At the Gnii Refinery

This image is a two page spread from Hopeless Maine: Inheritance, which is now the second half of The Gathering. Ignore the website address on it, this is an old image, we aren’t there now, we’re here, which you probably knew on account of also being here…

In the foreground of this image, we see Owen and Salamandra collecting inedible things for the traditional Founders Day feast. Islanders spend the day staring at a table full of stuff no one wants to eat and reminding each other of how awful the island’s native flora and fauna really are.

In the background of the image, is a building. We don’t talk about it in the comic, although it is in the game. What you’re seeing here are the remains of the gnii factory.

For a while, Hopeless Maine had an economy based on catching and processing giant oceanic gnii. You’ve seen island gnii – the little lights bobbing about in the sky. The giant version is in essence just much bigger, but also migrates. These are like sky whales, and like whales, their fat can be rendered down and used for a lot of things. When the giant oceanic gnii disappeared, the processing factory closed, the money disappeared and the idea of Hopeless having industry disappeared too. This was back in the day when getting off the island was slightly more feasible.

The giant oceanic gnii are not extinct. I think we’ve got enough real extinctions to break our hearts over without having to deal with fictional ones as well. So, the giant gnii wised up and stay away from the island and are doing very well. They are doing far better than the people who tried to make money out of their oil. Sometimes they get awkwardly attracted to dirigibles and hot air balloons, leading to some failed breeding attempts and hurt feelings for the gnii, and terrible sudden death for anyone in the dirigible or balloon.

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Spoonwalker nests

The reason spoons are always in short supply on Hopeless Maine, and thus jealously guarded by those who still have them, is spoonwalkers. Being soft, squidgy creatures who live on a cold, hard island full of hungry things, spoonwalkers adopted stilts at some point in their history. Then, when humans came along, they adopted cutlery. Mostly spoons. For whatever reason, it appears that knives and forks offend them and they’ll only pick one up in absolute desperation. A spoonwalker is more likely to limp away on three spoons than resort to a fork.

When spoonwalkers are breeding, they have to collect spoons ready for their young to leave the nest. The trouble is, that maths is not their strong point. Every baby spoonwalker needs four spoons, and there are usually several eggs in a nest. When obliged to multiply four by several, the spoonwalker invariably concludes that it needs ALL THE SPOONS IN THE WORLD and sets out with this aim in mind.

After the hatching, any unneeded spoons will simply be abandoned at the nest site. Other spoonwalkers may well collect them. Sometimes, a happy and fortunate human finds such a stash. Island wisdom has it that if you find a nest of spoons, you can never trust those spoons. They will not behave, and may run off of their own free will. But still, it beats trying to eat stew with a fork.

The Further Adventures of Drury

Drury rampages through the two page spreads in the next volume of Hopeless Maine. He’s a cheery sort of dead dog.

One of the things that is always important to me in storytelling is working out what not to say. The gaps are everything. The silences are where you, dear reader, get to bring your stories, ideas, experiences, preferences, desires and so forth along and sneak them in and make part of Hopeless entirely your own.

I don’t want to tell you too much about Drury, for all those reasons. But here are some things I can tell you that won’t stop you playing with him. (I know you, you are exactly the sort of person to play with a cheerful dead dog and properly appreciate his many fine qualities.)

Drury was a very happy dog in life. He was (and to some degree still is) a medium sized mix of many and varied dog genes. He loved everything and everyone, and still does. He loved rats and spoonwalkers and other small, scuttling things so much that he could only properly express this by eating them. Drury loved being a dog. He wasn’t a clever dog, so he didn’t really notice the implications of dying, and just kept on being a dog.

I hesitate to call it ‘continuing by force of will’ because Drury is made of impulse, not will, and has no capacity to think anything through – that’s not just due to now having no discernible brain, he was always that way.

Often he forgets that he’s not as solid as he used to be and still expresses his great love of everything by chewing and swallowing it. Some of his cannier victims – those who survive the chewing part – often hang out in his ribs as with Drury around, inside the dog is often the safest place to be…

The Elders

The Royal Navy vessel, HMS Sabrina, was a frigate of the ‘Scamander’ class, one of a series of ships that had served in the late Napoleonic War. These were constructed of pine, a wood selected because the Royal Navy needed to build ships rapidly. Although quick to build, they were not expected to last as long as those made of oak. The ‘Sabrina’ was no exception and floundered in the North Atlantic in 1815, during her stint supporting an expedition that was searching for the fabled North-West Passage. Some of her hapless crew survived the shipwreck and found their way to Hopeless, Maine. For a while they believed that they were safe.

Those familiar with the unforgiving nature of Hopeless will be aware that the mortality rate is high, especially among newcomers. Over the years, the island has been the salvation of many a shipwrecked individual. For the vast majority, however, this was but a temporary reprieve. Only the lucky few have managed to survive the challenges posed by a landscape seething with hostility. After almost a year on the island, the remaining survivors from HMS Sabrina felt confident that they had beaten every obstacle that Hopeless harboured. With the aid of some of the tools and weapons salvaged from the ‘Sabrina’, they had successfully evicted a colony of spoonwalkers from the deserted hovel that they now called home and valiantly fought off some strange tentacled beasts who seemed comfortable on both land and sea. The company had put up with wailing ghosts and the attentions of assorted night-stalkers. As the months slipped by the original band of thirty was depleted to just six. Despite all, these six felt themselves to be impervious to anything that the island could throw at them; after all, they had been the ones who had managed to stay alive. In time they would, undoubtedly, have been proved wrong. As it happened, they did not get chance to find out; it was their own ignorance and inclement weather, that doomed them.

