If you backed our kickstarter a few years ago, you may already have copies of New England Gothic or The Oddatsea. You may have since managed to acquire one at an event. But, maybe you didn’t, and maybe this has left a gaping hole in your bookcase…
Much to our delight, Outland entertainment (who are publishing American editions of the graphic novels) are also publishing the prose fiction. It comes out in August and is widely available from book selling places, including…
The note pinned to the door had no signature, but Rhys Cranham recognised the writing immediately: “I have it on good authority that today you celebrate ten years as the island’s Night-Soil Man. With best wishes for many more to come. x “ This message was completed with a charming illustration featuring small birds and meadow flowers, neither of which were common on Hopeless. “Ah, dear Philomena Bucket,” said Rhys to himself. “I had completely forgotten the date. Ten years… it seems like yesterday…”
Rhys pulled off his cap and scratched his head in amazement. “Shenandoah, what do you make of this?” Shenandoah Nailsworthy, the Night-Soil Man, scrambled nimbly over the rocks to where his apprentice was standing, then, as if held by some invisible hand, abruptly stopped in his tracks. “That wasn’t there yesterday,” Rhys said. “No,” agreed Shenandoah. As a breed, Night-Soil Men usually tend to eschew unnecessary chatter. After a pause of almost a minute, Shenandoah added, “Nobody has seen anything like this for years. Certainly not in my lifetime. I’ve got a bad feeling about it.” Rhys looked thoughtful. “I’ve heard the tales, same as everybody else,” he said. “Never expected to see it though. It looks smaller than I imagined.” “Don’t be fooled,” said Shenandoah, a hint of fear in his voice. “There’s more to this than you know.”
The cause of this unbridled garrulousness was a solitary standing stone, slightly taller than a man, which had sprung up, apparently overnight, on the westernmost side of the Gydynap Hills. Its rugged surface was etched with runic symbols that glowed eerily in the pale moonlight.
After they had finished their rounds, Shenandoah invited the young apprentice into his cottage for a late supper – or it could have been an early breakfast. He motioned for Rhys to sit down, then produced a starry-grabby pie and two bottles of ‘Old Colonel’ from his larder. “Don’t pay too much heed to the tales you’ve heard, because the truth is, nobody knows why that stone just turns up the way it does,” said Shenandoah. “The last time that it appeared was nearly a hundred years ago, so you and I have seen more of it than any other living soul,” he added, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The two sat in silence for a while. “Things don’t just appear for no reason, then go again,” observed Rhys. “It makes no sense.” “You don’t know that it has turned up here for no reason,” said Shenandoah. “Anyway, strange stuff happens on Hopeless all the time, especially around the Gydynaps.” His apprentice looked thoughtful and took a long swig of his beer. “You reckon it’s best avoided?” Shenandoah nodded. “Don’t go near it, son,” he said.
Shenandoah sat, lost in deep thought, after Rhys had left the cottage. He was well aware that his apprentice had no intention of keeping away from the stone. Whatever tales the young man had heard were certainly spurious, and would never serve to save him from the consequences of his own curiosity. Despite what he had told Rhys, the Night-Soil Man had a fair idea why it had appeared at this time. The date was not lost upon him; Midsummer-eve had held a terrifying significance to the Nailsworthy family for almost a thousand years, after his ancestor, the slave Cadman Negelsleag, killed a raven. Because of this insult to Odin, he and his descendants were cursed by a vǫlva – a Norse seeress, a shaman, practised in the old magic. The Nailsworthy family alone knew the terrible fate of Cadman and the secret of the Raven Stone. Sighing, he dragged on his jacket, and stepped out into the cold air, to find a long, black feather lying on his doorstep. Picking it up, he turned his head slowly, and looked back at the cottage with sadness in his eyes. This was the final clue. There was no cheating fate. It was then that Drury came padding up to him. “It’s time, Drury.” he said, a tremor in his voice. “Look after him, old fellah.”
There are few things sweeter – at least in the short term – than forbidden fruit. It was inevitable that thoughts of the mysterious stone would prey on Rhys’ mind all through the few hours remaining before first light. “It could be gone tomorrow, and not back for another century,” he said to himself. “I think I’d like to take a closer look at those markings while there’s the chance; just for a few minutes, no more.” And so, in the grey of a Hopeless dawn, he slipped out of the bunkhouse that was his home, and made his way towards the Gydynap Hills.
