Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

story, poetry, rumour and gossip

The Original

While attempting, without any great success, to map the island of Hopeless, Sophia O’Stoat believed that she had discovered her long lost cousin, Killigrew. It appeared that since his disappearance, over a year earlier, he had been living among the Commoners, who dwelt in the shadow of the Gydynap Hills. Sophia wasted no time in returning home and reporting back to his father – her uncle Caswell – who asked her to take him to the place where she had spotted Killigrew.

 

Like all who lived on the common, Corwen Nailsworthy was unused to receiving visitors. When a tall, gaunt stranger rapped at the apothocary’s door, the old man had no idea what to expect. He withered visibly beneath Caswell’s intense gaze.

“Is it right that you have my son, Killigrew,  here?”

Corwen immediately guessed to whom the stranger was referring. Both the newcomer and the girl who accompanied him bore an uncanny resemblance to the strange lad that he had nursed back to health. Corwen invited the pair in, offered them a cup of elderberry cordial, and told the tale of Killigrew’s rescue and long recovery.

“His memory is completely blank, poor fellow,” said Corwen. “I had no idea of his name until you told me, just then. We just call him the Night-Soil Man.”

Caswell raised a quizzical and decidedly annoyed eyebrow. He had heard of the night-soil collectors of his own country. This was a job far beneath the dignity of an O’Stoat.

“It’s his choice totally, sir,” said Corwen hurriedly, sensing trouble. “Nobody makes him do it.”

“Take me to him, please,” said Caswell curtly, not entirely trusting the old man.

 

Caswell could hardly believe that he was looking at his son. He had always regarded Killigrew as being somewhat effete, given to indolence and too much romanticism. The young man who stood before him was sturdy and muscular, not at all like an O’Stoat. Besides this, he smelt like a cesspool.

“Killigrew? Is that really you?’

The young man stared at his father blankly; there was no hint of recognition in his eyes.

“I don’t know. That’s what she called me earlier,” Killigrew pointed at Sophia, adding

“And who are you?”

Caswell placed his hand firmly on the young man’s head and closed his eyes in deep concentration. The two stood motionless for what seemed to be an eternity.

Slowly Caswell opened his eyes once more and removed his hand from Killigrew’s head, placing it instead on Corwen’s shoulder. The old apothecary stiffened uncomfortably.

“You spoke the truth. I can never thank you enough for saving my son – the O’Stoat family will be forever in your debt. And now I’d like to take him home, where he belongs.”

Corwen’s heart missed a beat. He had heard of the O’Stoats. Rumours of their mystical abilities had been whispered in every corner of  the island.

 

If Caswell had possessed a fatted calf it would have been slaughtered in Killigrew’s honour. As it was they had to make do with squid pie (this was, of course, some time before starry grabby pie had been invented). Sadly, despite his family’s efforts to restore his memory – which included no small amount of magical persuasion –  Killigrew did not recognise any of them or have any recollection of his past. Nothing worked. A stranger in his own home, Killigrew longed for the solitude he had enjoyed as the Commoners’ night soil collector. Eventually his family relented and decided to let him have his way. They built him a cottage, far away from any other habitation, next to an old and apparently bottomless sinkhole, where few dared to venture. With heavy hearts they gave him their blessing to carry on with his chosen life. If you care to look into the history of Hopeless – or read the tale ‘The House at Poo Corner’ – you will find that Killigrew O’Stoat is recorded as being the island’s very first Night Soil Man.

 

You will recall from the tale entitled ‘Killigrew and Joliette’ that the Chevin brothers had viciously beaten Killigrew and left him for dead. You may well ask why they did not finish the job, once they learned he still lived. The answer is simple. By the time that everyone was aware of Killigrew’s reappearance he had firmly established the role of the Night Soil Man, going about his work under the cover of darkness, thereby guaranteeing his not having to meet other people. It is a life suited to the the most introverted, the most reclusive. The Night Soil Man, protected as he is by his malodorous calling, repels every terror walking the island – even the Chevins.

By Martin Pearson-Art by Tom Brown
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Common People

A year had passed since Killigrew O’Stoat had disappeared. His family had long since given up scouring the island for him. The general feeling was that he had been taken by one of the nameless menaces that haunt Hopeless and the waters that surround it. That was, at least, the official view. In reality, the O’Stoats were convinced that his demise had more to do with the Chevin family taking issue with his romantic relationship with young Joliette Chevin (and of course, they were absolutely correct). The Chevins, at the same time, believed that Killigrew had bewitched Joliette and his actions had driven her to madness and death. There was also the matter of their child, Ophelia, whose parentage was kept secret from all but the immediate members of the family and passed off as being the youngest of the Chevins – and perceived to be something of a surprise to her ageing parents!

