The limited edition print run of Personal Demons has arrived in Japan!
At this point, we’re looking at three potential Japanese shows this summer! There’s a limited edition print run for the first one, and if that sells out, we may well be looking at proper Japanese versions, possibly even in translation – although Dr Abbey has to sleep at some point and we don’t want to entirely wear him out!
Here’s a celebratory Sloths in Okinawa that our publisher Nic did for the first show, which happens in July.
Ariadne Middlestreet could not sleep. This was by no means an unusual event; she had descended, on the distaff side of the family, from a long line of poor sleepers, each of whom had a natural proclivity to wake up after four or five hours. Ariadne also suffered with ‘fidgety legs’ whenever rain threatened, which it often did on Hopeless. This ensured that, like most of her female antecedents, she rarely enjoyed a long and refreshing sleep. It was 3a.m. when she wandered downstairs to the bar of The Squid and Teapot, hoping to find Lady Margaret D’Avening, the ghost who haunted the flushing privy of the inn. Despite having been dead for several centuries, Lady Margaret was surprisingly good company, full of bawdy tales that would have had the Puritans of her day sanctimoniously rotating in their graves. She liked to refer to her chats with Ariadne as ‘our little tête-a-têtes’, which was somewhat ironic as Lady Margaret’s half of the tête-a-tête was often situated several yards from the rest of her. Tonight, however, there was no sign of the ghost, with or without her head. Then Ariadne remembered; they were in the dark of the moon, those few days between the setting of the old moon and the rising of the new. Lady Margaret could always be seen flitting around when the moon was full, but her manifestations gradually trailed off to nothing as it waned. Ariadne sighed, poured herself a glass of water and wandered over to the window. It would be another hour or so before dawn, and a cloak of darkness hung heavy over the sleeping island. Suddenly, something caught her eye; it was the unmistakeable, flickering iridescence of a wraith wandering through the darkness, a sight not exactly uncommon, in her experience. It seemed to be heading in the direction of Poo Corner and the Night-Soil Man’s cottage. Ariadne mentally ticked off the various names of the likely spirits who might be abroad at this hour. She obviously ruled out Lady Margaret. Then there were the ladies of the Mild Hunt, but they always travelled together, along with their mules and spaniels, so they were discounted, too. It couldn’t be Lars Pedersen, The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow; he was so ancient as to be almost completely faded. Hmm… it might be the Mad Parson, Obadiah Hyde, but she had never known him wander far from his home on Chapel Rock. The Little Drummer Boy couldn’t go anywhere without banging that infernal drum of his; you could hear him a mile away. How about the dancing ghost, Clarissa Cockadilly? But no, she was doomed forever to haunt the swamp at the end of Forty Second Street. “Who have I missed?” she said out loud to herself, then realisation dawned upon her. She had never regarded Miss Calder as being a ghost. The others all wore their wraithlike credentials on their, sleeve, as it were, (though Lady Margaret tended to tuck hers underneath her arm) but not so Miss Calder. She was an old friend, businesslike and efficient and dedicated to the care and welfare of the orphans. Yes, it made sense, and if she was heading for the Night-Soil Man’s cottage there could only be one reason.
Rhys Cranham was sitting on his doorstep, pulling off his boots when Miss Calder shimmered into view. Since taking over from his predecessor, the late Shenendoah Nailsworthy, Rhys had seen just about every cryptozoological and supernatural creature that Hopeless possessed. By and large, the ghosts ignored him and everything else with a sense of smell avoided him. Miss Calder did neither. He almost fancied that she flirted with him, which was nice, as the Night-Soil Man’s lot is a decidedly lonely one. “Mr Cranham, how are you?” Her silky voice reached him long before she did. He imagined it fluttering along on the early morning breeze with silver wings. He rose to greet her as she drew towards him. The first pale strands of dawn were trying to battle their way through the mist, and occasionally through Miss Calder. “Miss Calder, good morning. I guess you have some good news for me.” “I do indeed, Mr Cranham,” replied the wraith, eyeing him appreciatively, then added, “His name is Gruffyd Davies.” “Davies?” The Night-Soil Man could not conceal his surprise. “I thought there had only ever been one Davies family on Hopeless.” “There has,” agreed Miss Calder. “The Reverend and Mrs Davies found Gruffyd, as a tiny infant, abandoned on the beach. They had no idea who he was or where he had come from, so they placed him in the orphanage and named the child after one the Reverend’s ancestors – the original Gruffyd was one of the earliest settlers, I believe.” Rhys shook his head sadly. “Why give a child your family name then stick him in an orphanage… ?” “Well, that’s as maybe, Mr Cranham,” said Miss Calder briskly, not wishing to be dragged into discussing the rights and wrongs of the Davies connubial attitude regarding the subject of child-rearing. “Gruffyd is now fourteen years old, a good lad and, I am certain, has the right build and temperament to be your apprentice.” “And he wants the job?” “Absolutely. He is a very quiet, solitary boy and has no wish to remain in the rough and tumble of the orphanage for a minute longer than he has to,” replied Miss Calder. Rhys nodded thoughtfully. “Okay,” he said. “Bring him along tomorrow evening… and don’t forget to put a peg on his nose.”
