Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

story, poetry, rumour and gossip

The Ravens of Chapel Rock

Wildlife, or at least the varieties not in receipt of tentacles, is not particularly plentiful on this island of Hopeless. Whatever position any particular species finds itself in, while clinging precariously to the food chain, it can be confident that something, somewhere will regard it as being no more than lunch. Although humans are far from being exempt from this aspect of island life (and death) their innate deviousness gives them a definite edge in the survival stakes. The only other creatures to rival, and indeed surpass, them in this respect are the small colony of ravens that live on Chapel Rock.

In the late 1600s the Reverend Obadiah Hyde managed to browbeat a few of the more God-fearing unfortunates who had found themselves shipwrecked with him to build a simple chapel. Being the pious puritan that he was, he offered them the prospect of an eternity of fiery damnation as an alternative. After his strange and unlamented demise the place quickly fell into disrepair. The ravens, being naturally theatrical creatures, had a fine sense of the dramatic and decided that this would be a splendidly Gothic place to set up a permanent home. They only briefly deserted the area when, about two hundred years later, some young monks thought it would be a good idea to give the ruins a new lease of life as an abbey. When that came to nothing the ravens returned and since then have enjoyed a fairly uninterrupted existence.

As far as anyone knows they were roosting on the island long before any human set foot upon it. The gradual trickle of people coming to Hopeless, whether by design or accident (but usually accident) has had no detrimental impact upon these birds at all. One reason is that virtually every culture that has washed-up here has brought with it a wealth of lore and superstition surrounding ravens, often endowing them with a supernatural, almost god-like, presence. This, coupled with the simple fact that they are not particularly edible, even to the unfussy palate of the average islander, has probably secured their continued success.

Any student of natural history will tell you that the average lifespan of a raven in the wild is about twenty-one years. The ravens of Chapel Rock, however, seem to enjoy greater longevity than this, often surpassing that of a human. Several factors have been attributed to this but the most likely, in my opinion, is the addition of the occasional spoonwalker to their diet. Anyone in need of a spoon or two need only go to the base of the rock to find various bits and pieces of cutlery discarded by their late owners.

Back in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the years before the attempted renovation of the chapel, one of the ravens, which had a distinctive white tail-feather, took to visiting the other inn on the island every night. Here it waited to be fed scraps of meat and the odd beakful of beer. In return it would utter a few words that it had picked up from the locals. It did this for many years and became something of a novelty. In its honour the landlord proudly renamed (and misnamed) his drinking establishment “The Crow”.

I would love to be able to tell you that this bird was the inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem but sadly there is no record of Mr Poe ever visiting the island, as much as the place would have undoubtedly fascinated him. At the time  he would have been newly married and his young wife – his very young wife – would not have liked Hopeless one bit. At thirteen years old she would have been more interested in skipping-ropes than spoonwalkers.

I was asked recently who actually owns the island. There was no doubt in my mind.

“The ravens,” I said.

Art by Clifford Cumber
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The Headless Lady

Betty Butterow, the barmaid of the Squid and Teapot had, you may recall, unexpectedly discovered a ghostly headless lady in the inn’s shiny new toilet annexe. Shrieking in banshee fashion at her great  misfortune of having been reduced to haunting a privy, the apparition had managed to wake the whole inn. Fortunately there were no paying guests that night so it was only the Lypiatt family – Sebastian, Madrigal  and their son Isaac –  who were disturbed and they wasted no time in coming to investigate the cause of the blood-curdling wail emanating from the privy. Upon their arrival the ghost decided to sulk and disappeared back into the stones which, at one time, had formed a diminutive portion of her previous home, Oxlynch Hall.
It became apparent that the Headless Lady only deigned to manifest herself when the moon was full. This tended to create a degree of consternation with some customers who found themselves sharing a seat with her and more worryingly, finding her disembodied head resting weightlessly on their lap. It was the sort of thing likely to put anyone off the task in hand!
Fortunately for the ghost, Betty Butterow was the caring type who made it her business to give a welcome to everyone who visited the Squid. Having inherited the dubious gift of The Sight from her great-great grandmother, Colleen O’Stoat, she reasoned, therefore, that it was no more than her duty to make contact with the spirit and try to win her trust and friendship. And so, little by little, she did and in doing so unearthed her tragic story.

After the siege of Gloucester in 1643, when Royalist attempts to capture the city were thwarted, the Parliamentarians were keen to clear the county of Royalists and their sympathisers for good.
Sir Rupert D’Avening, master of Oxlynch Hall, was on the other side of the Severn in Wales, rallying support for the crown, when his home was sacked by the Parliamentary forces. The small garrison that he had left to guard both the manor, his wife and the tiny hamlet of Oxlynch stood little chance against the well-armed and dedicated Roundheads, who were spurred on at every step by one Obadiah Hyde. Hyde was a puritan rector of the worst sort. He preached Hell-fire from his pulpit and famously tried to fell the churchyard yew tree one Christmas when parishioners began to cut greenery for, what he regarded as being, ungodly, festive uses. Unsurprisingly, when he learned that Oxlynch was to be rid of its Royalist – and even worse – Catholic masters, he was delighted and became intent, to the point of madness, on contributing personally to their downfall.
While the Roundhead invaders were content to drive out the servants and ransack the manor for anything of value, the fanatical Hyde had another agenda.

If he had been a man given to celebration, which he most certainly was not, the parson might have thought that it was his birthday when he burst into the bedchamber of Lady Margaret D’Avening. It was with a mixture of disgust and glee that he discovered her to be flimsily clad and enthusiastically entertaining a young Royalist colonel who, having suspected little chance of intrusion, had foolishly hung his sword at the bottom of the four-poster bed. Confident in his own righteousness and without hesitation, Hyde grabbed the blade and ran the young man through the heart. Frozen with horror, Lady Margaret could only watch as the parson wrenched the sword from her lover’s twitching body. Roughly he caught her by the hair and dragged her from the bed; she felt herself being pushed on to her knees. There was a deranged look in Hyde’s eyes as he denounced her as being the Devil’s Whore, then, reminding himself that he was the instrument of a vengeful God, brought the sword swiftly down upon her pale neck. Popery, adultery and fornication were high on Hyde’s list of unforgivable sins and he had no compunction whatsoever about parting the lady’s head from the rest of her.
Decapitation is a bloody messy business. I mean that quite literally. Lady Margaret’s blood liberally sprayed the walls and door of her bedchamber and left no small amount on her attacker, either. Although he had witnessed and thoroughly approved of public beheadings many times, Hyde was totally unprepared for the close-up, physical reality of his abhorrent act and he fled the room, wild-eyed and even more entrenched in the slough of his own insanity than he had been previously.


For almost three hundred years the Ghost of Lady Margaret D’Avening haunted the bedchamber in which she died. Much to her dismay, the wraith of the soldier who had so recently enjoyed a brief spell as her lover, having no particular attachment to Oxlynch Hall, declined to join her and wasted no time in ‘going to the light’ as he put it.
As the years passed Lady Margaret’s apparition grew weaker and so she confined her energy to only appearing when the moon was full and she was at her most powerful. When she found her home being dismantled and shipped abroad she retreated into the stonework, which, along with her chamber door, was kept on its own pallet. After the little of what remained was eventually moved, she emerged briefly to try and find out exactly where she was and what was happening. Unfortunately she did this in full view of the captain and crew of the ‘Daneway’, who immediately abandoned ship and for their trouble, perished to a man in the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean.


Over the following months Betty Butterow and the ghost of Lady Margaret D’Avening became close friends. Inter-dimensional relationships are generally frowned upon in the wider community, so you must understand that this is a fairly unique situation that is only likely to happen  somewhere like Hopeless (other magically tolerant islands such as Hy Brasil or Tír na nÓg spring to mind but never having visited either, I am in no position to comment).
It occurred to the wise and beautiful barmaid that if Lady Margaret could disappear into the stonework of her chamber then it followed that, should a stone, or stones, be placed in a different spot she ought to be able to manifest herself in that particular location. The ghost thought this over and agreed it was worth a try. The prospect of spending the next however many years witnessing the patrons of the Squid and Teapot easing bowel and bladder, unsurprisingly, held little charm for her.
It took a certain amount of badgering, not to say mild flirting, by Betty to persuade the landlord, Sebastian Lypiatt, to prise out one of the more modestly sized  stones and place it in an unoccupied guest room. Sebastian was not particularly inclined to start ripping apart his prized privy but if it kept his favourite barmaid happy, so be it. Besides this, he was becoming more than fed-up being told how chilly the privy was feeling every time the moon was full.
Much to the delight of both Betty and Lady Margaret this seemed to work, though the ghost’s disembodied head steadfastly refused to leave the privy, for some reason known best to itself. This mattered little, as the Lady Margaret was in receipt of all of her faculties, head or no head. The physical aspect of an apparition is, after all, only there for the benefit of anyone lucky, or more probably, unlucky enough to see it.
Over the following months and years the block of stone was moved around the inn and its grounds, allowing the headless lady to haunt the premises properly, though she was careful not to drive business away. There was an exception to this rule, however. When a particularly troublesome guest had outstayed their welcome they would find, one night, when the moon was fat and full, that a medium sized and unassuming stone had mysteriously appeared in the corner of their room. Strange to relate, such guests rarely visited again.
In case you wondered, following Oliver Cromwell’s death and the growing certainty that the monarchy would once more be restored, Obadiah Hyde fled England’s shores in fear for his life. With a small party of like-minded and equally cheerless companions he decided to travel to the New World and be the founding father of his own austere community. It was something of a surprise for him, therefore, when he was shipwrecked on Hopeless and scuppered by two small but persistent demons when he tried to achieve his goal. This story is related in the tale ‘Chapel Rock.’

