Dr Abbey says the Spoonwalker would win.
We may be up to something*…please stay tuned.
*No, it’s not a crossover book with Godzilla.
Dr Abbey says the Spoonwalker would win.
We may be up to something*…please stay tuned.
*No, it’s not a crossover book with Godzilla.
Who is hunting beneath the blue moon? Who is hungry for souls tonight? Have you seen the ghost knights abroad in the forest? Do you know why this stretch of yew trees has been called Suicide Heaven?
At the centre of the island, there are woods. There are also hills and hidden lakes, and creatures no one has seen for long enough to try and name. Mostly the people of Hopeless Maine do not go into the woods. Arguably, one of the things that qualifies you as a witch, is the willingness to go amongst the trees, where there are no paths, only ripples of light and shadow.
Even witches lose their way. Sometimes you have to be lost in order to find what you need. Annamarie had gone past the ruins she called ‘the castle’ even though it was probably no such thing. She’d walked under the light of the blue moon – although there wasn’t much light at first, under the trees and she’d needed the lantern. By the feel of it, something, or someone was hunting through the woods, but she could not tell what.
Little lights came one by one. She recognised them – fireflies, glowbugs, lightningbugs, lanternbums, starfaces. Tiny beings making their own light in the darkness. Most of them weren’t hazardous, so long as you didn’t eat them. Which was unfortunate, because Annamarie had been out for a while, and was getting hungry, and the inedible bugs were about the only thing visible. She hadn’t really planned on being out this long, or being quite this lost.
In the lantern light she noticed that the woodland floor had a lot of mushrooms and toadstools growing from it. Some she recognised, others less so. Mushrooms might of course be edible. Or poisonous. Or they might make you see things that weren’t really there. Worse still, they might make you see the things that were there and that normally you couldn’t see. Her stomach grumbled. How much longer could she keep going without food? The mushrooms looked increasingly tempting, as if they were trying to seduce her into eating them. Maybe they were. They seemed harder to resist all the time. There was definitely a path between them, they were leading her somewhere.
Mushrooms like decay. They like dead things. Annamarie proceeded cautiously. Around her, the fungi stood ever taller and more unlikely.
In the heart of the yew tree grove, she found the remains of an old chapel, squat and somehow desperate seeming. Mushrooms sprouted from it, like fur on the body of a beast. A mushroom jungle, offering itself up as tasty and nourishing. Had it not been for the howling in the trees, she might have succumbed, might have eaten her fill. Instead, she pushed open the door to this strange building. The wood felt rotten, but moved well enough even so.
Frogs. So many frogs.
They came as a bit of a shock. Of all the things she might have imagined finding here, frogs had not really been on the list. Some of them were huge. All of them were staring at her.
Outside, the howling grew intense, and it sounded as though many fists were banging on the mushroom covered walls of the building. As if they were hunting her, but could not get inside. The frogs moved, circling her, pulling her into their midst and Annamarie could only hope they were kinder then the howlers outside.
As the frogs moved, she could see that this chapel had been subject to a lot of violence. There were scorch marks everywhere. The altar had been smashed, the floor littered with broken, sacred things.
She sat down amongst the frogs – it might not be possible to do much about the hunger, but she could at least rest. One of the frogs hopped onto the toe of her boot. It only had three legs. She couldn’t tell if that was an injury, or if it had been born that way. She’d seen enough three legged chickens before.
“The ghost knights come out at the full moon,” the frog said, “It will be safe to leave when the moon sets.”
She offered the frog her open palm, to make the conversation a bit easier.
“Why are there knights here?” Annamarie asked.
“How should I know?” said the frog. ‘I’m just a frog. I just say it how it is. This is a sad and hungry sort of place and not very good for people who want to be alive.”
“I want to be alive,” Annamarie said. While she hadn’t encountered talking frogs before, she knew that anything on the island might turn out to have opinions, and a desire to express them.
“Old pond legends say this was a suicide place,” said the frog. “The island makes people sad. The mushrooms get hungry, you know how it is. Someone built the chapel here to give people hope.”
“Did it work?” Annamarie asked, looking around at the ruined shell of the building.
“Sometimes,” the frog said. “It worked very well for frogs at any rate.” It hopped down from her hand and into one of her pockets. “Nearly moon set,” said the frog. “I’ll show you the way back.”
One of the larger frogs swiped its tongue across her face. Annamarie wondered what they found to eat, and then decided she probably didn’t want to know.
(Art, Tom and Nimue, story, Dr Abbey and Nimue)
Without doubt, the Gannicox Distillery makes the finest vodka on Hopeless. That said, its only competition exists in the shape of a handful of moonshiners, who invariably go blind and/or insane after the first few distillations. Norbert Gannicox, the distillery’s proprietor, is not, himself, a drinker, but he has no inhibitions when it comes to encouraging others to sample the fruits of his labour. One of the island’s more enthusiastic samplers is Doc Willoughby, and on the evening of this tale, the Doc was being encouraged to sample more of the spirit than was probably good for him.
