Young Blood - Guts x Bram Stoker Festival

Roisin Agnew | Editor's Foreword

When they discovered specific details of blood coagulation by studying haemophiliacs who bled out uncontrollably, scientists termed the process of coagulation a “cascade” that sealed an opening in the body, protecting it from the outside world. How well blood came together was a matter of life or death. A heart attack, a hemorrhage, a blood clot, a stroke - they all depended on your blood’s coagulatory abilities, its capacity for stickiness.

In Dracula, Bram Stoker has a character quote scripture, saying, “For the blood is the life.” To ingest blood is to assimilate the other person, to break that seal that the body has worked so hard to build. The sexual symbolism is so obvious, down to its very stickiness. Blood sits in the intersection of death and sex, a thanatological cock tease and  taboo that shows up in the viral photographs of a teenager’s period-stained sheets or in the social critique of an indie vampire flick. For something as intrinsic to life, blood itself doesn’t get much air time. But to breach that protective layer and get to the warm flowing red stuff to tell stories about our shared experiences of blood, seemed quite fun.

And we had to take advantage of our name for this year’s Bram Stoker Festival. So, as an homage to Dracula’s creator we bring you oozing scabs, supernatural menstruations, bloodless cadavers, and vampiric politicians in this special festival edition all on the theme of the blood. Happy Halloween. R


Sonny Ross | Issue Illustrator

From the time he was born Sonny had enormous sideburns, which apparently is not uncommon in Manchester. His parents were keen ornithologists and soon little Sonny developed a love of birds, particularly ducks. But sadly, as so often happens, the arrival of puberty dispelled all that was pure and bird-like in Sonny’s heart, substituting it with an obsession with drawing and sunny afternoons filled with drawn curtains and horror movies. His skills as an illustrator sharpened, his love of horror remained.

I still haven’t met Sonny at time of writing. I was trawling through our submissions one night, knowing that we didn’t have anything we could use anyone for, when I stumbled upon a strange name. Further investigation showed that the name belonged to an artist with a particular brand of cheekiness made up of vibrant colours and funny characters with a retro feel. If I were a child I’d probably adore Sonny, and as an adult I definitely do.

His love of Bram Stoker and horror made him a perfect candidate for the issue, and the first non-Dublin illustrator we’ve ever used. And he’s rediscovered his love of ducks recently. His book, Duck Gets A Job, came out in October and is available in a bookshop near you.

 

 

One

 I woke from bad sleep unready for the morning, migraine a blood comet arcing slow and heavy through the dark of my skull. The pain’s heavy whoosh rhymed with the planes lowering out of a flight-path that passed above my apartment.

5am: a dark horizon rose-tinted with pollution burn. I wanted to dive back into sleep but a shallow wash of images was all there was to go on from last night’s dreams. A receding tide, drag too weak to pull me down again. My rucked bedcovers left a space of sheets the colour of a beach. Yes: that was it. The beach at Porto Ecole, a cinder dawn, and Fernando dipping kelp into mercury-colour water, mopping pain from my head. “Where’s the soul, anyway, Fernando?”

“In the cool hush after your last breath’s echo. Or maybe your ears. I haven’t checked since I died.”

Two

I can’t say I knew Fernando well. He stayed with us a bit when he was dying: the hospital in Mexico City was better than the one in his hometown. He and my flatmate, Luis, had dated a bit many years ago, but that spark hadn’t taken, settling instead into a mellow affection glow. 

We liked him around. Luis said he barely noticed Fernando was even there, which was like his marker of a good house-guest even if it brought its own problems: “He’s always been quiet. It frightens the shit out of me coming into a room and finding him there.”

For my part I loved to come home after a work-trip to find the two of them carping at one another on Luis’ cowhide-draped ‘60s chairs. Candles flickering at Luis’ Santa Barbara shrine, ceramic uplit with fever pallor, and, outside, the storm’s roar like static buffets.

 “I’m getting the kilos you’re losing,” Luis said once, tugging the hem of his Hawaiian shirt to show his sleek portly body. “You’ll be fine,” Fernando said back. “I’ve only got about 50 of them left.”

 

Luis had told me that Fernando’s Dad had been a priest who left the orders after falling for his secretary. He’d inherited the vibe. Frail, sallow-skinned, dressed in black – big boots, leather jacket, a diving V-cut t-shirt – Fernando’s calm was monklike in the dim living room. St. Jerome, 1605-06. The rain-sound was Fernando’s thin sick blood following its courses. As long that sound was pulsing it seemed like he would never die.

Three

The illness didn’t get him down so much as his roommates at the hospital. “I’ve had two gangsters in my ward this week,” he said one morning, slitting and halving a mango before scooping the wet pith out with a spoon. His skull looked big on his neck.