Art by Tom Brown

The Jacobean Manor House

Upon a whim and with a certain amount of desire to impress, multi-millionaire businessman and entrepreneur, Hiram P. Shortwood lll, had, via the good offices of Colonel Ruscombe-Green, purchased a genuine Jacobean Manor House. One small problem was that the manor, Oxlynch Hall, sat foursquare in the English countryside while Mr Shortwood resided some three thousand miles away in North America. Luckily his friend, architect and fellow freemason, the appropriately named Elias Archway, always had the scent of money in his nostrils and had secured the purchase using Ruscombe-Green as middle-man.  Archway insisted to his client that distance was not necessarily an impediment. He pointed out that many wealthy families were taking advantage of the apparent prosperity America was enjoying in the roaring twenties and were constructing country estates inspired by some of the grand buildings that they had seen in Europe. If Mr. Shortwood wanted to show his obvious superiority, rather than merely imitate, he could do worse than put a genuine English manor house on American soil. There was no earthly reason why Oxlynch Hall could not be dismantled, crated and transported successfully across the Atlantic. Such a thing had been done before with great success. By a stroke of remarkable luck Archway himself was in the process of developing what would become a fashionable new neighborhood in Connecticut and the perfect site for Mr Shortwood’s new home. The architect estimated that the whole process could be achieved for the not inconsiderable sum of $300,000. He could not help but reflect, however, that this cost would have been appreciably lower had it not been for the fact that in Connecticut a labourer could command as much as 5 or even 6 cents an hour in wages. On the other hand, it was indeed fortunate for Mr Shortwood that the power of the unions had waned somewhat during the 1920s, or the greed of the lower orders would have known no boundaries.

 

By the time the recently dismantled Oxlynch Hall arrived in the port of New Haven in 1929, Mr Shortwood’s fortune – and indeed, Mr Shortwood himself- had also been dismantled, courtesy of the Wall  Street crash. Suddenly no one was interested in reassembling the manor house, least of all Elias Archway. The array of crates and mountains of stonework sat upon the quayside in the forlorn hope that a buyer might appear or, at least, the manor would remain undisturbed until the tide of fortune turned once more.

One could be forgiven for believing that several hundred tons of dressed stone and ornate woodwork would be safe from scavenging hands but in times of great hardship necessity gives birth not only to invention but also to ingenuity, which may take many guises. Scavenging was raised to an art-form as, bit by bit, the components of the building began to disappear, liberated by anyone who hated to see fine stonework go to waste. Parts of Oxlynch Hall now incongruously adorned barns, boundary walls and outhouses all over New England. Several otherwise undistinguished homes suddenly sported exquisite Jacobean oak panelling. Regrettably, some of the less aesthetically astute decided that firewood was firewood, Jacobean or not.

It took little under a year for the bulk of the wood and stone to disappear from the quayside until just a cairn of honey-coloured stone blocks and one unassuming oak door remained. These last items were bagged by a passing steamer, ‘The Daneway’,  which, according to its manifest, was bound for Portland, Maine. No one knows what purpose the captain had in mind for the remnants of the manor because he and his crew all abandoned ship for no apparent reason two days after leaving New Haven and, under the watchful gaze of a fat full moon, they perished to a man. ‘The Daneway’ itself floated free until it floundered on the fog-bound rocks off the island of Hopeless.

 

Young Isaac Lypiatt could hardly believe his luck when he spotted the wrecked steamer sitting on the rocks. It took little exploration to discover that, while no longer seaworthy, the ship was filled with a hold full of precious cargo that would doubtless find its way into the homes of every islander before the day was out. Besides this, the more industrious would find uses for the last plank and retrievable rivet they could salvage. It was a good day for Hopeless when bounty of this quality was delivered to its shores. Despite his elation, Isaac could not help but feel a little apprehensive however. He had seen a few wrecks in his twenty years, but in the past there had always been bodies to dispose of or survivors to help ashore. This time there were none. It was as if he had stumbled upon a ghost ship.

It did not take long for news of the wreck to get out and soon a steady procession, bearing bags and boxes, pushing carts and crates could be seen, each one keen to grab whatever they could. A disinterested watcher may have been surprised to see that few squabbles ensued. This was because most had long learned that the only way to survive on Hopeless, with its many dangers and privations, was through cooperation at such times. Among the salvagers was Sebastian Lypiatt, father of Isaac and landlord of The Squid and Teapot. Sebastian was a generous man and was not only looking for something for his family and the inn but also some items which might benefit young Randall Middlestreet, the Night Soil Man, who would doubtless be sleeping after a night of toil. The first thing to catch his eye was the Oxlynch Hall door, which no one else had laid claim to. It dawned on Sebastian that this would be an ideal way, with Isaac’s assistance, to stretcher a reasonable amount of salvage to Randall’s cottage.

By the time they had left Randall’s goods and returned to the wreck, still carrying the door, the Lypiatts found that the best of the booty had been taken. Gazing stoically around him Sebastian wondered if anything worth having was left. He wandered the ship, looking for inspiration and while standing in the captain’s cabin, he found it. Tucked away behind a curtain was a fine porcelain toilet bowl, complete with a cistern and pipework. What a  prize this would be for the Squid. Sebastian had already noticed the pile of stone blocks and these, along with the little door, would give him the means of creating an annexe to house an inside privy for the inn. It would take a little planning and hard work but with Isaac’s assistance he was certain that within a few weeks they would be the proud possessors of Hopeless Maine’s very first privy with a flushing mechanism.

As the month slipped by the excitement generated by the wreck gradually subsided and things settled down to what passes as normality on Hopeless. There had, happily, been few reports of vampire attacks or Spoonwalker sightings for a while. The Squid and Teapot continued to be the haven of conviviality that it had always been (not counting the regrettable period in the early years of the century when it suffered under the egregious stewardship of Tobias Thrupp) and all in all, life was as good as one could ever expect it to be. Work on the new privy had gone well and Sebastian was particularly proud of having installed a waste pipe that deposited its load several yards out into the ocean. The project was an immediate success and within hours of the newly installed wonder being open to the public and tastefully concealed behind the sturdy oak door, a steady stream of grateful customers were quick to test its efficacy.

 

The mood of the island always changes a little when a full moon is imminent. Admittedly, although a proportion of some of the more eccentric behaviour can be attributed to the effect that the moon, full or otherwise, has on certain individuals, it must be said that the islanders’ concerns are well-founded. There are always the usual worries regarding the likelihood of werewolf activity at such times and experience has shown that a full moon is often a harbinger of strange (or, more correctly, even stranger) occurrences on Hopeless. This next one was to be no exception.

 

Betty Butterow, the barmaid of The Squid and Teapot, had finished her work for the night and had just one more personal requirement to fulfil before retiring to her small room in the attic of the inn. Betty was grateful that Mr Lypiatt had thoughtfully provided an inside privy, especially on nights like this. Wandering outside to the old one was a life-threatening experience when the worst of the night-stalkers were at their most powerful. And there was no chance of accidentally having an embarrassing late-night encounter with the Night Soil Man, either, now that the pipeline was in place. So it was, with a light heart and a full bladder that Betty swung open the privy door and prepared herself for a few minutes of quiet contemplation.

The barmaid was a hardy soul but even she could not help but give a small scream of surprise when she beheld the vision before her. You cannot blame the poor girl, having been confronted with the alarming sight of a lady dressed in the attire of a seventeenth century English noblewoman sitting daintily on the porcelain throne. The apparition shimmered slightly, glowing with a pale and eerie luminescence. It was not so much the presence of the ghost that shocked Betty, who was the great-great granddaughter of Colleen O’Stoat and, like her ancestor, gifted with ‘The Sight’. What really upset the barmaid was the fact that this particular specimen had been decapitated and was holding her severed head in her lap.

To Betty’s horror the ghost slowly tilted its grisly trophy in order to look her squarely in the eye. The barmaid’s blood froze as an unearthly banshee scream erupted from the apparition’s long-dead lips and echoed through every inch of the inn.

“A privy!” it wailed. “A lady of high birth like me, nearly three hundred years dead and you have me haunting a bloody privy…AAAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHHHH!!!”

 

To be continued….