Doc Willoughby had been tricked into going to The Squid and Teapot by its landlord, Bartholomew Middlestreet, who was worried about the Doc’s odd behaviour following the arrival, and subsequent destruction, of a haunted Tudor Galleon, ‘Mary Willoughby’ (if you have not yet read the first two instalments of this tale, now might be a good time). Little by little, and drink by drink, the Doc revealed all about his obsession with the galleon, and the plank bearing her name that lay hidden in his basement.
“Voices in my head”, he told them, “promised that I am the rightful heir to the Willoughby estate. That is why the ship defied time and space, it came to find me on Hopeless”.
Bartholomew, Norbert, Ariadne Middlestreet and Philomena Bucket listened with a mixture of fascination and incredulity. They each imagined that the sardonic and cynical Doc Willoughby would be the last person on the island likely to be possessed in this way.
“You see,” slurred the Doc, “the Willoughby’s are English aristocracy. I am of ancient and noble lineage.”
“That’s a load of old blarney,” blurted Philomena. “Why, there’s loads of Willoughbys all around Dublin and Cork. To be sure, me great granny was a Willoughby, so maybe I’m an aristocrat to – or there again,” she added slyly, “ you might be related to me.”
The Doc pulled a face. He didn’t dislike Philomena – at least, no more than he disliked anyone else – but he certainly did not want to be related to her.
“But the ship found me, the rightful heir.” he moaned, before gently sliding off his chair and on to the floor, where he began to doze and snore loudly.
“I think we need to find that plank and put a stop to all this.” said Philomena, briskly.
Philomena and Norbert made their way to the Doc’s home, while the Middlestreets did their best to make the slumbering Doc as comfortable as possible. They had a nasty feeling that he was going to have the mother of all hangovers when he eventually awoke.
The air in the basement was foul and was filled with harsh, unearthly cries and whispers. Not wishing to linger, it took little time for Philomena and Norbert to find the plank. The pair recoiled in horror when they saw the slimy mass that now crawled over it, obscuring the name of the galleon.
“I’m not touching that.” said Philomena, and Norbert was more than inclined to agree.
Ten minutes later, sitting in the Doc’s surgery, they tried to make sense of what was going on. The fact of the ship arriving on the shores of Hopeless was the least of the mysteries.
“There’s plenty of people who have turned up here out of their own time,” said Philomena, conscious that she, herself, had done exactly this.
“But that plank, crawling with slime… the smell… the voices?” said Norbert.
“Whatever it is, it needs to be gone,” said Philomena, “and I think I know how.”
Those of you who have followed the ‘Tales from the Squid and Teapot’ for some time might remember that the ghost of Lady Margaret D’Avening had arrived, with her head tucked underneath her arm, on the island many years earlier. She had been haunting the stonework that had once been part of Oxlynch Manor, a Jacobean building bought by an American millionaire. He had arranged for the manor to be dismantled, stone by stone, with the intention that it would be reassembled on his estate in Connecticut. Following the Wall Street crash, however, the building was abandoned on the dockside in Newhaven, where the bulk of it was eventually liberated by local opportunists for various building projects. The last few bits ended up on Hopeless and became the new flushing privy of The Squid and Teapot, where Lady Margaret made her home as the Headless White Lady. Being an amiable sort of ghost, she struck up a friendship with the barmaid, Betty Butterow. They discovered that by moving a single stone block from the privy and depositing it elsewhere on the island, Lady Margaret could go sightseeing. This is, essentially, a long-winded way of saying what had happened to the ghosts of the ‘Mary Willoughby’. Simply put, following the destruction of the ship, they all migrated to a single plank of wood. Fortunately, being ghosts and therefore ethereal, they didn’t find this arrangement remotely crowded or claustrophobic. What they really wanted, though, was to take up residence in a human, to become legion, and Doc Willoughby took the bait – or at least, would have done, hook, line and sinker, if he had not been stopped at the last moment.
When Philomena found Drury, the skeletal hound, he was enjoying a dream which involved chasing spoonwalkers around the island. His bony legs were twitching and he made small, whimpering noises in his sleep. Philomena smiled fondly at her friend, but time was pressing and Drury had, quite literally, all of eternity in which to sleep.
She gave a low whistle and immediately the dog leapt to his feet and gave himself a rattling shake.
“Come on, Drury,” said Philomena, twirling a stout length of rope, “I need your help.”
Drury quite liked the smell of the basement and pranced around happily, getting under the feet of Philomena and Norbert, who, with some trepidation managed to wind the rope securely around the plank while miraculously avoiding touching the jelly-like substance that covered it, which occasionally reached out as if to grab them. Knowing exactly what was expected of him, Drury picked up the end of the rope in his powerful jaws and dragged the plank up the steps, banging through the surgery and out on to the road. This was a game and the tendrils that writhed and reached out were all part of the fun. Drury had no fear of the spirits that haunted the plank and cheerfully shook them off. Since he had been dead for years (though blissfully unaware of the fact) they could never have possessed him, even if they had wanted to.
