If you maintain a force in the world that comes into people’s sleep, you are exercising a meaningful power. — Don DeLillo in “Underworld”

— There’s a call on the Area 51 Caller Line. Art Bell answers on the air, unscreened as always.

A panicked, nearly hysterical man says he was let go from the top-secret government compound deep in the Nevada desert. The man cannot divulge his location. He is in a hurry. “They’ll triangulate on this position really soon.”

“Give us something, quick,” Bell urges.

Through the miracle of satellite technology, the talk show host transmits the disturbing call to more than 400 radio stations across the nation -- more than any other radio show but for Paul Harvey, Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger. Bell broadcasts from a beige easy chair, sitting alone in a tiny bedroom of his double-wide trailer deep in the desert, one mountain range away from the mysteries of the black-budget Air Force base known as Area 51.

“What we’re thinking of as aliens, Art, they’re extra-dimensional beings that an earlier precursor of the space program made contact with,” the caller blurts out. “They have infiltrated a lot of aspects of the military establishment, particularly Area 51. The disasters that are coming, they -- the government -- knows about them. . . . They want those major population centers wiped out so the few who are left will be more easily controllable. I say we g -- “

The man is weeping now, and suddenly there is only silence. One, two, three, four, five seconds of dead air -- a radio eternity. “Coast to Coast AM,” Bell’s program, has vanished into the ether. And then Bell’s theme music swells, and the host’s calm, resonant voice returns:

“Weird, weird, weird stuff. In all my life . . . . My uplink transmitter was dead as a doornail.” For the first time in all his years of broadcasting, Bell had lost his connection to the transmitter. Smack in the middle of that call.

Later that night, Bell offers listeners his take on the event: “That’s beyond coincidence. It was done to you.”

The desert, it is said, does strange things to the eye. It is true: That man with a straw hat, quivering in the remote distance, turns out to be a clump of cactus. That cloud, on closer inspection, is a mountain. That fog is faraway ice.

Eighty miles west of the nattering neon assault that is Las Vegas, a narrow road leads to Pahrump, an ancient Indian settlement poised for development as the next gambling paradise. Not far from the town’s main drawing cards -- legal brothels called Sheri’s Ranch and the Chicken Ranch -- Bell’s trailer commands a plot of sand and rock, surrounded by satellite dishes and a chain-link fence.

By day, it’s nothing special, the hideout of just one more American who found his piece of paradise and straightaway nailed up a “No Trespassing” sign. But at night, when the crystal-black sky explodes with stars and the mountains offer a scarf of darkness, this trailer is transformed into a transmitter of freakish fear and the sweetest of hopes. Kept company by a fistful of phone lines, a trio of computers, an atomically synchronized clock and a framed, bare-breasted photo of the actress Shannen Doherty, a 52-year-old man who hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in nine years offers an insomniac nation a host of extravagant, extraordinary, even extraterrestrial possibilities.

While the other big names of radio traffic in standard-issue news, politics and family concerns, Bell’s all-night talkfest concentrates on conspiracies and coverups of the gravest order: alien abductions and crop circles, cloning and bird flu, El Nin~o and pfiesteria, cattle mutilations and anthrax scares. In Bell’s world, visitors from other dimensions win equal time with Clinton and Lewinsky. Callers who use remote viewing to look ahead in time are taken as seriously as Washington pundits who claim to peer into the presidential future.

Bell, heard in Washington on WRC (570 AM), asks that we embrace all possibilities. He is a preacher of sorts, a purveyor of gloom and doom on Earth, and of hope and possibility in the great beyond. He is a loner who lives modestly even now that Jacor Communications, which owns the Limbaugh and Schlessinger shows, has bought his weekday and weekend programs for $9 million. He is a grown-up geek who conducts his own search for meaning before a rapidly growing audience of more than 10 million listeners. He is an intelligent man who wears his gullibility proudly.

Last year, when a scientist told Bell that a UFO was hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet, he and many of his listeners took the claim at face value. So did a purple-clad cult called Heaven’s Gate, whose members shortly before their mass suicide provided a link to Bell’s World Wide Web site on their own site.

Shaken by news accounts linking him to the suicide, Bell would eventually spurn the notion of the secret spacecraft. Actually, he insists, he “disproved” the claim on the air well before the Heaven’s Gate members took their lives. But his initial reaction was typical Bell: If you say so, sure. Travelers

In bed late at night, a seven-transistor radio tucked under his pillow, the adolescent Bell listened to the talkers who first gave voice to the great American obsessions -- the eternal debate over the John F. Kennedy assassination, the rumblings about CIA mind-control experiments, the well-worn tales of ordinary people who said they’d been abducted by creatures from outer space.