Art by Clifford Cumber

Fire and Brimstone

The story so far…

Julian Thrupp, a country solicitor from England, had come to Hopeless with a travelling companion, Dorian Bowbridge. The purpose of Julian’s visit was to try and find what had become of a long lost relative, Tobias, who had disappeared some twenty two years earlier. While conversing late into the night with Reverend Crackstone, Julian had been visited by the wraith of Tobias, who then abducted him, aided and abetted by an army of Spoonwalkers. A search party, comprising of  Dorian Bowbridge; Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs; Betty Butterow; Sebastian and Isaac Lypiatt; Bill Ebley and Reverend Crackstone, set out rescue the solicitor. After the party split up, Ebley and Bowbridge found themselves in the Night-Stalker infested caverns that honeycombed the island. Normally such creatures would sleep during daylight hours but because they responded to the sun, or more correctly, its absence, today was different. This particular day happened to be the twenty-ninth of June 1927 and North America was enjoying the spectacle of a total eclipse of the sun…

 

In the darkness of the eclipse Betty Butterow and Isaac Lypiatt were frantically trying to dislodge the suckered tendrils that had wrapped themselves around Joseph. The Indian was completely hog-tied and unable to resist as he was drawn inexorably toward the narrow slit in the rocks which was obviously the creature’s lair.

Sebastian had his own problems as the remaining tentacle had wound itself around his leg and was squeezing with a ferocity that would have made a boa constrictor proud.

“It will only be dark for five minutes or so, once the light returns this thing will slither back into its hole” Sebastian shouted, adding, under his breath, “I hope!”

He was hitting the offending tentacle with a rock but this only resulted in making the creature tighten its grip.

 

Ebley and Bowbridge had found a pale and terrified Julian Thrupp cowering in a corner, luckily no more than a few hundred yards inside the caverns. He was slightly delirious and it took no little effort to get him to his feet and begin the climb out. They had not walked for more than thirty seconds, however, when a restless, metallic rustling filled the air and the deep darkness behind them lessened as the cavern became unpleasantly illuminated with the dull and greenish glow of a hundred pairs of hostile eyes.

The three men froze.

“Spoonwalkers!” Ebley hissed. “Whatever you do, don’t look into their eyes. They’ll drive you mad.”

“But what’s that behind them…?” Bowbridge asked, anxiously, as his torchlight caught some other shapes in its beam.

Ebley groaned. This could not be good news. He pulled off his jacket.

“Give me your shotgun” he said to Bowbridge.

“What for? I’m perfectly capable of shooting anything hostile myself,” the young man replied, indignantly.

“For God’s sake, man, give me the gun.”

This time Bowbridge didn’t argue but handed it over. To his surprise Ebley did not fire it but wrapped his jacket around the barrel, tied by the arms to secure it in place.

“What the…?”

To Bowbridge’s horror Ebley struck a match and set fire to the jacket.

“That’s a Purdey shotgun. You can’t do that. Do you have any idea how much I paid…”

“More than your life’s worth?” interrupted  Ebley, angrily. “Look!”

The cavern danced with shadows as the flames from the burning jacket grew stronger. The pale, almost fishlike forms of the Spoonwalker army, mounted on their cutlery stilts were almost comical but the malevolence that flowed from them was tangible. They were anything but funny. Even less amusing were the horrors now crowding in their wake: grey faced ghouls with red, sunken eyes and slavering mouths, smelling the sweetness of the new flesh that trespassed so wantonly in their caves.

“Move” shouted Ebley to the other two, who hurried as best they could towards the entrance. Suddenly plain Bill Ebley was once more Corporal Ebley of The King’s Own Regiment, saving his comrades from certain death. He followed the others but walked backwards, waving the flaming jacket like a standard and keeping the enemy at bay. The improvised torch burned brightly for a few minutes but all too soon there was little of it left; it was touch and go that they would get out in time. To make matters worse the ornate stock of the shotgun was becoming uncomfortably hot to the touch, almost too much to bear. All seemed lost. The entrance should have been visible by now and the Spoonwalkers and ghouls were showing no sign of giving up. They were clearly frightened of the fire but seemed determined to destroy the three trespassers.

The last tatters of Ebley’s jacket spluttered some feeble flames then died. He caught the glint of the Spoonwalkers eyes and knew the game was up.

“This is it,” he thought. He wished that he had said goodbye to his wife and daughter properly that morning. Why hadn’t he told them how much he loved them… but who was he thinking about? He could not remember. His mind was wavering in and out of consciousness, not caring anymore about anything. All that mattered was the faint green glow that was filling his head….

“Come on, Ebley, we’re almost there.” It was Bowbridge’s voice that dragged him back from these thoughts and the very edge of reason.

Looking about him Ebley could see that they were close to the cave entrance and daylight. With the reappearance of the sun the grey figures ceased to be a threat and silently receded once more into the shadows. The Spoonwalkers, however, were a different matter. They, seemingly, had no fear of daylight and advanced upon him menacingly.

The shotgun barrel was blackened and the stock still hot in his hands. Ebley had no idea if it was still in working order or even likely to blow up in his face. There was no time to worry about such things.  Instinctively he raised the gun and aimed at the advancing creatures.

The report of the rifle was deafening in the confines of the cave. The cartridge ripped through the tide of Spoonwalkers and created pandemonium. This was something new. They squealed and fell back, unsure of what had occurred. Cutlery lay scattered on the floor of the cave. Bowbridge tossed Ebley his cartridge belt.

“Give ‘em another round,” he shouted.

Ebley loaded up and fired again. The horde retreated further into the depths of the cavern.

“One more for luck” he said and sent a shot echoing into the darkness. The result was unexpected. A torrent of stones began to rain from the roof of the far cavern, sealing off all means of immediate escape for the Spoonwalkers. Doubtless there were other ways out but for now, at least, the party was safe.

They emerged, blinking, into the daylight, now fully restored following the eclipse. Sebastian Lypiatt was massaging a sore leg while Isaac and Betty were struggling to help Joseph, bruised and shaken but otherwise unharmed, to his feet.

Ebley made to hand the shotgun back to Dorian Bowbridge but the young man shook his head.

“Keep it,” he said. “You’ve earned it. Besides…” he added with a rueful grin, “I’d be embarrassed to use any gun in public that looked like that.”

It was true. It would take no small amount of renovation to return the weapon to its former glory.

Ebley thanked him but knew it was never likely to be fired again. He would hang it over the fireplace as a reminder of his adventures in the caverns. The colonel would, doubtless, have approved.

 

A few days later Joseph ferried the two Englishmen back to the mainland, chastened, and not a little humbled, by their adventures on the island.

Betty Butterow, in her Selkie guise, had swum alongside the canoe, much to Joseph’s great delight. He felt quietly privileged that he alone was party to his lover’s secret.

As always, upon her return the Selkie retreated to her favourite rock where she basked awhile until she was able to shed her sealskin and become Betty once more.

The girl did not see the figure hiding among the rocks, watching as she transformed into her human form. Betty was quite naked and folding the sloughed off seal skin when a harsh, screeching voice startled her.

“Shapeshifter! Witch! You will not leave this place alive.”

She turned to see Reverend Crackstone, apoplectic with rage, brandishing his bible at her.

“How blind I have been,” he ranted. “I suspected on the day you were born that there was evil blood in your veins. I should have strangled you at birth, but no, I was weak and hoped I was wrong. Then last week, on the day of the eclipse, I didn’t go straight back to the Squid as I said I would. I followed you and saw you with the indian. Oh yes, I saw everything. He might not mind having a shapeshifter as his whore but you, witch, are an abomination in the sight of the Lord.”

Betty said nothing, listening patiently as the elderly parson continued his diatribe, his anger, by now, making him almost incoherent. She was well aware that he had never liked her. It was if twenty two long years of scarcely concealed hatred was boiling within him, like a volcano waiting to erupt.

He started throwing stones at her, wildly at first. She shied to get away from the onslaught but he was relentless, getting ever nearer and becoming totally insane with self-righteous fury.

Standing on a vantage point that was just above her, Crackstone picked up a large rock and hefted it above his head, intending to crush Betty’s skull.

Dimly, in her mind, she marvelled that he had the strength to do this.

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live..” he roared, resisting the temptation to follow it with ‘Exodus 22:18’ which, under other circumstances, he would have helpfully added.

It was then that the air seemed to hum as a huge shadow was cast across them. It was as though a second eclipse was about to take place.

The reverend’s stare became wide and fearful; Betty thought at first that the parson was smiling, then realised that what she saw was not a smile but a rictus of horror that transformed his face into a mask of sheer terror.

Two massive tentacles, grey-green and stippled with barnacles, rose from behind her and slipped themselves around Crackstone’s body, his arms still held aloft, holding the rock. Betty watched with horrified fascination as more suckered, tendril-like, appendages appeared, wrapping around the parson until he was completely enveloped by them. They writhed and slithered, twisting flesh and crushing bone, eventually rending and breaking the man into little more than so much jelly. Betty could not look and dared to turn her face towards whatever it was that had saved her.

Rising from the boiling waters, high as any hill, a huge cephalopod met her gaze with a sentient, mournful eye. She knew it meant her no harm.

A sonorous voice, deep and wild as the ocean, spoke softly in her head.

“The sea protects her own, Selkie. The sea protects her own”

Then it was gone, taking whatever was left of Reverend Crackstone with it. The waters churned as the mighty creature retreated. Only the harmless splash of the rock that was meant to kill her marked where it had been.

 

People disappear on Hopeless all of the time. It was assumed that Reverend Crackstone had been hastened on his journey to meet his maker by something unpleasant; either that or he fell into the sea, as no trace of him was ever found.

He was mourned by his wife and two sons but few others. Only Betty Butterow knew the truth. She wondered if she had encountered the mighty kraken itself. If this was so, she had no intention of telling anyone. After all, the sea protects her own.

Art by Clifford Cumber

The Game of Spoons

There are few who can claim to have been kidnapped by a dead relative, albeit one aided and abetted by Spoonwalkers but Julian Thrupp had achieved just that. Even on the island of Hopelesss, Maine, this is a comparatively rare occurrence and of those selected for the privilege, none had yet returned. Fortunately, Julian was totally unaware of this nugget of information as he sat huddled in the corner of a dark cavern. Ignorance is indeed bliss, for had Julian realised that the very caves in which he was sitting were infested by all sorts of ghouls, ghosts and vampires, the abject terror he was now experiencing may have escalated sufficiently to reduce his already fragile mind to something possessing all of the mental agility of a semolina pudding. Luckily for Julian it was still daylight outside and Night-Stalkers are not called that because of their propensity for wandering around and enjoying the sunshine. Even a ghoul has to rest occasionally.

Julian had been dragged to the caverns by a horde of tiny men wearing metallic boots; at least, that is what he believed. To begin with he had been temporarily blinded by the flash that occurred when he reached for the wraith of his cousin, Tobias. The rest was something of a whirlwind adventure, and now he appreciated how a spider feels, being whisked up into a Hoover Company vacuum cleaner, a trick that Mrs Bellpitch, his arachnophobic housekeeper, was wonderfully adept at performing.

Once his sight had been restored Julian was only able to hear his captors; he  had made a point of squeezing his eyes tightly shut, for fear of what he might see. This probably saved his sanity, as a malevolent glance from even a single Spoonwalker can incite madness.

 

Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs squatted on his haunches and examined the ground carefully for signs. He had no idea what manner of signs he was supposed to be seeing but it seemed to satisfy his six companions. It annoyed him slightly that there was a general assumption that, being a full-blood Passamaquoddy Indian, he would have an instinctive ability to follow the faintest of tracks over rocky terrain. He had been a trader for all of his adult life and had little knowledge of, or interest in, a skill that would pay few dividends when haggling with the proprietors of the various Speakeasies that he supplied. Today, however, that did not matter. He was content to play the role of the Noble Savage, bring honour to his people and hopefully impress the rest of the search party, especially Betty Butterow.

He suddenly remembered something that he had seen in a Tom Mix motion picture, while once visiting The Strand Theatre in Portland. To the accompaniment of dramatic organ music, an Indian tracker – or at least the actor playing him – had pressed his ear to the ground and was apparently able to ascertain all sorts of vital information from whatever it was that he heard. It was worth a try. Getting down on all-fours, Joseph planted his ear to the cold rock. There was absolutely nothing to hear. There was, however, a teaspoon lying close by, hiding in a small cluster of diseased-looking grass and not visible to the others. Joseph nonchalantly slid his hand over the spoon, as if to steady himself. This was a clue worth following up.

“They went that way, “ he said, pointing his finger to a spot vaguely south of them.

Everyone looked at the direction in which he pointed and while they were distracted he quietly slipped the spoon into the buckskin bag slung over his shoulder.

There was a general murmur of appreciation and marvelling at his skills as a tracker. Joseph, who was usually as honest a man as you might wish to find, blushed a little but consoled himself with the knowledge that this small deception pleased his companions immensely; far more than if he had just said “Ooh look, I’ve found a spoon!” All he needed to do now was to keep his eyes open. There were bound to be more.

He was not wrong. He surreptitiously gathered up each discarded teaspoon along the way and continued the deception that he was following the faintest of tracks. All went well until they reached the crossroads. Joseph scanned the ground but it was worryingly cutlery-free. He had to admit defeat.

“The trail grows cold here,” he announced. “I think maybe that this is where the Spoonwalkers split up. I can’t tell which party took Julian.”

After some hurried deliberations it was decided that they should split into three groups. Joseph and Betty would take the  east, towards the sea and where Joseph’s canoe was moored; Ebley and Dorian the south, where the caverns lay, while Isaac and Sebastian would go west, towards the far shore. The Reverend Crackstone, almost seventy and not as agile as the others, would return to the Squid on the offchance that Julian had found his way back unaided.

 

Joseph and Betty stood on the rocks by the little sheltered cove where the trader had left his canoe. Human logic would play no part in deducing where the Spoonwalkers might have left the Englishman, so for want of a better plan they agreed to hunt for Julian among the network of inlets and shallows that marked the eastern shore. This was as good a place as any to begin.

Joseph was feeling pangs of guilt for deceiving the girl he had grown to love.

“I need to confess something that I have been concealing from you…”

“I could say the same” Betty smiled. “There is something you need to know about me – but you first.”

Sheepishly the Indian reached into the buckskin bag and pulled out a handful of teaspoons.

“I can’t track,” he admitted. “I just followed a trail of discarded spoons.”

Betty laughed. Joseph had the distinct impression that she already knew.

“Now my turn. Stay where you are, say nothing and watch,” she said and unfurled something resembling a grey rug that had been stowed in her knapsack, then started to strip off her clothes.

The two had secretly been lovers for some months and Betty had long stopped being shy in front of him but this was a new departure. Joseph looked around nervously, hoping no one was there to see.

When she was completely naked and her clothes safely stowed in the canoe, Betty draped the rug over her shoulders and stepped daintily over the rocks and into the sea. She shuddered as the icy cold water lashed around her legs.

Joseph found it disconcerting as he watched her descend deeper into the angry water. His instinct was to pull her back from this foolishness but trusting what she said he did as she had asked.

Betty had disappeared beneath the waves for longer than he liked. Deciding something had gone very wrong the Indian cursed himself for not having acted earlier and resolved to go in after her. He had only waded into the water for a few feet, however, when the surface was broken by a harbor seal. Joseph had seen this creature before on several occasions. It had often swum with his canoe during his trips to and from the island. The seal nuzzled his legs, then swam towards the canoe, obviously inviting him to follow. Then the truth dawned upon him and took his breath away. Joseph knew of shape-shifters but had not knowingly met one, that is until now. He had never suspected that Betty was a seal-woman and his secret guardian. Joseph knelt in the icy water and wrapped his arms around the seal’s strong body, buried his face in her fur and breathed in her musky, salty tang. For reasons he could not explain tears welled in his eyes. So many things suddenly now made sense.

 

Bill Ebley picked up a discarded teaspoon and his heart dropped. He and Dorian Bowbridge were standing in the yawning gash that marked the entrance to the caverns. They peered into the dark depths with some trepidation. Ebley recalled Colonel Ruscombe-Green’s experience when they first landed on the island. He had been dragged into the caverns by a ghoul and only escaped with his life when Elmer Bussage, the Night Soil Man at the time, arrived waving a flaming brand, keeping the Night-Stalkers at bay. Ebley related the events to Bowbridge, who tipped back his pith helmet thoughtfully.

“We could take some combustible material into the caves with us,” he suggested, “but do we have the means to light it?”

Ebley fumbled in his jacket pocket and produced a box of matches.

“As long as we find Mr Thrupp while it’s still daylight we should be fine. Just in case though, I’ve still got a few of the lucifers left that Joseph brought over.” ‘Lucifer’ was soldier slang for a match  and still very much a part of Ebley’s vocabulary.

“Splendid- and I have an electric torch in my knapsack which we can use to find our way,” declared Bowbridge, then added, “but what will we use as fuel for the flames?”

Ebley looked about him. All was barren rock as far as the eye could see.

“We’ll have to make the best of what we’ve got. I hope you packed some spare clothing.”

Bowbridge looked aghast at the thought of them burning their clothing.

“Let’s get this over with,” he said, slipping his shotgun from his shoulder. With that the two men made their way into the dark heart of the caverns.

 

The Lypiatts had drawn a total blank. There had been no sign of Julian Thrupp on the western shore and if he was somewhere out on the ocean they had no way of getting to him. The sea-fog was rolling inland and getting thicker by the minute. Sebastian decided that their best course of action would be to return to the crossroads and wait for the others.

They had been there for little more than fifteen minutes before Joseph and Betty arrived. They too had been defeated by the sea fog.

Sebastian looked at Joseph. The man looked soaked to the skin, as if he had fallen out of his canoe.

“Did you find any more spoons along the way?” He asked

“No. You?” Joseph was not one to waste words.

Sebastian shook his head.

“It looks as though they’ve  taken him to the caverns.”

The Indian’s face was grim, but he said nothing.

Suddenly Betty blurted out,

“Does anyone else think it’s getting dark?”

The four of them cast their eyes towards the skies.

“What’s the date today?” asked Joseph uneasily.

Betty knew that tone to his voice and it

worried her.

“June the twenty-ninth. Why?”

“It’s been in all of the papers on the mainland. Today there will be a total eclipse of the sun. For a while there will be absolute darkness” replied Joseph, “which means…”

The four looked at each other. It was Isaac who broke the silence.

“Even in the deepest caverns the Night-Stalkers will wake; they will know that there is no sunlight. It’s happened before… Bill and Mr Bowbridge are in a lot of trouble!”