Dusk was falling and the pale lights of the passing gnii glimmered gently, high overhead. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, stretched and peered blearily out of his bedroom window. He had just woken from a deep, satisfying sleep and was in a particularly good mood, ready to start his shift. Drury was in the garden, which was always a welcome sign. The osseous hound was unique, inasmuch as he had no problem with the smell that seemed to cling to every fibre of Rhys and his home. In fact, in true doggie fashion, Drury revelled in it. Rhys hoped that he would be keeping him company tonight while he completed his rounds. Drury, however, seemed to be concentrating at the moment on other matters, matters which mainly consisted of a length of rope and an old plank which had become entangled in a clump of bushes, refusing to be dragged further.
Always happy to help, Rhys went outside with the intention of freeing the plank, only to be surprised by the dog’s reaction. Drury put himself between the offending bushes and the Night Soil Man, barking and growling with some ferocity. Rhys wondered what could be wrong; the dog had never treated him in this way before. Why, if he had been made of flesh and blood, Drury would be baring his teeth at him. As it was, Drury’s teeth were in a continuous state of bareness, so to speak, so the effect was far less menacing.
“Hey, old fella…” Rhys started to say, then noticed the goo wriggling over the face of the plank. He recognised it immediately.
“There’s only one place for that to go – the sinkhole” he said to himself, then realised that Drury had already thought the same thing. It was one of the dog’s favourite places for hiding the things he had no use for (including the city-slicker, Garfield Lawnside, as was related in the tale ‘The Persian Runner’).
Rhys kept a long ash pole propped by the side of his cottage. The pole had a Y-shaped prong on the one end and was generally used to pick up the baskets of beer and starry-grabby pies which Philomena Bucket routinely delivered from ‘The Squid’. In her early days on the island, when Philomena had no sense of smell, she and Rhys had fallen in love. It was not to be, for sad to relate, close contact with anyone in receipt of fully functioning olfactory senses is out of the question for a Night Soil Man, hence the pole. Today, Rhys decided, it would be needed for pursuits far more important than retrieving starry-grabby pies.
After twenty minutes of fervent pole-wielding, try as he might, Rhys could not dislodge the plank, despite Drury’s equally valiant attempts pulling the rope. As if aware of their fate, the tendrils of slime had attached themselves to anything within reach, and as the dusk descended into darkness, their strength seemed to grow. Just as all hope of shifting the plank faded, Rhys heard a babble of raised voices which grew nearer by the second.
“For gosh-sakes, Doc, you need to come back now…”
It was Bartholomew Middlestreet, getting as close to profanity as he dared.
“No… ish my plank, s’my inheritance…hic.. oh my head….”
Doc, who had sobered up a little, still sounded slightly drunk and somehow different to normal.
“Doc Willoughby… get here now…”
This was Philomena. Rhys winced at the memory of their brief flirtation.
Suddenly the Doc, his eyes glistening, burst through the darkness, totally oblivious to the all-encompassing reek of the Night Soil Man, and tried to grab the rope from Drury’s mouth.
Bartholomew, Philomena, Ariadne and Norbert stood at a safe and respectable distance, barely visible in the moonlight.
“Gimme that…” said the Doc, roughly.
For once in his after-life, Drury did as he was told, probably more out of astonishment than anything else.
Doc Willoughby picked up the rope and dragged the plank towards him. Sensing his presence, the tendrils loosened their grip on the bushes.
“I’ve come to claim my inheritance… I’ll let you all in,” intoned the Doc.
It was only then that Rhys realised that the curmudgeonly old physician was under some sort of enchantment. He needed to do something quickly.
It was as if Drury read the Night Soil Man’s thoughts, and the two sprung into action at the same time. The dog threw himself at Doc Willoughby, knocking him to the ground. Meanwhile, Rhys grabbed the rope and, with the power of someone who had spent years hefting buckets of effluent around, sent the plank spinning into the air. It hung vertically, as if suspended for a moment, then plunged with disarming accuracy into the mysterious and bottomless sinkhole that lay at the end of the Night Soil Man’s garden.
“Nooooooo…” cried the Doc in anguish as the last remnant of the Mary Willoughby, along with its attendant spirits, plunged into the depths of the abyss.
He lay silent, waiting for the inevitable splash. Seconds turned to minutes but it never came.
When Doc Willoughby eventually sat upright, Rhys could see that the strange light in his eyes had faded. His voice had become normal again, although the first few syllables were hardly encouraging.
“Eughhh… aaargh… ack.. that is disgusting,” he choked, retching and covering his nose and mouth as best he could.