There is nothing quite like a beautiful summer’s day to gladden the heart and warm the soul. Sadly, in the year of 1816, no one in the north-eastern states of America could claim to have enjoyed a beautiful summer, or indeed any sort of summer at all. You will not be surprised to learn that Hopeless, Maine, was no exception.

Even by the usual, unremarkable, standards of Hopeless weather, the season, so far, had been abysmal. It was late June and it seemed that no one had bothered to inform the weather gods, who appeared to have been asleep since Christmas. When the killer winds that brought in blinding hail storms abated, a blanket of freezing fog wrapped itself around the island, chilling all life-forms (not to mention one or two of the non-life forms) to the bone.

The small community clustered around the acre or so of spiky grass, common-ground that many years later would come to be known as Iron Mills Common, were faring better than most. The majority of ‘Commoners’, as they were called, were descended from the Saxon slaves of Vikings who had settled on the island hundreds of years earlier. For generations they had suffered every privation imaginable and had learned to survive, no matter what. A bit of wind and icy fog was nothing to them.

There was one man, however, who felt the detrimental effects of the unseasonal weather more than most. Old Corwen Nailsworthy was the community’s apothecary, vintner, distiller and protective guardian of a little copse of elder trees that grew on the edge of the common. These trees were the source of many of Corwen’s remedies and were generally hardy enough to put up with Hopeless’ awful climate. In the past they had produced a wealth of blossom, providing the small community with elderflower wine, cordial, tea and when flour was available, fritters. Besides their culinary uses, the flowers were applied to the skin to alleviate joint pain and elderflower water soothed sore eyes. In addition, of course, the ripe berries, also rich in medicinal properties, made ample stocks of elderberry wine, port and syrup for all to enjoy. Corwen worked tirelessly to use the bounty provided by the elders to keep his fellow Commoners happy and relatively healthy. Sad to relate, 1816 offered no such provision. Such a long and unrelenting winter, having refused any hint of spring to dress the trees, ensured a barren harvest.

Corwen was in his stockroom, looking in dismay at the fast-emptying shelves. Luckily, the previous year had endowed them with a generous supply of medicines and alcohol but the apothecary feared for the future. If they were to be cast into a permanent state of winter – as seemed likely – there would be no more elderberries, or elderberry blossom. He gazed out of the small, grimy window at his beloved trees, bare and forlorn in the grey evening light. Suddenly, his eye was drawn to a group of men standing on the edge of the copse. They seemed to be paying close attention to one of the trees. To Corwen’s horror, one of the group produced an axe and began chopping its trunk, as if to fell it.  He rushed out, shouting to them to stop.

The axeman, burly and tattooed, spun on him angrily.

‘We’re cold, old man. You don’t need all these trees. We’re taking this one today and when it’s gone, we’ll take more. Now get out of my way.’

‘You can’t burn elder,’ shouted Corwen, angrily. ‘You will be cursed. The elder is a sacred tree. If you dare burn it, death will follow soon after.’

The men laughed heartily

‘Your superstitions don’t scare us,’ said the axeman. ‘We’ve survived war and shipwreck and everything that this accursed island has thrown at us. We’re not going to be frightened by you or your fairy tales.’

With that, he pushed Corwen out of the way and swung his axe at the base of the tree. It was tougher to cut down than he had thought but eventually the old timbers gave a death-rattle creak and the elder fell to the earth.

Corwen watched, miserable and helpless, as one of the men threw a rope around the fallen tree. Without glancing back they dragged it away, still laughing at the old man’s superstition.

That evening there was less merriment to be had than the six survivors of The Sabrina had hoped. Instead of the roaring blaze in the grate that they had envisioned, the wood of the elder burned with little heat and much smoke. But, they reasoned, with an icy storm raging outside, little heat was preferable to no heat. In view of this they resolved to keep the fire going all night and, when the whole tree was burned, go back for more, as promised.

The following day Corwen looked out of his window, filled with trepidation. Despite his warnings of the terrible consequences of burning the elder wood, he only half-believed the tales. He expected the ex-naval men to return at any moment and take another of his trees. All day he waited anxiously but no one appeared. They did not come back on the following day either, or the one after that.

‘Could it be true?’ he wondered to himself. ‘Is there really a curse?’

Curiosity got the better of him. Taking care not to be seen, Corwen made his way to the place where he knew that the men lived. It looked empty. There was no smoke issuing from the chimney and the front  door was firmly closed against the weather. Gingerly, Corwen peered through the window. The sight that met his eyes made him reel back in shock.

The bodies of the six men were strewn around the room, their faces a dark red with features twisted in agony.