“So are we,” said Betty. Just a few yards away, some unseen creature effortlessly shifted the large rock that concealed its lair. The friends stood aghast as three long and many-suckered tentacles slithered ominously towards them in the dying light…

 

To be continued…

Art by Tom Brown

Visitors

Almost two years had elapsed since Colonel Ruscombe-Green had left Hopeless, seeking adventure on the North American continent. He had been as good as his word and regularly corresponded with his friend and former batman, then later, valet, Bill Ebley via the Passamaquoddy trader, Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs. The five hundred dollars that Ruscombe-Green had donated to the island had long ago run out and Joseph, with no extra cargo to ferry, was once more visiting Hopeless just twice a year. Any letters between Ebley and the Colonel, therefore, were wildly out of date before they were received but it mattered little. The two had faced a lot together and were loathe to lose all contact with each other.

Ebley was surprised that the latest missive, dated just three months earlier, had an English postmark and the king’s head on the stamps. This was quite unexpected and Ebley opened the letter with some trepidation, wondering what events were serious enough to have led the colonel to return to Britain.

 

My Dear Ebley,

I trust Mrs Ebley, young Mildred and your good self are in the very best of health. I was delighted to hear that you had become a parent. Not before time, either, may I say. I am sure you will make an excellent father.  My heartiest congratulations to you both. No doubt by the time you read this letter Mildred will be almost a year old and leading you a merry dance.

You were probably surprised to read the postmark on the envelope. I currently find myself deep in the English countryside, somewhat strangely at the behest of an American millionaire. While in Connecticut last year, a fellow Mason – an architect who went by the unlikely name of Archway – introduced me to a somewhat eccentric cove who has dreams of living in a genuine English manor house. He is after somewhere that can be totally dismantled and shipped in crates and on pallets to the port of New Haven, Connecticut. Personally, I think the man has more money than sense but he gave me the job of finding such a place and is paying me handsomely for my trouble. After no little amount of research I discovered a suitable candidate in the Cotswolds, a fairly modest Jacobean Manor called Oxlynch Hall. The current owners had been assailed by death duty and forced to sell. In order that the transfer of deeds etc. may be facilitated with the minimum of difficulty, I am working with a local firm of solicitors, Bowbridge, Bisley and Thrupp. As I will be residing within the area for the foreseeable future all correspondence for me may now be directed through them.

Interestingly, while in conversation with the junior partner, Julian Thrupp, I mentioned that I had spent some years on Hopeless. To my surprise he knew of the place and was convinced that he has, or had, a relative living on the island. While this seems doubtful, I seemed to have fired his imagination for Thrupp now seems quite determined to visit Hopeless, despite my dire warnings that the place is not entirely safe (I didn’t go into any great detail or, by now, I doubtless would be writing to you from a padded cell). His one concession to my concerns was, for safety reasons, to travel with a companion. In this he will be joined by the senior partner’s young nephew, Dorian Bowbridge. I do not doubt that Joseph will provide their means of ingress to the island and in view of this will be probably making a special trip, outside of his normal routine. I will grateful if you will alert Sebastian at ‘The Squid’ of their forthcoming arrival, which is most likely to be in the summer of 1927. Tell Betty not to flirt too much with young Bowbridge or I will become extremely jealous.

I hope all goes well for you and your little family, my dear chap. You are all always in my thoughts.

 

Yours Sincerely

 

J W Ruscombe-Green (Col.)

 

The brace of Englishmen who arrived on the island cut strange figures indeed. The older man, Thrupp, stepped from the canoe unsteadily. With his city suit, bowler hat and briefcase the solicitor looked as though he was bound for Wall Street rather than a wild Atlantic island. His companion, on the other hand, appeared to have chosen apparel inspired by an H. Rider Haggard novel. Resplendent in a military-style pith helmet, complete with tinted goggles, a khaki safari suit, cravat and riding boots he cut a dashing, if eccentric, figure. The whole Big Game Hunter look was completed with a rifle slung casually over his shoulder. This was no ordinary weapon though; it was a horribly expensive James Purdey 12 bore shotgun, with a beautiful stock of close-grained French walnut, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Sadly, no one on Hopeless would have been remotely impressed with this extravagant accessory, mainly because there was no big game to hunt on the island. Unless, of course, you counted the kraken, which was bigger – much bigger – than most folks’ concept of big. It was a creature comfortably able to bat off a Howitzer shell as if it were a mosquito and would not even notice a hundred shotgun cartridges.

A bemused Joseph led the two gentlemen to the Squid and Teapot where they were welcomed by Sebastian Lypiatt. After being shown to their rooms the duo decided to get down to business straight away and made enquiries about Thrupp’s long lost relative. Although honest to a fault, Sebastian was reluctant to be drawn on the subject, having been the last person to see Tobias Thrupp alive. The circumstances of their brief relationship, some twenty two years previously, consisted of Sebastian, a relative newcomer to Hopeless, forcibly ejecting the odious Tobias from Madame Evadne’s, an establishment in which he had long caused nothing but misery and no small amount of terror. Thrupp’s fate, thereafter, was something of a mystery. He had not, however, been a particularly popular man and little effort had been expended in searching for him. These days few people even remembered the man.

 

While mortal men may have fallible memories, there are those on Hopeless who do not. The creatures known as Spoonwalkers see all and forget nothing. I cannot pretend to know their lifecycle or longevity but, in the way that ants are said to possess a group consciousness, I truly believe that Spoonwalkers are similar.They are certainly more than small and inconvenient creatures that steal cutlery. When necessity dictates they will act in unison to further their own dubious ends. Are they telepathic? I think so.

 

There was a distinct rustle of activity on Hopeless after nightfall, as if dozens, maybe hundreds of creatures moved unseen in the darkness. Tiny scrapes of metal, taps of wood, squeaks, cackles and whispers filled the deserted streets as a diminutive and unseen army made its way through the town, past the old graveyard and the bridge, towards the vast, haunted caverns that are said to honeycomb the island. Even Randall Middlestreet, the Night Soil Man, stayed far away from their relentless march, well aware that his usual defences would not keep such a horde at bay.

 

Tobias Thrupp had spent his final years captive in those caverns, eventually bled to a husk and feasted upon by ghouls and vampires, until his body was gone and only his wraith remained. Even then there was no respite from the torment, as nameless creatures of the deepest pit harrowed his very soul. This night he wandered the dark bowels of island wailing and screeching in anguish, writhing beneath the relentless agony. In what was left of the shredded remnants of his consciousness he wondered dimly if he was in Hell. There was no one around to tell him that this was not so. He was still very much in the caverns of Hopeless, Maine. That was where the Spoonwalkers found him.

 

Maybe it was their glowing, madness inducing eyes that drew him out. Maybe not. Whatever the catalyst, some strange, wordless force dragged the sorry wraith into the purple night on an eerie tide of malevolent Spoonwalkers, chattering and swarming around his faintly iridescent shade. On they marched through the town and over the headland to the cove where the lights of The Squid and Teapot shone their welcome to the weary traveller. Tobias Thrupp knew this place well; he had once been its landlord. Although dim embers of recognition glowed in his tortured soul, something else began tugging at him, something stronger than memory. As one, the Spoonwalkers ceased their march and the wraith drifted free of them and into the building. The pull was stronger now. There was no resisting it even if he was able to.

 

Julian Thrupp and Reverend Crackstone were up late. They sat in the snug of the otherwise sleeping inn enjoying a pipe or two of the excellent tobacco that Thrupp had thoughtfully brought and savouring a few glasses of Gannicox Special Distillation. Young Bowbridge had retired early, eagerly looking forward to exploring the island the following day.

Crackstone had sought Thrupp out for two reasons; first and foremost he desired news of his beloved Cotswolds. Newly ordained, he had left England almost forty five years earlier, to teach for a year in the University of New Brunswick. When his ship, ‘The City of Portland’ capsized he and just four others found themselves washed-up on Hopeless. He decided that this was God’s will and here he must remain. Little did he know that all of the other passengers on the ship were rescued without further incident and were quickly able to pick up the threads of their old lives.

Crackstone’s other reason for speaking to Thrupp was to apprise him, in very plain terms, of the character of his relative. The reverend thought it only fair; doubtless rumour of Sebastian’s part in Tobias’ downfall would eventually come to light and the parson wanted to set the record straight before then. He remembered well the grief Tobias Thrupp had caused and the way in which he had allowed The Squid and Teapot to descend into squalor.

Before he had chance to broach the subject, however, there was a disturbance outside, sounds of clinking and shuffling, squeals and whispers. Crackstone had heard this before and a chill ran down his spine. Suddenly the temperature in the room seemed to plummet. Julian Thrupp screamed and pointed to the corner, where a faint, flickering luminescence had appeared. Before either man could move a muscle the uncanny light had taken an almost human form, though pale and semi-opaque, guttering like a spent candle.

“Good Lord,” uttered Crackstone, in recognition, “Tobias Thrupp!”

The wraith seemed to reach out to its relative, mouthing wordlessly.

“He wants my help” Julian said, his voice shaking.

“No, pay no heed,” warned the reverend. “This is some devilish trick. This island is full of such evil.”

The wraith was beckoning now, as if urging Julian to follow.

“I must see what it wants.” insisted the solicitor and lunged towards the spectre.