It would be many years before some of those issues would become acceptable in daylight, but the great web of conspiracy was already being spun in the privacy of the night, and Bell felt himself a part of that invisible community. While his parents fought and meandered around the nation -- Bell, a Marine brat, says he attended 35 high schools -- radio was a constant. Days, he raised hell, making bombs and rockets. Nights, he pretended to be on the air, a rock deejay with a gaggle of groupies.

He got his FCC ham license at age 13. For most of his 38 years in radio, Bell, a square-faced man with a thick salt-and-pepper mustache, big ears and rectangular wire-rim glasses, had little opportunity to share his interest in the bizarre. In college -- including a brief stop at the University of Maryland -- he studied engineering before dropping out to do radio. He was a rockin’ boss jock spinning the hits on little stations in New England, California, even in Okinawa, where he spent six years working at a U.S. military station. He set a world record for seesawing while broadcasting -- 57 hours. But mostly, it was time, temp, a couple of quips, and bam into the music, mastering the deejay’s tricks of the period -- step right over the intro, but don’t ever walk on that vocal!

Bell eventually tired of radio and became a cable guy, a job that brought him to Las Vegas in the mid-’80s. An AM station asked him back to a part-time, overnight job as a talk show host. For several years, he was a West Coast phenomenon, popular enough, but among radio industry executives, considered a regional oddity.

There was something about the West, with its great expanses of empty land and sky. “Out here, everything is bigger,” Bell says. “You see strange things and that changes you.” Dreamland

Welcome to Dreamland, a program dedicated to an examination of areas of the human experience not easily or neatly put in a box, things seen at the edge of vision, awakening a part of the mind as yet not mapped. . .

-- Opening of Bell’s Sunday night show

Dreamland is also the name used by military pilots for the expanse of desert north of Bell’s house, Area 51, where pilots get to fly experimental craft they previously could only dream about.

It was on the way home to Pahrump from Vegas one summer night that Bell had his own close encounter. Just before midnight, Art and his wife were about a mile from home when Ramona blurted, “What the hell is that?”

Art cut the engine, and the two of them looked behind the car and up. Hovering over the road was an enormous triangular craft, each side about 150 feet long, with two bright lights at each point of the triangle. After a while, the craft floated directly over the Bells. The thing was barely moving. And, Bell says, “It was silent. Dead silent. It did not appear to have an engine.”

After a few moments, the craft floated across the valley and out of sight. Bell calls this his “UFO experience,” and says flatly: “It really doesn’t matter that much to me if anyone believes me. Thousands of people seeing the same thing cannot all be wrong.” Voice of Night

The show ends at 3 a.m. Pacific time, and Bell steps out into the cool desert air. He stares up at the mountains, walks around, then slips inside the gray concrete building he has just erected behind the house. It looks like a truncated barn; inside, it is a racquetball court and steam room. It is where he goes to return to earthly reality.

“There is a difference in what people are willing to consider, daytime versus nighttime,” Bell says. “It’s dark and you don’t know what’s out there. And the way things are now, there may be something.”

Bell’s voice is not a sleepy sound; he is not the soothing FM deejay or the romantic companion of a listener’s dreams. No, there is a certain formality to Bell’s diction, a classic announcer’s voice with an almost Canadian enunciation, as if he were the Official Voice of Night.

He offers a defense against the sapping mystery of night. The listener lies alone in bed, perhaps with only a 40-watt bulb and a clock radio as protection from solitude. Bell’s voice arrives as a beacon -- stiff yet warm, distant yet close enough to comfort.

Overnight is the only time radio is not governed by focus groups and audience surveys. It is one of radio’s oldest traditions: Free from the tyranny of time and temp, news and ads, an individual intelligence can expose itself to listeners in cars and bars and empty offices and wrinkled sheets.

For more than half a century, the great clear-channel stations have carried 50,000-watt signals from the Northeast to the Midwest, from the Mississippi to the Potomac, filling the night with voices such as Jean Shepherd, who spun fabulously improvised tales of an Indiana childhood on New York’s WOR; or Herb Jepko, who presided over a gathering of truckers, little old ladies and night clerks with his gentle Nightcappers club out of Salt Lake City; or Larry King, who first from Miami and then from Washington paved the way for an explosion in talk media.