Rhys could only smile as the Doc staggered back to the four others, who were still patiently waiting, some yards away.
“Come on Drury,” he said, “it’s time to go to work.”
No one ever mentioned the episode of the Mary Willoughby again. If the Doc remembered any of it, he certainly didn’t say so. He did complain to Norbert Gannicox, however, grousing about a bad batch of vodka. He was certain that it must have been made from night-potatoes, as it had given him awful dreams and a ferocious hangover.
Generally, Melisandra preferred the people no one else could see to the ordinary people who lived on the island. They were more interesting to her, and she was more likely to indulge in conversations with them.
On this particular morning, she was watching a sky ship come in over the dark mountain. Other people might only see layers of cloud, one massive and ominous, with smaller, paler ones flying before it. It always amazed her how much they did not notice. Her father complained bitterly about the difficulty of leaving the island, but Melisandra saw people come and go all the time, in fantastical devices of all kinds. She didn’t blame the visitors for not wanting to bother with anyone else on the island.
She recognised this skyship at once and knew that it belonged to Captain Crystal. He had admired her for some time and made no secret of it. She liked to toy with him, secretly enjoying both his attention and her own dismissive cruelty. From his hovering skycraft, Captain Crystal called out to warn her that the black ones were coming to capture her. It wouldn’t be the first time some strange enemy had tried to stop her.
Melisandra made a fire in her nest, using a small dragon and commanding it to perform fire barking, Captain Crystal landed from his skyship.
He said, “I am a prophet and can see your future”.
She noted that today he was wearing a mask, the effect was rather dashing.
“Have you got any food for me?”Melisandra asked. She was always hungry.
He said, “No food here.”
Melisandra did not hide her disappointment. She turned away from him, watching the flames die down around her.
“Wait,” he said. He had his knife out and in a single swipe, cut his hand off to give to her. He said, “I give you this weapon, when you need food, use it.”
Melisandra noticed something written on the knife – a name. Perhaps it was a message for her. She noticed names on both sides of the knife. Choices to make, perhaps. A prospective husband – if she decided she wanted one of those.
He said, “Choose the man from two. Read your tarot cards for survival. You will have a girl. And you can kill me now if you like.”
She took the knife, although she had never tried to kill anything as large as an adult man before. Still, she was very hungry, and even if she ate his severed hand it would not keep her going for long.
Before she could land a blow, many bone soldiers jumped down from the skyship to protect their captain. They were hideous, and strong, and she wanted to bite them to see how they would taste. She had no idea he had this army, and it impressed her. It made her wonder what other delicious secrets he might be keeping.
“Who are you, really?” she asked.
Captain Crystal laughed at her. He said, “I am a man of apocalypse, and the father of beauty, you will see my daughter, and your daughter too.”
He dismissed his bone soldiers with a single gesture, and she watched them jump into the sky as effortlessly as they had descended. The captain turned his back on her, apparently also leaving to ride in his skyship again.
Melisandra seized the opportunity, swinging the knife hard. The sharpness of it was wonderful to see, as the metal sliced so easily through his neck. She watched his head fall, and bounce on the sand, and wondered why he did not make a fountain of blood. His body did not fall. Instead, he simply stooped to pick up his head.
“You’ll come with me, one day,” he announced. “You’ll belong to me.”
Melisandra knew that she would not belong to anyone. But he might be amusing for a while, and at some point she would perhaps want to leave this place. She watched him ascend, still carrying his head. Offshore, the storm clouds rolled and boiled as they had all morning. She turned her attention to the hand he had left her, and started to gnaw on it. The flesh tasted of the sea, of dry crab and seaweed. There would be reasons for this. The island would be trying to lie to her, to make her think that none of what she’d seen was real, and that there had only ever been crows, and clouds and the long fingerlike legs of some long dead, ocean going crustacean.
(Art by Nimue, text a Nimue/Dr Abbey collaboration)
If you’ve not read part 1 yet, start here.
Bartholomew Middlestreet could hardly believe it when he heard himself say to Norbert Gannicox,
“I’m really worried about Doc Willoughby, Norbert.”
Norbert raised his eyebrows in surprise. He could hardly believe it either.
“You’re joking! You’re worried about the Doc…?”
Doc Willoughby was not normally the sort of person to elicit enough sympathy to cause worry in others, but Bartholomew was deadly serious.
“He’s acting really strange… almost being pleasant to folks. And his eyes look a bit too shiny.” he said.
It was Norbert’s turn to look concerned.
“That’s never natural. I wonder what’s brought it on?”
Bartholomew dropped his voice, conspiratorially.
“It’s only happened during the last couple of weeks… ever since that old-fashioned galleon turned up.”
