point).

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Despite its middling ending, “The Night Wire” is easily recommended, a wonderful example of the weird tale well worth reading even in the age of cell phones and social media. Horror fans reading it today are sure to draw comparisons to John Carpenter’s film The Fog, as well as Stephen King’s novella “The Mist” (both from 1980), though “The Night Wire” has more in common with Carpenter’s work than King’s. It’s been reprinted in many anthologies over the years, such as the 1985 collection Masterpieces of Terror & The Supernatural, with its wonderful cover by Edward Gorey, and the more recent Lost Signals: Horror Transmissions (2016). Its inclusion in The Ghost Box helps to ensure that it will continue to be read for a long time.

NEXT TIME: “The Late Shift” by Dennis Etchison!