by Leo Goldsmith
The Manx science-fiction and horror television writer Nigel Kneale is far from a household name in the U.S. Indeed, he’s probably not a likely subject of conversation on the Isle of Man either, but perhaps his creations are better remembered there. While Americans are likely only to know him for his early drafts of the third Halloween sequel, his 1950s serial character Quatermass has probably most indelibly marked the scores of sci-fi and horror writers who have come in Kneale’s wake. These tales of a curmudgeonly British rocket scientist were, of course, a clear influence on Doctor Who (which Kneale detested), but there’s more besides: the prophetic, Peter Watkins-esque Year of the Sex Olympics; both the teleplay and the film version of The Abominable Snowman; two adaptations of John Osborne’s plays for Tony Richardson; and a six-part exploration of the grotesqueries of bestial horror entitled simply Beasts.
But what separates Kneale from the anonymous pack of television scribblers and hacks for hire is a certain contrarianism, a deep mistrust of the scientistic real, from its institutional level down to the battlefields of flesh and matter. He was, in the words of the writer Sukhdev Sandhu, “a deep topographer mining genealogies and uncovering faultlines counter to the pasteurized landscapes and heritage fables demanded by national curricula and middlebrow newscasters fronting gummily Big-Picture histories.” In November, under the auspices of the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture, Sandhu and a host of notable writers (including Mark Pilkington, Will Fowler, and Dave Tompkins) honored Kneale’s legacy with a day-long event this past November at New York University. Auspiciously dubbed “A Cathode Ray Séance” and accompanied by a gorgeously designed and printed, limited-edition volume of essays and cassette tape(!) of audio curios, the event featured panel discussions and screenings of many ultra-rare films and teleplays, including a 16mm projection of what might be called Kneale’s masterpiece—Hammer’s 1967 adaptation of his serial Quatermass and the Pit. It was an extraordinary and breathless tribute – and rather better attended than the Colloquium’s name would lead one to expect – but the high point (for this relative Kneale neophyte, at least) was the screening of The Stone Tape.
First aired on Christmas Day, 1972, this television play neatly coins the most tractable metaphor for residual haunting, suggesting that it is places themselves – their very bricks and mortar – that “record” the spirits of the past in an undying and lossless format. This is, it turns out, what Michael Bryant and Jane Asher and their gang of recording engineers and inventors hope to find in a decaying Victorian mansion in Surrey—and find it they do, first in the specter of a 19th-century maidservant, then in some floating red eyes, and finally in a terrifying (and yet ever-so-kitschy) vision of ancient menace that is too delicious to spoil any further.
That Christmas, Nigel Kneale gifted viewers with a nasty little lump of coal, but, then and now, what riches it holds.