Sunday, October 25, 2020

An Inspiration for Stephen King's The Mist?

"It's best to be as clear about this as I can - I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.  The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).  If you can see things this way (or at least try to), we can work together comfortably.  If, on the other hand, you decide I'm crazy, that's fine.  You won't be the first (163)".  That's how Stephen King describes the way in which he gets his ideas.  It can all be found in his autobiographical instruction manual, On Writing.  Whatever else can or should be said about him, its obvious enough that King was dead serious when he both thought up and wrote down that statement.  I haven't seen him say or do anything else in all the years since that would lead me to believe he's changed his mind on the subject.  His is a career of soaring heights, mixed in the the occasional embarrassment.  Throughout it all, though, that idea of a work of fiction as an art that makes itself, or emerges from the depths of imagination as something fully formed, yet perhaps always seen through a dark glass, appears to have remained constant.

King has never been what you'd call a Rhodes Scholar, though he may have something in the way of a philosophy.  It's no real surprise, given his chosen profession, that a lot of it centers on what he calls "The Art of the Craft".  The real question is whether there is enough experience to bear his main idea out?  The good news, so far as I can see, is that I have heard other artists, not just book writers, but also playwrights, screenplayers, painters, and poets express the same conviction.  The best testimony of this same process at work has to come from the pen of J.R.R.Tolkien.  In the midst of his Collected Letters, Tolkien makes several repeated statements that he often had no idea that his most famous work was going to take the narrative twists and turns that wound up in the finished product.  "I have long ceased to invent", he says at one point, "(though even patronizing or sneering critics on the side praise my 'invention'): I wait till I seem to know what really happened.  Or till it writes itself.  Thus, though I knew for years that Frodo would run into a tree-adventure somewhere far down the Great River, I have no recollection of inventing Ents.  I came at last to the point, and wrote the 'Treebeard' chapter without any recollection of any previous thought; just as it now is.  And then I saw that, of course, it had not happened to Frodo at all (italics mine, sic) (212)".

Likewise, Neil Gaiman once described his writing method in the opening preface to a screenplay of his called Mirrormask. "...I'll talk about it to the point where I'm ready to start writing, and then I start writing and find out the rest of it as I go along (12)".  Rudyard Kipling, meanwhile, maintained a lot earlier than either of the three authors mentioned above that all of his best work was done not by him, but rather under the influence of what he referred to as his daemon.  In other words, all he meant is that he couldn't fulfill his proper function as a writer unless the muse in his mind spoke up.  He claimed that all his best work was done under the influence of this same muse.  In fact, it is possible that Kipling's short narrative, "The Greatest Story in the World" is about how the creative work is lacking without the necessary inspiration in place.  It's main lead is a very shallow, modern young lad who wants to be a writer.  Most of what he writes is pure drivel.  Then there will come moments when something his mind speaks up, and an epic tale about the exploits of a Grecian galley slave start to form on the page.  When this influence withdraws, however, nothing comes out right.  The whole thing is an allegory that anticipates King's argument by at least a whole century.

The preponderance of written evidence all attests to the same conclusion.  In order to do their job, all the best writers have to get out of the way and let the imagination start talking of its own accord.  They seem to rely on it as something that has to be done even when the final results may be less than flattering to their own selves.  The point is that the story is always the boss.  To try an make it anything less is to tell a lie with no thematic truth anywhere in it, and hence, a complete and total failure.  What King and the rest of the cavalcade seem to have described is a method of composition that, in essence, is the closest any of them will ever get to something like a standard operating procedure.  It is what it is.  Like Mt. Everest, the human mind is something that is just there, and so is the peculiar function known as the imagination, which appears to be a part of it.  Some of us have found ways to tap into that function.  The results can be known by many names like The Odyssey, 221 B Baker Street, or Middle Earth.  These things have all happened, once upon a by.  And after all these years, the question of where do the stories come from is still hanging around.