Hopeless is famously foggy, but on this particular day the fog seemed to be worse than ever. Rhys did not mind, at first, enjoying the concealment it provided. Soon, however, it became too dense to walk safely without putting one foot gingerly in front of the other and keeping his arms outstretched. It fuddled his brain, making time and distance seem to expand alarmingly. After what felt like an eternity, the dim bulk of the Gydynap Hills loomed ahead. The fog before him, where the Gydynaps lay, was beginning to thin, though to his sides and rear it was as thick and impenetrable as ever. Thing started to get weirder by the minute; he could not see the stone now. If it was still there, it was surrounded by a small copse which had apparently sprung from nowhere in a very few hours. In addition, a flock of huge, black birds circled above its branches, cawing ominously. Drawn, as if by some force beyond his control, Rhys felt compelled to venture inside.
Shenandoah’s warning still rang in his ears, but it no longer seemed quite as ridiculous as it had in the cottage. Walking cautiously between the twisted and knotted trunks, young Rhys could swear he could make out a gentle, silver glow, somewhere ahead, as if shafts of moonlight were piercing a dappled canopy of foliage, but he knew that this could not be. The moon had long ago set.
Rhys wandered on for a few more minutes, towards the mysterious light, feeling a little surprised that he had not yet reached the far side of the thicket. From the outside it had appeared to be quite small, but there was no sign of the trees thinning any time soon. He felt suddenly nervous. Maybe it was time to turn around… and then he saw him. A dozen or so yards in front, a familiar figure was standing, bound to the rune stone and bathed in a cold, silver light. It was Shenandoah. He seemed to be wearing a cloak of glossy black feathers; but something told Rhys that it was not a cloak – it was a shroud, a living, fluttering, cawing shroud of ravens that gradually smothered the body of the Night-Soil Man, until not an inch of flesh could be seen.
The young apprentice was about to run towards the writhing mass of feathers when a sharp tug on his jacket pulled him up short. He turned his head awkwardly to see Drury dragging him back. “Let go Drury,” he yelled, but the dog was insistent, pulling him through the trees with preternatural strength. With arms flailing to keep his balance, Rhys ranted and swore at the dog, cursing him for a useless bag of bones that he’d toss into the sea as soon as he was free. If Drury understood the tirade – which he probably did – he chose to ignore it until he had moved the apprentice safely out of harm’s way. Rhys rolled over on to the grass with Drury’s final tug, then leapt to his feet, ready to rush back and somehow tear away those infernal birds and rescue Shenandoah. But the trees were gathering in upon themselves, like a spring being wound. Within seconds there was barely enough space to slip a hand between the tightening trunks, which, little by little seemed to merge into each other, until all that was left was solitary hawthorn, gnarled and twisted, which gradually dissolved into the morning mist.
Rhys was stunned. Shenandoah was gone. Gone! Why had he been there? It made no sense. He dropped to his knees, on to the wet earth, and wept. Great sobs racked his body, his sense of loss so deep and wide that it felt as though nothing would ever be the same again. Then, blinded by hot tears, he felt a wet, furry muzzle nuzzling his neck and a long tongue licking his face. Something primitive stirred deep inside him, responding to the comforting touch of another living thing. Turning, there was only Drury to be seen, hairless and tongueless as ever, but wagging his bony tail as if to say, ‘We’ve still got each other, young friend.”
It took a week, or more, before Rhys felt able to move into the House at Poo Corner. He was the Night-Soil Man now; just eighteen, but after a three-year apprenticeship knew that he was ready. When the time came, he lifted the great lidded bucket, with its leather shoulder straps, from the wall, hefted it on to his back and stepped out into the night, alone on shift for the first time. Then an unmistakable, bony shape came rattling down the pathway, barking and panting. No, he will never be quite alone. Good old Drury.
Steampunk maker and creator Andy Arbon is making a spoonwalker nest! It’s a glorious work in progress…
Andy tells us… “the spoonwalkers have discovered this long-abandoned cutlery case in the corner of a cellar on the island and made it their home, laying three eggs. The nest is made using spoons in the same way a bird would use twigs, so if you have lost your teaspoons the chances are they are here. The eggs begin to glow green shortly before hatching. Practically this is part finished, I still need to add a mother spoonwalker and make a few improvements to the painting on the eggs.”
The first time that three of us went out to sing folk music (Tom, Nimue, James) we offered ourselves up as A Cupful of Tentacles. The MC said ‘testicles’ by accident and while that’s an amusing story, it doesn’t really work for singing out.
