November 12, 2003


I finally got round to watching my tape (ahem) of Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape. What an amazing piece of work.

Kneale is cybergothic up to his eyeballs. His standard move is also to offer a scientific remotivation of the supernatural. I say remotivation because this is not a reduction of the supernatural to the scientific. What became slightly irksome about Dr Who in the Pertwee phase when it continually 'borrowed' this move from Kneale was the Doctor's airy waving away of the supernatural in the name of science. Kneale's method is more subtle. It's true, Kneale agrees, as science since the enlightenment has maintained there is no supplementary spiritual substance, but the material world in which we live is more profoundly alien and strange than we have ever imagined. (Better to talk of the hypernatural than the supernatural in Kneale's case). And rather than insisting upon the pre-eminence of the rational (and therefore also of the human subject alleged to be the privileged bearer of reason), Kneale shows that an enquiry into the nature of what the world is like is also inevitably an unravelling of what we are.

In the Stone Tape, a group of scientists take up residence in a new research facility. It quickly becomes apparent that the building is haunted: one of their number, a female computer programmer, is particularly 'sensitive' to the ghost (a servant girl from the nineteenth century who died in a mysterious fall). Inevitably, the scientists go from sceptical dismissal to a manic need to explain and map the phenomenon without much of a pause for breath.

What is particularly interesting about The Stone Tape from the point of view of our particular corner of the blogmos is that it is about a new recording medium. Kneale's thesis is that hauntings and ghosts are particularly intense phenomena that are literally recorded by matter, by the stone of the room. (Hence the 'stone tape' of the title). What the scientists had been looking for, apparently coincidentally, was a new, more compact and durable recording medium (the Stone Tape was incredibly prescient about the shortcomings of magnetic tape). But what the haunting phenomenon offers is the possibility not only of a new recording medium, but of a new player: the human nervous system itself. In their moment of exultant bliss (before the inevitably bleak denoument), the scientists laugh and joke about the prospect of a totally wireless communication system: transmissions beamed directly into your head (like Gibson's cyberspace, but without even the trodes). Can miniaturization pass through another threshold such that this becomes possible? Or is it a question not of miniaturization at all but of tuning the stimuli?

In the end, of course, it all goes badly wrong. The scientists' obsessive activity has wiped the tape - or at least wiped away the thing last recorded onto it. Something else, something more ancient, stirs beneath, terrifying the female computer programmer into literally falling into the footsteps of the nineteenth century girl, plunging to her death in a state of total terror.

So what Kneale raises in the end is the breakdown of the distinction between the player and what is being played. To begin with, it seems that the ghostly screams are passive and inert, as incapable of exerting agency as the dry rot that afflicts the haunted room; yet in the end, it is the human beings who are revealed to be caught in a terrible compulsion to repeat. It is as if the room - the site, it is eventually implied, of some unimaginably ancient place of sacrifice - solicits the scientists into precipitating yet another death, into playing out the same old sequence once again. The human players are themselves part of an aeons-old pattern of senseless repetition.

All recordings are ghosts.

But are we really more substantial than they?

Posted by mark at November 12, 2003 08:46 PM | TrackBack