I'm inclined to believe King, for what it's worth.  I've run across too much evidence (some of it cited above) of the kind of phenomenon he talks about to believe he's just making up some kind of excuse.  The interesting part is how it's an explanation that still leaves a sense of mystery behind, not because the author is trying to obfuscate, but really because its all he knows for the most part.  "In most cases", King observes, "three or four out of every five, let's say - I know where I was when I got the idea for a certain story, what combination of events (usually mundane) set that story off.  The genesis of It, for example, was my crossing a wooden bridge, listening to the hollow thump of my boot-heels, and thinking of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff."  In the case of Cujo it was an actual encounter with an ill-tempered Saint Bernard.  Pet Sematary arose from my daughter's grief when her beloved pet cat, Smucky, was run over on the highway near our house.

"Sometimes, however, I just can't remember how I I arrived at a particular novel or story.  In these cases the seed of the story seems to be an image rather than an idea, a mental snapshot so powerful it eventually calls characters and incidents the way some ultrasonic whistles supposedly call every dog in the neighborhood.  These are, to me, at least, the true creative mysteries: stories that have no real antecedents, that come on their own.  The Green Mile began with an image of a huge black man standing in his jail cell and watching the approach of a trusty selling candy and cigarettes from an old metal cart with a squeaky wheel (vii)".  In the case of a story like The Mist the inspiration seems to have been of this same sort, for the most part.  

The way King tells it, he was doing nothing more than browsing through the aisles of a supermarket when the moment of inspiration just walked it right to him.  "In the market, my muse suddenly shat on my head - this happened as it always does, suddenly, with no warning.  I was halfway down the middles aisle, looking for hot-dog buns, when I imagined a big prehistoric bird flapping its way toward the meat counter at the back, knocking over cans of pineapple chunks and bottles of tomato sauce.  By the time my son Joe and I were in the checkout lane, I was amusing myself with a story about all these people trapped in a supermarket surrounded by prehistoric animals.  I thought it was wildly funny - what The Alamo would have been like if directed by Bert I. Gordon.  I wrote half the story that night and the rest the following week (750)".      

That's the point of origin account given, based on the author notes in his 1980s short shorty collection, Skeleton Crew.  There's no real reason to doubt his account.  I'm pretty sure King is just telling all he's ever really known about this story.  He's also one of those writers who isn't stingy about sharing the contents of his own personal library with fans and readers in general.  King often likes to drop the names of writers whose work has left him with a sense of inspiration or enjoyment.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that some of those books are short story collections.  I just wonder sometimes if any of those collections contain an entry by some guy known as H.F. Arnold.  Nobody knows him, that's a pretty sure guarantee.  The name is a drawn blank for most people, and I don't even know what he looks like.  He's just a name on a page, attached to a certain short story.  It's the contents of that story, however brief it is, that gives me pause.  It makes me wonder where writings like The Mist really come from.  Are there types of stories that get retold more often than audiences or artists think or know about?  Wouldn't it be funny if The Mist had an unknown inspiration?

The Story.

News agencies have not been around forever, it just feels that way.  Everyone has a passing familiarity with places like Reuters or the Associated Press.  Then as now, the agency in question can still refer to itself as a wire service.  Because news wire services tend to be 24 hour businesses, that means the late shifts are often referred to as "Night Wire jobs".  Anyway, it's not the agencies themselves that matter, so much as whether or not they can be relied on to give out actual information.  

That's a whole other can of worms, though.  What I'm curious about is an incident that happened at an old West Coast outlet one foggy night.  This happened quite some time ago, never mind how many or how few.  The name of the agency itself doesn't even matter all that much.  It's the nature of the event itself that fits the definition of "kinda strange".  This was back during the days when places like the AP couldn't rely on anything digital to get the job done.  All you had to work with was an electrical telegraph device.  It was a curious contraption that, to the uninitiated, would have looked like a piano keyboard that somehow got involved in a freak nuclear accident that left it welded to an old stock market ticker-tape readout.  Instead of reading money, however, this device was used to deliver news bulletins.