The role of the Night-Soil Man has often been discussed in these tales. He is a pariah, outcast from society by the foul smell that surrounds him, always. Perversely, he is, at the same time, held in the highest regard by his fellow islanders for the way in which that aforementioned malodorous aura repels the deadliest predators, allowing him to walk freely through the darkest night without fear. The work is back-breaking and dangerous and his life expectancy can often be short. This is why every holder of the post accepts, at some stage in his career, that the time is drawing near when the torch (or more correctly, the bucket) has to be passed and it would be expedient to take on an apprentice. These boys – apprentices are always boys – are selected from the orphanage. Incidentally, newer readers may be interested to learn that the most famous Night-Soil Man, Randall Middlestreet, was dropped in at the deep end, so to speak, at the age of fifteen when his master was devoured by the Wendigo. Randall also has the distinction of being, to date, the only member of his trade to retire and raise a family.
A few yards from the Night-Soil Man’s cottage stands a small bunkhouse, sparsely, but comfortably, furnished. For over a century some version of this building has been the accommodation of the apprentice, and there he will reside until his master dies. It is in here, on the following evening, that we meet Gruffyd Davies, a wooden peg on his nose, nervously unloading his few, meagre possessions onto to his bed. Rhys had welcomed him with kind words, while keeping a respectable distance. It would take a while for Gruffyd to become acclimatized to the overpowering smell, but that was fine. There was no hurry – or so Rhys fervently hoped. He would give the lad a week or so before taking him out on his rounds.
Two weeks passed by and a casual onlooker (though, of course, there were none) would have witnessed the Night-Soil Man and his apprentice sitting quietly on the headland. They were happily munching cold Starry-Grabby pie, swilled down with a drop of beer (to the delight of Gruffyd) and gazing up through the mist at the full moon. Gruffyd was thrilled to spot a small flock of gnii twinkling across the night sky. Life had been a blur since he had started his apprenticeship, but he had taken to his new surroundings well, and had shown every sign of being eager to learn his trade. “There’s just one more call tonight, Griff,” said Rhys. “It’s a cottage down by Chapel Rock that needs servicing. It won’t take long, and then we can head for home. You can grab another breather while we’re there; I won’t need your help clearing this one.”
As true as his word, Rhys left his apprentice to his own devices, while he trudged off, out of sight, swinging his bucket. The cottage nestled on the landward side of a huge lump of granite that was crowned by the ruins of the old chapel that gave the rock its name.
Although having been thrust into an adult world, Gruffyd was still very much a boy of fourteen, and like most boys of his age, he could never resist the challenge of climbing something. Maybe it was the effects of the beer, but the rock and the ruins seemed to be crying out for exploration, especially since the moonlight had managed to cut a path through the mist, making a valiant effort of turning night into day. What could possibly go wrong? It took a matter of minutes for the lad to scramble to the summit and stand proudly on top of the ruins, waiting to surprise his master.
Before long, with the bucket now full and strapped safely upon his back, the Night-Soil Man made his way towards the rock. It took him only a few seconds to register that Gruffyd was nowhere to be seen, then he heard his shout. “Rhys! Rhys! Look at me. I’m up here. Up in the ruins.” “Griff, get down. Get down now,” Rhys shouted with alarm, knowing the danger, but as he did so a wild haired and angry apparition came screaming out of nowhere at the boy, its arms flailing wildly. It was Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock. For centuries Hyde had made a special point of hating papists and adulterers. Tonight he added ‘Shouty adolescents who disturb my slumber’ to that list. Rhys had warned Gruffyd at the outset of his employment that from now on he could expect to occasionally encounter a variety of ghosts, ghouls and horrors of all descriptions. The boy had seemed surprisingly sanguine about the whole thing, telling Rhys that he would be fine. However, Gruffyd had never expected anything quite as terrifying as the Mad Parson; a ghastly, cruel wraith who famously appeared from nowhere to scream in one’s face. Taken by surprise, as any of us would have been, the boy stepped backwards, losing his footing. For a second that seemed to last forever, Rhys watched him standing at a crazy angle on the edge of the ruins, waving his arms as though conducting an invisible orchestra… and then he was gone.
