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)
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)
I’ve been messing about a bit with self-portraits this week, and this is my Hopeless take on me.
Clearly I am some sort of eldritch abomination! Obviously, I have tentacles. I’m not sure why I’m a lamp stand from the waist down – It could be that I was a trial run for Mrs Beaten. I imagine that I have been left in a dark corner of a largely forgotten room, but if people approach me I will tell them terrible things.
What would you look like as an island resident? We’re always open to art, and to cosplay, so if you’re a resident with the time and inclination to send us something, we’d love to share it. If you don’t have direct contact with us already, just leave a comment and we’ll pluck your email address from wordpress and drop you a line.++++++++++++
Balthazar Lemon is the father of Melisandra, grandfather of Salamandra. He shipwrecked on the island of Hopeless Maine as a young man, and took up inventing. He’s rather good at this – having built the lighthouse, restored the church organ, and undertaken assorted other strange and wonderful projects.
He has what appears to be a weird fish fetish. This may have a great deal to do with Salamandra’s missing grandmother, who was a mermaid and who swam away when she got bored.
Balthazar is a significant presence in Hopeless Maine: Inheritance (the second half of The Gathering in the Sloth Comics publications). He also features in prose novel New England Gothic, and remains an influence on the island through his creations.
Balthazar is the embodiment of eccentric invention. It is also his considered opinion that all the best projects have a bucket in them somewhere.