Dutchman’s Gold

Philomena Bucket wrapped her woolen shawl tightly around her shoulders; despite the chilly air she smiled quietly to herself. She had lived on Hopeless for almost a year and – somewhat uniquely – had fallen in love with the island. Certainly, compared to most places it was dangerous, inhospitable and lacking in the most basic of amenities. On the other hand, it was somewhere where she, an albino, attracted no second glances, no derision. Here she had a home, work, friends and the occasional company of a small, fun-loving dog. Admittedly the dog had been dead for some years and these days was no more than a skeleton but Drury had become as good a companion as anyone could wish to have. For Philomena, living on Hopeless was many times better than the life she had previously known.

 

One of Philomena’s greatest pleasures was to walk, as she was today, in the Gydynap hills. With their sudden fogs and air of mystery the Gydynaps reminded her of the Nargles Mountains, an area she knew well, a dozen or so miles west of the city of Cork, in her native Ireland. Somehow, she felt safer in the Gydynaps than anywhere else on the island. Whenever Philomena chose to go for a walk, Drury would invariably appear, as if by magic and rattle joyously along beside her, sniffing the air and making a great show of marking his territory (but – for obvious reasons – failing).

 

The inhabitants of Hopeless are not renowned for their love of walking. A healthy respect for the various dangers, mixed with no small measure of apathy, ensures that few wish to venture an inch further than necessary from their own front door. In view of this, it was a rare day, indeed, that Philomena met anyone else walking the hills. The day of this tale, however, was rare beyond her wildest imaginings.

 

Philomena was by no means timid but her heart missed a beat when Drury suddenly stopped in mid-gambol and growled. Had he been  in receipt of ears to push back and hackles to rise he could not have expressed his guarding instincts any more clearly. Someone, or more likely something, was around; Drury was giving every sign that all was not right and Philomena was uneasy.

For what seemed an age the skeletal dog stayed stock-still, growling ferociously at, what appeared to be, nothing in particular. All around them the mist began to thicken and swirl. Philomena blinked and rubbed her eyes. Her long-sight had never been particularly good but this poor visibility seemed to be playing tricks with her vision. As the mist thinned a little, she could just make out a figure emerging through a narrow cleft in the rocks that Philomena could have sworn had not been  there a moment earlier. Drury dropped down on to where his belly would have been and whimpered quietly.

“Howdy ma’am,” the stranger hailed her with a cheery wave.

He was a lanky, ginger-bearded individual, dressed in worn buckskins and a hat with an excessively floppy brim.

“Good afternoon to you sir,” replied Philomena primly.

” I sure didn’t figure on findin’ no ladies up here in the mountains,” drawled the stranger. “You must be a long way from home.”

“A mile or so, sir,” conceded Philomena, softening a little as Drury became visibly more relaxed. The bony dog was always an infallible judge of character and their new companion seemed to meet his approval.

“By the by, I ain’t nobody’s idea of a sir. I’m just plain old Hank.”

The man who called himself Hank squatted down on the ground and opened his knapsack, from which he produced a leather tobacco pouch and a stubby pipe.

“Share a pipe, ma’am?”

Philomena smiled and shook her head.

Hank eyed her, unsure of what to say next. Philomena’s presence was confusing him. He drew on his pipe and said, warily,

“Guess you’re looking for the Dutchman’s Gold Mine, same as me.”

It was Philomena’s turn to be confused.

“No… I’m just out for a walk with Drury, here.”

At the mention of his name Drury clambered to his feet with a series of osseous rattles. Hank involuntarily screamed as he witnessed a pile of bleached bones become suddenly animated.

“Jumpin’ Jehosohat,” he exclaimed. “What in tarnation is THAT?”

“That,” Philomena replied coldly, “is my good and faithful friend Drury – and I would be obliged if you referred to him with a little more respect in future.”

As if to show his utter disdain for Hank, Drury immediately flopped down and sank into a deep and snore-filled slumber.

Hank’s face dropped.

“Then what them Apaches say is true,” he wailed. “There really is a gateway to Hell in the Superstition Mountains.”

“Hell?” said Philomena in surprise. “You’re not in Hell, you’re in Hopeless, Maine.”

“Maine???” Hank’s face whitened noticeably beneath his tan. “Jumpin’ Jehosophat, that’s more than two thousand miles from Arizona.”

Philomena wondered to herself who Jehosophat might be and why he was so addicted to jumping.

“Believe me,” she ventured, “Hopeless is strange – but surely preferable to Hell. Nothing much surprises me about this place any more.”