“From the same gang?” I asked.

“Not even from the same state,” he said, eyes wide. “One was super mala leche, a big dark heap of a guy with even worse tattoos than yours and four bullets in his chest. They brought him in from Michoacán – you know what it’s like there; you go to stupid places all the time. So even though the first guy was scarier, the second one was worse. He was from Tapachula. They’d put his eye out in a knife-fight. He cried all night. That was awful. I haven’t slept.”

“It’s not really a hospital,” Luis told me. “It’s more of a Caravaggio painting.”

“Except the lighting is less forgiving,” said Fernando. His eyes in deep insomnia caves. The sallow cliffs of his cheekbones. Sick Bacchus, 1593.

Four

The last time I saw Fernando he wasn’t able to sit down. His immune system wasn’t good.

“Crashing like this goddam Mac!” Luis yelled in his fat brown leather computer chair, slamming the mouse and startling the cat. Luis and I were on a research mission, googling ways to diddle prescriptions to get extra painkillers.

Fernando stood poised like a heron with one knee leant on the red chaise-longue. His hand clenched and unclenched on the scrolled golden chair-back. His hair cropped, his beard unkempt, his eyes far-reaching and abstracted above the pain-thrum. The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600.

“It’s such an inconvenient place to have a cancer,” he said to me, shaking his head, voice soft like he was talking about traffic.

“Feels like I’m laying an egg and it won’t go.”

“I know…how you feel?”

“Gosh, I hope not.”

Five

I was in Guatemala when Luis called to say Fernando had died. The brown hospital echo of my hotel’s old 1940s tiles and wood fittings. Out back in the drenched garden black trees pushed forth a glut of mangos. The mangos were the color of sickness. Fog. A stone fountain, pores blackened with time. Mangos heaped in drifts on the black path. Still Life With Fruit on a Stone Ledge, 1605-1610. That writhe of marrows like lovers’ bodies twisting up after an escape from the picture’s two dimensions, the curves aimed blindly up after light pouring through a hole cut in the ceiling. That rhyme between opened ceiling and slit watermelon. A wry mouth, teeth climbed black by medical side-effects.

Six

When do I think of him? We listened to David Bowie one of the days in January that he was up for treatment. Fernando was devastated when Bowie died. Looped Black Star that whole morning.

“It’s that saxophone solo on the last song – it kills me,” he said. “Sounds like a soul leaving the body. The way he exited the stage – he turned death back into an art.” 

I put Black Star on sometimes these days and in my head I see a stark brass light diagonal catch Fernando’s face at the head of a deal table. His gaze is aimed down before him over a white page on which he’s drawing the shapes of his pain in black pencil. Smoke threads knit opaque under a cone of light from a black lampshade. Someone nudges Fernando and he looks up to see two beckoning fingers calling him forward into the dark. He’s alright with it. The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600.

When I was unemployed, freshly let go after three days in a sales job, I spent your taxes on a copy of Marie Claire magazine. I think it was the one with Lena Dunham on the cover. Her eye make-up was lovely. Inside there was a short article on career tips. Women with very good jobs in London were asked what did they look for when hiring a young woman. One said she always checked the state of a prospective employee’s nails. If they were sloppily painted, chipped or bitten, she was unlikely to hire the interviewee.

I have bitten my nails for as long as I remember. My fingertips are a state. These stubs won’t score frenzied red tracks down your back. They can barely feel anymore. I think I’ve eaten the very nerves, like vermin cutting through encased wire.

It might be an inherited trait. My father bites his nails when watching television or reading the paper. It might be a nasty habit I developed out of necessity, being dragged to mass in the nineties as a child until all the evilness was common knowledge and social pressure cooled. It wasn’t the build up to Jesus’ murder repeated year on year that drove me to my nails, that’s a good story, but the monotonous drone of the priest. Irish sermons rarely have brimstone. They keep the shaming to religion classes in school. I would’ve been somewhat captivated hearing a man explain from a pulpit how we were going to play a game deciding who wouldn’t get a place on a hypothetical lifeboat. (Spoiler alert: the girls in the Ursuline, Thurles chose to throw to the sea the engaged woman who cheated on her Irish fiancé with a black man while on her holidays and was considering aborting the baby who was a result of that affair.)

My tendency for excavation has lead to some standout moments. There was the informal exit interview with the start-up where I had completed an internship aged 23. In the middle of a glass room, where the walls were decorated with endorsement quotes from tech blogs I haven’t read since, the finance guy snapped. Stop biting your nails, he nearly shouted. Out of character for him, a routine tic for me. The aftermath of the tense scene was a geyser. He was a ginger and literally cooled down in front of me. I had said absolutely nothing critical during the conversation because anyone who uses an exit interview to grind an axe or effect change is wasting time on earth.

Then there was this incident when I was about twelve. How you behave at a funeral says everything about you. You’re taking time to see if someone is okay. Queuing, waiting, shaking a grieving soul’s hand as you look them in the eye. The language of condolence is throwaway and trotted out but I believe it to be an actual comfort, a universal code, an acknowledgement of another’s person pain. Participating in ritual is good manners. If you end up in the pub the night before or the evening after, you do not argue about politics. You discuss the Dublin renting situation with aunts until the conversation is looping white noise. You let lonely old men talk to you about whatever they want to talk about.

And when a relative by marriage stalks up to you in the outskirts of a stony graveyard by the sea in County Kerry and slaps your face – or rather the hand attached to your mouth - you don’t cry or let shock translate into how-fucking-dare-you indignation. When she tells you nail biting is a disgusting habit and then turns back to follow the corpse, you get on with it. You tell your parents what happened and years later you recount the story to friends, but the anecdote is tied to the tragic funeral of a father, so it doesn’t matter.

You got slapped, as Big tells Carrie in Paris.

In recent years, my habit has worsened and evolved into skin picking. It’s a veritable condition: Excoriation disorder. Sometimes I’m slicing myself with my own teeth, stripping away cuticles and tasting metal. Most times my fingers inflict damage on other fingers. I peel away flakes of recovering flesh and expose raw slivers to the elements. One study says nail biting’s a good way to build up one’s immune system. You’re ingesting pollen and bacteria on the sly. One news report compared it to a natural vaccine. It’s related to hygiene theory, apparently. We’re raising children in too clean environments. But then other studies says you’re more likely to pick up colds and gum infections as a nail biter. There’s also the chemicals in nail varnish.

Last December my boyfriend watched as I painted my nails and asked why I bothered. I scrape off the lacquer in sheets under boardroom tables when bored, scoring white marks across the nail plate. I haven’t coated my nails in colour since January 1st. This is my Year of Reading Women. This decision has done nothing to stop me self-harming, because that’s what skin picking is. It’s a public admission and all the fingers point back at you.

Apparently the elastic band around the wrist is effective. Although I wonder how a hissing hangover pain combats a pulsing one. And as someone pointed out to me: “Everyone will assume you’ve been abused.” I’ve googled hypnosis, legitimate practitioners. It’s expensive with sessions climbing into the hundreds. As I grow older I should worry about what I’m doing to myself. I read one listicle of advice from older women where one participant said she regretted her habit as it meant her nails were chalk when she hit her thirties. Over two decades I’ve been attacking my fingertips. At the moment it feels like an ecosystem almost impenetrable to desertification. When will the nail bed stand up for itself and give up?

I work in lifestyle media and it’s a regular thing at launches to be offered a manicure from a popular city centre salon. I always shrink my naked hands away and apologise. I bite my nails, I admit, and the technician invariably insists that if I got my nails done I’d stop as I’d value them more. I’d apologise again and walk away. Because this is the truth, I’ve no genuine desire to help myself. I’m a hopeless case. Nails can trap germs, the DNA of victims, the scent of garlic. Mine say this: I don’t care.

Being a selection of statements to Dail Eireann by Dunbar Bouvaird TD.

March 15th 2019

Fellow deputies. I needn’t dwell on the events of recent weeks.

[Removes cap in a noble gesture of the common man]

We squabble here every day, over employment rates or house prices or who should get this or that subsidy from the Tripe Board. Meanwhile we’ve let go unnoticed the clandestine world of horror now making itself known, a nationwide campaign of vampirism endangering us all. 

We’ve watched, bog-eyed, as horrible creatures emerge straight from the yellowed pages of folklore and into modern life. And I do not mean the good type of folklore, where gentle-minded, buck-toothed culchies happens upon a hedge and, in the hopes of winning some gravy or a caravan or something, agree to a leaping contest with one of the fairy folk. Rather, I speak of these rough beasts now scything down entire towns; the evil, godforsaken reptiles rending bone and marrow from Crossmaglen to Ballyhaunis. 

[Appreciative murmurs fill the chamber]

Throughout the country, entrails mar every eyeful from Moher to Newgrange and our every public thoroughfare is little more than a grisly trail of glistening gore. Our people die in hundreds, only to rise again with pointed teeth and flamboyant hand gestures, further swelling the ranks of the dark legion. As throats burst from Gort to Glebe, a thick patina of purple viscera now coats entire villages, serving as ironic counterpoint to the signage announcing even our tidiest towns.

[Weary, sympathetic sighing]

Ceann comhairle, the time for cowardice has passed. We must now establish a committee looking into a four-year-plan on relevant legislation and regulation of vampires and their activities, eventually looking toward submitting its findings, in the form of non-legally-binding suggestions, to this chamber at some period after the next election.  

[Rumblings of agreement]

July 17th 2019

It would, of course, be cheap of me to point fingers to certain members of this house, but the fact is the army’s intervention did not work. We sent thousands of brave men and women to take out those undead hordes and a whole week of bloodshed ended with nearly every single soldier either eaten or, worse still, absorbed into the undead horde. 

[Horrified gasps]

Not only did this fail to impede their progress, we now face thousands of well-trained and heavily armed vampires, tramping from parish to parish with only two things on their mind, consuming human blood and acquiring ruffled shirts and velvet capes that they might affix to their dress blues and flak vests. Unless we now wish that every tank in Ireland be staffed by the sarcastic undead, their cockpits festooned with candelabras and leather-bound books, we must abandon military intervention and choose a different tack. 

Seeing as the senior military counsel previously responsible for policy have all now been definitively eviscerated, I took the initiative in starting pre-negotiations myself, and will spend tonight in a spooky castle at their invitation, so as to strike us the deal we need.

[Cheering and low, distant heavy breathing] 

August 1st 2019

Seamus O'Reilly.jpg

So the spooky Castle summit was a great success.

[Fiddles awkwardly with giant scarf now swaddling his throat]

I put it to the house that we must make broad gestures in the direction of those afflictive truths staring us baldly in the face. Might we not look at the benefits of our newfound situation? Our undead friends need little in the way of sleep or sustenance, save the provision of fresh blood, which we are hearing can be just as well procured from livestock or voluntary human donation. Their speed and alertness makes them ideal for the workforce, and have begun to revitalise our public services and stands a good chance of doing the same for our country’s farms, as suggested by Monday’s report on offal subsidies.

[Faint cheers, clicking sounds]

Due to their keen attention to detail preference for nightwork, we are also seeing a considerable uptick in the efficiency and utility of our public services. Factoring in outright deaths, and the rising immortal population, the strain on our health service stands considerably lightened, and our unemployment rates markedly decreased. Without wishing to seem callous, it turns out that immortality is good for your health. Their fashion sense and music scene have also enlivened our public sphere, and made us seem a hip and attractive venue for outside investment, particularly for Americans who love that kind of thing.

[Loud hubbub of approval, and repeating of the word “Americans”] 

In today’s report, we recommend a raft of measures to encourage vampire participation in the workforce and, where necessary, to incentivise the practice of vampirism among certain targeted, work-shy populations. We among the negotiation committee also invite the entire chamber to another, different spooky castle to ratify these reforms before the Dáil retires.

[The deputy scratches his neck amid a chorus of assenting fricatives]

March 12th 2020

Fellow Lords,

[The deputy removes his cape in a noble gesture of princely deference]

In reference to the Flatley report we conclude that, with regard to the late Deputy’s claims, recent inspections of the nation’s body-farms have not shown any evidence of the barbarity or cruelty suggested by his very biased investigators. We do question his judgement in spreading such mendacious slanders and would caution others from similar actions. Nonetheless we were, of course, alarmed by reports of his death “due to bursting” and hope the Dark Mouth offers him repose in the Land of Dust.

[Feverish hissing]

We have repeatedly made our feelings on vampire labour very clear but are happy to give the fleshborn rabble all such menial responsibilities, in return for a commitment to maintaining their enclosures and ensuring their state-mandated facilities maintain the highest levels of dignity and comfort. Their funnels will be cleaned and tubes swapped at regular intervals and according to every statute ordered by this chamber.

[Wrings blood into his mouth via a loose scalp pulled from a bucket near the podium]

This calls today’s business to a close. Our next session will cover the pressing matter of the upkeep of our Tidy Towns. Any deputies still wishing to raise issues relating to human welfare may make their case to the Tripe Board.

I knew it was real when I started bleeding. Too early in the month for it, that undeniable dull pain, that gravity in my flesh. Whatever it was that had come into my bed had brought it and left it with me. 

I stayed in one of eight ancient stone cottages on the nose-tip of a cliff in Kerry, in the cold of February this year. This is one of those stories that kills the buzz if it’s told in a smoking area. Friends have rolled their eyes, batted the word crazy across the table. Fine, I always think. That’s fine. You weren’t there on the cliff, in the old of it. In the bed when the long limbs descended over the covers, the thin fingers brushing hair from my forehead – that’s fine, I think. 

Cill Rialig, Ballinskelligs. Eight studio cottages, desolate since the famine and refurbished for artists. Through a series of kindnesses I was offered a week long retreat there to brew over my second novel. Seven other writers and me down there - a temporary village. When I posted about it online writers who had been there before offered advice. Said, please God bring an electric blanket, it’s a special kind of cold. Said, remember to do your big shop in the Supervalu in Cahersiveen, there’s not a shop for miles upon miles around. Said, listen out for the children at night: the famine took them and they’re still crying. Said they hoped I knew how to build a fire.

