All posts by gothicmangaka

The Elders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The men laughed heartily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story by Martin Pearson-art Tom Brown

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Dancing on a Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

Clarissa looked at him defiantly.

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

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

Clarissa looked at her companions.

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

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

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

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

“Anyone fancy a dance?” he called brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

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

Baking Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

The Doc eyed her wearily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Martin Pearson, art by Tom Browm

Scents and Sensibility

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

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

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

‘‘Are you alright ma’am? Sorry’’

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

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

“The smell. Sorry about the smell.”

“Ah. Not a problem.”

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

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

“No, not at all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘With all my love – Philomena’

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Doc frowned. Why would she want to?

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

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

Philomena Bucket

 

Philomena Bucket had found it easy to stow away aboard the merchant vessel Hetty Pegler’, as she lay anchored in the Coal Quay of Cork. It had been almost as easy as Philomena’s decision to leave Ireland for good and seek fame and fortune as an artist in the United States of America.  That, unfortunately, was where ‘easy’ came to an abrupt halt. It took just three days for her to be discovered. Racked by hunger and confident, though misguided, in her belief that the ship would be deserted in the early hours, Philomena crept on all-fours from her hiding place in the hold, only to come face to face, or rather, face to knees, with the first mate, who was attending to his duties as middle-watchman.  It took very little time for Philomena to learn that here was a man who had little room for freeloaders on the ship and would happily have thrown her overboard. Fortunately, however, his respect for the chain of command overcame his natural instincts.

Captain Longdown was cut from a different cloth to his second-in-command. He had been at sea for forty years, had a weak heart and really did not want any more difficulty than was avoidable. To the first mate’s barely concealed disgust, he treated the waif-like creature, unceremoniously hauled before him, with great leniency. It was tricky enough keeping his crew in order at the best of times, without having this young woman aboard. Despite her bone-white pallor and long, snowy tresses, he could see that standing before him was a beauty, albeit an odd one, who could cause more than her fair share of trouble if left to wander about his ship.

“You can get off at the first landfall,” he said, not unkindly. “In the meantime, please keep out of the way.” He waved his hand dismissively, “Just go back into the hold, or wherever it was that you were hiding. I’ll get food brought down to you.”

Not wishing to advertise the presence of the strangely attractive stowaway, the captain entrusted the task of conveying her meals to the less-than-amused first mate, who fumed quietly. It was bad enough for a stowaway to be aboard, but for him, second only to the captain in rank, having to wait upon her was untenable.

From Philomena’s point of view, things were not too bad. She was enjoying a better quality of food and shelter than she had ever known. Staying out of sight was a small price to pay. The only fly in the ointment was a sudden attack of hay fever, which, in this enclosed space and hundreds of miles from the nearest land, puzzled her. The truth was that ‘Hetty Pegler ‘ had previously conveyed a cargo of raw cotton from Virginia, the spores of which still stubbornly fluttered around the rotund casks of Irish whiskey now gracing the hold. The result was that her previously pink, albino eyes were now quite red and her sense of smell seemed to have abandoned her altogether.

It was fully three weeks into the voyage that things started to go awry. A violent storm blew up from nowhere, mercilessly lashing the merchant ship and sweeping a young seaman overboard. For two hectic days the storm refused to abate. A ripped section of the foresail came free from the gaskets. It took four men to climb the rigging to secure the sail but only three returned. The other fell to his death, sprawled like a stringless puppet upon the deck. When, at last, the depleted crew breathed a weary sigh of relief as the tempest eventually blew itself out, an extra rum ration was distributed. Their troubles, however, were far from over. They had been blown far off course and it was not many days later, picking their way gingerly through the many islands peppering the coast of Maine, that the Captain Longdown, succumbing to his heart condition, watched the sun sink over the yardarm for the last time and quietly died. Command of ‘Hetty Pegler’ passed to the first mate, a man, we have already learned, not known for his tender heart.

 

The captain’s body was still cooling when the recently promoted first mate dragged Philomena up on to the deck. Stunned and blinking in the sunlight, she winced as he grasped her roughly by the wrist.