Hank contemplated what she had said. He had had some strange adventures in his time but this was, by far, the strangest. Stoically, he finished his smoke and lay the pipe on the ground by his side. It did not take a great deal of persuasion on Philomena’s part for Hank to tell her his story.

“There’s a legend that this foreign guy discovered a gold mine in the Superstition Mountains, east of Phoenix. They call it the Dutchman’s gold mine. Folks have been searchin’ for it for years and some of ’em seem to have disappeared into thin air. I rolled up there a day or two ago and thought I’d try my hand at gettin’ rich. Instead I end up in… where did you say?

“Hopeless,” said Philomena, helpfully. “But I don’t think that the others have come here. I’m sure someone would have mentioned it. Maybe you can go back the way you came.”

“Maybe, but I… jumpin’ Jehosophat, what in tarnation is that?”

While they were talking, a spoonwalker had sidled up beside them and picked up the pipe, studying it with curiosity.

“Dagnabbit! What is that thing?”

The sudden commotion had woken Drury. He instinctively leapt for the spoonwalker. who fled the scene with surprising speed and agility, racing along on its cutlery stilts and still clutching Hank’s pipe. It made a beeline for the cleft in the wall, with Drury in hot pursuit.

Philomena watched in horror as her beloved companion hurled himself at the fleeing spoonwalker, just as it disappeared into the opening.

With a crack that echoed around the hills, the cleft snapped shut. Half a second later Drury crashed into the rock face with a force that would have killed an ordinary dog. Happily for Drury, that particular ship had sailed long ago. Instead, he picked himself up from the stony ground, gave a shake and staggered unsteadily over to where Philomena and Hank were sitting.

“As I was saying,” said Philomena. “This is a strange place – and it looks as though you’re stuck with it.”

She took Hank gently by the arm and walked the bewildered newcomer down the hill. Drury, fully recovered by now, ran on in front, his bony tail wagging happily.

“And you’re sure this ain’t Hell?” asked Hank, casting a wary eye at the pale woman and her dead dog.

“Not for me,” said Philomena. “Not for me.”

 

Author’s note: In the mid nineteenth century, Jacob Waltz, a German immigrant claimed to have discovered a mother lode of gold in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. He revealed the location of the mine on his death-bed to a boarding-house keeper, Julia Thomas, who, reportedly, later made a living by selling treasure maps for $7 each. Despite this, the mine was never discovered. This is just one of the several legends surrounding the ‘Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine’ (the words ‘Dutch’ and ‘Deutsch’ being commonly confused in the U.S. at that time).

What is not a legend is that many of those who have searched for the mine have disappeared without a trace.

Interestingly, the Apache Indians of the region have long believed that deep in the Superstition Mountains there exists a portal which gives access to the lower world, their version of hell.

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom and Nimue Brown
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Hopeless Mechanics

What is the relationship between Hopeless Maine and the rest of reality? It’s a question I’ve been asking on and off for about fourteen years, and neither Tom nor I has known the answer…. until now!

It came to us as we were discussing the stories Keith Errington has written for the island, and how his 19th century is so very different from the 19th century Martin Pearson depicts in his Squid and Teapot tales. At this point, the question of what gets to be ‘canon’ and what isn’t becomes really important. There are a lot of people playing with the island in different ways. Some of these explorations will be published, some will start to look more official than others.

Generally, when people get themselves and their stories to the island, it’s all fine. Hopeless talks to them – we’ve had to steer Martin away from important plot points he’d found without any input from us. Keith’s adventures took him into a space that no one has seen yet but that we’d already depicted for the next graphic novel. This happens a lot, and is why we’ve never felt much need to steer people around what they can and can’t do on the island. The island itself takes care of all that.

What’s tricky is where people launch from – their off-island reality. There’s no two ways about it, you don’t all come to Hopeless, Maine from the same time and place. The answer, clearly is to accept that and run with it.

My other fiction is full of unstable and shifting realities. I have decided they are all compatible, and the result goes like this…

Hopeless, Maine is a rare fixed point of stability in an unstable and shifting multiverse. It is thus easier to get in than get out, because if you try to get back and don’t connect with where you came from, there is resistance. Hopeless is, in its own funny way, pretty stable and there is consensus about what happens to new arrivals. And there is no consensus about where and when they came from and how historically accurate, or steampunk or other their starting point was, because they’ve all come from different points in that unstable and shifting universe.

It amuses me greatly to think of Hopeless as something solid and reliable.