 

In the tale ‘The Sweaty Tapster’ it is told how a rag-tag band of sailors and convicts – in the shape of whores and petty thieves, originally bound for penal servitude in Virginia – discovered a small, tightly-knit community living at the foot of the Gydynap Hills, in the area known, these days, as Iron Mills Common. These people, who called themselves Commoners, conversed in a language approximating to Old English and were probably descended from the Saxon slaves of Norsemen who had settled on the island centuries before. The influx of lusty young newcomers ensured that, by the time the founding families arrived some hundred years later, the ancient language of the Commoners had all but disappeared and their gene pool was considerably less shallow than it had previously been.

In order to survive the Commoners had taken to beachcombing on a grand scale. A party of ten or twelve would venture out with a variety of baskets, buckets and barrels, carried on their backs, scouring the shoreline for anything deemed remotely useful or edible. So, when they came upon the crumpled form of Killigrew sprawled upon the rocks, there followed some discussion in which it was unanimously agreed that he was definitely not edible. Whether he would prove to be useful was another matter altogether.

Corwen Nailsworthy was the nearest that the Commoners had to a doctor. He was their self-appointed vintner, distiller and apothecary. His remedy for most ailments involved the administration of one concoction or another that relied upon the fruit or flowers of the elder tree. When the bruised and battered Killigrew was presented to him, however, he realised that his medical skills would be pushed to their limit. Bone-setting and bandaging would be only part of it. The young man had been so badly beaten that no one could possibly know what internal damage had been caused.

The weeks turned into months and thanks to Corwen, Killigrew’s body mended. His memory, however, had deserted him completely. He had no clue as to who he was, where he lived or what had happened. Furthermore, he had little desire to uncover his previous existence, convinced that he would not like the things he might find.

 

To begin with Killigrew was happy to stay among the Commoners  and hide from his past. As the time slipped by, however, he grew increasingly reclusive, eschewing the company of others. Although grateful to Corwen for bringing him back to health, Killigrew had no wish to interact with those around him any more than was necessary.

 

Despite his wishes, Killigrew was forced to relent a little. In order for any small community to thrive, every living soul has to contribute in some way. There can be no passengers, no hangers-on. Reluctantly Killigrew made it known that he was content to do anything and would happily embrace the most menial of tasks as long as he was allowed the solitude that he so craved. As it happened, there was one menial task above all others that no one had the slightest desire to fulfil. That is how Killigrew found himself collecting human waste – or the ‘night‐soil’, as the Commoners called it – and each morning ferrying it far away from the settlement, where time and nature might hopefully transform it into a usable compost. Strangely, Killigrew came to love his job. Nobody bothered him but in gratitude for his services, they left gifts of food on the doorstep of the little hovel he had constructed, on the edge of the common.

                       **********

Sophia O’Stoat, being an adventurous young lady, had made it her business to explore and map as much as the island as she was able. This was especially problematic, as certain vital landmarks had the annoying habit of disappearing, then turning up in odd spots where they had absolutely no business to lurk. Fortunately the larger, less portable places tended to stay more or less where they were expected to be. It was while she was surveying the area around the reliably immobile Gydynap Hills that Sophia spotted a once-familiar figure ambling over the edge of the common. She rubbed her eyes in astonishment. If it was not her long-lost favourite cousin Killigrew, then it was his double… but the smell! What on earth was he doing?

“Killigrew, is that you?”

The young man took no notice. She tried again.

“Killigrew. It’s me Sophia.”

Killigrew stopped and looked at the pretty girl who seemed to be calling to him. There was something vaguely familiar about her – and those names – where had he heard them before? He shrugged, turned and walked on; the bucket strapped to his back was too heavy to allow him to linger.

“Killigrew…” Sophia’s voice trailed off as she watched the unmistakable shape of her cousin disappear into the mist…

 

To be continued…

Story by Martin Pearson-Art by Tom and Nimue Brown

The Tragedy of Killigrew and Joliette

 “Never was a story more or less true,      Than this of Joliette and her Killigrew.”