We’ve been developing a performance side to Hopeless, Maine for a while now, and have recently added Susie Roberts to the mix. Susie is an excellent harmony singer and rounds out the sound in wonderful ways.
This weekend we took a Hopeless Maine show – stories and songs held together by a script – to Festival At The Edge. We were also busking at The Town That Never Was – a steampunk event. Raising questions of how on earth to present us, what to call us, what works in a program and has the flexibility to cover a multitude of sins.
‘Ominous Folk’ was a description I hit on for the steampunk programme. It works – it gets across the essence of what we’re about. It expands nicely – The Ominous Folk of Hopeless Maine. It also leaves us room for other things and could be wired into titles for other activities. For example, A Murder Mystery with the Ominous Folk of Hopeless Maine – which I’ve been wanting to do for years.
The photo in this blog post was taken at Festival At The Edge by Allan Price and is used here with his kind permission.
Drury is a good doggo. He knows this in his bones, and is sometimes confused when people find him scary. Granted, he’s a large pupper and he knows he isn’t supposed to jump up at people, but he gets excited.
Exactly when, or how, or why Drury turned out the way he did is a bit of a mystery – especially to him. In essence he was just a dog who was very into being a dog. And he was so enthusiastic about being a dog that when bits of him stopped being a dog, he didn’t really pay it much attention. He just kept bounding about.
He must have been more alarming during the period when his softer tissues were retiring. It is unlikely that he noticed much about this, but a lage, decaying dog is not the cute floof most people want to see, much less be enthusiastically licked by.
Perhaps he belonged to a night soil man, who would not have noticed the smell. Perhaps his owner was a necromancer – deliberately or accidentally, and loved Drury too much to let him go, even when bits of him started falling off. Perhaps he was conjured into being with the intention that he be awful and terrible, but he just continued being far too much of a dog for that to work out properly.
As a bone creature, one of Drury’s particular hobbies is finding things to dangle out of his mouth that function like a tongue. He also likes to bring people presents, as with the illustration above. He knows he is a good boy, and no amount of screaming will ever persuade him otherwise.
There was once a musician who owned two dogs. The larger dog went “Woof… woof… woof.” So the musician named that dog ‘Bach’. The smaller dog was more excitable, and went “Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof, woof…” And that dog he called ‘Offenbach’.
While that joke probably failed to have you rolling in the proverbial aisles, I am sure that you recognised it as being an attempt at humour. Maybe you even smiled. What is certain is, had you been a resident of the island of Hopeless, Maine, the joke would have sailed spectacularly over your head and out into the deepest reaches of space. Hopelessians have always been strangers to the goings-on of the opera house and concert hall, and this has been a source of deep regret to Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor, a governess at the Pallid Rock Orphanage. Since the day she first set foot upon the island, Miss Toadsmoor longed, above all else, to bring high culture to her fellow islanders. ……………………………………………………………………
Bartholomew Middlestreet and his wife, Ariadne, rushed down to the beach, where Philomena Bucket was already waiting for them. A worried expression was etched upon Philomena’s pale countenance. “They’re over there,” she said, pointing. “I don’t know if they’re alive or no.” The trio picked their way to where four bedraggled female bodies lay, face down in the dark sand. A quick inspection by Ariadne verified that each was still alive. “They’re young and strong,” she declared. “They’ll be fine after a night or two in The Squid.” The Squid and Teapot had long had a reputation for hospitality, especially towards newcomers to the island, and within no time the four young women were safely tucked up in a large guest room on the first floor of the inn.
It was Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, who discovered their travelling trunk, caught among the rocks. Other, less scrupulous people, would have prised it open and taken anything worth having, but not Rhys. He was aware that there were newcomers up at The Squid, and the trunk had to belong to one, or more, of them. With years of practice behind him, the Night-Soil Man hefted it on to his back and carried it up to the inn, where he left it on the doorstep.
Bartholomew and Ariadne were at a loss to understand a word that the four young women uttered. It was only when the front door was opened, revealing the travelling trunk, that any headway was made in communicating with them. “Aah.. le coffre!” exclaimed one, happily. “No, it’s not a coffin. It’s a chest.” explained Bartholomew, helpfully, eyeing the shipping labels festooned over its surface. Even Bartholomew’s limited geographical knowledge knew vaguely that somewhere, across the waves, there existed a place called France. When Philomena appeared she agreed that the newcomers may, indeed, be from there. Philomena knew just, one sentence in French. “Parlay vooz Fransays?” she enquired politely. “Ah, oui, oui,” chorused the girls delightedly, and started to chatter away, expecting Philomena to respond in kind, but the barmaid felt suddenly totally lost. Then a plan formed in her head. “I’ll get Marjorie over,” she thought aloud to herself. “ She’ll know what to say.”