It was a series of bulletins of unknown origin that have a lot of professionals and media historians puzzled.  It was during the night shift when this occurred.  There were just two operators on duty at the time.  One station remained silent, while the other kept receiving information reported to come from a location known as Xebico.  It started out as a what appeared to be a simple fog advisory.  "The heaviest mist in the history of the city settled over the town at 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon. All traffic has stopped and the mist hangs like a pall over everything. Lights of ordinary intensity fail to pierce the fog, which is constantly growing heavier.  Scientists here are unable to agree as to the cause, and the local weather bureau states that the like has never occurred before in the history of the city".  That was all, at first.  It was the description contained in the second bulletin to emerge from the town that sounded the first odd note.  It went into a bit more detail about the weather advisory.  It seemed a bit out of the ordinary to devote so much attention to anything like a simple smog alert.  The trouble is this phenomenon didn't behave like the usual weather.

The second notifictation read as follows: "As a peculiarity of the phenomenon, the fog is accompanied by a sickly odor, comparable to nothing yet experienced here."  If the second message was odd, then it was the receival the third dispatch that took things out of the realm of the strange, and into the downright troubling.  "Accounts as to the origin of the mist differ greatly. Among the most unusual is that of the sexton of the local church, who groped his way to headquarters in a hysterical condition and declared that the fog originated in the village churchyard.  "'It was first visible as a soft gray blanket clinging to the earth above the graves,' he stated. 'Then it began to rise, higher and higher. A subterranean breeze seemed to blow it in billows, which split up and then joined together again.  "'Fog phantoms, writhing in anguish, twisted the mist into queer forms and figures. And then, in the very thick midst of the mass, something moved.  "'I turned and ran from the accursed spot. Behind me I heard screams coming from the houses bordering on the graveyard.'   From there, everything just got weird, real fast.  

The Man Who Wasn't There.

In talking about any work of fiction, it always helps to know at least enough about the author that may help in a better understanding of the artwork itself.  The task is made all the more difficult if the critic doesn't have much to go on.  That's the situation I find myself in when it comes time to talk about H.F. Arnold, the author who set The Night Wire down on paper.  Guys like him don't make up the vast majority of any list of popular genre names, though they do crop up on the margins here and there.  It's also the spot on the map where his type are either doomed or destined to remain.  That's because they don't leave behind much personal or professional info to go on.  Instead, most of what we've to got work with is a series of creative scribblings that seem to come and go in a brief burst of creativity.  After that happens, the resolution of such careers tends to be anticlimactic.  The stream ends, the well or font of imaginative energy seems to dry up, and the artist is heard from no more.  The irony is that sudden endings like these can sometimes go a long way toward creating a minor form of mystique around the authors who follow this particular pattern.  Arnold seems to have been one of these types.

I think the best biographical summary of information doesn't come from me.  It's from the efforts of Chad Pfiefer and Chris Lackey of the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast.  According to Lackey, "Henry Ferris Arnold was born in 1902, supposedly, because actual facts about this guy are pretty sketchy.  Which is creepy in and of itself.  Some say that he was a journalist, and that he died in 1963, but I can't confirm that.  It doesn't seem that anybody can really confirm that...He only has three published stories that anybody's aware of.  This one, The Night Wire, was in Weird Tales in 1926.  The City of Iron Cubes, in 1929, also in Weird Tales.  And When Atlantis Was, in 1937, and that is it".  Pfiefer adds, "I found on a message board when I was combing around, and I looked a while to find any kind of bio on this guy that () could be corroborated, one person wrote (and I  have no idea where this comes from) he was an Illinois native who worked as a Hollywood press agent in the 1920s and 30s"...Don't know if that's true or not.  

"It seems likely that Arnold spent time working night shifts at newspapers too", but I don't know where that comes from, or if they're just assuming that because of the content of this story...Considering the content of the's odd that it seems like this author just appeared, knocked this out, published it, then vanished...It's yet another mysterious level of distance from the events that are recounted.  Especially because this was Weird Tales' most popular story.  It got reprinted over and over, it's been in a tone of anthologies...For it to be that famous and popular, and for people to have no idea who this guy is, I don't know.  It could be mysterious, or maybe this is a pseudonym.  Maybe for another author, who just never edited it (web)".  There's no real conclusion reached by either them, I'm afraid.  I  guess this is the part where you're supposed to make that eerie warbling noise as a sign of some kind of creep factor involved.  The only other extent sources of information I know of come from not one, but two posts about Arnold.  Both of them come from Bob Gay, and the website Famous and Forgotten Fiction.  A final bit of biographical information is provided by Terence P. Hanley, which call be read here.