There is strong evidence that, even in those very early years following the founding families settling on this island, relations between the various clans were not always cordial. Having said this, I am not talking about enmities on a par with those famously expressed by the Hatfields against the McCoys, the Pazzi against the Medici or the Campbells against the MacDonalds, where the body-counts were distressingly high. The occasional fallings-out on Hopeless were, more often than not, minor squabbles concerning ownership of various items of flotsam or jetsam, usually followed by the injured parties muttering under their breath, stamping their feet and making fists in their pockets. It is fair to say that the Jones and Frog families tried to maintain, at least, a veneer of civility with their neighbors but the Chevins and O’Stoats were destined to clash from the outset.

I have no idea how well any of the founding families knew each other prior to landing on Hopeless but I cannot imagine how the Chevins and O’Stoats were even able to tolerate being on the same boat that brought them here, if, indeed they were. They were chalk and cheese (not that you’re likely to find either very often on Hopeless). The Chevins, in those days were known to be tightly-buttoned, disapproving and fundamentalist in all of their beliefs, whereas the O’Stoats were as wild as their name suggests. They were rumoured to have descended from a long and noble line of witches, necromancers and heaven knows who else, which will surprise no one familiar with the history of Hopeless. Despite this, however, these disparate factions managed to maintain, at least for a while, a semblance of amiability. Then love got in the way and ruined everything.

Killigrew O’Stoat and Joliette Chevin were, as Shakespeare would have said, star-cross’d lovers. Their first meeting was far from auspicious, however. Killigrew was beachcombing at the time, with his cousin, Sophia. Night was drawing in and Sophia was becoming increasingly nervous.

“It’s time we were getting home, Killy,” said Sophia. “It’s dangerous out here when it gets dark.”

Not wishing to leave immediately, Killigrew pointed to where a faint gleam was emanating from a nearby building.

“But Soph’ – what’s that light from yonder broken window?”

“It’s probably one of the Chevins squeezing gnii to extract the oil,” replied Sophia. “They always glow a bit just before they die. The gnii, that is. Not the Chevins.”

You must remember that these events occurred a before the gnii oil distillery was constructed. There was nothing, at the time, robust enough to process the large, oceanic gnii. Experiments in extracting oil from the small but plentiful island gnii (gniis vulgaris) were primitive, not to say brutal, requiring something of a hands-on approach  As neither Killigrew nor Sophia had witnessed the far from pleasant spectacle of gnii being manually squeezed for their oil, the two, perversely, decided to get a closer look. They were thwarted, however when a girl’s face peered out through the cracked glass. She did not look happy.

“Clear off” she yelled

Sophia and Killigrew were so surprised at her unpleasant attitude that they stood rooted to the spot. The window flew open and the girl looked unaccountably angry.

“ This is Chevin property,” she shouted. “Now go away!” (This last directive may not have been the exact term she used).

It was then that her eyes met Killigrew’s and her anger melted, like snow on the water.

“We should leave, you know what the Chevins can be  like,” said Sophia, anxiously but Killigrew did not hear her. It was if an invisible thread was drawing him towards the girl at the window. It was love at first sight for both.

“I’m Joliette,” she said dreamily.

“And I’m Killigrew,” he answered, “but you can call me Killy.”

Joliette raised her eyebrows in disapproval.

“Killy? You have to be joking. Although a skunk cabbage by any other name would smell as vile, I’ll stick to Killigrew.”

And stick to Killigrew she did. The two became inseparable. Despite family differences, the elders of the both the Chevin and O’Stoat families gave every appearance of being surprisingly sanguine about the blossoming romance, even when the pair announced that they wished to marry – but others objected. Joliette’s three older brothers decided that enough was enough and that they did not want an O’Stoat heathen as a brother-in-law.

It was a moonless night when they fell upon Killigrew, beating him to within an inch of his life. Not satisfied with this, the Chevin brothers dragged his bruised and broken body to the shore for the ocean – or worse – to dispose of; they were intent on finishing their sister’s paramour once and for all. It was late when the three slunk home in silence, each deep in his own thoughts.

In the days and weeks that followed it appeared to all that Killigrew O’Stoat had simply disappeared from the face of the earth – or, at least, from the island of Hopeless, Maine. His family sent out search parties but to no avail. Distraught though they were, their grief was as nothing compared to that of Joliette. To make matters worse, soon after his disappearance she found that she was expecting his child. Filled with shame, her family at once ensured that Joliette’s movements were confined to their own property and kept her pregnancy a secret. When the child – a daughter, whom they named Ophelia – was eventually born she was passed off as being ‘a lovely surprise from God’ for Joliette’s mother. A surprise indeed, for the older Chevins were generally considered to be well past participating in what many coyly described as ‘that sort of thing’ and were subsequently viewed as being dangerously racy by some of their more straightlaced neighbours.