“I really appreciate what you are doing, Miss Toadsmoor,” Miss Calder shimmered slightly in the perennial gloom of the office. The young woman standing before her gave a small, but respectful, curtsey. “Please, call me Marjorie.” “I don’t think that is necessarily a good idea,” said Miss Calder. “We should maintain a degree of propriety and professionalism at all times, at least for the sake of the orphans.” Marjorie nodded her assent. Although much of her life, prior to coming to Hopeless, was a mystery to her, the stifling decorum of upper middle-class Victorian society was so instilled in her bones that this formal arrangement sounded agreeable, even preferable. “Excellent,” said Miss Calder, “and you are happy to work with me? My… ah… predicament does not disturb you?” As if to test her new companion, for a second or two one half of Miss Calder’s face took on a ghastly skeletal quality. “Not at all,” replied Marjorie, crossing her fingers behind her back.
Since her arrival on the foggy island of Hopeless, Marjorie had lived in The Squid and Teapot, relying upon the charity of Bartholomew and Ariadne Middlestreet. Feeling herself to be no more than a burden to the Middlestreets, she decided that she needed to be independent and seek fresh accommodation and some form of meaningful employment. It was her friend, the barmaid, Philomena Bucket who suggested that Marjorie could help Miss Calder at the orphanage. This was a surprisingly good idea. Having been, in her own words, the main dish at a vampire feast, Miss Calder was now reduced to being a wraith, a condition which presented certain obvious problems when it came to matters of handling and lifting.
Although the ghostly form of Miss Calder took a little getting used to, she was a perpetually young and attractive woman (except when she did the skeletal face thing) who was loved by the children in the orphanage. The same could not be said, however, of the Reverend Davies, a gaunt, cheerless man with Puritan views and bad hair. “And you feel you can teach the orphans something worthwhile, Miss Toadsmoor?” The reverend’s eyes bore into Marjorie. He was sceptical that a girl of barely twenty would be able to contribute anything to the education of the orphans. “Although I know not where or when it occurred, I can assure you that I have received an excellent education, sir.” “That’s as maybe,” said Davies pointedly, “but can you recall any of it?” “I am fluent in French and Latin and have a little Greek,” she replied, haughtiness creeping into her voice. “A fat lot of good that is on Hopeless,” he grumbled. “You will be casting pearls before swine, young lady, pearls before swine… but, very well, if you can keep the orphans occupied for an hour or two, I suppose you will have achieved more than most.” With a wave of his hand, Reverend Davies dismissed Marjorie from his office.
If, during your school days, you have been forced to sit through a long and monotonous lesson, which has inspired within you not the smallest spark of interest, then you will appreciate the mind-numbing tedium that the unwary orphans found themselves being subjected to. Miss Toadsmoor was exposing her class to their very first taste of Latin. How could they not be thrilled by discovering the language of Virgil, Ovid and Marcus Aurelius, she reasoned to herself. Here was the very bedrock of the Romantic languages; what a gift she was bringing to them.
“And so, if I want to say ‘The girl walked in the woods’ it would be, in Latin, ‘Puella in silva ambulavit’. “But why miss?” asked a bored voice from the back of the room. “Because that is the translation,” said Marjorie, patiently. “No, why did she walk in the woods? It sounds dangerous to me.” “And me. I wouldn’t do that.” “No way. I know people who have done that and never returned.” Marjorie was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the babble of voices, affirming that the puella in question was decidedly chancing her luck by rashly venturing into the silvan groves. “Perhaps I’ve made this too complicated,” she said, raising her voice above the growing hubbub. “Maybe if I just say, ‘The girl is in the woods…’ ” “You mean she’s been buried in the woods, miss?” “No! No! Please children. No one has been buried in the woods.” Marjorie felt that she was losing control. “Yes they have. My Uncle Colin was.” “And Mrs Draycott. I saw her when they dug her up. Horrible, it was.” Marjorie dropped her head into her hands, defeated.
“I don’t think this is going to work,” said Marjorie tearfully. “I am not connecting with the children at all.” “I don’t agree,” said Miss Calder. “Maybe Latin isn’t what they need to learn, but the lesson certainly became more animated when you started talking about people being buried in the woods.” “But I didn’t,” protested Marjorie, “I never mentioned it. They did.” “Don’t you see, such things are far more relevant to their lives than talking about girls happily skipping around under the trees, whatever language you say it in? They live among horrors, Miss Toadsmoor, a fact to which I can personally attest.” Marjorie looked downcast. “I confess, my time, so far, on the island has been spent within the shelter of The Squid and Teapot. I know little of the horrors of which you speak.” “Then learn from the children, Miss Toadsmoor. Listen to what they can teach you. No one is asking you to turn them into academics. There are too many who regard the orphans as nothing but nuisances, barely one level above that of spoonwalkers. They rarely get listened to. I should be doing all of this, of course, but since my unfortunate…” Miss Calder hesitated, “… my unfortunate affliction occurred, I find it increasingly difficult to communicate. It sometimes feels as though I am the only living soul and all those around me are ghosts. Silly, isn’t it?” Marjorie fell silent for a moment, reflecting on Reverend Davies’ observation that she would be ‘casting pearls before swine’. It was an unpleasant and unnecessary comment that certainly added weight to Miss Calder’s words. “Thank you, Miss Calder,” she said, brightly. “You have communicated perfectly and your sentiments have been most enlightening. I see clearly now what I must do. Thank you again.”
