Ancestry is very much part of the Hopeless Maine story. The Jones family claims to descend from pirates, while the Frog family show every sign of having originated in Innsmouth. The island celebrates its Founding Families.
Unlike most of America, Hopeless was not occupied prior to the arrival of settlers from further afield. In local indigenous languages it is referred to as The Place We Go When We Are Young And Trying To Prove Something. There are four tribes associated with the Maine area and I’ve tried to be careful around both honouring their existence and not putting this story on to them. The island is a silly place to live, and local people know that. The founding had everything to do with white capitalist exploitation of resources, and since the resources went away, has mostly been populated by people from shipwrecks.
On her father’s side, Salamandra is descended from one of the founding families – The O’Stoats. This is a family with a long tradition of murder, and unpleasant occultism, often combined. Her father – Durosimi, is present in the graphic novels and you can find her paternal grandfather in New England Gothic. The grandmother on this side is a significant absence and I might seek out her story at some point.
Salamandra’s mother, Melisandra, is a bit of a psychopath and we also see her in the graphic novels. We meet Balthazar – Melisandra’s father, but her mother has also existed as a significant absence. I’d suspected for a while that she might be a mermaid.
This year we started looking at the mermaid grandmother in earnest. Her name is Alraune – which is German for mandrake. Dr Abbey named her as part of the project we’re working on together. So far, we have one image of her, although clearly there will be more, and it will be interesting to see more of her mermaid form as we progress. It’s also been interesting exploring the dynamics between three generations of magical women, none of whom really get on with each other.
Jellyfish women grow from the head down. These creatures begin life as regular jellyfish, with eggs growing into larvae that swim about for a bit and eventually find something to attach themselves to. They feed and grow as anonymous looking tentacled things. These eventually tuck their tentacles in and become small sea creatures. Feeding continues. Feeding and growing. So much feeding. Eventually the jellyfish bell and tentacles start to develop. And sometimes, the bell has a face.
Why certain jellyfish develop human-seeming faces is a bit of a mystery. If the jellyfish survives, it will continue to feed and grow – specifically growing downwards until it takes the form of an adult human female – often wearing a large and elaborate dress. This is clearly because the jellyfish woman incorporates the bell tent of the regular jellyfish form. It may just be an uneasy coincidence that this form exists.
When the jellyfish woman has feet, she finds a location where the depth is just right, and attaches herself to the sea floor again. Once this has been achieved, a jellyfish woman can in theory live forever. The sea depth is vitally important – no more than the head and shoulders of the jellyfish woman should be exposed by low tide. However, it is vital that the head at least is exposed as this is key to how the adult jellyfish woman feeds.
The ability of jellyfish women to learn and deploy human speech is another of their many mysteries. It is theorised that they are psychic and either draw the language from the head of a potential victim in order to speak, or project their words into the human mind.
The jellyfish woman will use either seduction to lure a victim, or will try to persuade them that she is a normal human at risk of drowning. Once the victim enters the water, the jellyfish woman uses the poison in her tentacles to further entrap her prey. She consumes small amount of blood, but her poison is addictive and causes victims to voluntarily return, craving fresh hits. Feeding over an extended period, coupled with the impact of the poison, will kill the victim.
Drury is a good doggo. He knows this in his bones, and is sometimes confused when people find him scary. Granted, he’s a large pupper and he knows he isn’t supposed to jump up at people, but he gets excited.
Exactly when, or how, or why Drury turned out the way he did is a bit of a mystery – especially to him. In essence he was just a dog who was very into being a dog. And he was so enthusiastic about being a dog that when bits of him stopped being a dog, he didn’t really pay it much attention. He just kept bounding about.
He must have been more alarming during the period when his softer tissues were retiring. It is unlikely that he noticed much about this, but a lage, decaying dog is not the cute floof most people want to see, much less be enthusiastically licked by.
Perhaps he belonged to a night soil man, who would not have noticed the smell. Perhaps his owner was a necromancer – deliberately or accidentally, and loved Drury too much to let him go, even when bits of him started falling off. Perhaps he was conjured into being with the intention that he be awful and terrible, but he just continued being far too much of a dog for that to work out properly.
As a bone creature, one of Drury’s particular hobbies is finding things to dangle out of his mouth that function like a tongue. He also likes to bring people presents, as with the illustration above. He knows he is a good boy, and no amount of screaming will ever persuade him otherwise.
I’ve thought about Donald rather a lot – far more than would be obvious from reading the comics. He’s a character who began in the early version of Hopeless, Maine, before I was writing it. He wears a jumper with a big G on it – for Gorey. Edward Gorey. Donald has an ambivalent relationship with the skeletal dog – Drury – and is otherwise a young human trying to figure himself out.
One of Donald’s major life goals is to be Owen’s boy wonder. Although he wouldn’t phrase it that way because he’s had a comic-deprived childhood and has never seen a superhero in a cape. But, if wearing his pants over his trousers was part of what was called for to back Owen up, he’d do it. Grudgingly.
Donald has noticed that while Owen means well and is really good at some things, he’s useless at practical details. Owen needs someone to remind him to take his gloves, to wear a jumper when it’s snowing, to carry a lantern in case the search goes on into the night… and Donald is the fellow for the job, at least in his own mind.