The Lighthouse

Following the coming of the founding families to Hopeless, one of the earliest structures to be erected was the lighthouse. To begin with this was a simple affair, no more than a fiery beacon on a pole to warn any passing ships of the treacherous rocks that lurk beneath the tide-line. As a navigational aid, however, it was by no means infallible and did nothing to prevent the disaster which deposited Mr Hamish Stevenson on the shores of the island.

There was a certain irony in Stevenson being shipwrecked. You see, Hamish was a nephew of Robert Stevenson, the brilliant engineer responsible for many of the lighthouses that still stand sentinel around the rocky shores of Britain. Young Stevenson, who had worked closely with his Uncle Robert, had been entrusted with the task of accompanying the transportation of a Fresnel lens, complete with the mercury bath that it would float upon, to the soon-to-be-renovated Portland Head Light.

The small matter of a shipwreck did little to bruise Hamish’s unquenchable enthusiasm for his work. Encouraged by the fact that both the lens and the mercury bath had miraculously been undamaged by the disaster, he immediately decided that Hopeless, Maine needed a proper lighthouse and he, a Stevenson born and bred, was the man for the job. And so – with no small amount of help – Hamish built a lighthouse. Maybe his was not as elegant or stylish as those of the elder Stevenson but Hamish was proud to call the Hopeless lighthouse his own. The job was done and done well. Bob’s your uncle, you might say (or, at least, he was Hamish’s uncle).

By a happy coincidence, the recent completion of the nearby Gnii distillery meant that there would be an ample supply of fuel to keep the light burning. All that was required now was to find a willing volunteer to be its keeper.

There was no shortage of applicants. Eventually the role of Hopeless’ first lighthouse keeper was given to Egbert Tinkley, a man who had spent twenty years before the mast, prior to his being shipwrecked with Hamish. Egbert was a wiry man with twinkling blue eyes and an impressive salt-and-pepper beard. In his seaman’s cap, roll-neck sweater (that perfectly matched his beard) and turned down sea-boots he looked every-inch a lighthouse keeper and embraced his role with vim and vigour, endlessly polishing the brass and cleaning the lens as it perched and rotated gently and quietly on its mercury bath.

When not involved with maintaining his beloved light, Egbert would occasionally venture into Hopeless town to obtain whatever provisions might be available. He would invariably stop and chat to anyone who would listen but as the weeks passed into months people began to notice some less-than-subtle changes in him. His blue eyes no longer twinkled but instead, stared, unblinking and glassy. His conversations became fewer, at least with other people, although he could be frequently heard having, sometimes, violent arguments with himself. He would wander the streets with squids tucked into the tops of his boots and his cap on backwards. Some of the islanders began to get somewhat concerned about Egbert, but put it to the back of their collective minds and attributed his behaviour to no more than colourful eccentricity. After all, the light never failed to be lit exactly one hour before sunset each evening and that was all that mattered.

It was only when Arabella O’Stoat called by the lighthouse with some squid tarts did anyone realise the extent of Egberts eccentricity. The lower floors of the building were a mess, the walls daubed with paint and papers and sea-charts strewn all around. There were heaps of pebbles and seaweed covering the floors, while a combination of dead gulls, driftwood and useless flotsam covered every flat surface. Only the lantern remained pristine and it was here that she found Egbert. He was humming to himself and delicately cleaning the lens with a mixture of vinegar and water (an excellent solution for achieving smear-free glass).

“Are you alright, Egbert?” asked Arabella warily.

“I can fly, you know,” the keeper replied, for no apparent reason. “Just like a seagull, when the mood takes me.”

“Of course you can,” said Arabella soothingly. “Why don’t we go down to the kitchen and have a nice cup of tea?”

“It’s not called the kitchen, it’s the galley,” yelled Egbert, suddenly angry. “I can fly there. Watch me.”

With that he scrambled outside, on to the gallery that ran around the lantern.

“Watch me,” he cried, standing on the top rail.

Arabella could only look on, horrified, as he launched himself into the air.

Over the following months and years a succession of lighthouse keepers went quietly mad attending to their duties, though it must be said, none as fatally as Egbert. It was generally felt that the building was cursed; surely, even on Hopeless, it was too much of a coincidence that every shred of reason chose to leave the keepers who tended the light.

After a while the brass became dull through neglect, the clockwork mechanism that rotated the light lay still and the lamp was lit no more. No one wanted to ascend the steps to the lantern and the lighthouse became derelict.

