If gothic never dies, if Marlowe never dies: writer Louise Welsh on gothic fiction and on Tamburlaine Must Die
by anna battista
Ghosts, castles, darkness, evil and mysterious plots: these are the basic ingredients for a perfect gothic novel. This genre became the favourite of many readers during the second half of the 18th century, giving them the secret pleasure to confront themselves with horror, grotesque and supernatural elements. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, C.R. Maturin's Melmoth The Wanderer and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are among the most famous examples of Gothic novels. A few centuries before the gothic novel arrived, though, between 1576 and 1642, people in Great Britain favoured something else: theatre. Plays, often inspired by Greek and Latin authors, featuring bloody and scary plots and scheming characters with a penchant for the sin of hubris, were the favourite of thousands of people. This was the Elizabethan era, the period of time in which authors such as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd were born, prospered, revolutionised the theatre and died. In between those years, there were at least four or five playhouses in London and, usually, 21,000 people visited theatres every week.
We're now quite far away from the years in which gothic fiction was born and from the time when the first Elizabethan plays were written, but there is a contemporary author who has combined in her debut novel gothic elements with crime fiction and has now written a novella entirely set in the Elizabethan era. Her name is Louise Welsh and she became quite famous a couple of years ago for a very special debut novel, The Cutting Room (Canongate, 2002). It won the 2002 Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award and British Crime Dagger Award, and was also nominated for Best First Book of 2002 by the Guardian. The book was also turned last year into a play co-directed by Tam Dean Burn and Kenny Miller, adapted by the former and designed by the latter, starring Tam Dean Burn himself and Anne Marie Timoney. A film taken from the novel should also be shot at some point this autumn.
Narrating the vicissitudes of Rilke, a gay auctioneer who tries to find the truth behind a collection of graphically violent photographs, The Cutting Room seems to take its atmospheres directly from gothic novels: the description of the dark rooms in which the main character moves or of Rilke himself, a sort of ghost-like figure in a spectral world made of dust and old objects, echo in a way the darkest pages of the best gothic novels. But what does the word "gothic" mean for Louise Welsh? "It's a form of escapism and a form of exploring what disturbs and frightens us in a safe way, I suppose we get a thrill out of it as well," she states, while we're sitting in Glasgow University's Postgraduate Club, sipping a coffee.
"'Gothic' is a term that to me deals with a lot of taboos: it deals with sex, sexuality, murder, incest, all sorts of taboos. The gothic genre has a lot of taboos, people who are physically different. Think about Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, for example, where one of the characters is a blind man with only one leg. Old age, decay, being disabled, being gay, all these things come into the gothic a lot. Then there's another taboo which belongs to the gothic genre in my opinion and that's the idea of madness, of altered states, of drug abuse and drunkness. Gothic also deals with the atmosphere and the place, but always with humour. I think it also deals with a lot of our fears; think about science, discoveries or explorations. See for example Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I think this genre means quite often access in those kinds of fears and it's a genre of extremes, it's sensational, it's kind of erotic as well at points and it is very entertaining. It's a genre that covers a lot of things, it's a cross genre, it can talk about science fiction and horror, but it's also a romantic genre at times. Generally, a gothic novel has a strong story and a strong sense of place and of the physicality. The uncanny definitely enters into the gothic as well, but even though I do like supernatural elements, I tend to always come down on the non-supernatural side, because I think it's more satisfying as a writer and I do like my frights to come from this world, there's enough to be frightened of in this world after all!"
At a certain point in The Cutting Room, Welsh has recreated the atmosphere of a famous scene from Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped: in Welsh's book, Rilke finds himself following bookseller Steenie through the maze of his very gothic bookshop basement, little does he know that one of the staircases he's climbing with Steenie ends up in a void. In Kidnapped, the main character is asked by his uncle who wants him to die to go up a long staircase. There is a lot of suspense involved in the scene, it is a very frightening moment. Suddenly, there is a flash of lightening and the boy realises that there are no other steps there. Welsh states she's influenced in her writing by Stevenson, but also by directors and movies, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. A major influence in her writing is gothic fiction: "I quite often go back to Scottish gothic novels such as James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner, which is quite scary, or Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is very interesting in terms of structure as well," she says, "but I do really enjoy also the romantics such as Byron. Besides, I'm a great fan of Edgar Allan Poe, I think he's great and it's amazing how gothic keeps on getting reinvented. I recently got Lou Reed's album The Raven which is all about Poe. I think it's a good album if you're interested in gothic. It also shows that gothic has got a future. Gothic speaks to such elemental parts of human nature and to all those taboos I mentioned. It will never go away, it will always reinvent itself and appear in different manifestations be they fiction, cinema or music."