But the king of the night was Long John Nebel, the onetime carnival huckster who transfixed several generations of listeners with all-night tales of UFOs and government conspiracies, multiple personalities and parapsychology. Nebel, who once sold lucky numbers on the streets of downtown Washington, used his New York talk show to sell sand dollars, vitamins and life insurance. He might spend four or five hours on the air probing the passions of a young radical such as Malcolm X, but politics was secondary: Nebel was the first to make the connection between the night and the eerie topics that could keep listeners saying to themselves, “Well, just another 20 minutes.”

It was Nebel’s show that Bell listened to as a sleepless adolescent; it was Nebel who first opened Bell’s ears to the possibilities of a world beyond. But while Nebel was first and foremost a pitchman, a “magnificent charlatan,” as his biographer, Donald Bain, put it, Bell actually believes what he’s saying. He is wedded to the night not because it is where he finally hit it big, but because it is where he is philosophically comfortable.

Everyone else in radio these days is a clone, Bell says. Limbaugh, Ollie North, Gordon Liddy -- “famous criminals, morning shows that compete to find the worst language you can manage to get on the air, the most controversial topics. Guns! Abortion!”

Outside, the sagebrush flops around in the wind. Bell seems out of sorts in the midday sun -- one reason he says he will never do TV or daytime radio. “I talk about weird stuff,” he says quietly. “What I do only works at night, only on the radio.”

Claire Reese, general manager of KDWN in Las Vegas, where Bell worked for six years before his show went national three years ago, put Bell on days for a brief period. The show bombed. “He didn’t really tick until he was on at night,” she says. “Night people are just different.”

“Art is a loner,” Reese says. “He’s headstrong, wants to do things his way. He’s so engrossed in what he does that he doesn’t need anything but what he has out there in the desert.” Hearing Is Believing

You will never hear Bell tell off a guest, no matter how harebrained the tale, no matter how preposterous the claims. It’s not that he believes every word, but that he believes his job is “to help them get their story out, no matter how wild. Unless someone is dangerously misinforming my audience, that’s not the role of this host. Let the audience decide.”

A guest predicts an explosion on the sun that will wipe out all plant life in Africa. Bell acts as if he’s just heard that tomorrow will be partly cloudy with a chance of showers.

“That comes from a remote viewer, someone reporting from a discipline that the U.S. military spent $20 million developing,” he says. “Just let them unwind their story.”

Is there no limit to what Bell would put on the air? “Well,” he says, “I had Tom Metzger, the white supremacist, on the other night, so pretty much no.”

At the end of that broadcast, Bell told Metzger, “I am married to a brown-skinned Asian woman. What does that make me?”

A traitor to your race, Metzger said.

“Thanks very much, Tom,” Bell replied. “Good night.”

“He sunk his own ship,” the host says a few days later. “And I was only polite.” Childish Inanities’

If Art Bell believes half of what is claimed on his program, he is either the world’s most gullible man or a raving lunatic. Or he is right, and the people who call themselves rational are wrong.

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, an organization of scientists and science buffs devoted to puncturing the claims of believers in alternate realities, has dissected and dismissed Bell’s writings and radio rhetoric.

“The plague of pompous pieties, platitudes and propaganda never ceases!” says Robert Baker, psychology professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky, reviewing Bell’s book, “The Quickening.” “It is very difficult for us to believe Bell . . . would have the unmitigated gall to ask the public to pay $24.95 for 336 pages of childish inanities or to have them read such drivel as, Ghosts and apparitions exist and houses can be haunted. Of that there is no doubt.’ “

Baker and other scientists reject Bell’s notions as irresponsible, “inexhaustible ignorance,” but the broadcaster is undaunted. “Belief in the paranormal is like religious faith. It’s something you can’t lay your hands on,” he says. “I have something beyond faith. I’ve gone beyond faith because I have seen these things.”

Last March, Bell asked his listeners to “try to send mental connective thoughts to ask these beings to show themselves.” And on March 13, he says, “a craft described as two miles long was seen and photographed over Phoenix. There is something on the outer edge of what I do.”