As I said above, Arnold conforms to a type.  He's one of those ink-stained wretches who toil away in the trenches of the anonymous.  Usually these individuals aren't able to make much of a go at their chosen profession.  Some drop out of the profession quicker than others, and for various reasons.  Another shared trait among this particular crop is that if any of their work qualifies for remembrance, then it usually doesn't come until long after the major players can no longer enjoy it, for the most part.  Arnold seems to be a variation of this trope.  He never seems to have gotten much from his story, or else he just decided never to take more of the limelight.  The irony is that, as Pfiefer and Lackey said, Night Wire seems to have been the closest thing the magazine ever had to a bestseller.  It seems like all the perfect ingredients necessary for a posthumous reputation are in place.  The good news is that it's part of job of this blog to try and unearth as much of the forgotten entertainments of yesteryear as possible, and see if they can be given a fresh hearing to modern audiences.  That brings us to the story itself.

A Series of Firsts?

When it comes to discussing The Night Wire just as a narrative, what first jumps out at the reader might be the way in which it sets up a lot of tropes that have now gained a kind of base familiarity.  These are the narrative elements that most associate with the modern Horror genre.  In Arnold's case, this includes such old tropes as the city under siege, a diary record of events in a Lovecraftian vein, a monster invasion, and what perhaps might just be one of the earliest examples of apocalyptic horror outside the work of H.G. Wells.  I guess what differentiates this story from others like it is the way in which it conveys all this familiar information.  Instead of placing us right in the middle of the action, Arnold situates his readers from a vantage point where the horror is passed on at second hand remove.  We're at the mercy of a series of news wire bulletins that wind up being the last desperate entries from a fictional town that isn't on any map.  It's a narrative of just two main settings.  One is the aforementioned doomed small town, while the other is the news office where the real action takes place.

What Arnold has done here is to pull off a very clever kind of illusion.  In the strictest sense, there is no action taking place on stage.  All that happens is the narrator picks up a series of news copies and then proceeds to read them to himself in a darkened room at night.  If we limit our view to just this surface level, then while it's possible to say that at least we've got a setup that sounds promising, the trouble is that it can be argued nothing much happens until the end.  This is where Arnold is able to give the audience an understanding of his particular skills.  Without leaving that office, the writer is able to make a hole open up in the page of copy as the narrator looks at it, and then lead us right to the world inside it.  Arnold accomplishes this feat with nothing else except his skill with the basics of narrative  description.  Part of that comes from the way he entices the reader into the world within a secondary world.  He introduces the town of Xebico couched in the terms and signatures of a news office memo.  Arnold's ability to mimic that particular journalistic style of writing is carried off with a skill that seems to have been almost effortless, and perhaps adds credence to the idea that he worked in the kind of periodical setting like that contained in the narrative.  One of the old saws about the craft has always been to "Write what you know".  It could be advice that Arnold has taken to heart.

Whatever the case, he makes it seem easier than perhaps it ever can be.  Keep in mind, one of the constraints Arnold must have been operating under was the question of the limited amount of space he had to work with.  Weird Tales was and remains one of the most celebrated shorty magazines in the history of fiction.  I think what needs to be kept in mind here, however, is the most obvious fact.  It was a magazine that limited itself to short fiction, for the most part.  Arnold doesn't strike me as the kind of author who had gained enough of a reputation to the point where the editors were willing to take a chance on any book length story from him.  That means Arnold was stuck with the smaller format.  What this means, in essence, is that the writer was stuck with a kind of bottle setup.  He had this idea for a post-apocalyptic horror story, and he was probably granted just a short amount of column space in which to tell it.  The fact he was able to condense the end of an entire world into such short a space, and make it good just helps to bring out the nature of his accomplishment.