“Here is the cause of all of our troubles. This albino witch has cursed this voyage and all the time your oh-so-tender-hearted captain just stood by and let her do it.”

The superstitious crew muttered angrily as they saw, for the first time, the pale, fragile beauty being paraded, humiliatingly, before them.

“Even now she casts some sort of spell. Look at the fog curling up around us. This is not natural.”

The sailors looked and had to agree that the thick mist that had suddenly engulfed them was quite unlike anything they had ever experienced. Its murky tendrils, sinuous and smoky, curled over the ship’s sides, slithering up the masts and coldly caressing their legs. One could, indeed, be forgiven for believing it to be an enchantment, for the crew, to a man, stared in absolute silence, totally mesmerized by the ghostly fog. They quite forgot that their ship, now almost becalmed, was quietly inching forward through dark and hazardous waters. Only when the agonised scream of tortured timbers being reduced to matchwood shattered their reverie, did they realise that they had hit a submerged reef. The ‘Hetty Pegler’ was sinking.

“Abandon ship. Get to the lifeboats” yelled the mate, quite unnecessarily as it happened; the self-same thought had occurred to everyone else.

Philomena suddenly found herself alone, standing on the deck of a doomed ship. She could just make out the blurred forms of the retreating lifeboats. Despite the fact that everyone else had apparently escaped unscathed, there seemed to be an inexplicable amount of noise and commotion coming from their general direction. Terrified screams and huge splashes, as if a large object was being smashed to a thousand pieces by an even larger object, filled her ears. She strained her eyes, still sore from the hay fever, to see through the creeping fog and ascertain what, exactly, might be causing such a disturbance. Mercifully, they failed her and she was spared the spectacle of a gaping beak and long, thick tentacles writhing from the churning ocean, savagely ripping apart the fleeing lifeboats and their gibbering occupants.

It was less than a minute later that the wreck of the ‘Hetty Pegler’ came to an abrupt halt, with her wooden walls still intact, by and large, and bobbing about just above the waterline. Philomena’s feet were barely damp. She gazed about her with a mixture of relief and puzzlement. The ship appeared to have run aground on an island. Had the crew known how close they were to safety and not acted so hastily, they could have reached the shore with ease. Why, there were even lit candles, tiny beacons that would have guided them in. It was almost as though they were expected. She could not help but notice other lights, too. They seemed to be moving, as if with a purpose, yet high in the sky, barely discernible through the murky air. Wading thigh-deep through the chilly waters, Philomena wondered to herself how such a thing might be done but immediately dismissed the question from her mind, as the more pressing problem of getting dry and finding shelter occupied her. Stepping on to terra firma, she sneezed violently three times. Despite this, the cotton pollen that had insinuated itself deep into her nasal passages was determined not to move.

Within the hour, night had fallen and a weak, sickly moon peered through the misty sky. Philomena had made slow progress. She found herself walking a dark and rocky path that she fervently hoped led somewhere. Anywhere that had four walls – three walls, even – and a roof of some sort, would suffice. She was frozen. Her wet dress clung heavily to her pale legs and seemed to be getting heavier by the second. It was almost as if something was trying to drag her to the ground. She looked down and stifled a small squeal. Something was!

Welcome to Hopeless, Maine, Philomena Bucket.

To be continued…

 

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

Salamandra’s Key

Hello, again people! (and others)

It is the new year, and I hope it brings you many good things.

I have spoken before, I think about how, at the beginning, when we first imagined how things might go with Hopeless, Maine, that we thought one day we would work with artisans and craftspeople if there were to be any HM related artifacts. No factory made things or plastic tatt that would one day end up in a landfill. Well, it’s dream come true time. Matt Inkel (who I introduced to you, here) has begun working with us and the first fruit of this collaboration is Salamandra’s Key.

Here is my drawing of Sal’s Key and Matt’s finished prototype.

It’s difficult to describe the feeling I get seeing something from our story made real in the waking world. It’s a bit uncanny and utterly wonderful. For those of you who are having trouble recalling the significance of this key-

Those of you who have read the first book of Hopeless, Maine will recall that when Salamandra went to Annamarie for help with a very personal Demon, Annamarie gave her a key. She didn’t sort the problem for Sal but gave her what she needed to solve her own problem. That key was well, key to the resolution of that story and Sal still keeps it about her person. In real life, I drew the cover for that book in a fit of excitement before Nimue had even written the book. Sal was shown with a key around her neck clutching a teddy bear (in very poor repair. more of a frankenbear, really) and Nimue wrote these elements into the tale.”