As regular readers will recall, a Tudor galleon had recently sailed to the shores of Hopeless, carrying a strange and egregiously foul cargo. Even the islanders, who believed that they had seen just about every variety of the weird and not-so-wonderful, thought that this was just too much to bear. Eventually the ship was mysteriously destroyed and the jelly-like monstrosity that filled its decks had disappeared. Save for a few planks and bits of rigging, there was nothing much for anyone to salvage. Doc Willoughby, however, unbeknownst to his fellow islanders, came upon a piece of wood bearing the ship’s name. With a strange, unwholesome, light in his eyes he dragged the plank back to his home and hid it in a dark corner of his basement. The name of the ship was ‘Mary Willoughby’.
The thing that had given Bartholomew cause for concern was the way in which the Doc had appeared in The Squid and Teapot and greeted him that very morning.
“Bartholomew, old friend, I wonder if I might beg a favour?”
The innkeeper instinctively turned around, wondering of the coincidence of there being someone else in the bar named Bartholomew. As it happened, the inn was otherwise deserted.
“You mean me?” he stammered.
“Why yes,” beamed the Doc cordially, “I just need a bit of help for some… ah… some research I’ve agreed to do for… um… for Miss Calder at the orphanage… it’s a history project that she’s doing with the youngsters.”
The day was becoming increasingly bizarre; Bartholomew, who had known Doc Willoughby for most of his life, knew for certain that the man had never before entertained any intention of helping out at the orphanage.
“There are plenty of reference books in the attics,” said Bartholomew. “You’re welcome to go and take a look.”
“Capital, capital,” said the Doc warmly, shaking a bemused Bartholomew by the hand.
Doc Willoughby needed to find out whatever he could about the ‘Mary Willoughby’. He usually had little interest in ships of any description, but was now being driven by something beyond his understanding and control.
After much perseverance, and four hours of diligent perusal, he found what he was looking for. Having made his way through several hefty tomes that covered various aspects of European nautical history, Doc came across a list of British warships of the Tudor period. With great excitement, he found the reference that he was after.
“The ‘Mary Willoughby’ was a ship of the English Tudor navy, named after Maria Willoughby, a lady-in-waiting and close friend of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of King Henry VIII. The ship was taken by the Scots in 1536 but recaptured by the English ten years later. She was sold in the latter part of the sixteenth century and never heard of afterwards.”
The entry was sparse, to say the least, but it told the Doc a great deal. If Mary Willoughby was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England, and had a ship named after her, then she must have been quite somebody. More amazing still, this ship had, hundreds of years later, somehow found its way to Hopeless. Found its way to him! The Doc reeled with the implications of his find. This was fate; a sign, no less. The Willoughby family must have been really important people, royalty almost… and these were surely his ancestors.
Leaving the nautical history books in an untidy pile, Doc started rooting among the other volumes, to see what he could find out about English aristocracy. It did not take long for him to unearth a noble Willoughby line dating back to the thirteenth century. As he read, the Doc swayed and cackled, the unearthly glimmer in his eye becoming brighter by the minute.
“I always knew that I was special,” he said to himself.
Like all good innkeepers, Bartholomew is interested in his customers. In view of this, he felt compelled to find out what the Doc had been up to. It was not nosiness, he reasoned, but a genuine interest that urged him to go up into the attics after the Doc had hurriedly left, still muttering and chuckling to himself about having noble blood. Although Bartholomew didn’t hold out a great deal of hope, he decided – purely out of interest, you understand – to try and work out what the Doc had been looking for.
The task was much easier than he could have hoped. Doc had not bothered to tidy up after himself and the various open books led like a trail of breadcrumbs to the truth. It was not difficult to ascertain that Doc Willoughby was convinced that he was connected to an old and aristocratic English family. Bartholomew’s heart sank. He had seen something similar happen just months before, when Stratford Park believed that he was descended from the famous Scottish explorer, Mungo Park, and that episode had not ended well (as related in the tale ‘Burns Night’).
Once back home, Doc Willoughby made his way down to the basement. By the greasy light of a tallow candle he gazed, like one in a trance, at the plank of wood that leaned against the wall. The words ‘Mary Willoughby’ seemed to dance and shimmer before his eyes. Suddenly, a thin, luminous jelly-like substance rolled along its length, then reached out and lay a tendril on the Doc’s temple.
“Did you find it, Willoughby?” said a voice in his head.
“Oh yes,” whispered the Doc.
“Then let us in, and we will make sure you are given your due.”
The Doc hesitated.
“You know that you want to…”
Suddenly a voice, up in the surgery, broke the spell. It was Ariadne Middlestreet.
“Doc, Doc, where are you? There’s been an accident, come quickly. Bartholomew has fallen down the stairs.”
Let us leave Hopeless, for a while, and journey back to the not-so-merry England of 1582. So far the reign of ‘Good Queen Bess’ had been only slightly less barbaric than that of the other Tudor monarchs, and there was little sign of things improving. Traitors were still being hung, drawn and quartered, most things seemed to be punishable by death or maiming, torture was commonplace and heretics were being burned at the stake. These were dangerous times, especially for any who dared eschew the rule of law, or the teachings of the protestant church.