It's when looked at from the perspective of the market demands that Arnold's choice of framing his story in a series of news flashes begins to make more sense.  It is able to help establish this idea of a microcosmic community in as few words as possible.  We never hear much about Xebico except for a few geographical features, such as that it has a cemetery, church, hospital, and a news office advanced enough for the 1920s to give the idea of a community that is not a major metropolis, nor is it a one stoplight kind of place.  The impression I always get is of a medium sized city that is still removed just enough from the main crossroads so that it is quieter than most municipalities like it.  It's the sort of place where not much exciting is expected to happen.  It's part of what gives the horror its extra weight.  I think it's also down to the fact that Arnold is another artist who seems to have understood the effect an official news broadcast can have, even on a reading audience.  If information is delivered to us in the style of a newspaper, then the automatic assumption for a long time now has been to treat it as something real that you have to take a lot more seriously than you would something that begins, "Once upon a time".

Because Arnold knows how to manipulate the parlance of journalism, the reader is provided an easy bridge from the realm of the real to the unreal.  This is good, because the first note of unreality gets struck right away when that Sexton is sent on-stage ranting and raving about strange goings-on in a graveyard.  The very incident itself is a Gothic trope that was perhaps old by the time Bram Stoker came to write Dracula.  Arnold grants it a legitimacy through his idea of using the news bulletin format.  It's a crazy kind of gamble that he manages to make payoff.  Once the audience is able to go along with the story's initial inciting action, everything that comes after is allowed to flow along smoothly, no matter how outlandish it sounds.  Perhaps the most interesting bit of tomfoolery is the moment when Arnold gives what might just be the first instance of a conceit that would later become the zombie apocalypse.  Richard Matheson's I Am Legend is often cited as the main literary inspiration for the Living Dead trope.  However, it really sounds like Arnold beat him to the punch.  Especially in that moment where the fog, or the figures in it, are described approaching people in the street, and "devouring them piecemeal".  I'm not sure I recall hearing that trope anywhere else in a work of fiction from that time.  It's got to be a genuine first.  If it is, then I guess that means Arnold is an unsung pioneer, of sorts.

Whatever the case, the real accomplishment is that he shows himself as a true writer by hooking the reader in right from the start, and then keeping the narrative tension going right up to the end.  I've read some complaints here and there about the ending, however these are statements I've just never been able to buy into.  I think these readers were a bit too locked in to a certain idea of where they thought the story might be going, and the fact that it didn't conform to certain modern types of Zompocalypse or Lovecraftian narratives.  In that sense, they seem to be treating Arnold a bit unfairly.  They are measuring him by the same yardsticks they use to gauge the work of someone like Lovecraft, when it's pretty clear he utilizes such tropes in order to go off in a direction of his own.  Now, to be fair, if the author was to, say, take on unfinished HPL draft and try to put his own spin on it, in such a way that it mangled the narrative, then I'd say they had a point.  However, the story has the advantage of having to be judged as its own original thing.  In Arnold's case, its a gamble he is able to carry off.  I think this is down to the fact that he basically plays fair with his audience.  The ending might not have been anything I saw coming, yet in giving some further thought, it has the bonus of adding an extra layer of texture to the story.  We come in expecting a work of Gothic Cosmicism, and its a pleasant surprise (to me, at least) to discover a narrative that might be more supernatural than we were lead to believe.  

I think the best bit of extended critical commentary on The Night Wire can be found on a SF Audio podcast, featuring the contributions of Jesse Willis and Eric S. Rabkin.  What makes their examination of the narrative stand out from all the rest is the welcome degree of literacy they bring to it.  This is not too surprising when you hear one of the commentators admit that he is a college teacher, who works in a classroom for a living.  You tend to expect that sort to have an inkling about the thematics of a text (at least when they can remember what the job is supposed to mean, anyway).  In this case, Rabkin and Willis are able to do their profession proud.  They display an easy comfort and understanding of a disquieting text, and don't mind taking their time in pointing out all the interesting elements that some readers might have missed.  It's well worth your time, and it comes with recommendations.

Conclusion: The Question of Influence.