Joliette never recovered from Killigrew’s sudden disappearance. She took to wandering the headland, a mad look in her eye, searching for her lost lover. On many an occasion she could be heard lamenting,

“Killigrew, Killigrew, where the hell are you, Killigrew?”

Eventually, she wandered out once too often and was never seen again.

Ophelia Chevin was eight years old when she discovered she had the gift of ‘The Sight’. Such an ability was unheard of in the Chevin family – it was more of an O’Stoat trait – and she was urged to mention it to no one. Being an obedient child, Ophelia made the  promise and kept it. The truth was not revealed until years after her death, when her journals were found, as related in the tale ‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’.

Only a handful of the Chevins knew the facts  of the matter and the family blamed Killigrew and by extension, all of the O’Stoats, for Joliette’s demise, claiming that he had bewitched her. The O’Stoats, though unaware of the truth, suspected that the Chevins were behind Killigrew’s disappearance. Hatred grew like weeds and nothing has since been right between the two families.

These should, perhaps, have been the last words concerning the tragedy of Killigrew and Joliette… but the decidedly weird island of Hopeless, Maine had other plans.

To be continued…

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom and Nimue Brown

 

Dutchman’s Gold

Philomena Bucket wrapped her woolen shawl tightly around her shoulders; despite the chilly air she smiled quietly to herself. She had lived on Hopeless for almost a year and – somewhat uniquely – had fallen in love with the island. Certainly, compared to most places it was dangerous, inhospitable and lacking in the most basic of amenities. On the other hand, it was somewhere where she, an albino, attracted no second glances, no derision. Here she had a home, work, friends and the occasional company of a small, fun-loving dog. Admittedly the dog had been dead for some years and these days was no more than a skeleton but Drury had become as good a companion as anyone could wish to have. For Philomena, living on Hopeless was many times better than the life she had previously known.

 

One of Philomena’s greatest pleasures was to walk, as she was today, in the Gydynap hills. With their sudden fogs and air of mystery the Gydynaps reminded her of the Nargles Mountains, an area she knew well, a dozen or so miles west of the city of Cork, in her native Ireland. Somehow, she felt safer in the Gydynaps than anywhere else on the island. Whenever Philomena chose to go for a walk, Drury would invariably appear, as if by magic and rattle joyously along beside her, sniffing the air and making a great show of marking his territory (but – for obvious reasons – failing).

 

The inhabitants of Hopeless are not renowned for their love of walking. A healthy respect for the various dangers, mixed with no small measure of apathy, ensures that few wish to venture an inch further than necessary from their own front door. In view of this, it was a rare day, indeed, that Philomena met anyone else walking the hills. The day of this tale, however, was rare beyond her wildest imaginings.

 

Philomena was by no means timid but her heart missed a beat when Drury suddenly stopped in mid-gambol and growled. Had he been  in receipt of ears to push back and hackles to rise he could not have expressed his guarding instincts any more clearly. Someone, or more likely something, was around; Drury was giving every sign that all was not right and Philomena was uneasy.

For what seemed an age the skeletal dog stayed stock-still, growling ferociously at, what appeared to be, nothing in particular. All around them the mist began to thicken and swirl. Philomena blinked and rubbed her eyes. Her long-sight had never been particularly good but this poor visibility seemed to be playing tricks with her vision. As the mist thinned a little, she could just make out a figure emerging through a narrow cleft in the rocks that Philomena could have sworn had not been  there a moment earlier. Drury dropped down on to where his belly would have been and whimpered quietly.

“Howdy ma’am,” the stranger hailed her with a cheery wave.

He was a lanky, ginger-bearded individual, dressed in worn buckskins and a hat with an excessively floppy brim.

“Good afternoon to you sir,” replied Philomena primly.

” I sure didn’t figure on findin’ no ladies up here in the mountains,” drawled the stranger. “You must be a long way from home.”

“A mile or so, sir,” conceded Philomena, softening a little as Drury became visibly more relaxed. The bony dog was always an infallible judge of character and their new companion seemed to meet his approval.

“By the by, I ain’t nobody’s idea of a sir. I’m just plain old Hank.”

The man who called himself Hank squatted down on the ground and opened his knapsack, from which he produced a leather tobacco pouch and a stubby pipe.

“Share a pipe, ma’am?”

Philomena smiled and shook her head.

Hank eyed her, unsure of what to say next. Philomena’s presence was confusing him. He drew on his pipe and said, warily,

“Guess you’re looking for the Dutchman’s Gold Mine, same as me.”