As he did so the room seemed to explode with light. Crackstone was knocked back, his chair toppling to the ground. Then, without warning, the room was returned to normality. The reverend sat on the floor, dazed, looking around in confusion.

Julian Thrupp was gone.

 

Sebastian and his son, Isaac, were on the scene immediately, closely followed by Dorian Bowbridge, now sporting a full-length, crimson silk dressing gown.

Crackstone told them as much as he could remember and described the disturbance outside that had seemed to have precipitated the manifestation.

Isaac and Sebastian looked at each other.

“Spoonwalkers!” They said the word together.

Dorian looked confused. Their explanation did little to lessen his bewilderment.

After a certain amount of soul searching they decided that there was little they could safely do before daylight, which was still some hours away.

 

It was early light when the four men gathered outside The Squid and Teapot. Standing next to the Lypiatts was Crackstone, who carried a bible. Next to him was Bowbridge, ready with his shotgun. As they walked through the mist, others joined them. Word moves quickly on Hopeless. Bill Ebley, who had survived the Battle of the Somme, answered the call, as did Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs. By some unaccountable coincidence Betty Butterow came from the same direction and skipped along by his side.

The seven stood on the headland as dawn broke over Hopeless, etching them in silhouette against the skyline. They looked magnificent.

 

To be continued…

Art by Clifford Cumber

Tentacoils

‘Twas chillblist, and the tentacoils
  Did writhe and wrangle ‘midst the waves:
Beleaguered was my little boat
Far off the coast of Maine.

Above the storm, a voice sang fell

 A knell, if not a note in tune,

But th’ wind did snatch the words away

 And left my soul in swoon.

 

“Beware the mermaids, child!” it cried
  “The howlers wild, with nails that slash!
The noisome gnii, the beasts of sea
and those your spoon wouldst snatch!”

 

 

“Beware the tentacoils!” it sang

“Beware the stinging succubus

The eyes that glow, the shades that grow,

And demons of the dust!”

 

But firm I took my oar in hand:
  Long time in dark for hope I sought —
‘till in Hopeless State I came to rest,
And lay awash in thought.

 

And, as in lone despair I lay,
  Demonic Shades, with eyes of flame,
came salivating for my soul
And sang, o sang, my name

 

And so a while I’ll linger on

To wander Hopeless in a daze

And bathe my soul in demon song

For all remaining days…

 

‘Twas chillblist, and the tentacoiled
  Did writhe and wrangle ‘midst the waves:
Beleaguered was my little boat
Far off the coast of Maine…

 

Words by Lou Pulford.

Art by Tom Brown

Goodbye Hopeless

“Goodbye, Hopeless I must leave you,
For it’s time for me to go.
I won’t miss your dismal sea-views
And the cold Atlantic blow.
No more trudging over headland
In the fog and driving rain.
So Farewell, Hopeless, I must leave you.
Goodbye Hopeless Maine.”

Granted, it wasn’t exactly up to the standard of Messrs. Cobb and Barnes, the original authors of the song, but the colonel was quietly pleased with his parody of “Goodbye Dolly Gray”.
The truth was that Colonel Ruscombe-Green was feeling out of sorts. Spending five years on the island of Hopeless had not been his plan when he and his valet, Ebley, had set out to row across the Atlantic and seek their fortunes in America, the land of adventure and opportunity. While the islanders had been generally welcoming and supportive, it was, he reflected, no life for a professional soldier. Too boring by far… except, maybe, for the ever-present threat of being attacked by various night-stalkers. One could not discount the danger, either, of being whisked into the ocean by any passing kraken. These blighters seemed to regard the island in the same way that a child might approach a bran-tub at a vicarage fête; something to dip into for its own amusement. And don’t mention those blasted spoonwalker wallahs, who either drive one mad, steal one’s cutlery, or do both. Oh yes, then there was the unpleasant likelihood of being infested by nameless squiggly things that had a nasty habit of  disappearing up trouser legs. Thank goodness he’d hung on to his puttees after the war. No, life on Hopeless was totally uneventful for a man such as himself.
The colonel’s mood did not improve when an urchin from the orphanage delivered the following wedding invitation.

Mr William Ebley and Miss Constanza Gannicox request the pleasure of your company on the occasion of their marriage…

Ruscombe-Green knew that Ebley had been spending a lot of time at the distillery lately but he had no idea that his ex-valet was doing anything other than helping out; certainly not wooing the owner’s sister. He  supposed that he should be happy for Ebley and his bride-to-be but it was difficult. Despite their differences in rank, education and class, he and his batman had been brothers-in-arms for years and had survived many a scrape together. The colonel, feeling suddenly alone, decided there and then that the time had come to find a means of leaving Hopeless for good.

His opportunity came some weeks later. By then Reverend Crackstone had consecrated the marriage of Ebley and Constanza and the misty island was enjoying a brief spell of basking contentedly in the slightly jauntier weather that masqueraded as late summer on Hopeless. It was while visiting the newlyweds in their cottage next to the distillery that Ruscombe-Green stumbled upon the means for escape. Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs, of  the Passamaquoddy tribe, was making one of his bi-annual trips to the island. He was trading furs and brightly coloured textiles in exchange for the Gannicox moonshine that had become extremely popular in certain quarters of the mainland since the introduction of prohibition. With gentle persuasion and the promise of future remuneration, the colonel secured himself a cramped seat in a small canoe, overloaded with bootleg alcohol.
That evening, in The Squid and Teapot, Sebastian Lypiatt threw a farewell party for the colonel. It was there that Ruscombe-Green found out that he had many more friends on the island than he realised. Not least among them was the barmaid, Betty Butterow, who by now was twenty years old. Betty had, over the years, grown especially fond of the colonel. Despite his occasional brusqueness and strange and starchy English manners, she had always found him to be as kind and big-hearted a man as you could wish to know. This evening, however, she was genuinely worried. While Joseph’s skills in handling a canoe were widely acknowledged as being excellent, there really was only room for one in the little craft, loaded as it was with moonshine. Besides that, the permanently fog-bound channel that lay between Hopeless and the mainland was a treacherous stretch of water with unpredictable tides, hidden reefs and rife with an assortment of nightmare creatures that could easily crush an ocean liner, much less a simple canoe. Betty knew these things more than most for, as you may remember, she was a Selkie, a seal-woman.
The following morning the colonel was glad to see that his old friend and ex-valet, Bill Ebley had come to see him off and wish him well. Their parting was particularly emotional. Both men were fully aware that any chance of their meeting again was unlikely but this remained unspoken. They both made promises that they would keep in touch by letter via Joseph, who had happily agreed to the arrangement. And so it was that amid much back-slapping, hand-shaking and the shedding of an occasional manly tear that not even the stiffest of stiff-upper lips could drive back, the colonel bade a fond farewell to the curious island of Hopeless, Maine.

The first letter arrived in the following Spring when Joseph next returned to the island, a full eight months after Ruscombe-Green’s departure.

My dear Ebley,
Greetings, would you believe, from the Nevada Desert.
I trust you and Mrs Ebley are keeping well. For myself, I have never felt better. My passage from the island was happily uneventful. It was a delightful addition to an otherwise nondescript journey when a harbour seal accompanied us all the way to the mainland, swimming as close to the canoe as it was possible to get.
Upon reaching Portland I immediately went to the Masonic Lodge in Congress Street, knowing that my fellow masons would aid a chap in need. From there I was able to wire my bank in London and, again with the help of the masons, prove my identity and release the not insubstantial  funds therein. I have left five hundred dollars with Joseph, whom I trust implicitly, to furnish you and others on the island with anything you might need until the money runs out. Just ask and he will bring it across on his next jaunt – providing it fits in the canoe, of course!
With these affairs in order I at once decided to explore the continent. After visiting Utah (where polygamy seems rife!) I caught the splendidly named Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad down to this strange and fairly new city called Las Vegas. I can’t for the life of me imagine why it was founded in the desert. There is very little here and I confidently predict that within ten years it will be no more than a ghost town.
Over the next few months I fully intend to explore the continent before returning to New England.
Please send my warmest regards to my good friends on Hopeless and do not forget to avail yourselves of anything you may desire from Joseph.

Yours sincerely

J W Ruscombe-Green (Col.)

The letter caused quite a stir on the island and before long Joseph found himself holding a batch of modest requests, ranging from building materials to toilet paper. The Gannicox distillery wanted as much crushed corn as possible. Betty Butterow needed something to wear, preferably low-cut, sultry and saucy. Someone had sent word to Randall Middlestreet, the Night Soil Man; he was desperately in need of a new bucket; one that had a decent lid that stayed securely in place. He also needed a new jacket. Joseph correctly guessed that the two requests were not unconnected. As the day wore on it became obvious that this would not all fit into the canoe. In view of the colonel’s generosity, the Indian resolved to make several trips to the island this year instead of his customary two.
Joseph took only a week or so to fulfil the first few requests. He recognised that Randall’s bucket and jacket were a priority. The supplies of corn for the distillery were in the first consignment, too. Joseph had also included a quantity of blackstrap molasses and barley; he was nothing if not pragmatic and the continued survival of the Gannicox distillery served his own business interests.
Although Joseph traded moonshine, he was not a drinking man; it caused a certain amount of surprise, therefore, when he walked into the bar of the Squid and Teapot. Much to the barmaid’s delight, Joseph had taken it upon himself to deliver Betty’s dress personally. To his great embarrassment she made him stay to see how it looked. No one could criticise Joseph’s judgement as the new dress was quite stunning upon her and fitted perfectly, in all of the right places. It was no wonder, really. The Indian had gazed at Betty with great admiration for some time. For this he was rewarded with a less than chaste kiss upon the lips and a knowing look in Betty’s eyes.