‘The curse,’ muttered Corwen to himself. ‘It has come to pass.’

The story of the terrible retribution of the elders spread rapidly through the length and breadth of the island and Corwen and his trees were never threatened again. The following year the weather reverted to something resembling normality, much to the relief of one and all.

Should you be tempted to scoff at this tale and prove it wrong by burning elder, I beg you not to. While the wood has been proved to be excellent for the construction of whistles, pipes and chanters, it can be fatal on a fire. One of its more unpleasant effects is, that when burned, it releases a lethal cyanide gas. More than one mediaeval peasant has discovered this to their cost, which has undoubtedly contributed to the adverse folklore surrounding the tree. As my mother never tired of telling me, it always pays to respect your elders!

Story by Martin Pearson-art Tom Brown

The Hopeless Mari Lwyd

 

The Mari Lwyd is a Welsh traditional item, a horse skull on a decorated pole, usually taken round to houses for riddling games, and general frolicking. It’s also worth noting that Davies is a common Welsh surname, and that a great many pirates came from Wales. Whether Reverend Davies is descended from Welsh pirates is a question for another day.

In this picture, taken from the next volume of Hopeless Maine – Victims – we see Reverend Davies and a group of Marie Lwyds heading for the beach. Clearly this is not the usual door knocking riddle making activity you normally get up to when you have a collection of horse skulls on poles.

What happens is that they all go down to the beach together. This is a small beach and the sea doesn’t move that far as it goes in and out. The ritual has to be carefully timed. The Mari Lwyds follow the tide out. They shout at the sea, demanding that it let them leave and return to their native lands. Most of the people inside the Mari Lwyds do not remember Wales personally, but they have been brought up to understand that hiraeth is a thing to take seriously. And so every year, when the tide is just right, they go to the beach and shout at the sea about how they want to go home.

Then every year, the tide turns, and the waves wash over their feet and over the hems of their kit. The Mari Lwyds shuffle slowly back up the beach, usually a bit faster than the advancing waters. The sea declines to let them go home. The Mari Lwyds admit defeat and go back to the Squid and Teapot to get riotously drunk and do all the riddles that more normally go with having a horse’s skull on a pole. Reverend Davies does not join them for this bit. He has his own words to say to the sea at this time, and they are not words anyone else gets to hear.

Dancing on a Sunday

A celebrated entertainer (whose name escapes me for the moment) once opined, via the medium of popular song, that Saturday night is, apparently, alright for indulging in a certain amount of fighting. Being one not renowned for pugilistic endeavours, I could not possibly comment on such an assertion. What I do know, however, is that, traditionally, Saturday night is definitely alright for throwing a party. This seems to be true the world over. True, except, maybe, on the island of Hopeless, Maine, where, let’s face it, one day is very like another and if anything can go wrong, it probably will.

This particular tale was born around the time when the founding families first settled on the island. Two centuries have passed since the fateful Saturday night that Clarissa Cockadilly celebrated her twenty-first birthday. As it happened, it was also May Day Eve. Even on Hopeless, one of the most cheerless places on earth, Clarissa truly felt that no date could have been better for the occasion.

The party was well under way when the first, few early stars began to shine wanly through the ever-present mist, their sickly pallor shamed by the gentle glow of the restless and innocent gnii, quietly meandering through the foggy skies. As the day was lost to darkness, the flickering firelight, coupled with the candle lanterns hanging from every tree, gave the celebration a dramatic chiaroscuro backdrop, endowing the bleak island with a mysterious, theatrical atmosphere. Trestle tables, while not exactly groaning beneath the weight of party provender, grumbled ever-so-slightly as more starry-grabby-pies, elderflower fritters and moonshine liquor was heaped upon them. For once, Hopeless felt almost as cheerful a place as one could wish to be, the night air alive with fiddle music and the energetic dancing of Clarissa and her companions.

In those distant, more pious times, the one gaping disadvantage of celebrating anything remotely joyous on a Saturday night was the inescapable fact that it would be followed by Sunday morning. The chimes of midnight would inevitably sound the death-knell of any merriment, ushering in the strict and stultifying observance of the Sabbath, with all of its attendant ‘thou shalt nots.’ And so it was with this particular celebration. If the revellers appeared to have had wings on their feet, then time itself danced even quicker. Clarissa could have sworn that only minutes had passed when the fiddler abruptly halted his playing, right in the middle of Sir Roger De Coverley.

“Midnight,” he said, packing up his violin. “Time to go home. I can’t play for you on the Sabbath.”

Clarissa looked at him defiantly.

“Why ever not? We’re not doing anything wrong.”

“There are those that will tell you otherwise. All this frolicking is sinful on the Sabbath.”

Clarissa looked at her companions.

“Sinful? If innocent pleasure is a sin, then I don’t care if I go to Hell, what say you?”

After some nodding and uncomfortable laughter at her blasphemy, the partygoers unanimously agreed that it would be pleasant to dance a little longer.

The fiddler stomped away angrily, promising to inform Preacher Chevin of their wickedness.  The dancers, fuelled by adrenalin and no small amount of moonshine liquor, merely laughed at him.

