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Beware the cemetery gates – tombstone tourism is coming back to life

We must watch out, for cemeteries have become a trope.

Jim Morrison’s grave feels more like a stage than a resting place. Perhaps that’s fitting. There’s a barrier separating the labyrinthine paths of Paris's Père Lachaise Cemetery from Morrison’s plot. As The Doors' frontman, he sang: “Well I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer / The end is uncertain and the end is always near”. Such dark lyricism – combined with membership of the infamous "27 Club" of stars who died young – gives Morrison and his grave a particular morbid appeal.

The barrier itself, its metal covered by stickers, is a dead ringer for a gig venue barrier, and it puts you at a remove from the tomb. If you time your visit well, there are a handful of other visitors. If you time it badly, so-called "tombstone tourists" throng the barrier, with someone playing The Doors through a speaker.

I timed it badly.

The main thing you notice is that the turf is covered with cigarette butts. Covered is not an exaggeration. A few of the tombstone tourists who were beside me muttered a few words of succour to the 60s icon – “here you go, enjoy” – as they threw half-smoked fags onto his grave.

It’s a sweet gesture, albeit one which runs uncomfortably close to glamourising premature, drug-fuelled death. Even the nearby grave of Oscar Wilde, whose donated, ornate monument is framed with lipstick kisses on napkins, small notes and well-loved editions of his bibliography, could not compete with the vibrant mania of Jim Morrison’s.

Literature has played its part in poeticising graveyards, while pop culture’s countless premature deaths have created a cult of doomed youth. The combination of the two makes it hard not to romanticise, or at least be struck by, cemeteries.

This isn't a new interest – Wilde and Morrison died 71 years apart. Instead it is one which has ebbed and flowed with time. That most famous of Shakespearean scenes, Hamlet’s skull-touting “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well”, may have gone down well with the 17th century crowds, but by the 18th century, Georgian audiences were shunning it.

If there is any era synonymous with cemeteries, though, it would have to be the Victorian age. The Victorians built many of Britain's greatest eternal resting places, and their love for graveyards – or, as it's rather clinically known, taphophilia – is clearly reflected in the work of Charles Dickens. 

A writer who knew the power of a well-used gravestone, Dickens began Great Expectations in a cemetery. Before the dramatic introduction of the escaped convict Magwitch, protagonist Pip explains that he took Pirrip as his surname “on the authority of his [father’s] tombstone”.

“As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle – I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.”

The thought of being defined by your tombstone is certainly a dark one, but it’s also an arresting one. Dickens knew that well, because this wasn’t the first time he had used the device. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come leads Scrooge to his tomb in A Christmas Carol, as the miserly character learns the fate that awaits him if he fails to repent.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.”

So far, so recognisable. But tastes change. In the decades following Dickens' work, the losses suffered in the First and Second World Wars made cemeteries places to avoid, rather than frolic in. Morbid fascination gave way to mourning.

Now, more than 70 years removed from the horrors of the Second World War, cemeteries have once again become palatable. Just look on Twitter, where there are countless edgy millennials quoting The Smiths’ "Cemetry Gates" [sic], whose chorus chimes: “A dreaded sunny day / So I meet you at the cemetery gates / Keats and Yeats are on your side / While Wilde is on mine”.

Similarly, there are a farcical number of climactic scenes in films featuring black-clad characters in rainy cemeteries – and not just in Four Weddings and a Funeral. In comic book movies, it’s become the lazy go-to: see Spider-Man (2002), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Daredevil (both the film and the Netflix series), and Hellboy. 

In short, we must be wary, for cemeteries have become a trope.

It’s the neatness of a cemetery funeral – the sense of finality, but of bittersweet emotion – that lends them so well to the screen. For a director to set their final 20 minutes in a retirement home, or a hospice, would neuter that sense of conclusion. 

Cemeteries fulfil a very clear and obvious purpose in literature: to juxtapose youth with death, and create a sense of emotional weight. It’s a conceptualisation that’s obviously helped by cemeteries being crumbly, dark and inherently creepy. They are a handy location for a writer to tie their narrative up with a neat little moribund bow.

That’s not to say that cemeteries cannot be liberated from cliché. Dickens used A Christmas Carol's graveyard to offer a solemn reminder to live well while you can. In "Cemetry Gates", Morrissey is able to mock young edgelords’ pretentious attempts to outdo their peers when it comes to a love of poetical miserabilism.

In 2017, death may not happen as frequently to us as it did to the Victorians, or the wartime generations. Nevertheless, it exists, and writers must find ways of using and confronting death. These days, cremations are growing in popularity, opening up the possibility of storing ashes in a jar, scattering them to the seas, or even smoking them, if you believe the rumours about Tupac's old group The Outlawz paying tribute to their fallen member.

The list of much-loved celebrities who died last year is eye-wateringly long: David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Sir Terry Wogan and Leonard Cohen to name but a few.

So, in the 21st century, let's approach death in literature through unexpected and interesting lenses. It's time to bury an artistic trope which – thanks to Dickens and Morrissey and the aestheticism of the internet – might have spawned a fatalist fanaticism that can't be contained by a single song, narrative, or gravestone. A dreaded sunny day indeed.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear