Reading the Vampire

Blood Clot under microscope. Image from

I’ve just written a short essay on Dracula. It’s a scene study and had to include a comparison between a passage from a book and a scene from a film. It didn’t have to be an adaptation of the book, but whichever book and film I chose had to have some relevance to each other.

It’s only a couple of years since I read Dracula for the first time, I did a blog post on it here, and knew that Coppola’s film version was a little bit different, including a love story that didn’t appear anywhere in the book.

That was my starting point. I was going to write on the changes in characterisation of the vampire between Stoker’s evil monster, meant to repulse the reader, and Coppola’s anti-hero who invokes sympathy in the viewer. Instead, I ended up writing a comparison of the blood transfusion scenes and how they related to fears and anxieties present at the Nineteenth Century fin de siècle that emerged again during the late twentieth century. That’s the thing about close reading – once you start a simple analysis can lead you down all kinds of roads until you end up with something entirely different from what you initially thought the text/film was about.

As a result, it became an essay about contagion, sexual danger, syphilis and AIDS. The connection, of course, is the vampire as a symbol of disease and plague transmitted through blood.

In class, we’ve looked at how the vampire has changed over time from aristocratic monster, ravaging the countryside whilst feeding on the blood of peasants (Stoker’s vampire was based on Vlad Dracul whilst Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian vampire, Carmilla, has leanings towards Countess Bathory) to sparkly, teenage, lovesick puppy. We also watched Jim Jarmusch’s strangely mesmerising Only Lovers Left Alive, where the good stuff (blood that can only be obtained through dealers that work in hospitals) appears to be a narcotic substance in an unspecified dystopian future where human blood is contaminated with an undisclosed disease. The vampires refer to humans as zombies.

This means, of course, that I can see, very well where my own little vampire romance novel sits on the timeline and there’s definitely no hint of a glisten, a twinkle or even a shimmer. Nathan Blackwood has a job, a social conscience and a coffin full of secrets. Whilst I’ve taken a more traditional view of the vampire, the aversion to sunlight, the need for blood etc, I have introduced some contemporary elements. Incidentally, both Carmilla and Dracula could tolerate daylight, but their powers were diminished, so perhaps we shouldn’t consider this a traditional a trait after all.


Gothic Beginnings

I was a solitary child, playing alone in the shadowed confines of the garden, gathering sycamore seeds and autumn leaves and chattering to Henrietta, the girl who wasn’t there. As an adult, I discovered there had been a real girl called Henrietta who had lived and worked as a domestic servant in the vicarage that had once existed on the spot where our house was built.

One night there came the sound of slow, heavy footsteps climbing the stairs. It was just mum and me in the house and we’d both gone to bed.  ‘Is that you, Helen?’ she called out. I replied that it wasn’t. We’d both heard it, but neither one of us went to investigate. In my mind, it was simply the echo of the old vicar retiring to bed himself.

I’d always believed that the house we lived in had been a part of the vicarage, but I recently found a picture of it and was disappointed to find that it was a much grander building that had been demolished and replaced by our little row of houses.

The vicarage

I lived in a world of perpetual imagination. Mad scientists worked in the portacabins on the car park at the bottom of our street. I knew this because the desks were strewn with glass beakers, Bunsen burners and test tubes. Their white lab coats hovered like ghosts in the semi-dark after everyone had  gone home for the night.

But the most influential and Gothic element of my childhood was the Victorian mansion that stood opposite my own home and in whose grounds and rooms I spent as much time as I was allowed. It was my Green Knowe. I spent many a day dreaming up stories about the phantom children that occupied its rooms and often expected to see a leafy St Christopher striding past the high stone wall with Tolly on his shoulders. I never saw him, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t, one day.

St Christopher with Tolly on his shoulders from The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston

If you climbed the grand staircase that greeted you as you entered the house and went on up to the attic you’d find a variety of dusty and cobwebbed vintage organs left over from days gone by. In the bowels of the house you’d be confronted by the giant bat that blotted out the light from the only window. The bat was a crumpled sheet of newspaper, but that’s what it looked like to me.

During World War I the house had been used for the rehabilitation of sick and wounded soldiers, one of whom had made a small teddy bear whilst he waited for his wounds to heal and had left it behind when he left. I often took it down from the shelf and wondered what has happened to the soldier who’d made it or if he’d been drawn back to the house as one of its ghosts.

It was here that I met the other Helen, the owner’s grand-daughter who, not only had the same name as me, but was the same age and when I think about it probably looked a lot like me too. A case of Gothic doubling! On one of her visits I was allowed to stay the night. We were put to bed in the master bedroom in a bed that was much larger than the double bed my parents had. I was too excited to sleep and spent the night scaring ‘my twin’ with tales of ghosts and ghouls and convincing her that the heavy blue drapes that covered the windows were moving in some supernatural breeze from the otherworld.

When the house was put up for sale and the company over the road (the one with the mad scientists) purchased it and demolished it to make another car park I was distraught. Where would my ghosts roam now?  When they cleared the garden and chopped down the trees the kestrel that made it’s plaintiff cry from the chimney each night was never heard again, the raven, that I’d nicknamed ‘Soot’ after Dickon’s pet in The Secret Garden also flew away. And here was the real horror – that someone could carelessly discard the many beautiful objects, furniture and personal possessions representing decades of memories of a person’s life without a second thought. The vintage organs, the highly polished mahogany dining table and anything else the owner didn’t have room for in her new flat in a sheltered housing complex was to be left behind and skipped. I don’t know what happened to the teddy bear.

As the house came down, brick by brick, I wept. It still angers and upsets me, but the house lives on in my memory. I can still open the wrought iron gate, walk up the driveway to the porch, push open the door and stand in the hallway with its black and white tiled floor, turn left into the dining room and run my fingers along the polished table, play a few notes on the piano, pick up the teddy bear from the dresser where the patterned soup tureens line the shelves and then walk out through the white French doors down the three steps onto the cool grass of the lawn. Those French windows make an appearance in Blackfeather in Kate’s lounge.

Or I can turn right into the living room and lie on the yellow chaise longue in front of an immense stone fireplace. Even the biggest Christmas tree I had ever seen couldn’t make this room feel small and cramped and it was always a real tree that shed its needles on the thick patterned carpet. Or I can walk along the corridor by the stairs, past the door to the cellar and turn into the kitchen with its beautiful cream painted cupboards, long wooden counters and Belfast sink beneath the window. The airy space is filled with sunlight and the greenhouse attached to the kitchen overflows with ripe tomatoes and fat juicy courgettes.

One day this house will become the setting for a time slip romance story I’m going to write in which a young woman inherits an old house and meets the ghost of a World War I soldier.

Nothing could replace Springwood House, but during my teenage years, my friends and I often visited a nearby stately home where the Fairfax family had lived during the English Civil Wars. A house this old always has more than its fair share of ghosts. The haunted room where the Jacobean cradle used to rock to the touch of an invisible hand was our favourite, followed by the mark on the floor of the great hall which legend has it was the indelible blood stain of a murder victim.

I didn’t know, back then, that there was such a thing as The Gothic. It’s only through studying it as part of my degree that I can look back and see the gothic elements of my childhood and the influence they’ve had on my own writing and reading habits and my insatiable desire to know what’s behind every closed door or investigate where a spiral staircase leads. And what a glorious childhood it was, free from adult responsibility, the ability to read whatever I chose and dream for hours on end. It may have been solitary, but I was never lonely.



The Memory of Evil

I never wanted to go to Auschwitz. There are lots of places I have always wanted to visit – Florence, Paris, Carcassonne, Egypt, the wreck of the Titanic – some of them I’ve been lucky enough to get to, but Auschwitz was never on the list. A friend of mine warned me before I went, ‘Be careful, because these places change you.’ I wish I’d taken her warning more seriously.

I wrote my first post about Birkenau a few days after I came back from Krakow, but it’s taken me more than two weeks to even start this post because even now I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not sure how long it will take me to publish it. I said in that last post that I didn’t feel an oppressive sadness from the site of Auschwitz ll, even though far more of the murders took place there, so I’m not sure why I had such an emotional reaction to Auschwitz itself.

The memory of evil - a visit to Auschwitz -  Nel Ashley - Author

The entrance to Auschwitz. Copyright Guinevere Saunders

The first thing you realise when you get there is that the infamous gate, with the words Arbeit Macht Frei (Work sets you free) above it, is, like Stonehenge, much smaller than you’d expect. It’s rather nondescript, but instantly recognisable. The whole site is much smaller than Birkenau and as you walk around the grounds you can almost feel the eyes of the guards that would have watched from the towers that surround the perimeter and hear the barking of the dogs that were left to run between the electrified barbed wire topped fences.

The first building I entered, Block 15, bore a sign outside that stated the exhibition showed the ‘Struggle of the Polish People’. We had visited a photographic exhibition the day before in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow with images of Auschwitz, abandoned cemeteries and now derelict buildings. I expected something similar. Actually, now I think about it, I’m not certain this was the first building I went in. The first showed images of survivors who had returned to Auschwitz in their later lives, positive images of defiance and courage, but the building I was now in had several connecting rooms, the images growing progressively more disturbing in each one. A photo of a distraught young girl kneeling by the side of her dead father, her hands held up to ask why, dead bodies lying in the street, dead children, lots of dead children – one of three children, all under five lying naked, side by side, one had his stomach torn open. I wondered, who stops to take a photo like this? Did they help the girl after or walk away? 

The memory of evil - a visit to Auschwitz - Nel Ashley - Author

The wall where prisoners were shot – Copyright Guinevere Saunders

In the next room – prisoners standing facing a wall with a Nazi firing squad lined up behind them, guns aimed and ready to fire. You realise you are witnessing the final seconds of someone’s life. In another, the photographer records some of the grotesque experiments that were carried out at the camp. I’m not going to go into details. I can’t. The images are etched into my brain, but there are no words to explain them. By this point I was already struggling to hold back tears and didn’t want to see anymore.

We all know what went on here. We’ve all seen images of the atrocities, films based on true events, newsreel even, but none of it prepares you for the photos on display. These photos put you in the position of the person who took them. You are seeing these acts through the eyes of someone who participated in evil and there is nothing you can do to stop it, except turn away or close your eyes. As I type this I am crying again.

I didn’t go upstairs, I couldn’t bear to see whatever was up there and turned to leave. I found out later that this was where the artefacts were displayed. Mountains of hair and shoes and other personal items of the dead.  In my haste to get out I lost my bearings and started to panic, but I managed to retrace my steps and almost ran out of the building when I saw the open door to the outside.

I will never forget the aeons of sadness in the eyes of the two year old girl, one of triplets, who was experimented on by Mengele. Even now, weeks later, Auschwitz haunts our dreams.

the memory of evil - a visit to Auschwitz - Nel Ashley - Author

Auschwitz today. Copyright Guinevere Saunders

Part of me thinks that Auschwitz should have been flattened, but then it would be forgotten and we should never do that. Part of me regrets that I didn’t see everything there, but there were buildings I simply could not enter. Strangely, it feels as though it is our duty to see and remember these things.

So, would I go back? Yes.

Do I want to go back? No!



And No Birds Sing

Entrance to Birkenau. Copyright Guinevere Saunders

Before I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau I read Keats’s poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci from which the line ‘and no birds sing’ is taken and wondered if it was true what people say – that birds avoid the site of this former Nazi run concentration camp and will not sing there.

It isn’t true!

Birkenau. Copyright Guinevere Saunders

Sunday the 18th of June 2017 was a blistering hot day and as we walked through the entrance gate of Birkenau (Auschwitz ll) we were struck by the enormous, sprawling size of the place. Of course it had to be big to house the hundreds of thousands of prisoners that were sent there during the years of World War ll, but nothing prepares you for the sight. On either side of the road that runs the length of the camp are row upon row of small brick built buildings situated in grassy meadows surrounded by barbed wire fences and overlooked by guard towers. As I pushed my partner’s wheelchair along the rough and bumpy road (let’s face it, these places weren’t meant to be disabled friendly) I stopped to listen. It was eerily quiet, but in the oppressive stillness the chirrup of a single bird could be heard as it skimmed the air above the wildflowers, feeding on the buzzing insects as it flitted back and forth.

Remains of crematorium. – Birkenau. Copyright Guinevere Saunders

We followed the single rail track towards the crematoriums that had been destroyed by the German’s as they’d left the camp in an attempt to hide the evidence of the atrocities they’d committed there. These buildings have been left where they collapsed, the twisted metal and shape of the ovens still visible. On either side two oblong pools mark the place where the ashes of cremated prisoners were dumped. They seem far too small for the purpose and I wonder how deep the pools are. As I stare into the depths the turquoise flash of a dragonfly catches the sunlight.

I left my partner at the memorial, the path into the woods is too narrow for a wheelchair, and agreed to meet him back at the road. Here, nearest to the site of such horror, the trees are filled with the cacophony of birdsong.

I expected to feel the echoes of sadness from Birkenau’s past, but instead it felt empty. There are no lingering ghosts here. The feeling of sadness comes from those who wander its ruins remembering and honouring those who suffered within its confines. It’s a sobering place, but I’m comforted by the thought that those who experienced this place all those years ago are not trapped here and have gone to their rest.

Memorial at Birkenau. Copyright Guinevere Saunders

Auschwitz l, however, had a very different effect on me.

Ignoring Advice from Stephen King

File:Onwriting.jpgOn Writing by Stephen King isn’t really a book of advice for writers, its about one man’s journey to becoming a writer. The advice is there between the anecdotes and the difficulties he’s encountered along the way. If there is one thing he believes is the best way to write a book it’s to get the story out from beginning to end without plotting in advance because you just don’t know where the story is going to take you.

That’s true, I have written scenes where my characters have taken over, said or done something I wasn’t expecting and taken the story in an unexpected direction which meant having to change the plan, often substantially. In the story I’m currently writing Cora’s tutor tells her something I expected to keep secret from her for a few more chapters. I couldn’t believe he’d done that. It changed everything and the twenty thousand word synopsis I’d written suddenly became obsolete.

I had two choices. I could rewrite the scene the way I’d originally planned or I could stick with the new version and see what happened, adapting the plan I thought I would be following as I went along. Since I liked the new version, and I think these spontaneous changes happen for a reason, I decided to take to stick with it.

Like Mr King, a lot of my ideas begin with a ‘what if’ moment, but I have to transfer that initial flash of light bulb inspiration into an outline and from there I compile a chapter list, breaking the story up into pieces, scene by scene, so I have something to follow. Then I can write the scenes that have already formed in my head. I rarely write the story in order and only work from chapter to chapter if no other scenes present themselves.

I often edit as I go too. A big no no if you’re trying to get the story out from start to finish. But when I step away from the keyboard at the end of a writing session the scene bubbles away in my subconscious, throwing up words, descriptions and dialogue that weren’t there during a first frantic typing. Better to go back and put them in now before they fade from memory as quickly as they emerged.

If I had the luxury of being able to sit and write and write for hours on end, instead of grabbing the odd fifteen minutes or so before having to leave the house or fit it in to the breaks between lectures, would I follow Stephen King’s advice? Probably not.

I like having my map, but even the map gets redrawn when the story starts to write itself and escapes the boundaries into new territory. It’s a guide not a rule book. If I’d written Blackfeather from start to finish when I first had the idea it would have been a stand-alone story with a soppy happy ending and, thankfully, that didn’t happen. Of course, editing might have changed that. In the end it’s not how you get the story down that’s important, only that you do.


Round and Around and Around We Go. under creative commons license under creative commons license

After months of academia I find myself itching to write fiction. Characters old and new are pushing to the forefront of my mind, clamouring to be heard and acknowledged and given a life on the page. But instead I find myself stuck in the middle of writing an annotated bibliography of Medieval Literature despairing of the need to add three more books or articles with a looming deadline of … TOMORROW!. I picked a subject close to my heart, forests, but ironically can’t see the trees for the wood.

I see a pattern emerging near the end of every year of study that means at a certain point in the second semester I start to switch off. The thought of one more essay, let alone another three, has me questioning my motivations in getting a degree and I can be heard muttering the words, ‘You know what? I really don’t care what I get’. Completely untrue, of course.