Despite the fact that the music had stopped, they made a valiant effort at dancing ‘The Bishop of Chester’s Jig’ and ‘The Collier’s Daughter’ but it was not the same. Just as they thought to give up in disgust and call it a night, a jaunty figure came over the hill brandishing a violin.

“Anyone fancy a dance?” he called brightly.

The revellers could hardly believe their luck. For a fiddler to turn up at such an hour was surely more than chance, but who cared? He wanted to play and they wanted to dance, so where was the harm? Had they noticed that his boots bore an uncanny resemblance to cloven hooves, a pair of small horn-like projections protruded through his cap and that a shower of sparks flew from the neck of the fiddle every time he drew his bow across its strings, they may have been more cautious. Such was their enthusiasm to dance, however, they were blind to all else.

‘The Beau’s Retreat’ and ‘Old Noll’s Jig’ went normally enough. It was only when the fiddler struck up the appropriately named ‘Midnight Ramble’ did the tempo change. Faster and faster the fiddler played and faster and faster the dancers danced. They pranced and gavotted, polkaed and fandangoed all the way from the partying ground to the old swamp that lay on the eastern borders of the Gydynap Hills. As the dance quickened and the dancers tired, a strange thing happened. One by one, they turned to stone, leaving an avenue of petrified sentinels marking the route towards the narrow causeway. By the time the road through the swamp was reached, only Clarissa remained, tirelessly spinning and reeling in time to the music. The causeway is exactly one hundred and seventy six yards long, a tenth of a mile. Clarissa danced at such speed that the fiddler, whose multi-tasking skills left much to be desired, could hardly keep up with her and play at the same time. It took her just forty seconds to cover the distance, end to end. Upon reaching the furthest bank she put her right leg in, put her right leg out and just as she was preparing to shake it all about, missed her footing completely and fell headlong into the swamp. It is sad to relate that poor, twenty-one years old. Clarissa, was sucked into the morass, where she drowned immediately. To look on the bright side, by dying unexpectedly Clarissa at least managed to cheat the fiddler, thereby avoiding the eternal embarrassment of being turned into stone.

Of course, most of the above account is patently untrue. The story of various innocents having some fun on the Sabbath, only to be rendered into stone by Satan, often playing a violin, is a common one in the western world, there to explain the existence of groups of standing stones and unusual rock formations. I have often wondered how these tales would have panned out if the devil had chosen to take up playing the tuba instead of the fiddle. It would have made this whole business of playing until someone danced themselves into a lump of stone a much more ponderous and drawn out enterprise. However, I digress. It is true that there is, indeed, an avenue of largish rocks lining the path to the causeway. It is also true that they look too staged to be natural. All that this means is that they have, at some point, been put there for a purpose. This is where my tale grows dark.

There exists another version of this story, still spoken in anger by the O’Stoat family, close cousins of the now extinct Cockadilly clan. After the party was over and the fiddler had left to report the blasphemous goings-on to the self-appointed Preacher Chevin, a terrible retribution took place. Full of self-righteous indignation and a seething dislike of the O’Stoats, as well as anyone connected with them, Preacher Chevin and a handful of like-minded islanders turned up to teach the party-goers a lesson. With one side fuelled by hatred and the other by alcohol, violence was sure to erupt.  According to the O’Stoats, not one of the dancers was ever seen again. It is thought that Clarissa and her companions were thrown into the swamp. The rocks that marked the road to the causeway, however, appeared overnight and the legend of the devil and the dancers spread rapidly, probably by the Chevins, to cover up the atrocity and strike fear into the hearts of anyone rash enough to seek enjoyment on the Sabbath. If this account is true, then it is clear that we have no need to believe in devils while people like this walk the earth.

In the years following the disappearance of the dancers, tales began to be told of a ghost haunting the far end of the swamp. It was – and indeed, is still – believed that unless you clear the length of the causeway in exactly forty seconds, the wraith of Clarissa Cockadilly will rise from the swamp and demand that you dance with her. If you are fortunate and dance well, she will thank you and you may leave. Resist, however, or dance badly and she will drag you into the stygian depths forever. Such is its reputation, the way through the swamp has long been shunned by most people. Despite this, it has acquired a name. Don’t be fooled by its innocence, however. You most decidedly won’t wish to meet those dancing feet on the avenue I’ve described to you  –  40 Second Street.

Author’s note: There is one tiny fact in all of this that disturbs me disproportionately. In order to cross the causeway (which, you may remember, is exactly a tenth of a mile, or one hundred and seventy six yards long) in forty seconds, you would have to be running at 6.666 miles per hour…

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

Above we see the Chevins enjoying their favourite pastime (which is to say, being a mob)

Baking Bad

Regular readers of ‘The Vendetta’ may recall that The Squid and Teapot once experienced some difficult times under the stewardship of one Tobias Thrupp, a most egregious sort of fellow.  Thrupp’s evil nature and eventual downfall is recalled in the tale ‘The Supper Guest’.  To my knowledge, this is the only period in the inn’s long history that its reputation for generosity has  been tarnished. Except for this brief interlude, newcomers to the island have been given board and lodgings in exchange for some basic chores. This arrangement has continued until such times as they were able to make their own way or, as is more likely, disappear without a trace, as so many do on Hopeless, Maine.