I bought cans of Guinness and Club Milk bars and sausages and cheese in the supermarket, brought sriracha and a good knife from home. The bed was away up in a loft under a tiny square window. The desk was under a skylight. There was a single turf fire and a fat chimney and February was remorseless on me: I wore almost all the clothing I brought at all times, layer upon layer. I rarely took off my hat, until I lost it in the lane on a morning stroll through the fields on one of the clearer days. The turf man came three times a week with big bags of peat for me to burn, I had the kindling man up every day because lo and behold, the jackeen can’t keep a fire going. The jackeen even lost her hat: the kindling man showed up with the grey woolen thing the day after it went missing, holding it by the bobble. Found it in the lane. Nobody round here has a hat like this, only you.

Firelighters left the stench of petrol on my hands, in the wool of my husband’s gloves. The days blurred into one another as I wrote and wrote. I sat at the fireside instead of at the desk, feeding the mouth of the furnace, nudging it, pleading with the flames to stay red and awake. I watched it go out again and again. I burned the paper I brought for writing. I burned pages that didn’t come out right, watched the heat lick them into nothing.

I burned a wand of sage, and here’s where I admit that I have always been superstitious, which might undermine the possibility of my experience being authentic. As if superstitious is somehow synonymous with naive. Or liar. Or worse still, with crazy: that old bullet word I’ve had lodged in me so many times my body knows the metal of it well enough to just absorb it and use it for iron. I burned the sage before the turf had even been delivered on the very first day. I burned the sage because the building was old and sage protects and look, I like the smell. I like the medicinal quality of it, the look of spiraling smoke. I like trying to do little things to make myself feel safer. 

 

The other writers and I drank together some nights, ate dinner. Cabbage and rice and garlic, red wine, what were you writing today? Holding my lantern on the way out the door I’d joke that if they didn’t see me come tomorrow that meant the banshee had taken me, eaten my teeth and hair and left the rest for the famine children. They’d laugh, I’d laugh, and pull up the hood on my parka, trundle up the stony path on the cliff, stopping to download a few podcasts on the threadbare wifi, turning in with American laughter in my headphones. Expecting a banshee was pushing it a bit too far, I thought, but still glad I saged the place. I slept so well there it was almost shocking. Deeply, undisturbed, full of dreams. My sister an apparition in one, dancing with me in a blue dress, a tattoo on her arm of an open window. Beyond the open window, a bed of daffodils.

I packed my things on the Friday, the book fatted, Ceri’s gloves all but destroyed. Lay down in the bed for the last time, podcast on, some chirpy chat show. The wind howled like it only can that far away from the city – really let roar. 

I let my eyes close and listened to the mix of voices and screaming wind and when I say I wasn’t even drowsy please believe me. When I say something descended on the duvet, believe me. When I say it had long, sharp limbs and made a whispering sound, know that it wasn’t immediately apparent that it was probably a child. She was probably a child. She clambered over the blankets, over my legs, hushed voice a distinctly separate sound from the radio, from the storm. She was so light.

She was not malevolent, though it took me some time to feel that. As I lay under the covers, her fingers skating on my cheekbones and eyelashes, my hat removed from my head, she investigated around the bed. She did not leave for hours. My eyes screwed shut I knew that she must know I was awake. She stayed and she moved and she whispered and I have never been more certain of anything than her presence. Sometime during the night I felt a tightening in my abdomen, the certainty of blood. 

The sun rose, she was gone. I did not sleep. I just lay while she moved. When I eventually opened my eyes the normality of the room was shocking to me, the intensity of those old familiar cramps both nauseating and mundane. A week early, a whole week. My period is still a relief to me month by month, but February’s sudden arrival felt wrong. A mark left with me by the child in the night, the force of her over my body too much, pure lunar death. It felt like a summoning of blood. 

When I say crazy is a bullet, believe me. I’ll tell this story a time or two more, I’m sure. Light a smoke, take a sip of my pint and say, actually yeah I have had a supernatural experience. Wait for the eyes to roll at my sincerity. Still, I light sage by my writing desk. At the end of every month when that gravity hits, I think light limbs. A soft touch on my eyelashes. Whatever it was that she was whispering.

 

Vladimir Nabokov was once asked to define reality.  He said: "I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and of specialization.  If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person.  But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies.  You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality."  It's an arrestingly straightforward observation, that by looking at a commonplace thing through the honed sensibilities of a specialist we can apprehend a deeper reality.  So I asked my cousin, a doctor working in the Mater Hospital, to talk to me about blood. 