“The girls are delightful,” gushed Marjorie Toadsmoor a few hours later. “They tell me that they are dancers, though I must admit to being a little confused, for they gave the impression that they worked in a red mill, somewhere in Paris. I can only think that they dance purely as a hobby, and for the entertainment of the other mill-workers. It appears that the orchestra who sailed with them, and indeed, everyone else on the ship, perished in a storm. All they have left is that travelling trunk, which contains their costumes and make-up, and also a wax cylinder upon which may be heard their music.” “Why, that’s wonderful,” exclaimed Philomena. “We’ve got a phonograph here on the island,” adding silently to herself, ‘‘and it’ll make a welcome change from that lousy tenor going on about Molly-blasted-Malone all the time.’’
Over the next few days wheels and cogs spun endlessly in Miss Toadsmoor’s head. She would devise an entertainment for the islanders; a thank-you for taking her to their collective hearts. There would be recitals, music and poetry, and the crowning glory, a stately dance by the young ladies of the Red Mill. To Miss Toadsmoor’s joy she had discovered that the music on the wax cylinder was an excerpt from an opera, no less, entitled Orpheus in the Underworld, by one Monsieur Jacques Offenbach. Although Marjorie was not familiar with M.Offenbach, or his work, she loved the Greek myths and was certain that the young ladies, dancing to his music, would provide a pearl of high culture in an evening of simple, homespun entertainment. She could envisage them already, swathed in their pure white costumes, diaphanous but modest and tasteful. The music would surely be ethereal, as befitted the tragic myth. As each day passed and the programme of events arranged, it became difficult for her to contain her excitement.
The big night arrived and the Meeting Hall was packed. Word had soon spread that there was to be music and dancing, although when it was revealed that the main act included an excerpt from a French opera, more than one heart dropped. However, the islanders of Hopeless are a stoic and steadfast band, at least for much of the time. The promise of free beer and starry-grabby pie (generously donated by both ‘The Crow’ and ‘The Squid and Teapot’) concentrated minds and cemented loyalties. They could put up with a bit of prancing around as long as one or two of their number were prepared to make fools of themselves, and they were able to join in a chorus or three of that all-time favourite, Molly Malone.
Marjorie Toadsmoor stood in front of the assembled islanders and introduced the evening’s programme. “… And after Mr Jones’ poem, we will be treated to a medley of folk-songs from the children of the Pallid Rock Orphanage; then there will be a display of shadow puppetry by Norbert Gannicox, followed by Mr and Mrs Middlestreet performing the song, ‘Barnacle Bill the Sailor’. Following that, I am reliably informed, you will all join in with a rendition, played on the phonograph, of the popular song, Molly Malone (this raised a roar of approval from the audience, interspersed with a certain amount of excitable barking). Then will come our grand finale, an excerpt from Orpheus in the Underworld, by Monsieur Jacques Offenbach, and danced by Les Demoiselles de le Moulin Rouge. I have not seen this dance myself, as yet, and I am as excited as you all must be. So, without more ado… ” The evening went well. Even Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby, sitting in the front row, appeared to be enjoying the entertainment. The children of the orphanage sat quietly beside the Reverend as soon as their act was finished, filling up the remainder of the available spaces. Philomena was in charge of the phonograph, with the ever-faithful Drury by her side. When the time came, she gritted her teeth and played Molly Malone. The chorus of ‘Alive, alive oh’ was guaranteed to be popular, not least with Drury, who capered and gambolled like a puppy. Marjorie groaned. She had no idea that the song Molly Malone was so popular. It was nothing short of an anthem to these people and anything which followed could only be an anti-climax. Oh, what a fool she had been! However, the die was cast and nothing could be done about it now.