Doctor John Dee, scholar, occultist, astrologer and alchemist, knew that even his position as the Queen’s Counsellor could not protect him. A wrong word, an ill-judged look or a spiteful allegation could be enough to send him to the tower, and thence to the gallows, the flames or the block. Standing in the moonlight, upon the gently rocking deck of the ‘Mary Willoughby’, he was well aware that what he was about to do was madness, but the die was cast and there was no going back.
‘Mary Willoughby’, having been constructed about fifty years earlier, was older than most ships still afloat, and had seen more than her share of bloodshed and death. This suited Dee very well, for he, and his friend and fellow occultist, Edward Kelley, had boarded her with the intention of raising the ghosts of those who had died upon her decks.
“Where better to practise necromancy than on an old deserted warship, far from prying eyes?” Kelley had asked him.
Where indeed? Once the idea was born, the rest fell into place fairly easily. Dee had given the lone seaman, who had been charged with guarding the ship as she lay idle in Deptford docks, the handsome sum of two shillings to desert his post for a few hours. This the man did with a mixture of gratitude and fear, for Doctor Dee was infamous and his reputation and position at court was not to be argued with.
Beneath a full moon Dee and Kelley cast a circle of salt and, standing within it, uttered spells from an old grimoire. They invoked demons and angels, speaking their sacred and forbidden names in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. They called upon the dead to rise, to come and do their bidding, but nothing seemed to happen. After a fruitless and somewhat chilly hour, the two looked at each other in despair.
“Well, that was a waste of time and two shillings,” complained Dee bitterly, who was suffering from cramp and in desperate need of relieving himself.
Kelley sighed and drew out a long clay pipe with a tiny bowl. Into this he patted a equally tiny wad of tobacco. He had spotted a brazier burning on the aftcastle, and stepped out of the circle to get a light. Then he stopped in mid-stride.
“God’s wounds, John, what is this muck under my feet?”
Kelley lifted his foot and found, to his dismay, that a long, sticky strand of some glutinous substance was attached to it. Dee examined the goo closely, then shook his head, puzzled.
“I have never seen its like Edward, but behold…”
Tendrils of slime began squirming and climbing all around them, as if they possessed some diabolical life of their own. Confronting the spirits of the dead was one thing, but this gummy, seemingly sentient, abomination was something else entirely. Without more ado, and a few whimpers of terror, the two fought their way, with no little difficulty, to the side of ship, where they hurriedly descended to the small boat that waited below. Rowing frantically, and in their haste to leave, they failed to notice that a mist had started to form around the ‘Mary Willoughby’, through which they might have spotted some faintly human shapes writhing, as if in torment.
Sitting in a quayside tavern a short time later, the pair sat huddled in a corner, drinking ale.
“Marry, John, that was strange,” said Edward Kelley, still trembling.
“Strange, indeed,” agreed John Dee. “I still cannot fathom what that vile jelly might have been.”
A young man, sitting just within earshot, looked up abruptly.
“Vile jelly? That’s a good phrase. I might be able to use that one day,” he said to himself.
Young Will had come down to London expressly to sell the gloves that his father made, back home in the Midlands. He had absolutely no intention of doing that forever, though. He hoped one day to become a moderately successful playwright.
“Well, it’s either going to be, or not to be.” he thought, stoically.
“I can clearly see that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with you,” said Doc Willoughby angrily, a glimmer still in his eyes, but his sunny disposition of earlier having disappeared behind a heavy cloud.
He had hurried to The Squid and Teapot, black medical bag in hand, expecting to find Bartholomew Middlestreet in a mangled mess at the foot of the stairs. Instead the innkeeper was sitting, quite comfortably, at a table in the bar, with Ariadne, Philomena Bucket and Norbert Gannicox.
Ariadne left her seat, crossed the room and quietly closed and locked the door.
“No, I’m fine,” agreed Bartholomew. “The truth is, you don’t seem to be yourself these days, and we’re all worried. What’s up Doc?”
To be continued…
Sometimes, people ask Balthazar Lemon about the mother of his child. He lies to them. He has never bothered to keep track of these lies and does not worry about what anyone else thinks. It’s not about misleading people. There are things too precious to share or speak of and he simply does not want to explain.
They met in the sea, of course. Balthazar spent his early life in boats and has never felt at ease on dry land. There’s something troubling about the way it keeps still, and you cannot see through it. The lighthouse he built was the closest thing he could get to a boat on a coast that eats boats, and eats anything that was in the boats.
Alraune came from warmer, kinder seas than these. A shallow sea, rich with kelp beds, sea grass and eels, and full of secrets. It was a good sea for diving, and for testing diving suits and devices. In those days, Balthazar had been obsessed with staying underwater for as long as he could. Pipes connecting him to the air were always at risk of damage, or could get him trapped. Carrying air made it hard to sink, and there was never enough of it. He thought about gills a lot in those days.