"I don't really see much blood," she said.  "If I do it usually means someone's made a mistake."  Ah.  Right.  "Before I learned anatomy I had this idea that the blood was sloshing about inside the body," she says, perhaps intuiting the nature of my lurid imaginings.  "But all the blood is contained in the arteries and veins.  Surgery's very bloodless.  Even if you cut into the stomach there's no blood."  Feeling a little desperate, I ask her which vein or artery a vampire would get the best juice out of.  She shakes her head at the irrelevance of it all.  "I mean, I don't know if vampires want oxygenated or deoxygenated haemoglobin, so…" She shrugs.     

 She qualified from medical school last year, and is on a convoluted path - there are HSE schemes and interviews and restricted placements involved - to becoming a general surgeon.  Her life's ambition has been unusually consistent.  When she was a child she operated on her teddy bears.  She remembers laying a patient on its back on a breadboard operating table.  She'd make an incision with an art knife, extract fluff from the incision with a tiny plastic forceps and then place the specimen in a kidney dish.  If in her considered six-year-old medical opinion the fluff was deemed healthy tissue she'd carefully replace it in the cavity and sew up the incision.  

Children usually anthropomorphise their teddies and dolls.  My cousin is so naturally unsentimental that she barely anthropomorphises human beings.  "Since I started working as a doctor I don't think I've ever had much of a sense that 'this is a person.'  Even when they're standing in front of me, talking to me, it's more of a problem solving approach. There is a human aspect to it, and it's a bit sad when they die, but I don't get into that too much."  

Over the course of four years in medical school she dissected 24 cadavers. Listening to her describing dissections I can only pity the noble souls who donated their bodies to science, stirred by the notion that in death they would provide edification to the custodians of the living. "Everybody just thinks they're disgusting.  You don't learn anything.  I would never think 'That's a body'.  None of the students appreciate the fact that someone has given up their body.  Because I think people who do it, they imagine there's a something romantic about donating your body to science, they're advancing learning, helping train people.  But anyone who's ever dissected a body would never donate."  

She invites me to consider what a cadaver looks like after a year of being systematically pulled apart by medical students.  The scooped heads, the drained, opaque eyeballs. Organs are dumped in buckets of preservative like chum.  Muscles peeled back like electrical wire, hips popped from pelvises, the ribs prised apart like a bear trap in the stranded torso.  From a pedagogical point of view, according to my cousin, "It's not even realistic.  The muscles are hard.  Everything is the same colour.  Arteries, nerves, veins, muscles, organs, skin, they're all green-grey.  To be honest, you learn more from books."

She works from seven in the morning to nine at night five days a week, and sometimes at the weekends too.  As an extremely lazy man this schedule horrifies me, as does the idea of nicking the bowel of a cadaver or worrying about contracting HIV or hepatitis-c from a patient who's a known inoculation risk.  So what is it that drives her, fascinates her?  Does helping people bring her satisfaction?  "Look, it's just like normal life," she tells me.  "Most people are annoying.  They've been waiting for two days in A&E, they hate the system and they hate doctors.  The smells I would find disgusting, and the levels of personal hygiene.  Feet are disgusting.  People can be disgusting.  But on the inside they're all the same."  I ask her a question that I hope is more profound than stupid: what's the difference between the inside of a dead body and a living body?  Her eyes light up, her hand moves through the remembered abdominal incision of a patient she is remembering, and she says: "When you put your hand in a real body it's warm, and liquid, and things are moving.  The arteries are pulsating, the bowel moves peristaltically.  You can feel this through your fingers, the life of the organs."

What she says reminds me of a phrase that's sometimes attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (though I haven't been able to verify it): movement is the essence of life.  Maybe that sounds as facile as a Zumba class tagline.  But da Vinci, that famous defiler of corpses, didn't restrict himself to the examination of dead bodies.  He dissected all manner of living animals too, removing limbs, organs, capillaries, nerves, even heads as he searched for the locus of the soul, the ghost in the machine.  He variously thought the soul might be found in the brain or in the third ventricle of the heart, but it's significant that his notes make repeated mention of the internal movement of the body.  He believed that nerve impulses were: "Spiritual movement flowing through the limbs of sentient animals that enlarges their muscles.  Whence, being enlarged, these muscles then contract and draw back their tendons…Therefore material movement arises from the spiritual."  