Philomena Bucket looked at the container which held Les Demoiselles’ wax-cylinder. Stencilled upon its side were the words ‘J Offenbach: Galop Infernal.’ As mentioned earlier, Philomena’s grasp of the French language was flimsier than flimsy, but those words did not convey the sedate, ethereal music that Marjorie had imagined. It sounded much more fun. With a shrug of her shoulders she wound the handle of the Edison-Bell phonograph, fixed the cylinder in place, positioned the horn for best effect and lowered the circular brass reproducer, with its sapphire needle. As the opening bars of Offenbach’s Infernal Gallop – commonly known to most people as the ‘Can-Can’ – filled the Meeting Hall, the four young ladies, clad now in short but full tricolour skirts, knee-length boots, low-cut basques and black stockings, came whooping on to the stage. Marjorie paled visibly and Reverend Davies, stony faced, suddenly developed a very noticeable pulse beat in a vein in his right temple. On stage, skirts were swirled coquettishly and legs were kicked provocatively high, revealing gartered, white thighs, above black stocking-tops. The dance grew ever more frantic and Doc Willoughby’s glasses seemed to be steaming up. The girls from the orphanage sat in awe, each one making a mental note to one day become dancers, just like Les Demoiselles. As for the boys… it’s probably best that we don’t enquire too closely. “Well, at least it can’t get any worse,” thought Marjorie, consoling herself. It was then that the dancers turned away from the audience, leaned over and threw their skirts over their backs, exposing a fine view of four pairs of frilly drawers, each one wriggling its respective derrière suggestively. Marjorie covered her face with her hands, completely missing the grand finale which featured the dancers doing the splits. There was a moment of absolute silence when the music stopped, then suddenly the room exploded to a volley of applause, cheers, appreciative whoops, whistles and a few skeletal-sounding barks. There were also loud, insistent calls for more. The dancers smiled and nodded to Philomena, who dutifully lowered the brass reproducer once more on to the cylinder, and the dance resumed. This time Les Demoiselles found themselves joined by several less-inhibited members of the audience, and Drury scampering around, in obvious ecstasy. Reverend Davies left soon after, ushering the orphans before him and muttering that it was past their bed-time. Doc Willoughby was seen slumped on his seat, mopping his brow with one hand and fanning himself with the other. A crowd gathered round Marjorie and the dancers, waxing lyrical with their praise and relegating Molly Malone to second place in their list of favourite tunes. The evening could not have been more successful. There was just one question Marjorie wanted to ask Les Demoiselles; what, exactly, did they make at the Red Mill?
I’ve thought about Donald rather a lot – far more than would be obvious from reading the comics. He’s a character who began in the early version of Hopeless, Maine, before I was writing it. He wears a jumper with a big G on it – for Gorey. Edward Gorey. Donald has an ambivalent relationship with the skeletal dog – Drury – and is otherwise a young human trying to figure himself out.
One of Donald’s major life goals is to be Owen’s boy wonder. Although he wouldn’t phrase it that way because he’s had a comic-deprived childhood and has never seen a superhero in a cape. But, if wearing his pants over his trousers was part of what was called for to back Owen up, he’d do it. Grudgingly.
Donald has noticed that while Owen means well and is really good at some things, he’s useless at practical details. Owen needs someone to remind him to take his gloves, to wear a jumper when it’s snowing, to carry a lantern in case the search goes on into the night… and Donald is the fellow for the job, at least in his own mind.
The other thing that is super-important to Donald is colour. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I work on coloring the next volume – Optimists. Donald likes colour so much that he spends his spare time concocting things that can be smeared onto walls. With varying degrees of success and odour. This means that the house on Gaunt Street is one of the most colour intense places on the island. The lighthouse also has colour, but Salamandra can do that by magic, and does not spend so much time boiling snails and collecting different shades of mud.
You may recall that, in the tale ‘Bigspoon’, the orphaned twins, Winston and Wendell Westonbirt, successfully convinced most of their fellow islanders that a giant spoonwalker was stalking Hopeless. It was the Night-Soil Man, Rhys Cranham who debunked the hoax, but having spent his formative years in the Pallid Rock Orphanage, Rhys had no desire to land the boys into trouble with Reverend Davies. Instead he gave them the fright of their lives, then discreetly let it be known that Bigspoon would not be returning. It took some weeks for before the twins were able to put their fears to one side and steal out of the orphanage after dark once more. This was obviously against all the regulations, and indeed, common sense, but these were the very reasons that influenced their decision.