Though The Cutting Room seems to have particular gothic atmospheres, Welsh claims she didn't deliberately search a point in contact with gothic novels when she started writing her book. "I think often when you're writing something, you're not thinking about these things, but the influence of such novels has definitely come in while I was writing the novel," she states, "I guess, I just wanted to create a dark atmosphere. I have been really lucky with The Cutting Room because I haven't been categorised too much. People call it a crime novel or a gothic novel and I guess a lot of writers don't like that kind of thing because the gothic genre is not so well regarded since it is often considered as not being literary, I don't really mind, I think it's up for the readers to decide, but I think I was lucky that I got attention of the literary establishment, of fans of gothic novels and of crime novels and of people who usually read completely different literary genres."
Welsh has decided to leave behind Glasgow and Rilke for her second book, which is not a proper novel but a short novella. Tamburlaine Must Die is set in 1593 and features poet, playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe. He is desperately looking for Tamburlaine, an enigmatic figure who seems to have taken a life of his own from Marlowe's scariest play and has been posting poetic libels threatening the immigrant community in London. Like Rilke, Marlowe is a mysterious figure suspended between heaven and hell, between salvation and damnation: he's chasing someone, but his chase might end in life and fame or simply in death. "To create the main character, I read Christopher Marlowe's works obsessively and I tried to keep my reading down to people from his period or to history books," Welsh states. "I thought a lot about him, also physically. When you're writing about a character you always imagine him or her in your head and the image I had in my mind of Marlowe wasn't the image of his portraits. I don't believe that the portrait the people say might be Marlowe is Marlowe, I think people just wanted it to be Marlowe. I imagine my Marlowe looking like Johnny Depp because I think he is a very sexy and physically attractive actor and, having to write something about the 16th century, I also wanted somebody who had a good face and had good legs, because having good legs was really important in those days! Tamburlaine Must Die is very different from The Cutting Room in the sense of setting, since it takes place back in the 15th-16th century and it's also based in London. Yet, there are points of contact between the two works: my Marlowe for example has an ambiguous sexuality, he's really bisexual. The sex in this novella hasn't got the same graphic content as in The Cutting Room, since Tamburlaine Must Die is more about a chase. It will probably be considered as belonging to crime fiction, but I think of it as an adventure novel like John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. I wanted to write in quite an old style and I think this is in a way an old fashioned book because there's a chase and from page one there's a level of tension which is maintained throughout the book, because it's a short book. I suppose you can do that with short books in a way you can't with an 80.000 word novel or a longer novel, but this novella is only 40.000 words long so it is possible for somebody to read it in one sitting, hopefully it will be read just as a good story. The chase starts at the beginning and runs all the way through. Among the main themes of the book there are artistic relationship, artistic jealousy and artistic integrity, but there are also other themes in it, such as immigration, a very contemporary theme. In my opinion Great Britain is very bad on this issue, at the moment there's a lot of hysteria about immigrants. When I started to read about Marlowe's period, I realised they have the same kind of hysteria going on there. This is not a didactic work, but it has definitely got a parallel with our times."
Welsh is at present teaching creative writing at Glasgow University, but she's also working on a new novel, though she doesn't give me any hints about the main story and characters. "I have to make sure to hand it in on time next year," she confides to me. "I'm quite slow since I only do a book every two years!" In the meantime, she's also following the making of the film taken from The Cutting Room, which will be directed by Stuart Davids and will feature Robert Carlyle as Rilke. "I read the first draft for the film script this morning," Welsh announces, "I got quite agitated when the script arrived. I just didn't know what to do, 'should I go out and read it somewhere?' I wondered. Then I thought, 'no, what if I met somebody? It would look as if I was trying to show off', so I thought it was better to stay in the kitchen and read it. I was worried, but then I got into reading and I thought it was very good. There are things that they have changed because you have to obviously do it for cinematographic purposes, but it was very interesting to see how most of the things they changed would work on film. There are also things I thought shouldn't be changed, yet, this is not up to me. On the whole, it's a courtesy that they let you see the draft, I will tell them if I'm not sure about some parts, but they can completely ignore what I say and I think that's right, since this is their artistic project. It will be interesting to see the finished script. The script is a good one so far and that's a really big relief."
Louise Welsh's readers might have to wait a little bit before reading her new novel, but if it will be as thrilling as The Cutting Room, then it will be worth waiting. Meanwhile, they can enjoy Tamburlaine Must Die and run after Christopher Marlowe in his desperate quest for his evil alter ego through the streets of London and the dark mysterious passages hidden in the narrow walls of Elizabethan theatres. The way to find the truth and see if Marlowe will live or die is simple; just read Welsh's new book to discover it.