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I’m slowly working on an extended essay/ramble/thing with the working title of SPIRIT TRACK in my spare time. This is a fragment from the middle of it.

Ghost hunters roam the abandoned houses and haunted places of Britain with EMF readers, convinced that ghosts produce an electromagnetic field. There are pages and pages of guides on the net to buying and calibrating such devices, ensuring a clean baseline so that ghost fields can be differentiated from geomagnetic activity or the presence of human-generated fields such as those from pylons or electrical equipment. Skimming these sites, you see a growing conviction in some quarters that ghosts are electromagnetic phenomena, tying in with William Burroughs (of all people) and his fictional assertion that the human soul is an electromagnetic field. In the Seventies and Eighties, paranormal magazine partworks like THE UNEXPLAINED (which was part of my little trove of the weird) delighted in showing huge colour images of Kirlian photography, which purported to reveal the human electromagnetic field. The Kirlian process would be used on self-described psychic healers, and we would marvel at the great inhuman flares of electrical activity the photos would reveal.

I didn’t discover Burroughs until I was 15 or so, but when I did — THE EXTERMINATORS first, and then NOVA EXPRESS — the ludic shape of a personal fictional continuum began to form. One could imagine Gary Numan’s "Are ’Friends’ Electric" leaking out of an oldies segue on BBC Radio One, 275 and 285 on the medium wave, as I flicked through NOVA EXPRESS in the Oxfam shop, standing in front of the wire spinner rack. Are people electric? Are we just electromagnetic fields animating bags of meat?

Steve Aylett, writing as Jeff Lint: "We’re all just haunted beef, really."

It’s something I’ve played with in fiction several times, touching on it most recently in the beginning of the fifth volume of FREAKANGELS. Something about it is incredibly attractive to me, perhaps the part of me permanently distorted by having been raised on science fiction. It’s seductive, in a slightly insidious way that perhaps feeds the dogmatic atheist reflex I work to control, to have an "explanation" for ghosts that doesn’t involve an afterlife, or for minds or "souls" that doesn’t involve the holy spark of life pissed down from the heavens. There’s that slightly chilly, emotionally autistic, slide-rule-y element of old science fiction that loves having the spiritual and the supernatural solidly framed by cold equations.

© Warren Ellis 2010 all rights reserved etc etc piss off

Published in daybook


  1. Daniel Gorringe Daniel Gorringe

    Like the Air Loom of James Tilly Matthews, a gloss of scientifically plausible language, often empty of greater meaning, is the sugar for the medicine of irrational but emotionally compelling, archetypal ideas:
    That a conspiracy might control our mind from afar, that our personalities can outlive our bodies in immaterial guise. We *want to* believe these things, but the language used must jibe with our world-conception; itself just an agglomeration of words.

  2. The sequence in The Western Lands where Burroughs talks about the different pieces of the soul, as suggested by ancient Egyptian lore, has always stuck with me. Raises the idea of souls being tinkered with by electromagnetic boffins, a soul revolution where it’s not our physical body that is being extended by technology, but our spiritual and psychic aspects.

    Edison vs Tesla for the Ghost Tech generation, or something.

  3. Drax Drax

    I am spooked. More. Seriously, it’s wicked good.

  4. Ales Kot Ales Kot

    Four blotters of acid were enough to establish solid contact with the spirit world for me, and yeah, I would say ghosts are definitely an electromagnetic phenomena. I don’t think that excludes the possibility of an afterlife at all, though – if we’re all just haunted beef, why wouldn’t there be a place where the things that haunt us go?

    Meditation, Ketamine and Holothropic Breathwork are fine gates to someplace that might be it, but I haven’t done nearly enough research to say it for sure.

    Also: Reminded of The Flashbulb’s “Kirlian Selections” album. You might like.

  5. tobot tobot

    i’ve always had a notion that somehow quantum entanglement has a part to play in psychic phenomena, like if enough entangled particles could make it from one person to another (twins?) or just by chance ingestion could this in rare cases cause sharing of sensations or communication?

  6. I’m assuming you’ll be talking about Nigel Kneale’s Stone Tape in the course of this – this theory has always delighted & fascinated me – have been trying to make something of it, fictionally speaking, for ages – we kind of referenced it in a Kneale-ish piece of hommage we did for the Sci-Fi channel ages ago: – which was chock full of EVP and EMF monitors streaming to the web & haunted blogs – but it never quite got there… was toying a while ago with something based on the idea that ghosts are, in fact, the side effects of a vastly advanced communication system that we are simply not equipped to understand – perhaps all the black dogs, admonishing phantoms and omens of doom are simply fragments of some ghastly warning message we shall interpret far too late…

  7. fred fred

    Welcome to the slippery slope.

  8. This is very interesting. The tone especially is a bit more “mature” in a non-offensive kinda way, but the aim is something I’ve thought of before, have yearned for really.
    I do not believe in ghosts or spirits (raised Roman Catholic though I was- and hearing Latin Masses performed in Texan accents is its own unique variety of bizarreness). But I have always been attracted to the idea of inanimate clairvoyance, like the echoes we interpret as haunts are memories retained and reenacted by the settings themselves. Like physical places holding and carrying their own memories.
    But if all things actually are just collected atoms flying about, then it does make a world of sense that these “ghosts” are just somehow, reverberations (thank you Roky Erickson).

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