The Westonbirt twins escaped from their dormitory a few minutes after their nine o’clock bedtime, just as darkness was falling. All seemed to be going well, to begin with, but after walking for no more than half an hour, it dawned upon them that they had absolutely no idea where they were. According to Winston’s calculations they should, by now, be in a position to peer through the downstairs windows of the once notorious Madam Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. I have no idea what the pair hoped to see; Madam Evadne’s had long ago become little more than a social club, and there would be nothing remotely salacious to be witnessed by looking through its grimy windows (especially the downstairs ones). Reluctant to let the adventure end so early, they walked on. The night deepened and fog thickened around them, distorting shapes and even the most familiar landmarks. After two more hours they had had their fill of adventure. All they wanted was to retreat to the safety of their own beds, but by now were hopelessly lost. “I’m tired,” declared Wendell, sitting down on a rock, then swiftly springing to his feet again. “That is hot!” he exclaimed, rubbing the seat of his trousers, It was then that the fog lifted slightly; to their great surprise they were standing in the middle of a heat-scorched area of barren earth and piles of rock. Hopeless is somewhat devoid of areas of outstanding natural beauty, but the spot in which they found themselves was singularly unpleasant. In the dim light they could see deep fissures in the ground, which revealed, far beneath their feet, terrifying glimpses of raging fires. The very earth on which they stood was hot and, occasionally, jets of smoke would erupt from the most unexpected places. It would have been enough to strike terror into the stoutest heart. Then, as the moon pierced the thinning mist, a single beam illuminated a cleft in the rocks which seemed to have been fashioned into a crude doorway. Smoke drifted from its dark depths. Winston looked at Wendell and said, “This must be Hell.” “And that must be the way in,” agreed Wendell, nodding towards the smouldering doorway. “Now that would be an adventure to tell the others about.” While Reverend Davies would have been gratified that some of his more robust sermons had not fallen on completely deaf ears, he would have felt some dismay to learn that two of his charges were contemplating visiting Hell. Before either boy could move, however, a dark shape emerged from the smouldering doorway, a dreadful hump-backed figure, silhouetted in the moonlight. “It’s the devil,” wailed Winston, and as one they ran blindly into the darkness, away from the Satanic scene in front of them.
It was over a century ago that a certain William Whiteway had the notion that there was gold to be found on Hopeless. His idea sparked little enthusiasm with his fellow islanders, but William resolved to dig his mine anyway. For five long years he toiled, delving deep into the earth, with no more than a spade and pick-axe to aid his endeavours. Every stone, large and small, that he excavated was placed in a basket which, when full, was strapped to his back and laboriously carried to the surface. It was back-breaking agony, and all for no reward. Then, one day, his pick shattered a rock which opened up into a huge cavern, empty and austere, like some vast underground cathedral. William thought that his luck had changed; the smooth walls gleamed with a metallic lustre in the pale light of the candle that he had affixed to his battered helmet. Eagerly he chipped at the rock face, but there was no gold to be had, just some sort of black mineral that would be good for nothing. To no one’s surprise William died soon after, an exhausted and disappointed man.
While the islanders of Hopeless are maybe not the most industrious of folk, they certainly know an opportunity when they see one, and the abyss that William had thoughtfully supplied for them seemed an ideal place to deposit their rubbish. For fifty years William’s Pit, as it became known, was the main repository for the island’s waste. As you may imagine, fifty years’ accumulation of assorted trash would be smelly, to say the least, until someone had the bright idea that they could burn it. For a while that strategy seemed to do the trick, but it became clear that, although both the smell and the rubbish had gone, the blaze still raged. It appears that William had inadvertently opened up a vast seam of anthracite which had ignited. The fire began half a century ago and it has yet to be extinguished. It is well known that raging beneath that part of the island is an inferno, where lethal clouds of gas swirl through the subterranean caverns. Luckily this is confined to a relatively small area which the islanders wisely avoid. Only the Night-Soil Man goes there occasionally. He finds it a convenient place to dispose of his burden.
The boys were found next morning, far away from home and thoroughly chastened by their experience. When the Reverend Davies questioned them, he was unsurprised that they thought that they had visited Hell’s Mouth and saw Satan himself. He was well aware of the existence of William’s Pit and that the Night-Soil Man frequented it. However, if they believed they had visited Hell and met its master, he did not disabuse them of the notion; such a belief, he thought, would only strengthen his authority . It was late on the following evening that Miss Calder stopped Rhys Cranham as he passed the orphanage. She told him what had happened, and how his timely appearance had frightened the boys away from danger. The Night-Soil Man smiled, but chose to say nothing, accepting the compliment, although it was undeserved. He had not visited William’s Pit for weeks.
(New Squid and Teapot art by Amanda Frick. If you’d like to share a squid and teapot – art of photo – do let us know!)