The uni gleefully ramps up the torture by throwing in the stress of final year module choices with its dire warnings of limited places and first come first served scare tactics. Basically, this results in hundreds of terrified, wide-eyed students sitting at their laptops from 6am on registration day, fingers poised to press the submit button the moment choices go live. Inevitably, the system goes down and panic ensues. Next year’s third years are traumatised before they even begin so when someone whispers ‘Have you decided what you’re doing for your dissertation?’ their eyes glaze over and they retreat to a darkened corner of the library with psychosis.

And then some joker tutor thinks he can ask for an essay plan with just two days notice. I don’t think so, mister. He isn’t getting it.

To my horror I’ve also discovered that it’s been so long since I last posted here that WordPress have changed the format. I am so far out of the loop I might as well be on Pluto. Oh well, back to the treadmill…


A Victorian Affair in Secret Code

If you came across this while perusing the personal ads of a Victorian newspaper what would you do?


Intrigued at finding a secret code I couldn’t resist trying to crack it. It was posted in the London Evening Standard  on the 11th January 1900. The Standard was a daily newspaper that ran from 1827 until the end of 1900 and appears to have been the newspaper of choice for cryptic correspondence.

The code is a basic substitution cipher where one letter of the alphabet is swapped for another. This particular code is a Caesar cipher in which the alphabet is moved along a certain number of letters. Caesar always used 3 moves which made it easy for his enemies to crack his codes once they realised he never changed it.

It was only by moving the alphabet along by twelve letters that this particular code began to make sense. In addition the coder had substituted n for l and i for o as well, just to make it a little more difficult I suppose.

M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z A B C D E F G H I J K L    l=n o=i

When the coded bits of the message were solved it read:

Eippom (This didn’t translate to anything so I assume it’s a codename)  Returning  home  Satday. Letter awaiting you. Arrive In town Monday next. Can meet you one clock anywhere.  – Shopping to do for sirtom. Will that suit?

Who is Eippom, who is Sir Tom and who is the message for? I had no idea, but a reply was posted in the newspaper the following day.

West Wind-G Arnoe  sauzsfa  faiz egzpmk tabq kaginxx youwbll mdduhq  yazpmqyadz mnagf gxghqz ddufq London qjmof fuyq kagmdq pgq I will yqqfkag  cfmfnaz

Decoded the message is: Going to town Sunday. Hope you will arrive Monday morn about eleven. Write London exact time you’re due. I will meet you station.

The correspondence between these two people go on for months and I still haven’t found all of the messages. They’re not very exciting, just instructions to meet in secret to conduct their illicit affair (both of them are married), but I can’t help wondering who they were and what happened to them. Who knows, they might end up as characters in one of my stories one day.



The Ghost of a Christmas Past.

It started with some old photos and postcards of Liverpool. I follow several groups and some postcard retailers who regularly post old photos of the area to Facebook and every now and then there are images of the area I live in, but these are usually of local businesses or transport.

I decided I would do a quick search on Ebay to see if they had anything closer to home and much to my astonishment an image came up in the lists that looked incredibly familiar.


To most people this would be just an ordinary row of houses. Why anyone would produce a photo of them for a postcard was anybody’s guess, but to me it was much more.  One of those houses was mine.

I clicked the link, the seller said it had been posted in 1911. I already knew the houses were built between 1901 and 1911 and had found census records for the first family to live here, but this postcard could be a direct link to those people.

The reverse of the card wasn’t shown, so I couldn’t be sure who’d sent it. The chances it was ‘our family’ (as we fondly refer to them) were slim and the card was priced at £19.00. It’s the most I’ve ever paid for a single postcard, but I had to have it. What were the chances of finding another?

When it arrived I opened it with fingers crossed, but am sorry to say was a little disappointed. It was not sent by any of the people living in my house in 1911 and had no identifying information on who had taken the photo or produced the postcard. That still remains a mystery, but the odd thing was that it had been sent to a place called Orrell Park, odd because that is what this area is called too. It was posted on the 4th of January 1911, the sender thanks the recipient for postcards, papers and Christmas parcel and says what a quiet New Year they’ve had with no visitors. A brief glimpse into a Christmas past.


Whether it was sent by one of the inhabitants of the other houses on the row I don’t know yet, further research needs to be done when I have more time and access to genealogical records,

What’s interesting about the card is that it shows what the houses looked like just after they were built, and the row further on has changed considerably because they are now all shops with flats above.