It was Philomena’s turn to be confused.

“No… I’m just out for a walk with Drury, here.”

At the mention of his name Drury clambered to his feet with a series of osseous rattles. Hank involuntarily screamed as he witnessed a pile of bleached bones become suddenly animated.

“Jumpin’ Jehosohat,” he exclaimed. “What in tarnation is THAT?”

“That,” Philomena replied coldly, “is my good and faithful friend Drury – and I would be obliged if you referred to him with a little more respect in future.”

As if to show his utter disdain for Hank, Drury immediately flopped down and sank into a deep and snore-filled slumber.

Hank’s face dropped.

“Then what them Apaches say is true,” he wailed. “There really is a gateway to Hell in the Superstition Mountains.”

“Hell?” said Philomena in surprise. “You’re not in Hell, you’re in Hopeless, Maine.”

“Maine???” Hank’s face whitened noticeably beneath his tan. “Jumpin’ Jehosophat, that’s more than two thousand miles from Arizona.”

Philomena wondered to herself who Jehosophat might be and why he was so addicted to jumping.

“Believe me,” she ventured, “Hopeless is strange – but surely preferable to Hell. Nothing much surprises me about this place any more.”

Hank contemplated what she had said. He had had some strange adventures in his time but this was, by far, the strangest. Stoically, he finished his smoke and lay the pipe on the ground by his side. It did not take a great deal of persuasion on Philomena’s part for Hank to tell her his story.

“There’s a legend that this foreign guy discovered a gold mine in the Superstition Mountains, east of Phoenix. They call it the Dutchman’s gold mine. Folks have been searchin’ for it for years and some of ’em seem to have disappeared into thin air. I rolled up there a day or two ago and thought I’d try my hand at gettin’ rich. Instead I end up in… where did you say?

“Hopeless,” said Philomena, helpfully. “But I don’t think that the others have come here. I’m sure someone would have mentioned it. Maybe you can go back the way you came.”

“Maybe, but I… jumpin’ Jehosophat, what in tarnation is that?”

While they were talking, a spoonwalker had sidled up beside them and picked up the pipe, studying it with curiosity.

“Dagnabbit! What is that thing?”

The sudden commotion had woken Drury. He instinctively leapt for the spoonwalker. who fled the scene with surprising speed and agility, racing along on its cutlery stilts and still clutching Hank’s pipe. It made a beeline for the cleft in the wall, with Drury in hot pursuit.

Philomena watched in horror as her beloved companion hurled himself at the fleeing spoonwalker, just as it disappeared into the opening.

With a crack that echoed around the hills, the cleft snapped shut. Half a second later Drury crashed into the rock face with a force that would have killed an ordinary dog. Happily for Drury, that particular ship had sailed long ago. Instead, he picked himself up from the stony ground, gave a shake and staggered unsteadily over to where Philomena and Hank were sitting.

“As I was saying,” said Philomena. “This is a strange place – and it looks as though you’re stuck with it.”

She took Hank gently by the arm and walked the bewildered newcomer down the hill. Drury, fully recovered by now, ran on in front, his bony tail wagging happily.

“And you’re sure this ain’t Hell?” asked Hank, casting a wary eye at the pale woman and her dead dog.

“Not for me,” said Philomena. “Not for me.”

 

Author’s note: In the mid nineteenth century, Jacob Waltz, a German immigrant claimed to have discovered a mother lode of gold in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. He revealed the location of the mine on his death-bed to a boarding-house keeper, Julia Thomas, who, reportedly, later made a living by selling treasure maps for $7 each. Despite this, the mine was never discovered. This is just one of the several legends surrounding the ‘Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine’ (the words ‘Dutch’ and ‘Deutsch’ being commonly confused in the U.S. at that time).

What is not a legend is that many of those who have searched for the mine have disappeared without a trace.

Interestingly, the Apache Indians of the region have long believed that deep in the Superstition Mountains there exists a portal which gives access to the lower world, their version of hell.

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom and Nimue Brown

The Lighthouse

Following the coming of the founding families to Hopeless, one of the earliest structures to be erected was the lighthouse. To begin with this was a simple affair, no more than a fiery beacon on a pole to warn any passing ships of the treacherous rocks that lurk beneath the tide-line. As a navigational aid, however, it was by no means infallible and did nothing to prevent the disaster which deposited Mr Hamish Stevenson on the shores of the island.