This will be a limited edition sort of thing and very much handmade with great care by a ridiculously skilled artisan. (Look up Arcane Armoury to see more of Matt’s work) Here are some process photos that Matt has shared with us.

There is a preorder page on the Arcane Armoury Site here. Please do visit.

 

Hoping (as always) this finds you well, inspired and thriving.

A Traveller in Hopeless

Hello people! (and others) The lovely Matt Sanders has played Travels on Hopeless with his group of young humans and has this to report-

 

Hopeless, Maine – Travels in Hopeless – A Role-Playing Game for Adventurous Eccentrics

I’d like to just give you a little idea about the roleplaying game for Hopeless, Maine, and in the near future, I will provide an in-depth review, with all the ups and downs and ins and outs, along with video footage of the game in action.

But for now, let me get the mechanics out of the way, because I feel this game isn’t really about the core mechanics, but more about the nuanced elements of the mechanics and the game world and its atmosphere.

The core mechanics have at their root the Basic Roleplaying game from Chaosium, and any player of BRP and the now-legendary games that use it… Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest… will be instantly comfortable playing this game. Well, maybe not with the magic, but I’ll get back to that later when I get further into the setting. It isn’t pure BRP, and has its own flavour and style, but those familiar with BRP will grasp it all very quickly.

For those not familiar with the BRP system, but who are experienced roleplayer, it uses a simple roll-under percentile system which is very intuitive and becomes second-nature almost instantly.

The world of Hopeless, Maine will most likely feel incredibly familiar to many readers. I found the world and its characters less like things I was being introduced to and more like things I’d almost forgotten that I knew everything about.

The inspirations are clear, and the world has a deep, dark, abiding melancholy to it, and any lover of Poe, Lovecraft, Carroll, and even Dickens, should find things to love about it. Think of as being like Nicholas Nickleby wandering through the narrow streets of Arkham, pining over his lost Lenore, who the Mad Hatter had sacrificed in an attempt to appease Yog-Sothoth.

The artwork fits beautifully amongst the text, and evokes a mix of childhood memories of those dark and lovely television shows for children that those of us who grew up in the UK and in the 60s and 70s know so well, and the drawings of Edward Gorey and Charles Addams.

The magic system, which I mentioned before, is incredibly thematic and versatile, and comes in two flavours… Folklore and Dichotomies.

Folkloric magic, also called witchcraft by some, is simple, quick magic, usable by most, which requires totems and talismans for its workings, and its practitioners can heal, curse, and defend.

Dichotomies are complex and lengthy rituals used to summon and bind demons, and are a far riskier proposition than witchcraft, and any error by the would-be demonologist could see them possessed or worse.

Don’t think it’s all about powers best left alone, there are also gadgets to be built, maintained, used… and misused… too. Steam or clockwork devices are the choice for the pragmatic adventurer, whilst if you really, really must make contracts with things from Beyond, yes, you can use demons to power your latest conveyance or weapon.

All in all, it is a lovely game, made even more delightful by the world that the Browns have crafted. Mr Healing has done a great job in adapting the BRP system and creating the versatile magics and gadgetry, and I won’t forget to mention Mr Cumber’s work in the Bestiary section either.

Any lovers of Hopeless, Maine who also enjoy roleplaying games really should indulge in this one, and thank you for tolerating my rambling style, as it’s been many, many years since I’ve written a review, and as I said at the start, expect a full, all-singing, all-dancing review very soon.

 

If this has piqued your curiosity, the core rules and the first scenario can be found here. I hope, as always, this finds you well, inspired and thriving.