It was a week or so later, when Marjorie and Philomena Bucket were walking with Drury, the skeletal hound, on the Gydynap Hills, that Marjorie suddenly asked her companion, “Do you know the song ‘Have you smelt the Night Soil Man?’ ” Philomena looked at her friend and frowned. “I can’t say that I do. How does it go?”
Marjorie cleared her throat and began:
“Oh have you smelt the Night-Soil Man, the Night-Soil man, the Night-Soil Man, Oh have you smelt Night-Soil Man who lives in Hopeless, Maine? Oh yes I’ve smelt the Night-Soil Man, the Night-Soil man, the Night-Soil Man, Oh yes I’ve smelt Night-Soil Man who lives in Hopeless, Maine. POO!”
“I know the tune,” laughed Philomena, “only we used to sing ‘The Muffin Man’ back in Ireland when I was a girl. Where the devil did you hear that?” “Some of the orphans taught it to me,” said Marjorie. “Apparently, it’s a traditional street-song and has been sung by children here for generations. Since being at the orphanage I have learned so much about Hopeless; its flora and fauna, and the things that are neither, or both. Those children are a treasure trove of information.” “I thought you were supposed to be teaching them,” said Philomena, throwing a stick for Drury to retrieve. “Oh, I am, but we have an arrangement,” replied Marjorie. “If the children agree to let me teach them some basic arithmetic or a bit of poetry for an hour, in return I will allow them to teach me something about the island. It usually involves something gory, or scary… in fact the gorier and scarier it is, the better they like it. Are you aware that there is the ghost of a mad parson at Chapel Rock?” “Yes, I’ve heard, but never mention him if Lady Margaret is haunting anywhere nearby. They have history.” Philomena was referring to Lady Margaret D’Avening, The Headless Lady who haunts the flushing privy of The Squid and Teapot. Obadiah Hyde, the Mad Parson of Chapel Rock, was the reason she became headless.
The two women stood together in the swirling mist on the very top of the Gydynaps. On impulse, Marjorie grasped her friend’s hand and squeezed it gently. “Thank you so much for finding me a place at the orphanage, Philomena. I really feel that I am doing some good, at last. What would I do without you?” Philomena, who always found taking compliments to be a problem, was about to make some self-deprecating comment when Drury came trotting up and dropped a stick at Marjorie’s feet. When it came to people, Drury was particular and had his favourites. He would not place a stick at just anyone’s feet. Marjorie was one of the good ones, he had decided – and it was her turn to throw.
“I cannot, in all conscience, remain here any longer, Philomena.” Marjorie Toadsmoor looked uncomfortably at her friend. She had been resident in The Squid and Teapot for several weeks, and was beginning to feel that she had outstayed her welcome. Philomena smiled, squeezing Marjorie’s hand reassuringly. “Why ever not?” she asked. “I’ve lived here for ages and have no intention of moving.” Marjorie’s face flushed. “But you’re useful. You can cook, you clean, you do the washing and wait at table; The Squid would fall apart without you, Philomena dear, whereas I… for some reason I seem to have no aptitude for any of those things.” Philomena had to admit to herself that this was absolutely true. Although neither woman knew it, before Marjorie arrived on the island, she had lived the existence of a privileged, upper middle-class Victorian lady, with servants to do her every bidding. As you may recall from the tale ‘Lapsus Linguae’, only a minute prior to finding herself standing beneath the lighthouse on Hopeless, she had been wandering among the Dreaming Spires of Oxford, excited at being one of the first female students to be accepted by that venerable university. She had been mysteriously plucked from space and time and robbed of all memory of her previous life. It was probably a blessing; there was little in the way of privilege on Hopeless. “You can learn, it’s easy, “ said Philomena. “You’ve already rid yourself of them stuffy crinolines and corsets that you wore to begin with, to say nothing of that daft parasol…” “It blew away,” said Marjorie, regretfully. “And yes, I can’t think why I was in that ridiculous get-up in the first place. The clothes you found in the attic for me is far more practical. But with regard to staying at The Squid and Teapot, I honestly don’t think I can be of any worthwhile use at all.” “Well, if you’re certain,” said Philomena. “Let me see what I can find for you, but please, don’t think that the Middlestreets want you to go. You add a bit of class to the place.” It was the truth. Ariadne Middlestreet had commented on more than one occasion that Miss Toadsmoor’s cut-glass English accent, fierce intelligence and impeccable manners had certainly done the reputation of the inn no harm. Everyone adored her, with the possible exception of Doc Willoughby, who did not like anyone who was perceived to be cleverer than he was.