There was a certain irony in Stevenson being shipwrecked. You see, Hamish was a nephew of Robert Stevenson, the brilliant engineer responsible for many of the lighthouses that still stand sentinel around the rocky shores of Britain. Young Stevenson, who had worked closely with his Uncle Robert, had been entrusted with the task of accompanying the transportation of a Fresnel lens, complete with the mercury bath that it would float upon, to the soon-to-be-renovated Portland Head Light.

The small matter of a shipwreck did little to bruise Hamish’s unquenchable enthusiasm for his work. Encouraged by the fact that both the lens and the mercury bath had miraculously been undamaged by the disaster, he immediately decided that Hopeless, Maine needed a proper lighthouse and he, a Stevenson born and bred, was the man for the job. And so – with no small amount of help – Hamish built a lighthouse. Maybe his was not as elegant or stylish as those of the elder Stevenson but Hamish was proud to call the Hopeless lighthouse his own. The job was done and done well. Bob’s your uncle, you might say (or, at least, he was Hamish’s uncle).

By a happy coincidence, the recent completion of the nearby Gnii distillery meant that there would be an ample supply of fuel to keep the light burning. All that was required now was to find a willing volunteer to be its keeper.

There was no shortage of applicants. Eventually the role of Hopeless’ first lighthouse keeper was given to Egbert Tinkley, a man who had spent twenty years before the mast, prior to his being shipwrecked with Hamish. Egbert was a wiry man with twinkling blue eyes and an impressive salt-and-pepper beard. In his seaman’s cap, roll-neck sweater (that perfectly matched his beard) and turned down sea-boots he looked every-inch a lighthouse keeper and embraced his role with vim and vigour, endlessly polishing the brass and cleaning the lens as it perched and rotated gently and quietly on its mercury bath.

When not involved with maintaining his beloved light, Egbert would occasionally venture into Hopeless town to obtain whatever provisions might be available. He would invariably stop and chat to anyone who would listen but as the weeks passed into months people began to notice some less-than-subtle changes in him. His blue eyes no longer twinkled but instead, stared, unblinking and glassy. His conversations became fewer, at least with other people, although he could be frequently heard having, sometimes, violent arguments with himself. He would wander the streets with squids tucked into the tops of his boots and his cap on backwards. Some of the islanders began to get somewhat concerned about Egbert, but put it to the back of their collective minds and attributed his behaviour to no more than colourful eccentricity. After all, the light never failed to be lit exactly one hour before sunset each evening and that was all that mattered.

It was only when Arabella O’Stoat called by the lighthouse with some squid tarts did anyone realise the extent of Egberts eccentricity. The lower floors of the building were a mess, the walls daubed with paint and papers and sea-charts strewn all around. There were heaps of pebbles and seaweed covering the floors, while a combination of dead gulls, driftwood and useless flotsam covered every flat surface. Only the lantern remained pristine and it was here that she found Egbert. He was humming to himself and delicately cleaning the lens with a mixture of vinegar and water (an excellent solution for achieving smear-free glass).

“Are you alright, Egbert?” asked Arabella warily.

“I can fly, you know,” the keeper replied, for no apparent reason. “Just like a seagull, when the mood takes me.”

“Of course you can,” said Arabella soothingly. “Why don’t we go down to the kitchen and have a nice cup of tea?”

“It’s not called the kitchen, it’s the galley,” yelled Egbert, suddenly angry. “I can fly there. Watch me.”

With that he scrambled outside, on to the gallery that ran around the lantern.

“Watch me,” he cried, standing on the top rail.

Arabella could only look on, horrified, as he launched himself into the air.

Over the following months and years a succession of lighthouse keepers went quietly mad attending to their duties, though it must be said, none as fatally as Egbert. It was generally felt that the building was cursed; surely, even on Hopeless, it was too much of a coincidence that every shred of reason chose to leave the keepers who tended the light.

After a while the brass became dull through neglect, the clockwork mechanism that rotated the light lay still and the lamp was lit no more. No one wanted to ascend the steps to the lantern and the lighthouse became derelict.

The madness suffered by the Egbert Tinkley and his successors is no great mystery, though on Hopeless the lighthouse curse is still spoken of in hushed tones. It is often suspected that lighthouse keepers are all a little mad. It is not just the loneliness of the work, as many believe, but the proximity of mercury. Like hatters, who used mercurous nitrate to cure felt, lighthouse keepers suffered prolonged exposure to mercury vapour – and like hatters, they often went mad.