Philomena Bucket had been a resident of The Squid and Teapot for two months. Originally, she had been living in a room on the ground floor of the inn but wishing to be as unobtrusive as possible, she asked to be moved to a tiny attic space that boasted a single window that looked out towards the ocean. At least, it would have, had it not been for the thick and ever-present mist that obscured everything. Now and then an inquisitive gnii would nudge against the glass, spilling its soft, warm light into the room. At first Philomena was alarmed by this intrusion but it had not taken her long to come to love these strange and enigmatic creatures.

Philomena had spent her early life on the streets of Cork, making a precarious living sketching anyone who might give her a few pennies for her efforts. After such an existence, Hopeless, bleak as it was, posed few challenges to her. She was given shelter and food – not plentiful but adequate – and no one looked twice at her, for which she was grateful. Her hair and skin were as pale and translucent as winter moonlight. This albinism, which had occasionally been a source of fear and derision, went by unnoticed on Hopeless. People had better things to worry about than the way that others looked. Besides, she was a hard worker who more than earned her keep, and that counted for much.

One of Philomena’s chores was to forage, in the hopes of finding something a little different to excite the palates of the inn’s patrons. On the day that our tale begins she came across a wreck washed up on the rocks. It reminded Philomena of her own recent arrival on the island. She had been a stowaway, the sole survivor of the ill-fated merchant ship, ‘Hetty Pegler’, which had been carrying a cargo of Irish whiskey. Unsurprisingly, this had been enthusiastically liberated from the ship’s hold and safely stored in the cellar of The Squid and Teapot.  Philomena wondered if this latest wreck contained such a treasure and without another thought, scrambled over the slippery rocks to find out. Being light and nimble, it took her no time at all to reach the ship and climb into its hold. To her disappointment, much of what remained of the cargo had been damaged beyond salvaging when the ship had been ripped open.  A dozen stout barrels, however, stacked above the water level, still looked as though they might contain something worth having.

News travels fast on Hopeless, especially when it concerns bounty from the sea. Before long a small procession of islanders could be seen carefully rolling the barrels over the rough coastal path, headed by Philomena who wanted to make sure that at least one of them reached The Squid and Teapot.

There was much rejoicing on the island when it was discovered that the recovered barrels contained rye flour. Although denser than that ground from wheat, it would make a pleasant change from the acorn flour they usually used, made from the acorns dropped by the island’s scanty oaks, or those washed up on the shore. Fortunately, those living on Hopeless have never demanded much in the way of choice or sophistication in their diet. The most exotic dish known on the island is starry-grabby-pie, which should not be confused with the Cornish delicacy, starry-gazey-pie. Starry-grabby-pie is far more appetising, having tentacles sticking out of the pastry, rather than fish heads and tails.

The rye flour was fairly distributed and before long the air was redolent with the intoxicating scent of baking that wafted from almost every home.

That afternoon, Philomena, standing in the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot, was preparing to make a batch of pies. She had not bothered to look too closely at the contents of the barrels earlier. After all, there was not really that much to see once the initial excitement had passed. Now, however, something disconcerting caught her eye. There were small black flecks in the flour that ought not to be there. She picked some out and examined them closely. They certainly were not mouse or rat droppings, as she had initially thought. She paused. Something in the deepest recesses of her memory stirred, stretched, yawned, scratched its belly and tried to go back to sleep. Philomena, being the woman she was, had no intention of letting it rest until she had remembered whatever it was that was bothering her.

 

It had been a long, tiring day but Philomena could not sleep. Buttoned securely into an industrial-strength, full-length, Victorian nightdress, she lay in her bed in the little attic room, idly watching the gnii floating quietly by outside her window. She smiled to herself in the darkness, reflecting on the way in which time changes everything. Here she lay, three thousand miles from home on the strangest island imaginable. Why, just a few months ago, if she had witnessed these weird but strangely beautiful creatures passing by her bedroom window she would have thought that she was hallucinating… hallucinating! She suddenly sat bolt upright in bed. Hallucinating! That was it. A series of gears and cogs shifted in Philomena’s brain and several pennies started to drop. It must have been well past midnight but her earliest childhood memories finally gave up their secrets, providing her with the answers she had been looking for.

 

Doc Willoughby was not accustomed to waking quite so early in the morning. The insistent rapping at his front door, however, was enough to waken the dead (on Hopeless, one does not say these things lightly!) He peered out of his bedroom window to see that the disturber of his slumbers was Wilhelmina Woodfield, spinster of the parish and fully paid-up member of the hypochondriacal society. The Doc opened his window and glared angrily at her.

“Doc, you must help me. My arms and legs are on fire and a colony of woman-eating turnips in ginger wigs are nesting in my tin bath.”

The Doc eyed her wearily.

“Madam, your extremities are decidedly not on fire. As for the turnip infestation, I cannot possibly comment. This is, after all, our beloved Hopeless.”