A day or two later Philomena delivered the news that she had found an ideal home and job for Marjorie. “Miss Calder, at the orphanage, she could really do with some help,” Philomena said. “The children would benefit from having someone like you around, Marjorie, and there’s room enough for you to live there, too.” “But surely, Miss Calder is more than up to the task of catering for her young charges,” protested Marjorie. Philomena looked uncomfortable. “There’s something about Miss Calder you should know,” she said. “She isn’t… she isn’t… well… quite alive.” “You mean the poor woman has passed away?” “Not in so many words,” replied Philomena, carefully “It’s just that she’s dead, but that doesn’t stop her looking after the children as best as she can. Oh, no.” “I’m not sure I could bear to stay there if Miss Calder is as you say she is,” said Marjorie, a slight tremor in her voice. “Ah, sure, you’ll soon be fine with it,” replied Philomena, adding after a thoughtful pause, “maybe it will help if you meet someone to get you used to the idea. I know just the person. Come down to the bar at midnight.” Marjorie looked intrigued. She had no idea what her friend was planning but was happy enough to go along with it. “Very well. I’ll see you then.”
A full moon was shining wanly through the windows of the inn when Marjorie made her way down the stairs, the yellow light of her candle throwing huge shadows against the walls. Philomena was waiting for her. “Promise me you’re not going to be too frightened,” she said, ominously. “If she sees that you’re scared, you’ll offend her?” “She? Who are we meeting?” “You’ll see,” said Philomena. “Now we need to go to the toilet.” “I don’t,” said Marjorie, not a little taken aback. “I went before I came downstairs.” “No, no,” said Philomena, “I mean, we need to go into the toilet – to the flushing privy next to the bar. Come on.” By the flickering light of the candle, the pair slipped into the privy. “Lady Margaret, are you there?” called Philomena, softly. The room grew suddenly much chillier and, to Marjorie’s amazement, the figure of a woman suddenly appeared before them. To all intents and purposes she looked to be as much a creature of flesh and blood as they were, but there was something about her that suggested that she was somehow on the very edge of becoming slightly transparent. This impression was not reduced by the fact that she appeared to be clothed in little more than a fairly revealing night-gown. “Lady Margaret D’Avening, allow me to introduce you to my good friend, Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor,” said Philomena, respectfully. Despite having forgotten her roots, there was some deeply inbred obsequiousness lurking in the make-up of Marjorie, when exposed to the aristocracy. “My Lady,” she said, performing a deep curtsey, “I am honoured indeed.” Lady Margaret nodded imperiously. She had not been treated like this for centuries. “You’re not here to be honoured,” said Philomena, “You are here to meet a real-live… um… a real-dead ghost. Lady Margaret came here with the stones that built the privy, and won’t mind me saying that if you can get used to her, then Miss Calder will be a pushover.” “But Lady Margaret is young and beautiful…” protested Marjorie. “If she is truly a ghost, then I surely have no need to fear.” Although she had lived on the island for some weeks, except for an initial encounter with a spoonwalker, Marjorie had not experienced any of the more exotic inhabitants of Hopeless, including ghosts. Philomena gave Lady Margaret a wink. “Time to do what you do best. M’Lady” she said, upon which the ghost raised her hands and lifted her head from her body, letting it float in the air beside her. If the light in the privy had been better, one would have witnessed Marjorie’s complexion suddenly becoming an interesting shade of green. “That’s my party trick,” said Lady Margaret’s head, “thanks to a mad puritan parson who disapproved of my religion and, more to the point, my love-life. Now… tell me all about yourself, young lady…” It soon became clear to Marjorie that, despite being an aristocrat and a ghost with a severed head, Lady Margaret D’Avening was delightful, easy-going company and not at all scary, unless of course, she had other tricks up her sleeve. She left the privy that night feeling far more comfortable about the prospect of living under the same roof as Miss Calder, a well-meaning ghost, if ever there was one.
One of the things we’ve done ahead of the gallery show in Okinawa is produce a line-up of characters from the comic. This, we gather, is something Japanese readers love to see in relation to comics and that sharing this kind of image would be a much more Japanese way of doing things. It was entertaining figuring out the heights of the cast in relation to each other.
When we started work on Personal Demons, Tom was in the US and I was in the UK. The colouring happened digitally. Sinners is the first book I coloured on. So it’s been interesting for me to look at those characters in their early stages and think about how I would have coloured them.
If you’ve read Personal Demons (the first half of The Gathering in the UK edition) you’ll know that it is not an especially colourful body of work. Tom is not fond of working with colour – which is how I got involved in the first place!
This is the first time I’ve coloured Miss Calder as a living person with skin tones. It will probably be the only time I colour young James or the unnamed young lady who dominates the first book. It was also an opportunity to assert what terrible taste Doc Willoughby has – he’s been benefiting from Tom’s muted tones as no one has been able to see quite how garish and ridiculous he really is.