The lighthouse still stands, though these days the lantern is long gone and its stonework bleached by the weather and ravaged by time. Ravens roost in its highest reaches, while spoonwalkers and puddle rats make uneasy neighbours on the lower levels. On a stormy night, when the wild wind howls off the ocean and screeches through the ruined walls, those unwise enough to be out at such a time have reported  that it sounds like the manic shrieks of souls in torment. Of course, this is purely the product of an over-active imagination … isn’t it?

By Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightdress

For a thousand years, or more, the mysterious island of Hopeless, Maine has witnessed a long cavalcade of migrants scramble up its rocky shores. Few have come here willingly but each one, in their own way, has attempted to construct some sort of life for themselves in this most inhospitable of places. For most, that life has been brief; the natural – and supernatural – perils of the island are many.  Some have gone without leaving any trace of their visit, while others have left various possessions, enthusiastically recycled by successive generations. This is why it is not uncommon to see a Hopelessian wearing  spats, plus fours, an Edwardian tail-coat and a tricorn hat. Nothing is ever wasted.

When Philomena Bucket came to the island, having stowed away on the ill-fated merchant ship ‘Hetty Pegler’, she owned nothing but the clothes she stood up in. Over the weeks and months that followed she acquired a modest wardrobe, garnered chiefly from the storeroom in the Squid and Teapot, where the forsaken possessions of some of its previous patrons were housed. Despite her humble beginnings, Philomena had no wish to abuse the hospitality of the inn and took no more than was necessary. There was one particular item, however, that caught her eye and she coveted above all others; this was a full length Victorian nightdress, buttoned at the neck and sturdily constructed to repel all but the most ardent attentions.

Washing day tended to be a somewhat drawn-out affair in ‘The Squid’. The process, devoid of any mechanical aid, was long and arduous, involving heating several cauldrons of water and the dexterous application of a wash-board. Soap, more often than not made from wood ash and any hard fat that was available, would be scrubbed into the soiled items, which were then rinsed and dried. It was a thankless task but perversely, Philomena enjoyed it. She appreciated cleanliness, having been forced to endure a certain amount of squalor in her formative years and being able to wash her own clothes gave her particular pleasure.

It was on one such day, some  ten weeks after her arrival on the island, that our tale begins. With the inn’s freshly laundered washing drying reluctantly on the line, Philomena felt free to tackle the task of cleaning her own clothing and bedding, which lay in a basket awaiting her attention. While, over the weeks, she had become accustomed to the strangeness of the Hopeless, nothing would have prepared her for the events that were about to unfold.

Although she could have sworn that no one or nothing had entered the laundry, the contents of the wash basket appeared to move. A sock was thrown across the room, closely followed by a rather pretty chemise that Philomena had inherited from a previous tenant. More disturbing, however, was the sight of her beloved nightdress rising from the tumble of washing and making its way towards the door. Its progress was slow, as though some internal force was being impeded by the cloth that held it. Then, with a whimper, the nightdress stumbled over the step and clattered to the ground with a noisy and totally unexpected rattle. Gingerly, Philomena carefully lifted the vagabond garment by the hem and gave it a gentle shake, then jumped back with a little squeal as a collection of bones clattered out,on to the smooth flagstones. She was even more surprised when the bones dragged themselves up into some semblance of a small quadruped that yawned, shook itself, raised a languid rear leg against the door frame (which remained defiantly undampened) then bounded away in the general direction of Hopeless town. Philomena could only stand speechless as she watched its bony tail wag its way into the distance.

Over the following week Philomena made a few discrete enquiries around the island regarding her osseous visitor, expecting to be denounced as a madwoman at any moment. To her surprise, no one even raised an eyebrow at her description of the skeletal beast. She had, it seems, encountered Drury, a hound of indeterminate breed, or breeds, who resolutely refused to allow the small matter of being dead to spoil his fun. Indeed, the general feeling was that Drury had no sense of his own demise and continued to do all of the doggy things that he had done in life. Philomena heard this with tears in her eyes, remembering her canine friends whose short lives had slipped by all too soon. If only they could have been like Drury and cheated death and if – unlike Drury – they could have hung on to their bodies at the same time, how lovely that would have been.