By now a handful of Doc’s patients had joined Wilhelmina, all complaining of similar symptoms. Percy Painswick claimed that a candy-striped kangaroo has taken up residence in his bed. This was an especially remarkable revelation as Percy had never seen, or even heard of, a kangaroo, candy-striped or otherwise. Further down the street a growing throng of islanders could be seen running wildly around in various states of undress, screaming and gibbering through the morning mist.

“I need to think about this” exclaimed the Doc and slammed his window shut.

An hour or so passed before anyone knocked on his door again. By now, Doc Willoughby was up and dressed.

“Go away,” he shouted, without opening the door. “I can’t help you.”

“But I can help you,” said a voice. It was Philomena’s. “I think I know what the problem is. I’ve seen this before, in Ireland, years ago, when I was a child.”

 

Word soon got around that Doc Willoughby wanted to address those afflicted, summoning them to the courtyard of The Squid and Teapot that afternoon. This was easier said than done, as most of those attending were, by now, exhibiting a certain amount of noisily challenging and eccentric behaviour.

“I have been doing some research into your problem, at no small inconvenience to myself.”            The Doc had to shout to make himself heard over the cacophony. He caught Philomena’s eye and reddened a little.

“With some… ah… minor assistance from Miss Bucket I … that is, we… have come to the conclusion that you are suffering from Ergot poisoning, commonly known as St. Anthony’s Fire. The rye-flour that was found yesterday was infected with ergot fungus. It causes hallucinations and a burning sensation in the limbs.”

“What can we do?” asked one of the more lucid sufferers.

“Throw away your flour and eat nothing else that was made from it. Other than that there is nothing you can do. One of two things will then happen. You will survive… or you will die. Horribly, apparently, and in great pain. The good news is that I haven’t eaten any of the blasted stuff myself”

The Doc wandered off, leaving the assembled throng somewhat disappointed. Philomena decided to pour oil on troubled waters.

“Don’t worry,” she advised them. “This malaise will pass. You will all be fine. Just remember, these strange things you are seeing are just hallucinations. Go up and touch them and they will pop like a bubble.”

Philomena was, of course, perfectly correct. Once the ergot had done its work and the remainder of the flour was safely disposed of, tossed into the depths of the mysterious and bottomless sinkhole in the Night-Soil Man’s garden, all was well and there were almost no fatalities. Almost…

If you have read the tale ‘Bog Oak and Brass’ you will remember that the sinkhole was created centuries earlier, following a battle between the necromancer, T’Abram Spitch and a demon that he had inadvertently and magically freed from a sealed chest. The demon was a bizarre looking creature with the head of a lion, no body and five legs radiating from its head. These legs had cloven hooves and revolved like a Catherine wheel around the head, which remained static. A quick perusal of a 16th century grimoire – still available in various forms – snappily titled ‘Pseudomonarchia Daemonum: The False Monarchy of Demons’ by Johann Weyer, will tell you that the demon’s name was and indeed, still is, Buer. As scary things go, Buer sounds far-fetched, even by Hopeless standards. This is exactly what Percy Painswick thought. Whether Buer had been disturbed by the flour barrels being hurled into the sinkhole or just paying a social call, I have no idea but he was lurking in all his demonic glory when Percy passed by.

Taking Philomena’s advice to heart, Percy strode boldly up to, what he imagined to be, his latest hallucination and tugged its leonine mane with some force, then tweaked the demon’s nose. For a second Baur was a little taken aback – but only for a second. Strangely, since then, no one has seen hair nor hide of Percy.

By Martin Pearson, art by Tom Browm

Hopeless Books

In the beginning, we were going to call the series ‘Hopeless’. While we were with Archaia, (who first published 2 titles, now re-published in one volume as The Gathering) they decided it would be better for the marketing if we were Hopeless, Maine. I can see how this works, but it means that something is lost, and I want to share that lost thing with you.

It’s what happens to the titles themselves. Had we not got ‘Maine’ in there, every title would read slightly differently. The first title does it least well, because I hadn’t figured out the possibilities right at the beginning…

Hopeless Personal Demons

Hopeless Inheritance

(Now combined as The Gathering, which fails to do the things)

Hopeless Sinners

Hopeless Victims

The working title for the next one is Hopeless Optimists – but that might change

The final volume is almost certainly going to be Hopeless Survivors.

So now you know!

Scents and Sensibility

Philomena Bucket, having fled Ireland, had endured a month cooped up in the hold of the merchant ship Hetty Pegler’, with cotton pollen irritating her nose and eyes. Following the sudden death of the kindly ship’s captain, she had been slandered as a witch and a harbinger of ill-luck by the first mate of the doomed vessel and now, as its sole survivor, she had reached the island of Hopeless, Maine. Within an hour of setting foot on relatively dry land, however, she found her leg to be in the vice-like grip of something that deigned only to show, so far, a single maliciously powerful, grey-green tentacle. As it dragged her towards its dark lair amid the rocks, Philomena had little doubt that such an unsettling extremity could only belong to a creature who was fully equipped to enjoy a robust and unfussy carnivorous diet.