For most homes, having someone banging on the front door at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning is, generally speaking, an unusual event. The Squid and Teapot is certainly no exception to this, and when the stout doors of the inn rattled to a sudden matutinal tattoo one sabbath, it almost caused Ariadne Middlestreet to spill her coffee. “Good morning Mrs Middlestreet,” said a polite, but spotty, youth to Ariadne, when she answered the knock. He was accompanied by a carbon copy of himself, down to the last pimple. Ariadne immediately recognised them as being the Westonbirt twins, Winston and Wendell, from the orphanage. “And what are you boys after at this hour of the day?” Ariadne is not a particularly maternal woman, invariably regarding anyone on the island, who has the misfortune to be under the age of twenty-five, as being up to no good. In this she is rarely disappointed. “Miss Calder sent us, ma’am,” said Winston – though it could well have been Wendell. “We were raided by spoonwalkers again last night. Miss Calder wants to know if there is any spare cutlery in your attic, please.” “Dam’ spoonwalkers,” said Ariadne, with venom. “Tell Miss Calder I’ll bring some over later.” “We need them now ma’am,” said Wendell or Winston, with some trepidation in his voice. “We can’t do breakfast without.” Ariadne sighed. “Okay. What do you need?” “A dozen dessert spoons and two large ladles, please ma’am.” “Ladles? Spoonwalkers have no use for ladles, they’re way too big.” “Well, they definitely took two last night.” Ariadne sighed again. “Stay here, you two, and don’t touch nothing. I’ll go and find you some cutlery.” Ten minutes later the Westonbirt twins were happily jangling back to the orphanage with a bulging bag of non-matching dessert spoons and two ladles.
It always amuses Philomena Bucket when Drury, the skeletal hound, picks up a scent. His bony tail immediately lifts before he circles around, sniffing the ground, oblivious to everything else around him. All Philomena can ever do is to follow, if she chooses to. For Drury’s part, he has no need of an audience. The chase is enough. On the day of our tale, however, she decided to keep the dog in sight and see what he might find. It was not until they dropped from the headland to the beach that Philomena could see the cause of Drury’s excitement. Imprinted deep into the dark sand was a set of cup-shaped indentations, as though a large and quite heavy biped, with exceedingly strange feet, had walked along the shoreline. Philomena racked her brains as to what manner of creature might leave such tracks, but nothing came to mind. She knew that there was every chance that answer to the mystery might be totally unremarkable, but her curiosity was aroused. She decided to get someone else to take a look before the tide came in and washed the prints away forever.
“It’s beyond me,” admitted Norbert Gannicox. “Looking at the stride, whatever it is must be at least four and a half feet tall. We’ve had some rum things wandering around the island over the years, but I’ve not seen anything with feet like that.”
The talk in The Squid and Teapot that evening was of the strange tracks that Drury had discovered. Harvey Winstone said that he had spotted similar ones in the mud behind the orphanage. “They were like small bowls. I’ve never seen anything with feet like that,” he added. Ariadne, listening with half an ear from behind the bar, suddenly paled. “Spoonwalkers stole a couple of ladles from the orphanage the other night,” she said. “I reckon it’s to do with that.” “But they’re too small to use ladles as stilts,” protested Norbert. “Dessert spoons are more their size.” “But what if there’s one that’s not so small anymore?” said Harvey, a note of menace in his voice. “What if one has mutated into something bigger?” Harvey had recently found some comic books washed up in a crate. Much of it was literally pulp-fiction, as most of the comics had become little more than a salt-sea mush, but deep in the middle of the crate a few had survived the worst ravages of the ocean. These had titles such as ‘Weird Stories’, ‘Creepy’ and ‘Tales to Astonish’. Harvey, innocent of the ways of comic-book writers, believed every word he read. An uncomfortable silence descended upon the bar. Regular sized spoonwalkers were bad enough – just a glance from one of them had been known to drive folks close to madness. If there was something bigger out there, who knew what havoc they might cause? “I’ve no idea what mutated means,” admitted Norbert, “but it sounds quite nasty. What are we going to do?” There was a sudden hubbub of voices, each one advocating violence of some degree. “Hold on,” broke in Bartholomew Middlestreet, ever the voice of reason. “Before we get too carried away, has anyone actually seen whatever it is that’s making these tracks?” Nobody replied. “Then I think, until we know exactly what we’re up against, we do nothing except be vigilant.” There was a general murmur of agreement, but that night, as each customer made their way home, they could not help but tread with trepidation.
It is widely thought that the name ‘Bigspoon’ was coined by Harvey Winstone, who’s recent exposure to ‘Tales to Astonish’ etc. had brought to his attention the possible existence of Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, arguably the North American cousin of the fabled Yeti of the Himalayas. Since delving into this newly discovered world of cryptozoology, Harvey harboured a secret hope that Bigfoot’s big feet would one day stalk Hopeless, but until then he had to be content with a home-grown version. (As if the island doesn’t have more cryptozoological specimens than you can shake a spoon at!)