We’ve got a show with songs – traditional, original and borrowed, Maine folklore and Hopeless Maine oddities… Do come and see us!
On the mist shrouded, grave dark sea, a boat shatters its hull against the malice of rocks. Hungry water sucks the living down, until only one remains, kept afloat by a large tea chest and drifting towards dawn and the shore
James Weaselgrease is a young scientist, who washes up on the island. He doesn’t really believe in vampires, selkies or mermaids. the dustcats are confusing and he fears that he is losing his mind…
Reverend Davies stood frozen in his tracks. Just a moment before he had been walking purposefully along the shoreline, attempting to compose the text of his next sermon. He found that a misty morning walk, with the angry ocean and barren rocks as a backdrop, was often helpful in inspiring him to bring the wrath and harsh judgement of the Old Testament to vivid life, for the benefit of the parishioners of Hopeless, Maine. His reason for stopping in mid-stride, and abandoning his musings on some of the least pleasant aspects of the book of Deuteronomy, was the sight of an ominous dark shape lurking low in the water, just a few yards away from where he was standing. Minutes passed, and Reverend Davies, who dared not move or remove his gaze from the nameless menace, was developing cramp in his left leg. Convinced that the thing was biding its time before rushing up from the sea to drag him to his doom, he bore the agony like a martyr, and kept perfectly still, silently wincing with pain. I have no idea how long he could have maintained this position, but fortunately the incoming tide produced a particularly large wave which propelled the mysterious creature on to the beach, while, at the same time, liberally showering the Reverend with spray.
Banging his foot on the ground to relieve the cramp, the Reverend looked about him anxiously to see if anyone had witnessed his actions, or lack thereof. He felt a little embarrassed that he had confused a plank of wood with some deadly denizen of the deep. When it was clear that the plank held no threat, he decided to make a closer inspection. This appeared to be no ordinary plank. It was huge; a good eight feet long, ten inches wide, about six inches deep, and blackened with age. Emboldened now, he gave it a push with his foot, but found it difficult to shift; the thing was unbelievably heavy! How it had floated was beyond the Reverend’s understanding. “Maybe,” he thought aloud, “that is why it lay so low in the water.” His sermon temporarily forgotten, Reverend Davies decided that this plank, or whatever it was, would be an ideal replacement for the lintel that sat over the front door of the orphanage, a worm-eaten piece of oak that had seen better days and needed replacing.
What he had discovered was, of course, a railway sleeper. He can be forgiven for not knowing this, as only a tiny handful of people living on the island would have seen, or even registered the existence of, such a thing as a railway, let alone a sleeper. Railway sleepers which are no longer needed are invariably recycled in some way, and this, it would appear, was the plan for this particular specimen. One other thing, of which the Reverend was blissfully ignorant, was that the sleeper he had destined to support the wall above the orphanage’s front door, had been formerly transported by ship. In the course of the voyage a terrified crew, with the help of their skipper, had unceremoniously jettisoned it overboard.
It took four strong men to remove the sleeper from the beach and deliver it to the orphanage. They lay it on the ground outside, where it would remain until needed, for while the plan to replace the old lintel was, doubtless, a good one, the Reverend had not appreciated the enormity of the task. The double doors would have to be removed and the walls would need supporting when the old lintel was pulled out. Failure to do this would almost certainly result in the front of the building collapsing. This needed much planning, and planning took time.
A week or so passed. A pallid full moon gazed down on Hopeless through the ribbons of fog, and saw Miss Calder flitting around the outside of the orphanage, hoping, no doubt, to ‘accidentally’ cross paths with Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man. She was fully aware that her feelings were irrational and could never be realised. Miss Calder had been dead for some years, and though a ghost, she entertained certain unaccountable yearnings for the Night-Soil Man. For his part, Rhys did not mind, for his was a lonely life, and, despite being a wraith, Miss Calder was surprisingly good company. Like Drury, the skeletal hound, she had not allowed the inconvenience of death to interfere with her participating fully in island life, and had continued to oversee the smooth running of the orphanage in an exemplary fashion.