New England Gothic

Hello people! (and others)

Many years ago, when Nimue and I started this whole Hopeless, Maine thing, Nimue wrote two books that went along with the timeline of The Gathering.  The first of these two books was New England Gothic, which takes place before book one and gives a lot of background on Annamarie and her earlier life (Yes. Those of you who have read Sinners will be having feels at this point) NEG is a bloody wonderful strange tale and we thought we’d bring it and the other prose book out along with the graphic novels, lavishly illustrated, of course. Well, this was before we learned a lot of things about the publishing industry (some of which we would rather not know, but that’s a long story for another time) We do plan to release both of these books in PDF form in the near future on the same Etsy site that the game is on. Then, hopefully, later there will be the fully illustrated print version. In the meantime, you can get New England Gothic in installments by pledging to Nimue’s Patreon!

Hoping, as always, this finds you well, inspired and thriving.

Cover art reveal

Hello, people (and others)!

Sorry we’ve been a bit quiet. I’ve been working diligently on the page art for the next graphic novel volume and Nimue is doing roughly twelve thousand* things all at once.

*rough estimate, she is a blur, so it’s tricky to count.

Hopefully, this will make up for it, a bit. Here is the cover art for VICTIMS (Volume three of Hopeless, Maine) I gave a bit of background about the decision process on the subject matter when we posted the cover art at drawing stage, so I won’t get into that here. I *will* say, that this is the best, strangest, most touching, funniest script so far. You know when you are watching an anime series and the first season is all pretty straightforward and largely what you would expect and then the following seasons drops you into the deep end and play with all of your expectations and turn up the emotions and conflict? Yes, that. That’s pretty much what’s going on with the rest of the series.

Here is a thing wot I wrote to go to the distributor for the listing of Victims-

“Welcome back to the fog-shrouded island of Hopeless, Maine- an island cut off from the world and lost in time. It’s been busy here since you’ve been away! We all knew that werewolves would show up on the island eventually. I mean, there are vampires (that cough), ghosts and all manner of things that go bump in the night (and occasionally around noon, for no particular reason) well, they’re here now. Salamandra and Owen do their best to cope with this new danger to island residents while investigating a new rash of disappearances. Masked, cowled cultists have begun to make themselves known, and the vampires are about as much help as usual. Salamandra struggles with the disembodied presence that surrounds the island and continues to speak to her alone. Owen receives a new position (which he definitely does not want) and Drury the undead dog cavorts across the island. This is the most eventful volume yet, with greater insight into the main characters, and a generous helping of dark humor.”

Pretty good, huh?

So here, without further ado, is the cover art, hand coloured by Nimue. The text is a temporary version, our publisher will make the design all shiny and put the Sloth Logo on and such. Also-look closely and see if you can find the key in the image. That’s a thing that showed up in The Gathering, and we will have more to say about that soon… Hope you like!

In which we make a book cover

Hello, people! (and others)

Rather a lot has been going on behind the scenes here, and this will no doubt lead to rather a lot more things and we shall be busy, and will hopefully keep you entertained. My focus at the moment is the art for the NEXT VOLUME OF HOPELESS MAINE (pardon the shouting. Bit excited.) The next book will be called Victims (this is because originally the series was to be called “Hopeless” rather than “Hopeless, Maine” so the titles were all playing on that. So, the next book would have been called Hopeless Victims, but our old publisher insisted on Hopeless, Maine and now all of our clever plans lie in ruins on the floor. (not really, just going for sympathy there)

Normally. I draw the cover art before we start the page art at all, but we thought we’d try something different this time and get a better sense of the book and then do the cover. All of the covers feature Salamandra doing some sort of magic (the keen-eyed among you will have noticed) So, as Nimue and I were walking and discussing possibilities, Nimue said: “I have an idea, but it’s a bit silly”. I knew we were onto a winner at that point. We have not shown Sal doing fire yet really, so Sal looking epic while heating a kettle for tea was the perfect solution. This means we get to include magic, devices, Sal and perhaps most importantly, tea. Here we are at the pencil stage.

Nimue has just started on the hand colouring and we will be passing the finished thing to our lovely publisher (Sloth!) before long. All being well, Victims will be in your hands, claws or tentacles late spring/early summer. I’m greatly enjoying drawing the page art and being more collaborative with Nimue on the art as well as the story is an absolute pleasure!

Until next time, I hope this finds you all well, inspired and thriving.