Suddenly the darkness deepened as a strange, indistinct shape blocked out the meagre moonlight. As the figure drew nearer, she could see that it was that of a burly man with a battered hat and a huge bucket strapped to his back.

Without the newcomer having to say a word, or raise the stick that he was carrying, the suckered tentacle loosened its grip around Philomena’s leg and slithered silently and sullenly into the shadow of the rocks.

‘‘Are you alright ma’am? Sorry’’

‘‘I’m fine, thank you”, she affirmed, “Though the old leg’s a bit on the sore side.”

She paused. “Why did you say sorry?” she asked.

“The smell. Sorry about the smell.”

“Ah. Not a problem.”

It had been such a long time since her olfactory functions had ground to a halt that Philomena had quite forgotten that she had no sense of smell. She could only assume that her saviour had been referring to some slight body odour or even – and Philomena’s pale cheeks flushed ever so slightly pink at the thought – that he was apologising for having inadvertently passed a little noxious gas just before they met.

“You really don’t mind?” even in this dim light Philomena could see the puzzlement on the man’s face.

“No, not at all.”

The Night-Soil Man shook his head in disbelief, tempered with no small degree of pleasure.

For those who have never encountered the Night-Soil Man, I should explain. It is his task to go about by night, servicing the cesspools, privies and earth closets of the inhabitants of Hopeless. It is a lonely occupation, executed with dignity and discretion by one who has been bred to the life. The Night-Soil Man is invariably recruited, as a young boy, from the orphanage. He serves an apprenticeship and when his master eventually succumbs, often sooner rather than later, to the strains and perils of his trade, the apprentice takes over. Because of the perennial stench that surrounds him, the Night-Soil Man is destined to be virtually friendless and definitely celibate for all of his days. The one advantage, however, to this seemingly dreadful curse, is that every creature on the island, however nightmarish, will give him a wide berth.

“Would you be knowing somewhere where I can dry me dress off and get some sleep?” she asked, hesitantly.

“There’s always The Squid, or The Crow,” said her companion, stroking his chin with a grimy hand.

Philomena was confused. The squid or the crow? What good were squids and crows if you wanted your clothes drying?

The Night-Soil Man saw the look on her face and assumed she had no wish to go to either establishment.

“Tell you what,” he said.  “I’m going to be working for hours yet. I’ll show you where I live, it’s not far from here, and you can sort yourself out there. In private, like.”

Fifteen minutes later Philomena found herself in the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, drying her dress in front of the fire, while he continued on his rounds. For reasons he could not fathom he found himself to be somewhat distracted by thoughts of this pale stranger who had wandered into his life.

When he returned home, just before dawn the following morning, the Night-Soil Man found Philomena curled up in his armchair, snoring gently. Tenderly he draped a rug over her sleeping form and tiptoed out to the kitchen to make breakfast. He was not able to get that sweet, pale face out of his mind. There had suddenly manifested a strange sensation deep in the pit of his stomach, a sensation for which he had no explanation – unless, of course, it was the Starry-Grabby Pie that he had had for supper.

When Philomena awoke, some hours later, the Night-Soil Man offered to take her to ‘The Squid and Teapot’, an inn famed for its generosity towards newcomers to the island. Philomena would be safe there, until she found alternative accommodation or – as was so often the case – disappeared without a trace.

As they walked along the cobbled road to the hostelry affectionately known locally as simply ‘The Squid’ Philomena was somewhat alarmed to see anyone they encountered shrink back from them, covering their mouths and noses. As an albino she had suffered more than her share of discrimination over the years, but the people of Hopeless seemed extreme in their reaction. Standing in the courtyard of ‘The Squid’ the Night-Soil Man told her that he could not go any further.

“The landlord and his wife are good people – they’ll give you room and board for as long as it takes. Help as much as you can and they will ask for no other payment.”

Philomena thanked him and he watched wistfully as she disappeared through the stout oak doors of the inn.

Everything happened exactly as the Night Soil Man had predicted. Philomena was granted full board in a comfortable little room on the ground floor of the inn, in exchange for helping out with cooking, cleaning and other chores. After her experiences on the road, she was a little surprised to find that she received no hostile stares within its confines.

Each morning Philomena would find that a posy of tiny flowers had been left overnight and placed upon her windowsill. These cannot be called wild flowers as such; wild flowers, on Hopeless, are really wild. They attack people, run around on limb-like roots and generally cause havoc. No – the flowers on Philomena’s windowsill were of the tame variety, flowers that had struggled up through the unforgiving terrain of this most inhospitable island. She had little doubt who had left them.

She developed the habit of getting up early and making her way to the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, catching him just as he reached home at the end of his rounds. They would exchange news and gossip, laughing like children beneath the greasy, fog-bound skies of what passed as Springtime on Hopeless, Maine. As the days slipped by, a gentle, platonic love blossomed between the two. They would often sit in silence for hours, the tips of their fingers barely touching, each innocently enjoying the simple presence of the other.

It was maybe two weeks after Philomena first reached Hopeless that the landlord of ‘The Squid’ declared a state of emergency. The inn’s supply of alcohol was running dangerously low. It was only then that she remembered that the ‘Hetty Pegler’ had been carrying a consignment of Irish whiskey. If the ship had not disappeared completely, maybe it was still salvageable.