The madness suffered by the Egbert Tinkley and his successors is no great mystery, though on Hopeless the lighthouse curse is still spoken of in hushed tones. It is often suspected that lighthouse keepers are all a little mad. It is not just the loneliness of the work, as many believe, but the proximity of mercury. Like hatters, who used mercurous nitrate to cure felt, lighthouse keepers suffered prolonged exposure to mercury vapour – and like hatters, they often went mad.

The lighthouse still stands, though these days the lantern is long gone and its stonework bleached by the weather and ravaged by time. Ravens roost in its highest reaches, while spoonwalkers and puddle rats make uneasy neighbours on the lower levels. On a stormy night, when the wild wind howls off the ocean and screeches through the ruined walls, those unwise enough to be out at such a time have reported  that it sounds like the manic shrieks of souls in torment. Of course, this is purely the product of an over-active imagination … isn’t it?

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightdress

For a thousand years, or more, the mysterious island of Hopeless, Maine has witnessed a long cavalcade of migrants scramble up its rocky shores. Few have come here willingly but each one, in their own way, has attempted to construct some sort of life for themselves in this most inhospitable of places. For most, that life has been brief; the natural – and supernatural – perils of the island are many.  Some have gone without leaving any trace of their visit, while others have left various possessions, enthusiastically recycled by successive generations. This is why it is not uncommon to see a Hopelessian wearing  spats, plus fours, an Edwardian tail-coat and a tricorn hat. Nothing is ever wasted.

When Philomena Bucket came to the island, having stowed away on the ill-fated merchant ship ‘Hetty Pegler’, she owned nothing but the clothes she stood up in. Over the weeks and months that followed she acquired a modest wardrobe, garnered chiefly from the storeroom in the Squid and Teapot, where the forsaken possessions of some of its previous patrons were housed. Despite her humble beginnings, Philomena had no wish to abuse the hospitality of the inn and took no more than was necessary. There was one particular item, however, that caught her eye and she coveted above all others; this was a full length Victorian nightdress, buttoned at the neck and sturdily constructed to repel all but the most ardent attentions.

Washing day tended to be a somewhat drawn-out affair in ‘The Squid’. The process, devoid of any mechanical aid, was long and arduous, involving heating several cauldrons of water and the dexterous application of a wash-board. Soap, more often than not made from wood ash and any hard fat that was available, would be scrubbed into the soiled items, which were then rinsed and dried. It was a thankless task but perversely, Philomena enjoyed it. She appreciated cleanliness, having been forced to endure a certain amount of squalor in her formative years and being able to wash her own clothes gave her particular pleasure.

It was on one such day, some  ten weeks after her arrival on the island, that our tale begins. With the inn’s freshly laundered washing drying reluctantly on the line, Philomena felt free to tackle the task of cleaning her own clothing and bedding, which lay in a basket awaiting her attention. While, over the weeks, she had become accustomed to the strangeness of the Hopeless, nothing would have prepared her for the events that were about to unfold.

Although she could have sworn that no one or nothing had entered the laundry, the contents of the wash basket appeared to move. A sock was thrown across the room, closely followed by a rather pretty chemise that Philomena had inherited from a previous tenant. More disturbing, however, was the sight of her beloved nightdress rising from the tumble of washing and making its way towards the door. Its progress was slow, as though some internal force was being impeded by the cloth that held it. Then, with a whimper, the nightdress stumbled over the step and clattered to the ground with a noisy and totally unexpected rattle. Gingerly, Philomena carefully lifted the vagabond garment by the hem and gave it a gentle shake, then jumped back with a little squeal as a collection of bones clattered out,on to the smooth flagstones. She was even more surprised when the bones dragged themselves up into some semblance of a small quadruped that yawned, shook itself, raised a languid rear leg against the door frame (which remained defiantly undampened) then bounded away in the general direction of Hopeless town. Philomena could only stand speechless as she watched its bony tail wag its way into the distance.

Over the following week Philomena made a few discrete enquiries around the island regarding her osseous visitor, expecting to be denounced as a madwoman at any moment. To her surprise, no one even raised an eyebrow at her description of the skeletal beast. She had, it seems, encountered Drury, a hound of indeterminate breed, or breeds, who resolutely refused to allow the small matter of being dead to spoil his fun. Indeed, the general feeling was that Drury had no sense of his own demise and continued to do all of the doggy things that he had done in life. Philomena heard this with tears in her eyes, remembering her canine friends whose short lives had slipped by all too soon. If only they could have been like Drury and cheated death and if – unlike Drury – they could have hung on to their bodies at the same time, how lovely that would have been.