Once the creature had been given a name, it was not long before there were reports of Bigspoon being sighted all over the island. He was five feet tall, or sometimes eight feet tall. He was green and scaly or there again, brown and hairy. He roared, he squeaked, he spoke fluent English… and he was only ever seen in passing, from the corner of one eye, in a bad light, obscured by mist and behind trees. He was, in short, an enigma. There were as many varieties of Bigspoon as there were people who had claimed to have seen him. One thing that all agreed on, however; his round, ladle-shaped tracks were everywhere. Panic began to grip the island.
It was maybe a week or ten days following the robbery at the orphanage that Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, managed to put a stop to Bigspoon’s ramblings for good. It was not quite midnight when he stopped for his break. Philomena had, as ever, left a generous slice of Starry-Grabby pie and a bottle of ‘Old Colonel’ outside his front door. Settling down, with his back against a rock, Rhys was about to take the first bite of his meal when a sudden movement caught his attention. Well aware of the tales surrounding Bigspoon, he was at once wary, hoping that his trademark effluvium would be enough to keep the creature at bay. He sat stock still and waited.
The figure that emerged into the moonlight was neither green and scaly, nor brown and hairy. It was a small boy with a ladle lashed to each leg, who hobbled awkwardly across the ground, in search of suitably soft patches of earth into which he might imprint his strange footmarks. Rhys smiled to himself, appreciating the hoax. He had been an orphanage boy himself and had often played tricks on the adults in his life. Hopeless, in the middle of the night, however, was not a safe place for anyone except the Night Soil Man, much less scrawny, adolescent hoaxers, such as the one he now saw before him..
Wendell, or possibly Winston, stopped in his tracks as a blood-curdling, animal howl issued from the nearby hillside. It was followed by the noise of rocks being crashed together, to the accompaniment of an assortment of yelps, gibbers and screeches. It sounded as though all the denizens of Hell had decided to hold an improptu party on Hopeless. Wendell (we’ll agree that it’s Wendell) kicked off the ladles and sped back towards the orphanage and the safety of the open window where his brother waited. Rhys lingered a while then wandered down to the spot where that the would-be Bigspoon had recently vacated, picked up the ladles and dropped them into his backpack.
“Did you hear it last night?” asked Harvey Winstone, clutching a tankard of ale close to his chest. A murmur of assenting voices confirmed that they had, indeed, heard the wrath of Bigspoon. One or two swore that they had watched him raging over the hills, howling at the moon before eventually disappearing into the mist. Philomena Bucket deftly carried another tray of drinks to across the crowded room, before going outside for a breath of air. Standing in the pool of yellow light by the open front door, she smiled to herself as she strained to read again the note that she had found outside the Night Soil Man’s cottage, when delivering his supper earlier that evening. It had been secured to the ground beneath the weight of two large ladles. The message was clear enough: “They won’t be needing these at the orphanage any more. Neither will Bigspoon. Yours ever, Rhys xx”
We’re very excited to be part of an exhibition in Japan this summer – organised by Dr Abbey. Bits of Hopeless will be there, alongside work from our excellent steampunk chums Dr Geof and Jennie Gyllblad. Also other people that we don’t really know.
In honour of this event, Sloth Comics has put together a special edition limited print run of Personal Demons (The first half of The Gathering for UK folk). We’re massively excited about this. It’s hardly normal for a small, indy comic like ours to go on sale in Japan. There’s even talk of doing a larger print run, in translation!
The apple trees growing in the shade of the Gydynap hills are far from beautiful. They are old, gnarled and twisted, and, on the odd occasions that any of them bears fruit, the apples are small and bitter, barely good enough for making cider. This said, however, every springtime, without fail, they produce a gorgeous and fragrant blossom that speaks of a harvest that never arrives. Philomena Bucket has always waited impatiently for the coming of the blossom; it reminded her of her childhood in Ireland. She had few happy recollections of her early life, but the flowering of the trees in her grandmother’s orchard always glowed in her mind like a beacon. After her grandmother died, the apple orchard, and all the stuff of memories, were brutally snatched away, and the adults of the Bucket family found themselves in the workhouse in Dublin. Philomena and her sisters were deposited in the Foundling Hospital for Orphans and Abandoned children, just south of the River Liffey. Philomena dismissed those dark and distant days from her mind as she plucked a sprig of blossom and pinned it on her coat, laughing as a shower of petals cascaded from the tree, covering her hair and shoulders like confetti. As spring days go on the island of Hopeless, this particular one was decidedly… well, almost spring-like. The wind was moderate, there was no apparent sign of rain, and the usual shroud of mist that hung over the land was surprisingly light. The green shoulders of the Gydynaps rose up into clear grey skies before her; it would be more than optimistic to expect sunshine as well. Philomena hummed a little tune and walked with a definite spring in her step as she made her way towards the summit of the hills. Drury, the skeletal hound, sensing her mood and wagging his bony tail, gambolled like a lamb over the grass (not that Drury had recently witnessed a lamb gambolling, at least, not for the last hundred years or so). The Gydynaps are possibly the strangest place on the island. This is not to say that there are – to quote the traditional Scottish prayer – a greater number of ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties wandering around there than on any other part of Hopeless. It is, instead, as if the hills are host to an indefinable presence, quietly possessing an aura of awe and antiquity that even the most insensitive soul could not fail to feel. And this is why they are shunned, for, unlike Philomena, most Hopelessians prefer the terrors that can be seen, and hopefully avoided, to the ageless, invisible, threat, that many believe pervades the Gydynaps.