My cousin would have no truck with woolly phrases like 'spiritual movement'.  She's a scientist, a precision engineer of human biology.  But the contrast that made her eyes light up as between the inert grey corpse and the living, pulsating human body is what stays with me, the reminder that whatever it is - call it spiritual movement, or capital- L Life, call it the Force, if you like - whatever it is that animates the tissues of our body, shoots pulse races of oxygenated haemoglobin through our arteries, commands the liver to break down toxins that would otherwise kill us within a few days, remains an intoxicating mystery.  Even a contemporary doctor cannot tell you what this force is made of.  As Nabokov said of the quintessence of lilies: "You never get near enough, because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable."  But with your hands deep in the warm, moving liquid of life, you must feel thrillingly close.   

      

‘Let’s tell scary stories’. This was the most exciting sentence to hear as a child. Sitting in a slowly darkening room as the back-to-school evenings drew in, my friend would regale me and my sister with the most terrifying tales passed down to her by her older brothers who were connoisseurs of all things spooky. Little girls with missing limbs, bodies hanging from trees. Goosebumps it was not. 

I always had a predilection for everything surrounding the occult, from holding a séance one Halloween in my small kitchen to contact my dead grandfather, to reading about a haunted Winchester mansion on the (dial-up) internet. The sound of the modem will forever be associated with those images of the doors leading to sheer drops and the staircases built to nowhere, created to confuse ghosts.

During this time I encountered a smorgasbord of supernatural creatures which I absorbed into my subconscious mind, but it was vampires that took root. My dad came home one day with a book of occult-themed stamps, which I kept carefully in an album. I read voraciously about Dracula, thrilled that Bram Stoker was Irish. My neighbours were Romanian and as a seven year-old I asked their daughter if the rumours about Transylvania were true. She said yes, of course, but in retrospect, I feel like she was talking the place up.

There was so much paraphernalia involved in vampirism - the amulets and objects needed to keep revenants at bay; the cloves of garlic, the crucifixes hung over doorways. On paper vampires were dangerous (cautious child alert), and yet I found them intoxicating. I learned the words - shtriga, vampyr, vrykolakas. Along with Pokémon cards, keeping a nature diary, and magnetic slap bracelets, vampires became a part of my life’s fabric. I wanted to be one, and be with one (even just as pals).

Before going to bed, my hair was tossed to one side, fanned out on the pillow like the girls I imagined a vampire would be interested in.  Every morning I woke up with a neck free of wounds, and felt bitter disappointment reading the cereal boxes at the table. Another day, another chance at becoming a member of Club Undead out the window. My mam would never have occasion to write me a sick note for school: ‘Ellen can’t come in today (or ever again) because she is a vampire now, and is therefore immortal’.

Aside from my prepubescent desire to become a ‘goth’ (helped along with a cheap pot of navy lip balm I carried in my combats pocket), my interest in vampires waned somewhat over time. This was until I put some pieces together. Every bad boy/girl I fancied in popular culture, every Jess Mariano or Morticia Addams, possessed traits that could be described as vampiric. Emotionally distant, an air of boredom even in good company, and a propensity for wearing all-black outfits, not to mention the complete lack of humanity in spite of the moody sexuality they exuded from every pore. 

This connection between sexuality and vampirism is centuries old. In the Victorian era vampire literature gained momentum because so many of the stories involved people who were ‘under the influence’ of a vampire, and therefore unafraid to act on their desires. When unsatisfied women were ‘hysterical’ and sexuality at large was policed, a fantasy life free from the panopticon that was society at the time seemed pretty alluring. People wanted the ride, but had to make do with reading about sexual metaphors while showing your ankles in public was considered an affront to public decency. What would they have made of crop tops? Different (terrible) times.

Vampires were originally not the hyper-sexual and debonair creatures I was obsessed with. They evolved somewhat. Slavic folklore painted a grim picture of a ruddy-faced thing wearing a linen tunic it had been buried in, with matted hair and a bloated, bloodstained face. Not exactly a marketable brand. Contrast this to Bill from True Blood or Darla from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, their good looks used to entice and seduce. 

Modern iterations of vampires are sleek, immaculately turned out, with artfully dishevelled hair. They don’t need to sleep, their immortal faces never marked by age. They are outsiders in society. A mirror reflects back nothing at all, leaving no trace. 

The idea of vampirism, or entering into a relationship or indeed a torrid affair with one of the undead becomes less and less attractive the more real life miles I clock up. Yes, they are always beautiful and seemingly insatiable, but they will never put you first before blood. You would reach for your vampire girlfriend’s hand in the park and it would in that moment feel like ice before she whipped it away. Your vampire boyfriend would get annoyed if you wanted to stay in and watch Diners, Drive Ins and Dives on a Friday night instead of scouting the Camden Mile clubs for fresh meat. You would find him that night as you go down to get a glass of water, idly swiping Tinder at the kitchen table asking people what they’re into. You’ll turn 55 and get rheumatoid arthritis as they’re off gallivanting, their clammy skin as youthful as the night they were sired.