The mermaids fascinated him, apparently able to breathe in air and in water, but quite unlike the humans and fish they resembled. As far as he could tell, they tolerated him, and perhaps found him amusing. Sometimes he tried to talk to them, but their language was like no human speech he had encountered. It sounded more like dolphin, and he had not learned to speak with dolphins. By the time he was twenty, Balthazar could talk about tools and engines in an unreasonably large number of human languages. He had yet to find a language in which he could not persuade someone to sell him alcohol. Mermaid words were a bit more elusive.
So they didn’t really talk, at first, and it was a long time before he learned her name. He swam, or sank, of half drowned himself trying to get diving helmets to work. She watched, effortless in the water, clearly finding him entertaining. Balthazar had never enjoyed being laughed at before. It was, inevitably, a rather peculiar sort of romance.
(A collaboration between Nimue and Dr Abbey, with art by Dr Abbey)
The islanders of Hopeless, Maine, are used to finding items of flotsam and jetsam washed up upon their shores. Indeed, without the bounty that the ocean provides, they would all be very much poorer. Everything salvageable is salvaged and, as often mentioned in these tales, much of that which is not immediately wanted finds its way into the attics of ‘The Squid and Teapot’.
While the sad, splintered remnants of once proud, ocean-going ships can often be discovered strewn upon the rocks, it is rare that a craft of any size, in apparently perfectly good working order, sails into safe harbour. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when Bartholomew Middlestreet spotted a four masted Tudor galleon anchored close to shore. Of course, Bartholomew had no idea that she was Tudor, only that she was old – very old, with a high aftcastle and a long, prominent beakhead. Bartholomew had never heard these terms, but had occasionally seen pictures of such ships.
To survive the waters around Hopeless was, in itself, remarkable, but for a vessel of such obvious antiquity, it was more than remarkable; it was downright spooky! Nevertheless, spooky or no, it did not take long for a few hardy souls to brave the waves, not to mention other dangers, to see if she contained anything worth having. However, without sufficient means to scale her wooden walls it was decided to catch the tide and physically drag her on to the rocks the following morning.
Practicality will always trump all other considerations on Hopeless. While you or I might be less than enthusiastic about purposely scuppering a perfectly preserved Tudor Galleon, on the off-chance that she might be carrying anything as mundane as a consignment of turnips, or even Spanish doubloons or French brandy, Hopelessians are nothing like as squeamish. They just can’t afford to be.
Early the next morning, with the tide coming in, a sizeable party had assembled with ropes and grappling hooks to drag the little ship ashore (and believe me, by modern standards she was tiny, which makes you wonder how the sailors, who sailed with Drake and Raleigh on their epic voyages, coped in such close and unhygienic proximity… but I digress. Back to the tale).
Whether it was by luck or divine providence, the ship squeezed comfortably into harbour between the rocks with barely a scratch on her hull. Without more ado some of the younger and more athletic of the islanders scrambled nimbly up the ropes, with the intention of having first grabs on whatever they might find, but none even reached as far as the main deck. They were stopped in their tracks by a seething gobbet of goodness-knows-what that covered the decks and crawled up the masts.
Imagine, if you will, a stinking ghastly grey-green jelly that bubbled and belched obscenely, occasionally throwing up tentacles and tendrils which would writhe and grope at whatever was in its way, only to sink once more into the foul amorphous mass from whence it had emerged.
The onlookers could only stare in horror, hanging on to the ropes for dear life and taking care not to set foot anywhere near the vile spectacle playing out before them.
“That’s gruesome,” muttered Ezra Owlpen.
“And I reckon it’s going to grow some more before long,” agreed his brother, Nehemiah, observing a particularly adventurous tendril curl its way up the mainmast and attempt to unfurl a sail.
As it happened, Nehemiah was to be proved correct. As the day wore on the gunge that covered the deck thickened and grew, its tentacular arms sometimes slipping over the sides of the ship and threatening to reach out and grab anyone careless enough to stand too close. When night drew in the whole tableau took on an eerie luminescence. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, stood on the cliffs immediately above the galleon and shuddered. He had witnessed some terrifying and uncanny sights during his working life, but none so awful as this. The tentacles and tendrils still writhed as before, but now and then a variety of almost human figures would be thrown up, each one with flailing arms and a gaping mouth, frozen in a soundless scream. They would thrash and flounder for a few seconds, then sink once more into the heaving morass. Rhys stood transfixed, not wanting to watch but unable to shift his gaze from that dreadful and demonic vision. Only with the weak blush of the Hopeless dawn did they stop their tortured dance, and Rhys could move once more, feeling sickened and tired and ten years older.