Of course, Drury was not universally adored or even approved of. While he could be something of an annoyance to various sections of the general community, the ghost population detested him. It is said that all dogs can see ghosts. I have no idea if this is true but Drury, having more than usual access to the afterlife, could see them quite plainly and found them boring. He made it his mission in death to get them to lighten-up a little and enjoy some jollity, an exercise which mainly involved Drury having fun at their expense. Whenever the Mild Hunt appeared (see the tale ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’) the wraiths of the maiden ladies would try to shoo him away as he upset their highly-strung spaniels and nip the ankles of their mules, who became even more agitated – and therefore more flatulent- than ever. Obadiah Hyde, the ghostly Mad Parson of Chapel Rock detested him with a vengeance. If there was anything that Hyde disliked more than papists and adulterers (as described in the tale ‘The Headless Lady’) it was dogs, especially those of the deceased variety that stubbornly refused stay that way. In fact, the only ghost that Drury was unable to tease was the Woeful Dane, Lars Pedersen, also known as The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow. Poor old Lars had been haunting the island for almost a thousand years and was so faded as to be almost non-existent. Try as he might, not even Drury could get a reaction out of him.

Following the curious incident of the dog in the nightdress, Philomena Bucket could often be seen with a skeletal hound running along beside her. She did not care that the biscuits she threw fell straight through him, bouncing off his rib cage on to the floor, where it would be retrieved to be thrown again. Although he was not her dog – Drury did not seem to belong to anyone in particular – she knew that he would always be there.

“Maybe he is just an assembly of old bones,” she thought to herself, “but that doesn’t make him any less of a dog – and there can be no better friend to have”

As if reading her thoughts, Drury agreed by lovingly licking her hand with his imaginary tongue. It was good to be alive.

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom and Nimue Brown

Mrs Beaten’s Beast

I have complicated feelings about men. Horror, naturally, for they are despicable beasts and I know only too well what they are capable of. Fascination, because they are so alien, so incomprehensible. Their facial hair. The state of their collars. The noises they make.

I have noticed how powerful these forces are, how horror and fascination combine to draw you in. How these inclinations can bring you to offer yourself up to the indignity of horror and fascination.

He is a man of mystery. The first time I saw him, his gloveless hands were stained a dark and ominous red. I felt it then – the thrill of repulsion, the power of disgust. What had he done? And to whom? If I paused and gazed for long enough, would I draw his eyes? Would I discover by most unwholesome means the true nature of his stained hands?

On subsequent investigations I noted similar marks on his clothing. I wondered so long if he smelled of blood that this morning, I was overwhelmed by my own, most bestial compulsions. I deliberately stumbled into him outside The Crow.

He smells of beetroot. Not of death. Not the heart aching smell of old gore on a woollen jumper. I may never smell that again in all my life. Beetroot does not have the same effect upon me. It does not call forth suppressed memories.

But still, the man is a beast, and one stain is very much like another.

 

I see dead people

Of course I see dead people. We all see dead people, although no one seems clear about the proper etiquette for such meetings. It only seems polite to acknowledge them – at least when they themselves are polite. There are a few it feels vulgar to acknowledge in the street. The one who haunts the… smaller room at the back of… the drinking establishment.

I do not like to speak of body parts, or to name them. But it is more an issue of absence, with the dead people. While I see dead people I do not see (their ankles). Not for reasons of propriety, decency or even careful not noticing on my part.

They don’t have any!

Most of them don’t even possess (feet) as though their ephemeral forms could not quite bear the sordid process of touching the ground.

I am undecided as to whether it is more becoming to have those unmentionable body parts under proper control, or whether it is a blessing to do without them. I dare not speculate as to whether they have (legs) or are just innocent manifestations of clothing with no human indecency left inside.

Lost souls
Lost Souls

Spoonwalker nests

The reason spoons are always in short supply on Hopeless Maine, and thus jealously guarded by those who still have them, is spoonwalkers. Being soft, squidgy creatures who live on a cold, hard island full of hungry things, spoonwalkers adopted stilts at some point in their history. Then, when humans came along, they adopted cutlery. Mostly spoons. For whatever reason, it appears that knives and forks offend them and they’ll only pick one up in absolute desperation. A spoonwalker is more likely to limp away on three spoons than resort to a fork.

When spoonwalkers are breeding, they have to collect spoons ready for their young to leave the nest. The trouble is, that maths is not their strong point. Every baby spoonwalker needs four spoons, and there are usually several eggs in a nest. When obliged to multiply four by several, the spoonwalker invariably concludes that it needs ALL THE SPOONS IN THE WORLD and sets out with this aim in mind.

After the hatching, any unneeded spoons will simply be abandoned at the nest site. Other spoonwalkers may well collect them. Sometimes, a happy and fortunate human finds such a stash. Island wisdom has it that if you find a nest of spoons, you can never trust those spoons. They will not behave, and may run off of their own free will. But still, it beats trying to eat stew with a fork.

The Elders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The men laughed heartily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story by Martin Pearson-art Tom Brown