That just leaves one thing to talk about.  Or perhaps a better way to state it is that one question remains unasked.  This article started out wondering whether or not Stephen King might have derived any kind of inspiration from an old, forgotten Weird Tales entry?  To tell you the truth, I don't see how I've found anything that would change the answer I gave way back at the start.  The one discovery that got this whole thing started was an archived bit of trivia from Wikipedia.  The relevant fragment of information reads as follows: "The Mist bears resemblance to the earlier H.F. Arnold short story "Night Wire," in which a radio operator details how a malevolent mist falls over a city, containing creatures that consume townspeople "piecemeal." (The story, in its entirety, can be read here (web)".  Taken by itself, it's probably not much to go on.  However, the entry does make note of one other influence, this time it's one cited by King himself.  "(The Mist) makes brief mention of the horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, as the creatures and the concept of their origin in another dimension share a similarity with themes which commonly appeared in Lovecraft's writing. King has widely praised Lovecraft as a horror writer[1] and has directly borrowed from him in several other stories (ibid)".

That amounts to an in-story acknowledgement by the author that Lovecraft and his works had to be at least part of the main ingredients powering the engine of the story.  I suppose it's just possible to make a connection from the more familiar weird writer to that of H.F. Arnold.  However, that just begs the question.  If King really did run across the latter's story at some point, where could he have got it from?  If there was ever a chance he did read Arnold's fiction, then it would had to have come from an anthology collection of some sort.  The trouble is I don't even know whether that's true or not.  All this is just speculation.

If I'm being honest, I think a more likely conclusion goes as follows.  The best possible answer as to where The Mist and The Night Wire stand in relation to one another is to theorize that it's possible both King and Arnold were inspired by similar concepts, or variations of the same idea. For a long time now, there's been this tendency in critical circles, and even in a few fan communities, to believe that if a pair of stories by differing authors come along that share an incredible amount of similarities, then this must mean each writer was telling the same narrative.  To be fair, when it comes to such hazards as plagiarism, then I'll admit I can see why it helps to keep such thoughts in mind.  However, what about those cases where no charge of plagiarism can be brought up?  What then?  It's true that with both Night Wire and The Mist, we are dealing with written works that feature a similar premise, namely a monstrous fog the envelopes the main setting and its characters.  Left to just a bare minimal statement like that, the average unlettered reader would have little choice in the matter except to not be able to tell the difference.  However, I maintain it helps to make a distinction in both cases.  

If it is just possible for two authors, each separated from one another by decades of time, to uncover the same creative idea in their respective imaginations, then I'd argue the real distinction has to be come from the use each writer makes of it.  Arnold, for instance, takes the basic concept, and then goes only so far with it.  His entire story is a short vignette of an odd occurrence in which any possible explanation is left more or less up in the air.  In contrast, it could almost be said that King takes the initial premise and is then able to expand on it to a considerable degree.  That's not a judgment on the quality of Arnold's work.  In fact, I think it amounts to a further distinction.  There is another sense in which each yarn has to be measured by different criterions.  Arnold is concerned with a simple short story, whereas King made the idea into a miniature novel, or novella.  There is nothing that makes either format superior to the other.  It's a simple question of what kind of story the artist had to tell.  King's is a classic example of post-apocalyptic horror.  Arnold, on the other hand, begins his narrative in a way that makes it sound like King's approach, and then it ends on a note that makes it into its very own distinct thing.  However one chooses to read Arnold's denouement, whether you like it or hate it, what can't be denied is that at least the author has found a resolution that can be called his own, and not something that is just a cheap, hack copy of another artist.  All of which is to say he keeps his own voice, and make it a legitimate one.
It's this sense of individual identities that makes each work stand out from the other.  King is telling one type of story, while Arnold wound up with another.  Both of them have merits that need to be considered in their own, separate terms.  Which brings us to the real important question.  Does the older story work?  I'd have to say yes.  It was a healthy mixture of the old and the new.  I didn't just find a setup that was familiar.  Instead, it was somewhat gratifying to discover that the author found his own unique aspect of the situation to explore.  I think it's this that makes The Night Wire easy to recommend.  It's one of those classic narratives from the era of Lovecraft's Weird Circle.  There is gore to be had, if that's the reason you're into the genre.  However, it also has an element of quiet restraint that lends the really horrific parts an element of sophistication that might otherwise have been lacking.  It turns what could have been a simple potboiler into a clever sphinx riddle that the audience may be able to take a certain pleasure in trying to unravel after the narrative has come to a close.  Listen in for yourself, and see what you think.  You might find a pleasant and chilling surprise waiting for you in the dark.