Everyone gave the area around the Little Ship of Horrors, as it became known, a wide berth. Even Rhys avoided walking the nearby headland, for fear of what new terrors might yet assail his eyes. Then one day, about a week after the ship was first spotted, the Owlpen brothers plucked up the courage to go and see what was happening.
“There’s nothing there any more,” said Ezra, to the large group squeezed into the bar of The Squid and Teapot. “A few planks and that’s about it.”
“What about the cannon? I definitely saw cannons. They can’t have washed away?” said Norbert Gannicox.
“It’s like Ezra said,” replied Nehemiah, “there’s next to nothing left. And the gunge is gone too.”
“But where has it gone?” muttered Norbert.
An ominous silence descended. There were more than enough abominations lurking on Hopeless; no one wanted to wake up and find themselves being consumed by a carnivorous jelly.
“I say we find every scrap of what’s left of that ship and burn it,” said Bartholomew. “It might not do any good, but it certainly won’t do any harm.”
There was a general babble of agreement and spirits brightened considerably when Bartholomew added,
“And a pint of ‘Old Colonel’ on the house for everybody.”
It seemed as if the whole island had turned out to gather up whatever scraps of the ship they might find, and destroy them. Remarkably, even Reverend Davies and Doc Willoughby thought it important enough to find a window in their busy schedules and join in. This was almost unheard of, and, on reflection, it would have been better if the Doc had stayed in bed. From the moment he set foot on the shore a strange light shone in his eyes and, eschewing all other company, Doc walked almost robotically to a lonely stretch of beach, as if pulled along by some unseen force. Was it by chance that he found the plank with the name of the ship inscribed upon it in gold lettering? With uncharacteristic glee, and finding previously untapped reserves of energy, he dragged it home, unseen by the others. Muttering and cackling to himself like a man possessed (which is possibly what he was) he laid the weather-beaten plank in the darkest corner of his cellar and locked the door. That night, by the light of a tallow candle, Doc Willoughby went down to gaze at his prize, his eyes glittering with a mixture of pride and awe and no small amount of temporary insanity. He knew that in some, but as yet unknown way, it was more than fate that had brought ‘Mary Willoughby’ to the shores of Hopeless, Maine.
To be continued…
He picked a bone up under the lighthouse.
It had been used as candle stand.
He noticed a name carved.
He has a human candle at home.
Melting fat with old bones
Fire on dead hair
Scarlet flame from eye holes.
Spiders are eating skulls
Spiders’ nests make a skull chain.
Durosimi grows eight legs
and laughs at himself.
It is a bone black magic.
(Text by Dr Abbey, image by Tom and Nimue.
If you’d like to spend more time with Durosimi and his spiders, there’s a 4.5k short story for everyone who backs the kickstarter – if we hit our first stretch goal. The piece above and the short story were written in parallel, and it is thanks to Abbey that the story has so many spiders in it! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hopelessmaine/hopeless-maine-the-graphic-novel-by-tom-and-nimue-brown/)
A vision, a memory, a dream within a dream.
Have you seen how the witches gatherer around the ancient dish, backs hunched as they feast together on the body of a mermaid?
A captivating image, but even so the scene does not feel real. Are you seeing ghosts and memories? Here in the shadow of mausoleums, in the hazy recollection of days when this place had wealth and prospects.
The witches are so raggedy, their clothes dirt stained, their faces tired and you think they might be eating a mermaid out of need, not malice.
You know, in the way that you know things in dreams, that the dish was not meant to carry the meat of mermaids. There is magic in it, and it is not the magic of desperation. You feel that you should know what purpose that dish serves. You feel you should ask, but you are silent, like a useless grail-questing knight who does not know how to speak at the critical moment. You wait, having sensed the dish itself will speak to you. When at last it does, the sound of it is a whisper of silk over silver.
The dish tells you that the witches and the mermaids are the same. They eat each other. Don’t take them too literally. It’s just a dream.
( A collaboration between Nimue and Dr Abbey)
Hello again people (and others)!
As I write this we are engaged in the process of a Kickstarter campaign to fund the new US edition of Personal Demons and also the new Hopeless, Maine Role Playing Game written by Keith Healing and powered by Alan Bahr’s innovative Tombpunk system. Here are some examples of the interior artwork I have done for the game.
This is the culmination of several years’ work (and dark incantations) so I very much hope you will join us.
I hope you will join us too in supporting and celebrating two fellow travellers who are bringing their projects to life by crowdfunding. Chandra Free is bringing us a new and shockingly deluxe version of The God Machine (Originally released by the same publisher and about the same time as the first release of Personal Demons) and also Boston Metaphysical Society: The Book of Demons by Madeleine Holly-Rosing. Boston Metaphysical is a fellow traveller and exactly the sort of unspeakably cool steampunk with supernatural elements and heart we want to see more of in the world. So, please become part of these campaigns too if you can!
I hope, as always, this finds you well, inspired and thriving.