Keep Me in the Loop, You Dead Mechanism
December 21, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
What’s Christmas without some ancient demons embedded in the chimney? On the evening of December 25, 1972, BBC viewers celebrated the birth of Christ by being scared to death. They learned that their homes could be resonating with discarnate traumas absorbed over centuries, that the limestone walls have been listening, recording, and screaming—and that the ghost of Christmas past had been using their minds as its personal VCR. Scripted by Nigel Kneale, The Stone Tape is about a British electronics company who’s in a race to beat Japan to a super washing machine and a groundbreaking recording medium based on the “magnetic susceptibility” of certain minerals and their capacity to retain terrible memories. Holed up in a Victorian mansion, the team of bickering scientists working for Ryan Electronics would discover that haunting was a new form of playback. Merry Christmas.
Kneale had grown up on the Isle of Man, home to a mongoose named Gef who could prove his own existence in six different languages, including Russian and Arabic. Kneale’s imagination flourished in television, a medium with a reputation for killing souls. His teleplays seemed intent on trying to out-weird each other: a taxidermist gets stuffed by a pond of vengeful toads; a man is choked to death by his own bike wreckage; a porn cinema is haunted by dolphins. He also gave us titles like “Vegetable Village,” “Clog-Dance for a Dead Farce,” and “The Big Big Giggle.” One of my favorite Kneale shows involves a frumpy supermarket cashier who enlists the store mascot—a woodchuck called Briteway Billy—to wage telekinetic war against her tyrant boss, pummeling him to death with nonperishable canned goods. How many soup cans can a supermarket woodchuck ghost hurl?
I was introduced to Kneale’s work like most kids: by a fifty-foot hologram of a psychic locust and a British colonel deliquesced by five million years of bad Martian energy. I had no idea that I was watching the end of the Hammer Films classic Quatermass and the Pit, the final installment of Kneale’s trilogy about a scientist who’d already been to Saturn and, as one critic described, returned as a “human cactus.” After the towering grasshopper got walloped by a construction crane, I found myself in the backyard, mowing the lawn. The world outside went on pretending to be a Saturday afternoon. (What is it with yard work and the end of the world? After watching Charlton Heston splatter a few cowled mutants in Ray-Bans in The Omega Man, I was also dispatched to the backyard, where I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to shake off the apocalypse with a weed eater.) The lawnmower competed with the sound of the diamond drill penetrating a spaceship hull inside my head. Then there was the giant Martian locust itself, a projection of projections, from Neale’s pen to the film to my TV and, finally, to my Saturday backyard brain, removed to the point of abduction.
More menacing than Grinch-green Martians from the prop warehouse was the idea of being chased by a flock of newspapers and pie plates. In his pocket-size Science Fiction in the Cinema, John Baxter admires the Quatermass scene in which the possessed drill operator gets caught in a williwaw of print media and goes “whirling out of the station and into the night amid a cloud of dust and rubbish, capers down the street like a medieval plague victim, destroys a pie stall, sending its paper plates spinning, then staggers through an old church yard to collapse among the graves as the ground heaves and ripples under him.” But the frightening truth was embedded in the rubble, a source of painful memories for postwar Britain, as if a sentient Martian capsule buried in a subway were unexploded V-2 ordnance. Either way, it’s bad headlines for civilization.
While working on Quatermass and the Pit, Kneale submitted an order to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, requesting “Martian crowd chatter” and “quick glunks.” (Someone else had already requested the sound of an office building flying through outer space in the grip of seven powerful tractor beams.) Forgive the crossing of streams, but consider the stone-tape potential in Quatermass’s alien beta capsule. Perhaps the Ryan Electronics Corporation should’ve supported research for Quatermass’s Optic Encephalograph, instead of focusing on the next great domestic appliance. If this fine piece of ghost-busting equipment can project pre-Neanderthal memories of Martian genocide and race cleansing, consider the results (or horrors) it could generate in The Stone Tape basement. And as spirits continue to accumulate over eons, with the abundance of evils afforded by time and its feedback loops of bloodshed, you can’t help but wonder if all these demons are cool with sharing mineral bandwidth with one another, property claims be damned.
With their analogue gear, the eggheads in The Stone Tape deduce that the eidolon, which manifests itself in a woman’s scream, was a mass of data awaiting correct interpretation. Tragedies of the past had been reduced to information in a continuous feedback loop. There’s nothing left of you but just enough to repeat the worst moment of your life over and over again. You’re just a dead mechanism. At one point, one of the sound engineers makes a joke about feeding Spam to the ghost, referring to the thirty tins of sodium nitrate–enhanced mystery meat left behind by American soldiers, the house’s former occupants, during the war. (Of course, demons have less interest in spam than unsavory deleted items, as any politician haunted by their past would agree.)
The Stone Tape was a headier scare than most supernatural holiday legends—no furry, horned Alpine creatures abducting children here. It introduced a twist on the classic babysitter trope of tracing the phone calls upstairs. Instead, the disturbances are traced to our own minds. Get out of your head now—no matter how much pleasure is derived from notions of concentrated perches of haunting, another Kneale flourish. Ryan Electronics’ project director Peter Brock and his crack team were “going at the ghost with science,” but the science itself had been repossessed. There was no echo locator. In The Stone Tape, the machines don’t catch the sounds, but the humans do, often unspooling in grand fashion, holding their heads, as if trying to scream out the noise itself. “We are the freaks!” cries one scientist, his contribution to research.
I’ve got them on my headphones!
You’ve got them in your head!
It turns out the employees of Ryan Electronics were just a bunch of decently paid amplifiers. Quick to boil, Brock scoffs at the one exception on staff: You! You’ve got no playback. The poor blank is crestfallen, his mind not considered fit for hosting the worst moments of another, on repeat. Another dead mechanism. However, Jill Greeley, the group’s computer programmer and sole female member, was overqualified. In the opening scene, she is besieged by a font, perceiving a malevolence of white noise in the Ryan Electronics logo. (The font itself could be described as Analog Routing Number.) Ultimately she is transmuted from flesh into a geologic frequency, always in the loop, perpetually doomed in the know. Information’s curse. The reels have been successfully transferred. Are the memories awful due to a tragic loss or because they can’t be remembered at all?
Brock himself ends up on the cutting room floor, obsolete and flailing amid tendrils of paper—seven thousand years of lost data, from an application for an exorcism filed in 1892 to a child’s lone Christmas wish: What I want is please go away.
Dave Tompkins’s first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop is now out in paperback. A version of this essay appears in the anthology The Twilight Language of Nigel Kneale.