Of course, Drury was not universally adored or even approved of. While he could be something of an annoyance to various sections of the general community, the ghost population detested him. It is said that all dogs can see ghosts. I have no idea if this is true but Drury, having more than usual access to the afterlife, could see them quite plainly and found them boring. He made it his mission in death to get them to lighten-up a little and enjoy some jollity, an exercise which mainly involved Drury having fun at their expense. Whenever the Mild Hunt appeared (see the tale ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’) the wraiths of the maiden ladies would try to shoo him away as he upset their highly-strung spaniels and nip the ankles of their mules, who became even more agitated – and therefore more flatulent- than ever. Obadiah Hyde, the ghostly Mad Parson of Chapel Rock detested him with a vengeance. If there was anything that Hyde disliked more than papists and adulterers (as described in the tale ‘The Headless Lady’) it was dogs, especially those of the deceased variety that stubbornly refused stay that way. In fact, the only ghost that Drury was unable to tease was the Woeful Dane, Lars Pedersen, also known as The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow. Poor old Lars had been haunting the island for almost a thousand years and was so faded as to be almost non-existent. Try as he might, not even Drury could get a reaction out of him.

Following the curious incident of the dog in the nightdress, Philomena Bucket could often be seen with a skeletal hound running along beside her. She did not care that the biscuits she threw fell straight through him, bouncing off his rib cage on to the floor, where it would be retrieved to be thrown again. Although he was not her dog – Drury did not seem to belong to anyone in particular – she knew that he would always be there.

“Maybe he is just an assembly of old bones,” she thought to herself, “but that doesn’t make him any less of a dog – and there can be no better friend to have”

As if reading her thoughts, Drury agreed by lovingly licking her hand with his imaginary tongue. It was good to be alive.

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom and Nimue Brown

Mrs Beaten’s Beast

I have complicated feelings about men. Horror, naturally, for they are despicable beasts and I know only too well what they are capable of. Fascination, because they are so alien, so incomprehensible. Their facial hair. The state of their collars. The noises they make.

I have noticed how powerful these forces are, how horror and fascination combine to draw you in. How these inclinations can bring you to offer yourself up to the indignity of horror and fascination.

He is a man of mystery. The first time I saw him, his gloveless hands were stained a dark and ominous red. I felt it then – the thrill of repulsion, the power of disgust. What had he done? And to whom? If I paused and gazed for long enough, would I draw his eyes? Would I discover by most unwholesome means the true nature of his stained hands?

On subsequent investigations I noted similar marks on his clothing. I wondered so long if he smelled of blood that this morning, I was overwhelmed by my own, most bestial compulsions. I deliberately stumbled into him outside The Crow.

He smells of beetroot. Not of death. Not the heart aching smell of old gore on a woollen jumper. I may never smell that again in all my life. Beetroot does not have the same effect upon me. It does not call forth suppressed memories.

But still, the man is a beast, and one stain is very much like another.

 

I say Hopeless, you say Maine…

Druid Life

As I write this, I’m still recovering from a most amazing weekend. Stroud had its first Steampunk Weekend, run by John Bassett – he’s a very creative local chap and also an excellent organiser of things. When he expressed an interest in Steampunk last year, Tom and I were very excited and piled in as best we could to help. Tom was heavily implicated in sorting out the day program and we both did a fair amount of luring people in.

It was a touch surreal seeing people we normally have to travel to spend time with. It was also rather lovely getting people from afar who we really like and being able to share them with local friends. There’s a particular pleasure in watching people I like connecting with each other, and this is one of the things a Steampunk weekend can be counted on to do. Steampunk is…

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I see dead people

Of course I see dead people. We all see dead people, although no one seems clear about the proper etiquette for such meetings. It only seems polite to acknowledge them – at least when they themselves are polite. There are a few it feels vulgar to acknowledge in the street. The one who haunts the… smaller room at the back of… the drinking establishment.

I do not like to speak of body parts, or to name them. But it is more an issue of absence, with the dead people. While I see dead people I do not see (their ankles). Not for reasons of propriety, decency or even careful not noticing on my part.

They don’t have any!

Most of them don’t even possess (feet) as though their ephemeral forms could not quite bear the sordid process of touching the ground.

I am undecided as to whether it is more becoming to have those unmentionable body parts under proper control, or whether it is a blessing to do without them. I dare not speculate as to whether they have (legs) or are just innocent manifestations of clothing with no human indecency left inside.

Lost souls
Lost Souls

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.

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.

News for the residents of Hopeless, Maine.