Drury had spotted a crow foraging in the grass and decided that it would be worthwhile chasing the bird. Like crows the world over, this one had every confidence in her ability to avoid capture, and made a point of keeping just enough space between Drury and herself in order to give the dog the impression that he might just catch her. Philomena was not worried when he disappeared from sight. Drury was his own master and would find her when he grew tired of the fruitless chase.
As the morning drew on the day became suddenly colder and a freshening wind brought ever-thickening wisps of mist on to the hills. Philomena drew her coat closer about her and was on the point of deciding to go back to The Squid and Teapot, where she had a room, when a bent figure, wearing something resembling a monk’s habit, appeared a few yards in front of her, as if out of nowhere. Philomena rubbed her eyes and concluded that the mist must be denser than she had thought. “Good morning,” said Philomena, cheerily. The elderly stranger raised a hand in greeting and Philomena thought he said, “Imagine what.” “Imagine what? What should I imagine?” asked Philomena confused. The two looked at each other for a few seconds before Philomena realised what he had said. “Maidin mhaith” she repeated back with a beaming smile, dredging up what she recalled of the language her grandmother had spoken. The old man looked around, confused. The landscape had unexpectedly changed. From these high hills he could see that they were surrounded by water. “What is this island called?” he asked, in a dialect of Irish that sounded archaic and unfamiliar, but to Philomena’s amazement she understood him perfectly. “Why, this place is Hopeless,” she replied, surprising herself by answering him fluently in his own tongue. “Indeed it is,” he said. “I have wandered for years, through hollow lands and hilly lands, but I have never seen anywhere quite as dismal as this.” “Oh, it’s not too bad once you get used to it,” said Philomena, unconvincingly. The self-confessed wanderer gave her a long, hard stare. “Do I know you?” he asked. “I feel that I do… maybe a long time ago. Things are a bit hazy since I went into that hazel wood…” ‘Cheeky beggar’ thought Philomena, ‘I’m young enough to be his granddaughter,’ but she just smiled sweetly and said, “Sorry, I don’t think so.” Just then a slight breeze swept by, disturbing the apple blossom that still clung to her hair and shoulders. The old man gazed at her, his eyes suddenly alight with longing and wonder. “Yes… yes I do know you,” he said. “There is apple blossom in your hair… You are the one… I know it.” Before Philomena could object, he had reached forward and taken her by the hands, then, with surprising strength and agility, drew her quickly towards him and kissed her full on the lips. “Ah… I taste fish,” he said. “You were once a fish, a trout. Do you recall?” “I think you’ve got me mixed up with somebody else,” said Philomena, more than a little taken aback, and pulling away hastily. “I had a bit of cold Starry-Grabby pie for me breakfast. That’s what you can taste. I was never a fish. Honestly. I’d have remembered.” The old man looked dejected. “It was a very attractive trout,” he said. “All silvery. I could have sworn you were she. That is such a shame. But… you don’t fancy walking through some long, dappled grass with me, just in case you’re mistaken. It might bring it all back to you.” “No thanks,” said Philomena, who was becoming increasingly uneasy. “Besides there’s no long grass up here, dappled or otherwise.” “I suppose you’re right,” he said morosely. “To be honest, I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll ever find her. She only ever called me by my name once, then she ran off, faded into the brightening air, and I’ve not seen hide nor hair of her since.” “Don’t give up hope,” said Philomena, feeling suddenly sorry for him. “Stick with it, and you’ll be sure to bump into her eventually.” “Hmm, I hope you’re right,” replied the old man. “But if by chance you do see the girl, say that her Aengus is still wandering around looking for her.” Without saying any more he turned and, with a wave of his hand, walked into the gathering mist. Philomena stared after him until he disappeared from sight. Lost in her own thoughts, she was suddenly brought back to earth when Drury pulled up alongside her, his tail still wagging. Her reverie broken, she tried in vain to catch the last few ragged ribbons of ancient Gaelic speech which floated through her mind, before they disappeared forever. But they were gone, like snow on the water, and with those words faded all memory of her encounter with the Wandering Aengus.