Unexpectedly, a noise which Miss Calder first thought to have been the death agonies of some huge creature, rent the quiet of the island. Here and there lights appeared in nearby windows and pale, frightened faces gazed into the darkness. Reverend Davies, resplendent in a long, striped nightshirt and pink bed-socks, appeared on the doorstep of the orphanage, while Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor, their newest teacher, peeped timidly from the window of her attic room. The unearthly scream ripped through the air again and suddenly, bursting from nowhere, came the apparition of a massive steam engine, ghastly and shimmering with an awful luminescence. The faces of the driver and fireman could be clearly seen, contorted in terror as they frantically tried to bring the engine under control. Following helplessly behind were a dozen carriages, within which the bodies of their passengers were being tossed around as if they were rag-dolls. The onlookers stood transfixed as the phantom engine rolled like some stricken leviathan, falling clumsily on to its side and taking the carriages with it. The noise was deafening as it crashed into unseen obstacles, breaking down trees and buildings that were never there… then it was gone, and there was silence. For most of us, such a sight would be traumatising, to say the very least. For the inhabitants of Hopeless, not so much. For them, the majority of hauntings are just regarded as one minor cause for concern in lives fraught with greater worries. They would be talked about in complaining tones the next day and, afterwards, mentally filed under ‘Nuisance Apparitions’. This particular apparition, however, was larger and noisier than most. Although lights were soon being doused and people went back to bed, there would be questions asked as to the origin of this particular disturbance, and, doubtless, blame to be attributed.
“What in Heaven’s name was that?” asked Reverend Davies, carefully picking his way over the cobbles to where Miss Calder stood. “I have no idea, Reverend,” admitted Miss Calder, “But whatever it was, it has no place on this island, I’m sure.” “I think I might know what it is that we have just witnessed.” It was Marjorie Toadsmoor, an overcoat wrapped over her nightgown. Marjorie had found herself mysteriously transported to Hopeless from Victorian Oxford some months before. The details of her previous life were shadowy and dim, but the sight of the ghost train had awoken some vague memory within her. “I believe that was, what is commonly known as, a steam engine, pulling a train of carriages behind it… ” “It sure was ma’am.” Everyone turned to see where this new voice had come from. The eerie shapes of the engine’s driver and fireman hovered unsteadily over the railway sleeper, as it lay on the stony ground. “That there’s the Old 97, eternally doomed to haunt this old sleeper which brung it off the rails,” said the soot-grimed fireman. The wraith who had been the driver – or, more properly, the engineer – was more than grimy; he looked to be badly burned. “The last thing I remember,” he said, “we was going down the track making, ooh, must have been ninety miles an hour, when the whistle broke into a scream.” “He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle,” volunteered the fireman, shaking his head sadly. “Oh, you poor man,” wailed Miss Calder. “It looks as though you were scalded to death by the steam.” “Well, that’s as maybe,” said Reverend Davies, briskly, “but we can’t be putting up with that racket all the time. How often is this likely to happen?” “We manifest every full moon. The last time we did, we were on a ship. You should have seen their faces,” said the fireman, smiling at the memory. “Indeed,” said Miss Calder, “but every full moon? Honestly! I don’t understand why some hauntings have to be so unoriginal. I make myself available day and night, all year round.” The ghosts of the engineer and fireman said nothing, but silently retreated, somewhat shamefaced, back into the ethereal depths of the sleeper. “It has to go,” said Reverend Davies firmly.
The following morning the sleeper was taken to Scilly Point, where the water was particularly deep. The little party, overseen by Reverend Davies, rolled it, with some difficulty, into the ocean, then they stood on the headland to watch it being taken away from the island by the receding tide. “A pity about the lintel,” thought the Reverend, “but at least we won’t have to put up with that again.”
There is a popular saying that time and tide waits for no man. While this may be true, unlike time, which is fleeting, high tides and low tides occur regularly, twice each day. That which is carried out is often returned twelve hours or so later, but not necessarily at the same spot. This is especially true of an island which occasionally decides to change its shape without a ‘by your leave’, as does Hopeless.
Seth Washwell looked at the long, dark piece of wood sitting on the beach with obvious appreciation. “What a great piece of timber,” he thought to himself. “I’ll get the guys to drag it back to the sawmill, I know exactly what to do with it, once it’s been cleaned up a bit and sawn into shape.”
It was around three weeks later that Reverend Davies was both surprised and delighted to receive the gift of a bespoke, single-seat church pew. This had been donated with the compliments of the Washwell Sawmills and Joinery, an establishment situated on the far side of the island. In fact, so pleased was the Reverend that he decided not to install the seat in the church, but rather keep it in his study at the orphanage, where he frequently worked late into the night, burning the midnight oil. With a couple of cushions it would make an excellent replacement for his chair, which, after years of wear, was falling apart. As I have said, so many times in these tales, what could possibly go wrong?