Over the next few weeks the little canoe shuttled back and forth between Hopeless and the mainland; each request for goods was duly met and every dollar spent. On each trip that he made Joseph could not help but notice the harbor seal that accompanied his craft. The legends of his people were full of tales of shape-shifters and spirit creatures. This was plainly no ordinary seal. Joseph instinctively knew it was there to protect him. He could only wonder who his guardian might be.

The months wore on and Bill Ebley eagerly awaited the colonel’s next letter. When it came he thought that his old friend had at last gone quite mad. Apparently Ruscombe-Green had been drinking somewhat excessively in a bar in South Dakota with chap called Robinson. Between them they had come up with a hare-brained scheme to carve a huge likeness of Abraham Lincoln and any other presidents with suitably craggy features, into the sides of a mountain known to the Lakota Indians as The Six Grandfathers. To his great annoyance, a few weeks later the colonel read in a newspaper that the bounder Robinson had stolen the idea and, along with a sculptor chap called Borgum, was actually going to do the job and with government funding no less!
Ebley shook his head in disbelief. The colonel always had one or two tall stories up his sleeve but this one took the biscuit. Carving massive faces into mountains, indeed! Besides, the Ebleys had little time for such rubbish. They had their own exciting news to pass on; William and Constanza were about to become parents. Suddenly, Hopeless was not feeling quite as hopeless as it once had.

Art by Tom Brown

The Supper Guest

In 1630, or thereabouts, the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina published a play entitled ‘The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest.’ (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, later adapted the plot of this play for their opera, Don Giovanni). I may be going out on a limb here but I feel certain that Senor de Molina is unlikely to have expressed the remotest interest in the concept of time travel. It is equally unlikely that he knew of the existence of the island of Hopeless either. In view of these assertions we can be reasonably confident that he was not influenced by the events I am about to unfold to you.

 

Standing, somewhat larger than life-size, in the courtyard of Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen (which still bears the name today) is a statue of the lady herself, who parted this life in 1891, aged eighty three. It was placed there a short time after her death in recognition of the many good works she did on the island.

While some may disapprove of her chosen trade (after all, a bordello is a bordello, whatever else you might choose to call it) few would deny that she was a true philanthropist. Her business interests made her a considerably wealthy woman and she was never slow to use this wealth to help the poor and needy of Hopeless – and there are many.

 

In the opening years of the twentieth century the Squid and Teacup had become a sad place indeed. The inn had long fallen from its former glory, when it had been host to such notaries as Mr. W.S.Gilbert, to become no more than a run-down drinking-den, serving cloudy beer and occasional bouts of dysentery. To call it squalid would be to give squalor a bad name. This was all attributable to the extreme idleness of the landlord, one Tobias Thrupp. He was a stout, squat man who sweated profusely at every opportunity. If asked he would tell you that he was someone who believed in fairness. The only indication of this, however, was the way in which he embraced each of the seven deadly sins with an equal degree of enthusiasm. If the truth is to be told, his only friends bore the names Pride, Gluttony, Sloth, Envy, Avarice, Wrath and Lust.

Unsurprisingly, he was a frequent visitor to Madame Evadne’s, which, since her death, had become something of a social club for both sexes, offering additional facilities for a small remuneration (and half price for the over 60s every Tuesday).

Being the man he was, the unlovely Mr Thrupp used Madam Evadne’s as a vehicle to give full vent to those seven vices. The young ladies of the house (and also their ‘paying guests’) quailed visibly when his shadow crossed the threshold, which it did often. One didn’t need to be a soothsayer to know that the next few hours would bring a world of pain and violence to any who displeased him. While he always paid, albeit grudgingly, for his pleasures, there was not enough money on all of the island to compensate for the misery he caused. After his lusts and violent tendencies had been sated he would repair to the kitchen and devour alarming quantities of meat and beer, then stagger home drunkenly.

 

According to documents kept in The Squid and Teapot its fortunes changed for the better on Monday May 1st 1905. That was the day after Thrupp had rolled into Madame Evadne’s in his usual bullying fashion for the very last time. He had always been used to getting his own way but on this occasion things turned out differently. One of the young ladies, Madrigal Inchbrook, was entertaining a gentleman who had every intention of making an honest woman of her. He was Sebastian Lypiatt, a merchant seaman who had found himself to be the lone survivor of the shipwreck which had brought him to the island some months before. Sebastian was a big man and was not inclined to be pushed around by anyone. When Madrigal told him of Thrupp’s awful ways he decided to put matters right. To cut a short story even shorter, before he knew what was happening, an extremely disgruntled Thrupp was picked up like a rag doll and unceremoniously ejected from the building, being advised that he might not, in future, find himself in full receipt of the contents of his trousers should he return (or words to that effect).

Lying on the flagstones with his dignity and much of his clothing in tatters Thrupp gazed up at the stone effigy of Madame Evadne.

He rose unsteadily to his feet and waved his fist at her.

“ What sort of hospitality is that supposed to be?” he yelled. “Nobody treats me like that. Come to the Squid I’ll show you how to entertain a guest. Have supper with me sometime, you stone-faced trollop.”

The statue gazed impassively at him, as statues are wont to do.

Thrupp staggered away, muttering curses and vowing revenge.

Beltane eve, Mayday eve, Walpurgis, call it what you will, is not an ideal time to challenge the dead, especially on Hopeless.

 

The following night Thrupp was sitting in his parlour eating a lonely supper. His few customers had long departed, heading for home or maybe to The Crow, where the beer was less likely to be life-threatening.

Suddenly, he heard an ominous slow, scraping noise outside that made him pause. He put his fork down and looked around uneasily. The scraping continued; it sounded heavy and laboured. Silence. Then, just as Thrupp was about to resume eating his meal, there came a horribly loud series of knocks upon the door.

“Go away, I’m closed.”

The knocking continued.

“Didn’t you hear? I said I’m closed.”

More knocking.

Thinking it was the merchant seaman coming to dole out another dose of punishment he picked up a stout cudgel and carefully opened the door.

It was not Sebastian Lypiatt who met his eyes. It was the cold, blank stare of Madame Evadne’s statue.

The blood drained from his face.

“Wh..what do you want?” he stammered.

“You invited me. Here I am. What about your promise of hospitality?”

The voice was cold and hollow with a slight French accent (which was entirely false but during her lifetime she felt it gave the place a certain degree of class).

“Leave me alone… you’re not real… this is someone’s idea of a joke.”

“Believe me, it’s no joke,” she said and reached out a stony hand and grabbed his wrist. Her grip was hard and icy and a numbness flowed through him.

He whimpered with pain and fear.

“Come with me and let me show you how you can be truly hospitable”

He could give no resistance as she slowly, terrifyingly, dragged him through the darkened streets. He saw the outline of the bridge, the silent houses, the  monuments in the cemetery, all cold and still in the moonlight. Then he saw their final destination.

He screamed when she led him into the caverns beneath the town. He had heard the stories but had always laughed them off as fantasies to scare children.

“Don’t let them kill me,” he begged.

She made a noise that might have been a chuckle. It was hard to tell.

“Oh, they won’t kill you,” she said. Her words were as hard and cold as the stone that formed her. They offered little comfort.

“This is where the vampires nest. In their hundreds, I believe. They will certainly appreciate the endless supply of… hospitality you will be doubtless be giving them. Don’t worry, you are to live for a long time yet. Oh yes, a very long time.”

Somewhere, from deep within the caverns, a chorus of hapless souls wailed. In reply a score of bright eyes flickered in the darkness. White teeth flashed.

If you are familiar with Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni you will know that the statue consigned him to Hell. I can’t help but think that the Don got off lightly compared to Tobias Thrupp.

 

After Thrupp’s disappearance the Squid stood empty for months. As no one else showed any interest in restoring the inn, Sebastian Lypiatt and his new wife Madrigal decided to try and raise it back to the condition that it had enjoyed in happier times. According to my good friend Rufus Lypiatt (their great grandson and current landlord of The Squid and Teapot) within a year or so it once more became something of a haven against the fog and darkness that lingered beyond its walls. And so it remains today.

Art by Tom Brown

The Wendigo

The impressively named Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs was one of the very few people who actually visited Hopeless regularly and of his own free will. A Native American of the Passamaquoddy people, twice a year he would load his canoe with furs and woven blankets and brave the treacherous ocean and dense fog banks to trade with the islanders. In the past there had been little on Hopeless worth bartering but in the last few years, Since Solomon Gannicox had opened his distillery, things had improved. Now, with the very recent imposition of prohibition laws in the United States, Gannicox ‘Fire Water’ had become a precious commodity on the mainland.