The other thing that is super-important to Donald is colour. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I work on coloring the next volume – Optimists. Donald likes colour so much that he spends his spare time concocting things that can be smeared onto walls. With varying degrees of success and odour. This means that the house on Gaunt Street is one of the most colour intense places on the island. The lighthouse also has colour, but Salamandra can do that by magic, and does not spend so much time boiling snails and collecting different shades of mud.
The island is full of demons. The ones you can see are in many ways easier to deal with because they are outside of your head and you have some reason to think they aren’t you.
The whisperers are the worst. The demons who slide in as thoughts, and tell you that they are your own voice. The demons who say that you are just like them, that you come from the place all demons come from. You are made of demon. Your essence is monstrous. Everything you do is suspect.
The demons tell you not to trust yourself. Sometimes they are the voice of your mother, who was clear that she regretted your existence. She would have killed you if she could. She killed your brother. You are worthless, useless, a disappointment, she says.
Sometimes the demons remind you that you did not save your brother’s life. What good are you? What point is there in you even existing? You fail, and fail again. When it most matters, you fail.
Where does that magic come from? You don’t know. The demons in your head tell you that magic is tainted, dangerous, and theirs. You are theirs. You are just like them. Only you are weak and fearful. That’s why you couldn’t save Sophie Davies, why you had to disappoint your best friend and let him break his heart over his mother dying. You were too weak to save her. Too afraid to really use your power.
In your heart, you know you are evil and that if you aren’t very careful then you will do something awful. Poor Salamandra. Are you saying this to yourself now, or are the demons saying it to you? Poor you. Poor little you.
The one voice that never goes away. Oh, sure, you can lock me in a box, but I’m still in your head and you will always remember me as a little girl with big, tearful eyes, begging you for mercy. I’m here to make sure you never forget that you are the real monster.
One of the things we’ve done ahead of the gallery show in Okinawa is produce a line-up of characters from the comic. This, we gather, is something Japanese readers love to see in relation to comics and that sharing this kind of image would be a much more Japanese way of doing things. It was entertaining figuring out the heights of the cast in relation to each other.
When we started work on Personal Demons, Tom was in the US and I was in the UK. The colouring happened digitally. Sinners is the first book I coloured on. So it’s been interesting for me to look at those characters in their early stages and think about how I would have coloured them.
If you’ve read Personal Demons (the first half of The Gathering in the UK edition) you’ll know that it is not an especially colourful body of work. Tom is not fond of working with colour – which is how I got involved in the first place!
This is the first time I’ve coloured Miss Calder as a living person with skin tones. It will probably be the only time I colour young James or the unnamed young lady who dominates the first book. It was also an opportunity to assert what terrible taste Doc Willoughby has – he’s been benefiting from Tom’s muted tones as no one has been able to see quite how garish and ridiculous he really is.
He never really meant it to be a functioning lighthouse. It started life with the battered remains of a ship – one of those iron steamships that had just become popular. Even metal had proved no match for the vicious rocks around the island. Balthazar reckoned, from the look of the thing, that a larger than average kraken had also had a go at it.
He could not live on land. He could not bear the way it stayed still, especially when he was trying to sleep. He never felt quite at home, or properly secure in an unshifting bed. And so he built a wooden crane, like he remembered seeing at docks around the world, and he used a salvaged boiler, several sturdy buckets and all the pipes he could beg, buy or steal, and he powered it with an engine. Swimming out to the wreck nearly killed him, but he managed to tow the back of the boat to shore. The front of the boat sheared off during this process and sank beneath the waves to join the multitude of wrecks on the seafloor.
He did the best he could with what he had. The result was round, and could never be steered, but it did float, in a low and wallowing fashion. It moved, and that was the main thing. As soon as it was sea-proof, Balthazar set up a hammock inside it, and felt a good deal better about life. His wife preferred to stay in the sea, and it meant he could be closer to her, which he preferred.
He called the round boat The Elegant Dolphin, in a fit of irony. Agile, The Dolphin was not, but sturdy she was. She survived that year’s winter storms, which were more violent than any he had ever known. So violent in fact that two giant cuttlefish washed up just round the coast. They were entwined, although whether they were fighting or had been trying to save and comfort each other, was anyone’s guess.
It was cold enough that they didn’t start rotting for quite some time. Being giant cuttlefish, they were not pleasing to eat, but they could be eaten, and they were right there, and sometimes he picked up fresh crabs who were scavenging from the carcasses.
When the spring came, it took them a while to rot. The crabs, and the crows did their best to speed the process. When the tide was high, the thing that inhabited the bay semi-emerged to feast. Eventually, only the bones remained.
Balthazar knew there would be enormous bones. He’d had months, waiting for them to emerge. Time to wonder, and dream, and plot. He had a fancy to build upwards. Why not? He liked lighthouses as an idea, had been glad of them many times when at sea. He knew the currents would wreck ships regardless of whether he put up a light. It was more a case of liking the look of them, and wanting something to occupy his life now that he could not travel.
It was only when he started turning giant cuttlefish bones into sections of wall that he also started wondering whether a light could have any other purpose, alongside signalling danger to those at sea.
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.
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)