Philomena, along with a small but enthusiastic band of ‘Squid and Teapot’ regulars, made their way to the cove in which the wreck still lay. She was lying considerably deeper in the water than Philomena remembered. She hoped that liberating the whiskey would not be too arduous a task.  The party set to and before long, a reassuringly large number of casks were sitting on the rocks. Besides these, they had managed to salvage a veritable treasure-trove of pots and pans, coils of rope, ink, paper, furniture, cutlery and crockery. All this had been carefully stacked, safely out reach of the encroaching sea, which was becoming increasingly rough, threatening to sink the ‘Hetty Pegler’ for good.

“Just one more look around before she goes down,” yelled Philomena to her companions on the shore. Despite their declaring that they had collected enough and further trips would be dangerous, she ignored their protestations and returned to the ship for one last foray.  Waves had begun to break over the bows before she reappeared on the sloping deck, brandishing a bottle of rum and a china chamber-pot, both of which she raised above her head in triumph.  As she did so, the wreck gave an awful groan, like the death-rattle of some great beast. It lurched and, with little warning, rapidly slid beneath the waves taking Philomena with it. The watchers on the shore could only stare helpless as Philomena disappeared and the rum and chamber-pot flew into the air.

Luckily Philomena managed to escape the sinking ship before it had chance to drag her beneath its shuddering bulk.  All the same, she was no swimmer and the icy salt water was in her eyes, her throat and up her nose. There was seaweed – if seaweed it was – wrapping itself around her legs and tugging her to certain doom. She flayed wildly, desperate for life, not wanting to die just yet… or anytime soon. As if in answer to her unspoken prayers, she felt strong arms tugging at her, lifting her from the angry ocean. The salvage party had turned into a rescue party.

Philomena sat in front of a roaring fire in the snug of ‘The Squid and Teapot,’ drinking a bracing concoction of hot water and whiskey. The excursion to the wreck had been a great success and despite her last, somewhat foolhardy actions, she had become the toast of the island – but something was different. Philomena could not pinpoint exactly what it was but something in her life had changed.

The next morning, she made her way to the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, as usual.  She smiled to herself; it was her turn to give him a present. During the previous evening she had taken one of the sheets of paper, recently retrieved from the wreckage, and sketched, from memory, his portrait. Philomena, it must be said, was an accomplished artist and had supported herself – albeit frugally – drawing and painting for some of the wealthier citizens of Cork, who unwittingly bore within them the spirit of the Medici.

The Night-Soil man came to greet her at the door, smiling broadly but his smile froze when he saw her reaction. She had stopped abruptly, a startled look upon her pallid countenance. She gagged, putting her arm to her mouth. If it had been possible for her face to have blanched even more, then it would have.

“It’s okay,” he said sadly, his head bent in despair. “It’s not your fault. I understand.”

She could not open her mouth to speak, for fear of retching, but the sorrow in her eyes said it all.

She reached out and stretching her arm to its full length, offered him the sketch that she had so lovingly made. He took it from her and for one last, brief time their fingertips touched.

“I love you,” he said, softly, tears rolling down his cheeks.

She looked at him with brimming eyes, then turned and fled into the grey morning, uncontrollable sobs racking her frail body.

The Night-Soil Man returned to his cottage, his heart heavy. His tears had smudged the picture slightly but it did not matter. Written in neat, rounded letters at the bottom of the page were five priceless words that he would treasure forever.

‘With all my love – Philomena’

 

“It’s quite simple,” pronounced Doc Willoughby, joyfully sampling a generous mouthful of the whiskey that Philomena had brought him.

“You were suffering with anosmia. Loss of smell. Almost certainly to do with the pollen stuck up your nose.”

“But how…?” she started to ask a question but Doc, who never missed an opportunity to flaunt the limited knowledge that he possessed, cut her short.

“One of the remedies is to flush the nasal passages with salt water, which you did in some style, may I say.”

Philomena looked down sadly. Anosmia. Oh, how she wished she still had anosmia.

“Can I reverse the process?” she asked, hopefully.

The Doc frowned. Why would she want to?

“We don’t get troubled by too much pollen on Hopeless” he shrugged, pouring himself another drink.

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

Aether Egg Hunt: With Nimue Brown

Terrible Hopeless Maine Easter eggs, nesting over on Penny Blake’s blog.

Blake And Wight . com

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Greetings, salutations and the polite waving of tentacles.

I’m Nimue Brown and I write a whole array of stuff – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic novels… I also do unspeakable things for money, but best not to get in to that.

I gather that in Steampunk’d Lancaster there is an annual Aether Egg Hunt  – a chance for authors to connect with their readers and give a little gift of thanks for all their support in the form of an Aether Egg or Small Gift linked to the fictional world they have created. I’m always wary when talking about Hopeless Maine in terms of things people might enjoy, but there we go. This may be the bit of the process you get to feel uneasy about, while other aether eggs can be hunted with greater safety.

So here is my contribution which may do more to undermine the…

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News for the residents of Hopeless, Maine.