Christmas, 1972, and I’m a month shy of my 15th birthday. Mum and dad are out at a dance and my gran is with me. My wee sister has gone to bed, so there’s just the two of us. My gran loves horror movies, and BBC 2 have one on. We know nothing about it except that it’s new, a first showing, and that it was written by the man who created Quatermass. We’ve both already seen Quatermass and the Pit, so we settle down, with the lights dimmed, to watch THE STONE TAPE.
Ninety minutes later, my life has changed forever.
THE STONE TAPE is a strange beast. The sets are wonky, the acting, especially by the male lead, gets very shouty and histrionic, there’s an annoying comedy subplot about washing machines of all things, and nowadays the tech on show, especially the computers, looks antique and clunky.
Remember, this was before Stephen King, before Jaws, before The Exorcist movie. The real boom time for scares had yet to come, and I’d been getting my horror kicks from the likes of Dennis Wheatley. His rich folks in their country houses didn’t really resonate with the council estate me at all. But THE STONE TAPE hit me immediately with its modernity, and spoke to the parts of me that wanted to be a scientist, but also wanted something more.
At the end of that first watch of it, I felt like I’d been through one of those faulty washing machines. It’s the first time I remember being absolutely terrified by something I’d seen on television. Sure, there had been scares before, in nightmares brought on by my early voracious reading habits, of goblins and riddles in the dark, the mad monk who sometimes appeared at the foot of my bed, in the early watch of Snow White where the wicked queen really crept me out, and in the transformation scene in, of all things, Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor where I had to leave the cinema. But that Christmas night, I was nearly fifteen, and I thought I’d left all those childhood scares behind. But I was wrong. Very wrong.
THE STONE TAPE remains to this day one of the landmarks of supernatural television. The IMDB entry does little to give away just what makes it tick.
“A research team from an electronics company move into an old Victorian house to start work on finding a new recording medium. When team member Jill Greeley witnesses a ghost, team director Peter Brock decides not only to analyse the apparition, which he believes is a psychic impression trapped in a stone wall (dubbed a “stone tape”), but to exorcise it too – with terrifying results…”
It sounds hokey put like that, but Kneale’s way of layering a good idea with real people, involving not just the scientists but the regulars in the local pub, the vicar, and the telling of stories of the history of the house gives it depth and puts flesh on its bones, building the plot in much the same way as the stones themselves have maintained and built the story of the house.
I mentioned the acting earlier. Yes, the lead male is a shouty sod, and gets annoying on repeated viewings, but Jane Asher’s vulnerability works perfectly for her role, Ian Cuthbertson acts as a solid anchor for sensible types to try to hold on to, and there’s even a young James Cosmo lurking around in the background.
The soundtrack too deserves a special mention, providing screams and screeches, thuds, knocks and whispers that serve to throw even seemingly innocuous scenes slightly off balance, ensuring the viewer never gets time to settle.
It might have been Christmas, but this is no cosy ghost story.
As layers of personal relationships are stripped away at the same time as the house’s memory reveals itself, Kneale skillfully intertwines the modern and the past and the denoument, when it comes, is all the more shocking for it.
The last scene stayed with me all night after the first viewing, and after the holidays when we got back to school, I discovered that all my pals had seen it too, and had been just as affected as I had. We spent many an hour talking about it, and it led a couple of us directly into experimenting for ourselves with sonic mood altering tapes, with ouija boards, and with reading everything we could find about the Stone Tape theory.
It gave me a love of investigating old stones that persists to this day, and led me down pathways I hadn’t previously walked, into mysticism, Tarot, Magick and Astral Projection and many diverse subjects that have since molded not just my modes of thought, but my way of writing stories.
It’s all Nigel Kneale’s fault. It’s all THE STONE TAPE’s fault.
In the end, and the reason it affects me so strongly, is that it’s all about the stories we tell each other to get through life, and how stories from even the most distant past can survive, and resonate, through lifetimes, through the works of humanity, and break through into the present unasked for and unexpected, often at the worst possible moments. It’s a Lovecraftian sensibility that turns up frequently in Kneale’s work, a motif that defines his work for me as both thought provoking, and genuinely scary.
The idea of walls and building holding memories, and perhaps something more than that, perhaps some form of consciousness, has also recurred in my own writing, most recently in the ongoing SIGILS AND TOTEMS mythos I’ve been developing. Looking back at them much of my writing I can see Nigel Kneale’s legacy down there at the root, the seed from which so much of my life since 1972 has grown.
Terror is a rarely used word these days, but it’s one Nigel Kneale knew plenty about. He knew where it lurks, and how to evoke it.
Much like bringing an old story out of cold stone.