But the best thing for me is that if you look really carefully (and I have, with a magnifying glass), it appears that there is someone standing at the upstairs window, holding the curtain back and watching as the photographer took his photo. And just to the right of that the other window is open and possibly has another figure watching from there too. I could be wrong, but I’d like to think this was the lady of the house and her fifteen year old maid, Emily Francis, who we believe still haunts the house, as she has been spotted in her uniform on a few occasions.

And so research on this kept me busy and away from writing the novel for several days, but it was the discovery of a secret code that distracted me for the last weeks of summer. I’ll tell you about that next time…


Becoming a Deltiology Detective

In my last post I promised to explain how I’d become sidetracked by a hundred year old postcard that showed a picture of the house I live in (105 years actually), but first I should explain how I became obsessed with old postcards in general.

It all started three or four years ago when I began my access course at the University of Liverpool. We were invited to a lecture given by Professor Andrew Popp from the Management School whose specialism is family businesses and their history.  Not something you would usually associated with postcards, but he had discovered an old postcard that had been posted in the early twentieth century from Liverpool to London and it fascinated him enough that he wrote a paper on it.

He had no idea who had sent the postcard, but the recipient was a young lady by the name of Miss L Warden. The image on the card was of the Liverpool Exchange building with the memorial to Nelson on the lower right hand side and various employees, clerks and brokers, milling around in the foreground.

the postcard Andrew Popp gave a lecture on

On the reverse of the card was a map of the UK showing the route of the rail line between Liverpool and London and Hastings was also highlighted.

reverse of the card showing map and angle of stamp

You can see the original post on the Postcardese blog and here.

An enormous amount of information was gleaned from the scant details on the card, even the angle that the stamp was placed at on the card gave a clue to the relationship of the sender and recipient. In this case it tells us they are romantically linked. The red line showing the route that the train took to deliver the card also emphasises how far apart this couple are. Does Hastings have some significance for them, a romantic weekend away perhaps?

Professor Popp had used genealogical records to piece together the mystery of who the couple were and what happened to them after sending the postcard. I’d been doing genealogy on my family tree for several years and was fascinated to see it used in this way. The lecture inspired me to go out and buy my first postcard and become a deltiologist (postcard collector) – it was a picture of the old chemistry building at the University of Liverpool (I’ll tell you all about that another time) and my collection quickly built into one of over a thousand cards.

Postcards were the social media of their day. They were delivered several times a day and you could post one in the morning and have a reply within a few hours – almost as quick as a text. Not all of the ones available to purchase today have been posted, their value lies in the images on the front of the card, but the most interesting ones have been sent far and wide and all have a story to tell.

Professor Popp’s card was a glimpse into the lives of two people, a moment in time that is now long gone, but those moments live on in a few scrawled words on the backs of old postcards for anyone who cares to decipher their mysteries.

Summer’s End

Summer’s End -sounds like it should be the title of a tragic romance novel, but no, it’s that time of year where I start to panic that time is running out and begin frantically looking up the price of academic text books. In a few short weeks I’ll be back at uni getting to grips with Victorian literature and the Vikings  and of course that means less time for writing.

Not that I’ve done much writing in the last few weeks. I admit I have been sidetracked by other things – namely a one hundred year old postcard of my house, the personal columns in newspapers of the 1900s, and getting reacquainted with my arty side.  It’s been a long time since I did any painting so I am having to relearn a lot of things I haven’t done since school.

Persephone Reborn (still not sure this is the best title) has been left to bubble away at the back of my mind, primarily because I’m having to restructure some of the scenes. I had a very clear plan of where I was going and what happened from chapter to chapter, but then one of the characters said something that changed all that and well… who am I to argue with a character?

I’ve promised myself, that whatever the workload,  I am going to be super organised and ultra disciplined, keep to a timetable planned with military precision, get up early so there are more hours in the day, but I’m also realistic and often at the mercy of fibromyalgia which wears me out and makes me want to curl up in a ball and sleep a lot. Luckily, I don’t lack for determination, so everything does get done – eventually.

In the meantime, I have just under three weeks of summer break left, writing this post is a good start to getting on with it all and in future ones I’ll explain about the postcard and the personal columns…

found on Pinterest (missing an apostrophe in it’s – tut tut).