Vampires are a powerful and delicious fantasy, in a world where there are no rules, no preconceived notions of your place in society, and the promise of debauchery lingers in every interaction. Single-minded in their pursuit of humans, pursuit of blood, of you - but once that’s over what comes next? 

 

“My nose feels a little funny,” I announce to my friends late one night as I twiddle it cutely the way Samantha from Bewitched does. I turn slowly to them, almost like a mechanical doll, and as I say “Sometimes my nose just bleeds for no reason at all”, their faces are painted with horror.  

Blood is pouring out of my nose and for a split second, they are convinced that I did it on purpose, summoning the downpour like some sort of She-Devil.

All my life, I’ve suffered from nosebleeds. It’s just one of the many ways in which my body throws me into a deep spiral of shame. If it’s not clammy hands, a red face or a very wet upper lip, my own blood decides to spout out my nose like a boiling kettle to alert the people that I’m here and why yes, I am bleeding profusely.

I can remember my first nosebleed ever so clearly. I was eight years of age and I had just gotten my ears pierced in the chemist. A red letter day for any young girl, soon to be a very red nosed day. I was cocky with my bedazzled lobes and I took to the garden, skipping like a madwoman and pretending I was in a video for a Kylie Minogue song. All of sudden, beside our ramshackle greenhouse, the iron cast handle of an unused and old-fashioned lawnmower fell down and cracked my nose. The blood starting pumping immediately, splatting over every second of ear-pierced glory, the rusty taste building up at the back of my throat and a deep heat penetrating my nostrils, dribbling down my chin and drip-dropping onto my shoes. This was my first nosebleed, thanks to a lawnmower, and it was not to be my last.

Nosebleeds are often associated with cocaine, punch ups, and now, thanks to Eleven in Stranger Things, secret government experiments. Just to clear up any rumours, my nose beats to its own drums and since 1995, it’s been bleeding its own path all by itself. No coke, no brawls and no invasive government procedures… that I know of.  

Landmark bleeds include but are not limited to; on the roadside of the Stillorgan dual-carriageway, where I bled approximately a pint of blood into my scarf, passed out a little and then drove back home; in a hotel bar in Dingle and then later in a tiny bathroom cubicle in Dingle, where my doctor friend insisted on holding a bag of ice against my forehead and the back of my neck to stop the bleeding. We did this over the bloodied toilet bowl, with ice melting down my back and face, as the women queuing for the other cubicles pretend not to see me. When I could, I gurgled “THIS ISN’T FROM COKE, IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME”.

There is no medical explanation for my nosebleeds but my sister suffers from them too so we’ve concluded that our noses can predict a change in the weather. Whether it’s a cold snap or an Indian Summer, our beaks will let you know. Granted, the weather may already be cold or warm so it’s about as useful as Karen’s weather predicting tits in Mean Girls but it’s our special gift. Instead of feeling it in our waters, we feel it in our nostrils.

As I’ve sat with tampons and scrunched tissues shoved up my nose over the years, I’ve tried to pinpoint precisely what causes the bleeding. Other than the weather, all I’ve got is panic, embarrassment or anxiety. If I get a rush of blood to the face, for either of the previous reasons, maybe my veins can’t control the surge and they need to find an exit point. Luckily, it’s my nose that my veins chose and not my eyes. That would take my eye stigmatism to religious levels that even I’m not ready for.

It’s pretty easy to read me because the colour of my face or the temperature of my hands will easily tell you which way I’m feeling.  You’ve heard of the phrase ‘Cold hands, warm heart’? Well, I’m the opposite. Clammy hands, bitterly cold heart. ‘A heart so cold, she’d make a grown man cry,’ she tweeted one night, laughing to herself, knowing that no one would ever believe that.

I could have been the greatest liar in the world but that sudden rush of blood and heat to, or from, my face and hands gives the whole game away. I always feared the ‘Peace be with you’ bit in Mass, only adding to the clamminess of my claws. I’d spend the first half of Mass with my hands held out, fingers spread, so there’d be no pent up heat but when the priest offered out the drumroll of ‘you may now offer each other the sign of peace’, no matter how many times I patted my palms on my jeans, they would still be clammy. Either way, this is me. Clammy hands, cold heart, bloody nose, overactive circulation. Throw in hot-headed and you have the full climate of my body.

There are some people in the world who have never had a nosebleed and I pity them. To feel that sudden surge of heat coming from your snout, accompanied with that taste of iron that has you craving a proper steak because, well, medically, you probably need about three, is a unique thing. There is something biblical about having an uncontrollable bloody nose and there’s great power in inciting fear in your friends as you calmly sit with blood trailing down your face. If breathing and speaking weren’t big enough hints, it’s a liquid reminder that you’re very much alive.