Today, however, he was puzzled. Standing on a hillside, overlooking Creepy Hollow, Joseph was convinced that he was witnessing some arcane religious ceremony. A small band of worshippers, men, women and children, formed a loose circle around two combatants, each carrying a club. A third combatant would occasionally hurl a missile at one of the other two, who, in turn would wave his club feebly at it. This usually resulted in a small bundle of sticks disintegrating behind the club-wielder, who was immediately banished from the arena, only to be replaced by another. This continued for some time until the throng were joined by a wild man. This strange character was alone in managing to hit the missile and send it towards the ocean, to devastating effect. It was then that Joseph suddenly realised what was going on. He was witnessing an invocation ceremony. These combatants had summoned a great undersea god, who astonishingly, and not without creating a certain amount of terror in all who witnessed the event, took the wild man as sacrifice. Joseph shook his head in amazement. The ways of the white skinned people would never cease to surprise him.

 

As he made his way home, Elmer Bussage reflected that he had just experienced the most enjoyable and unusual day of his life. A few weeks earlier he had rescued the Englishman, Colonel Ruscombe-Green, from certain death and as a consequence had been invited to participate in the cricket match that the colonel and his valet, Ebley, had organised. For most of us this would have meant very little but Elmer Bussage was the Night Soil Man and invitations to social events were not so much rare as non-existent. From his fielding position on the far boundary Elmer had watched the team from The Crow fail miserably. Not that he had fared much better, being bowled out for no runs. None of this mattered, however. People had clapped him when he went into bat and applauded again when he was bowled out thirty seconds later. It had been a perfect day. Well, almost perfect; after all, Crazy Wally had been taken by a kraken and that did put something of a dampener on things.

 

Someone else who had been invited to play was Randall Middlestreet, a youngster who had, until recently, lived in the orphanage. Randall had an altogether different take on the day’s events. Due to the confusion that ensued because of his being unfamiliar with cricketing terms, he found himself at Scilly Point, a mile or more away from the rest of the team. Realising his mistake he decided to make his way back to his lodgings but could not help but wonder how the match had gone and if his ball was safe. He was not unduly put out by missing the game but Randall had lent the cricketers a prized baseball and was keen to get it back. The hope was always with him that the previous owner might come looking for it; after all, she had gone to the trouble of inscribing it with her name. In his mind’s eye Randall could picture her clearly, sleek and gorgeous; as seductively beautiful as her name suggested. His heart raced slightly.

“Babe Ruth, I love you,” he whispered quietly to himself.

He had virtually reached home when his train of thought was derailed by the noise of rocks being disturbed just over the ridge. He wondered if the delectable Ruth had finally tracked him down and come to reclaim her ball. Why she would want to disturb rocks to attract his attention was something of a mystery but ever the optimist, he went to investigate.

The sight that greeted him was far from seductive. A creature, skeletally thin and as tall as three men was making its way towards the small collection of low buildings that Randall had recently begun to call home.

To call this monster hideous would not do justice to the abject ugliness of its face – if face you could call it – and body,  Its red eyes caught sight of the boy and drool slavered from the cavernous mouth. A tongue, black and lanceolated, swept over the yellow, needle-like teeth. Randall was terrified and momentarily frozen to the spot as the creature lunged towards him. He screamed as an icy, gnarled hand caught him around the throat and roughly dragged him upwards towards the gaping, salivating maw. The air was thick with the stench of rotting flesh and poor dental hygiene; the troubling thought occurred to Randall that he was far too young to die. Suddenly a volley of rocks peppered the air, bouncing off the monstrous head. Randall felt every breath of wind knocked from him as, with an unearthly snarl, his cadaverous attacker casually discarded his frail body in favour of this new, more fierce, and frankly, better nourished, prey.

“Randall, get up boy. Get up and run.”

It was Elmer Bussage. He had little fear of this or any aggressor. Years of experience had taught him that nothing seemed to want to tangle with a malodorous Night Soil Man. Sadly for Elmer the loathsome creature was not aware of this and swept him up as easily as a child with a doll.

Randall watched in horror as Elmer was ripped to pieces before his very eyes. Every morsel of the Night Soil Man was stuffed quickly and greedily into the huge gaping mouth. The creature chewed and crunched its way through Elmer’s bones, flesh and clothing in a noisy and disgustingly rebarbative fashion. Meaty gobbets and streams of gore dribbled from the monster’s chops, macabrely decorating the rocks and greasing the puddles. If, by chance, any other dark denizen of Hopeless smelt the bloody feast and felt slightly tempted to join in, they wisely made a point of keeping well away, being more than aware that they would probably be next on the menu.

Coming to his senses, Randall, in blind panic, ran as he had never run before, knowing he had just witnessed the impossible. Nothing can kill the Night Soil Man, he told himself. Nothing. That is what Reverend Crackstone had led him to believe at the orphanage and that was what everyone thought to be true.

 

Solomon Gannicox was deep in conversation with Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs, when Randall crashed into him. Sturdy though Solomon was, the blow knocked him off his feet and on to his backside.

“Steady there, youngster,” he scolded. “There is no excuse for dashing around like that.”

“A monster,” wailed Randall. “A monster just chewed Mr Bussage up into tiny pieces.”

“Don’t lie boy.” Solomon said dismissively. “You know as well as I do that nothing can harm the Night Soil Man.”

“ It did with its great big teeth. It shoved him into its horrible gaping cake-hole. It’s a huge walking corpse with stinky breath. A monster, if ever I saw one, Mr Gannicox, sir. It was awful.”

Something had obviously distressed the boy. Solomon rose to his feet and banged the dust from the seat of his trousers.

The face of Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs had become suddenly grim. He looked hard at the orphan.

“ You say this giant corpse ate Mr Bussage?”

Randall nodded.

“Take no notice, Joseph…” began Solomon but the Indian raised his hand for silence.

“Now tell me exactly what you saw,” he said to Randall.

The boy described everything about the creature that he could remember.

Joseph was silent for some time, then said quietly and to no one in particular,

“Wendigo. Wendigo has come and it is my fault.”

“Wendy? Wendy from Peter Pan?”

The orphans had been read Mr Barrie’s story several times but Randall could not quite grasp the connection between the monster and the heroine, Wendy, with whom he had long ago fallen in love. That was, however, some time before his infatuation with Babe Ruth had taken hold.

“No, Wendigo. Wendigo is The Windwalker, an evil manitou, a dark spirit known to my people. He has followed me to this place. I am the one he is here for.”

Solomon Gannicox paled visibly.

“But why…?”

“I stole from his food store. Wendigo does not always eat his kill. He will hang the corpses from trees and feed later. I stole some of those corpses from him… “

“But why…?”

Solomon’s usually rich vocabulary seemed to have been reduced to these two simple words.

Joseph looked away and he took a long time to answer.

“They were the last earthly remains of my wife and my mother. Now Wendigo wants vengeance… and so do I. I will go to him. ”

Despite the protestations of the distiller the Indian had made his mind up. So had Randall.

“ I’ll take you to where I saw him,” he said, bravely.

Solomon was about to object but Joseph cut him short.

“The boy will be safe, I promise. Wendigo is not – how would you say it? – not very bright. I have tricked him before. This time I will finish it.”

 

Wendigo had not moved far. He was sitting on a rock by the Night Soil Man’s cottage, half dozing and still digesting his meal, when they spotted him. On the way over the two had formulated a plan to get rid of the monster and with his still being in the vicinity, the conditions were as near perfect to ensure its success as either could have hoped. Randall slipped into the bunkhouse by the side of the cottage and, a minute or so later, appeared with an old rush mat rolled up under his arm. He gingerly made his way around the rocks, making sure that he gave the creature a very wide berth. After a few minutes Joseph began yelling and beating the wooden walls of the bunkhouse with a discarded cricket bat that he had found. He hoped that if all else failed, this religious artefact might allow him some protection against evil.

Wendigo immediately reared up and snarled angrily, recognising his adversary. Whooping and waving his bat Joseph taunted him. Nimbly avoiding the massive reach of his abominable foe, Joseph ran. He ran for his life. Wendigo was so close behind him that Joseph could smell his foul breath in the air around him. Just when capture and death seemed inevitable Joseph spotted what he was looking for; the bunkhouse mat lay incongruously on the earth before him. As he leapt nimbly over it Joseph felt Wendigo try to grab one of his long braids of hair but it slipped through the Windwalker’s gnarled fingers. Hot in pursuit the enraged monster stepped on to the rush mat but found no support beneath him. For the briefest of moments a look of confusion crossed Wendigo’s hideous features, then in an instant he was gone, tumbling down the narrow shaft to depths greater than anyone could imagine. It was fortunate, but unsurprising, that Randall knew of the sinkhole near the cottage and had used it to trap the monster.

It took only a short while for the shock of the events of the previous few days to recede sufficiently for the island to return to its default state of mild panic rather than abject terror. It was then, in a simple ceremony witnessed by Solomon Gannicox and Reverend Crackstone (who had been Randall’s guardian before he left the orphanage) that Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs made Randall his blood-brother and member of the Passamaquoddy tribe. And so, Randall recently apprenticed and dreadfully unprepared, became the next Night Soil Man and bore the distinction of having the longest name of any of his profession: Randall Blood-Brother-Of-Joseph-Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs.

Babe Ruth would have been proud of him.

Art by Clifford Cumber