Some devoted listeners hang on Bell’s every word: In about 40 cities around the country, and in London and Tokyo, Art Bell Chat Clubs meet regularly to hear talks by UFOlogists and folks who claim to have had near-death and past-life experiences. “The majority of the members are people who are interested in finding the truth, no matter what it is,” says Tim Cannon, a former limo driver in Denver who launched the chat clubs. “We’re searching, trying to make a change in the world, like Art.”

Bell is grateful for such devotion, but cautious. He admits having fallen for his own listeners’ hoaxes, including a 1995 scenario called Project Blackhole that predicted a Los Angeles earthquake. And he readily concedes that some of his listeners have lost contact with the rails.

“The proportion of nuts is probably slightly in excess of what the American people are, and according to the American Psychiatric Association, one in every four Americans has a mental disorder of some type,” Bell says. “But I’ll say this: What is weird and crackpot crazy tonight is on the front page of The Washington Post three months later. I was talking about El Nin~o and the weather changes we’re going to face a year ago, and I was a crackpot then. I’m a prophet now.” He laughs. Black Ops

Internet chat lines these days are abuzz with claims that Bell is “on a secret government black ops payroll.” Michael Hemmingson, a listener who first proposed the notion, wonders whether the U.S. government uses Bell to disseminate disinformation and keep tabs on what Americans believe.

The conspiracy widens with the inevitable list of Bell’s guests who have mysteriously disappeared after appearing on his program. Why then, the theorist asks, has no harm come to Bell himself?

Bell has played along, posting the entire exchange about his possible government ties on his Web site (www.artbell.com) and remarking on the air that “I’m not afraid. If they’re gonna come after me, they’re gonna come after me.”

When a Las Vegas newsman leaves a message asking about the rumor, Bell puts this shouted reply on the reporter’s voice mail: “I can’t talk to you! You’re one of them!”

He manages to hold back his laughter until he’s off the phone. The Quickening

Life is accelerating. Natural disasters and unnatural acts, invasions from afar and disappointments from next door, a weakening social fabric and frightening forces of destruction, emerging viruses and disturbing weather patterns -- it all adds up to what Bell calls the Quickening.

“The world is not the same, not a place to feel safe in,” he writes in “The Quickening.” The book catalogues the daily advance of the forces of decline. Nearly everywhere Bell looks, he sees doom: El Nin~o, U.N. peacekeepers, economic globalization, militias, cults, stressed parents, unchecked consumerism.

“Most of us want to pretend we are the masters of our environment,” Bell writes. “But we are completely vulnerable. . . .”

America in particular has gone soft, he believes, spoiled by wealth and an exaggerated sense of security. Bell’s interest in politics has waned. He once supported Barry Goldwater, voted for Ross Perot last time around, and has come to consider Clinton a good president, even if he is “the monster from our id.” Now, Bell considers himself a libertarian. But more than that, he is a typical American -- increasingly tuned out from things political, searching for something more.

“My hopes for America are virtually nonexistent,” he writes in his autobiography, “The Art of Bell.”

Bell is dressed entirely in black. As he talks about his vision of the future, his voice darkens, he scrunches his face so his skin bulges in tight horizontal folds.

In his living room, the Weather Channel monitors the physical world. Suddenly the screen goes dark. Every light in the house flickers. The skies outside are clear.

“See that?” he shouts, then nervously picks up his pack of Carltons. “That’s what we deal with out here.” Home on the Range

Ever since he was a kid, packing up over and over to follow his military parents to a new assignment, Bell has craved a place like this. His. With no one to tell him what to do, no one to tell him to pick up and move.

Trust, patriotism, respect -- these can all be stripped away. Bell, for one, blames Richard Nixon for creating a nation of cynics, a people who gave up on one reality and went off in search of another. “I’ve created my stability right here,” he says in his trailer, remote control in hand. “This is my little Ozzie and Harriet world in a world that’s changing.”

He and Ramona, who helps produce “Dreamland” and assists with the torrent of calls, buy nothing on credit, practice their shooting to fend off any intruders (none so far), and care for their cats. “Everything you see around you isn’t lavish,” Bell says, “but it’s paid for.”

“I move in and out of these two worlds every day. I need to have one to balance the other. I can do my five hours of the present, pathetic state of the world, and then I need the other hours to have my own world.”

In the middle of the night, in a trailer deep in the desert, with Ramona asleep in the other room, Bell sits alone like the rest of us, vulnerable. The desert remembers everything we want to forget, the bombs and experiments, secrets and lies. The listener lies in bed, also wanting to forget. Art Bell helps him to remember things he never knew.