Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

story, poetry, rumour and gossip

To ride a surf horse

It is a horse day. Usually tumultuous, the sea is a grey sheen of deathly pallor, and so still. Glass still. Unnaturally so – assuming anything in this place could properly be called natural.

The sky is also grey. This is perfectly normal. The sky is a cold, untarnished steel grey polished smooth and hanging over the sea, each a mirror of the other, passing grey smoothness back and forth into infinity.

In other times and places it is the lively rush of sea foam that gives birth to surf horses. Here, where the usual rules are seldom honoured, horses are most often born in stillness and in silence. They come from the waves that never were. The sea undulates softly with them. Grey explodes into vivid green and vibrant blue. Where colour infects the placid sheet of the poised and waiting sea, the horses come. Proud and wild, ferocious and terrifying. They are like no horse you have ever seen, and yet still they are pure horse; nostrils flaring, flanks powerful, tails flicking water to make brief, unlikely rainbows in the air.

If they come to you at dawn or sunset, catching shards of light from a distant horizon, they may seem more real than anything else. On this island of misty greys and insubstantial, haunting things, the horses in the water may look more substantial and more trustworthy than the uneven sand beneath your feet.

They speak of other ways of being, these horses. They say, in whispers you can almost hear, that if there can be horror, why can there not also be delight? Look into their deep, soulful eyes for the delight they promise. Look into their tooth sharp not so equine mouths for the horror they are capable of. They are beautiful and they are grotesque, between the sea and the sky in this dire and perfect moment.

Catch one if you dare. Rise it in search of dreams. You can never return. Whether you have left the island with them is another question entirely. The sea is vast, and deep, and very cold.

 

Art by Dr Abbey.

Thanks to Potia for the inspiration for this blog post.

Mrs Beaten on the perils of frivolity

There is something offensive about the way they gather on the beach when the weather is in the slightest way tolerable. They go there as if it is a place for fun and frolicking, and as though they feel some personal entitlement to frolic where others can see them.

It is so undignified, so unseemly. Some of the women lift the hems of their skirts to navigate the wet sand. A few of them even go down there in trousers. What is the world coming to? What an appalling sight for young children to behold! The human body improperly hidden is a terrible thing.

The beach is not a place for merrymaking. It is a place to scavenge, when one must. It is a place to die, for all that washes in there. It should be mournful. Why do they insist on filing it with laughter? What can they possibly find to laugh about? It is such a disturbing sound – giggling especially. It sounds like loss of control, like unreason made manifest. If we do not control ourselves carefully at all times, there is no knowing what may happen. I speak from unhappy experience.

One moment you might be going through your normal morning routine, and the next, you might entirely lose control and try to kill someone using only the fork that is in your hand. It is never safe to drop guard. Never safe to be incautious.

I cannot bear to be near the beach when other people are so dangerously out of control. I must go at twilight, when it is quieter. The risks of what else will be there seem less troubling to me than the company of people losing their minds. I will go only for the most essential and practical of reasons – to see what the tide has bought in and whether any of it is useful. Frivolity is fatal sometimes, and far too few people understand this.

Two Headed Jim and the Death of the One Eyed Goat

I wrote this about two years ago. I remember that is was inspired by something Professor Elemental said – but whether it was that he very much wanted to read a story with this title, or never wanted to read one, I cannot recall. I don’t always respond well to people going ‘never do this’ if I think it will be funny… it was originally posted to Patreon – many thanks to everyone who helps fun me doing this sort of daftness.

Being a grim and troubling novel, set upon the island of Hopeless Maine. Great mystery surrounds this novel, including the mystery of why the author ever let anyone else read it, and the mystery of what on earth was even going on in the final chapter.

Chapter one: It begins in gore. Our central character is liberated from his mother’s exhausted body by people who know nothing about caesareans, but who once had a drunken conversation about the procedure with Doc Willoughby. Despite the two heads, the child is only given one name.

Chapter two: In which very little happens that is memorable, but we learn that Jim Chevin’s two headed status is likely the consequence of there being too little variety in his gene pool. Things are muttered darkly, but no one comes out with it and says ‘incest’ as it’s clearly more gothic to just imply that.

Chapter three: Jim Chevin grows up feeling angry and misunderstood. He expresses this through inexplicable acts of weirdness towards sea creatures. We assume the author means us to sympathise with his condition but most likely it will just make you feel a bit queasy about whelks.

Chapter four: Jim Chevin graduates to doing fairly sinister things with chickens. He also does peculiar things with feathers that may or may not be a metaphor for his troubled inner life. No one around him cares. The reader probably doesn’t care either and only struggles on because the book hype promised “unspeakable horrors that will literally make you cack yourself.” And who can resist the lure of that kind of marketing?

Chapter five: In which there are unspeakable horrors and you cack yourself.

Chapter six: This chapter seems to have been written carelessly and in haste, perhaps in the assumption that no one would make it beyond the shocking events of chapter five. However, at this point there is, finally, a brief mention of the one eyed goat.

Chapter seven: This chapter is an unexpected climax for the story, pitting man (well, Jim) against nature (the goat) and it seems to belong in an entirely different sort of novel. The sort of novel in which men battle giant otters, angry fish, unreasonable landscapes and so forth. Jim confronts his lifelong nemesis, the one eyed goat. None of the preceding chapters in any way support this plot development. Man and goat are involved in an epic, cliff top battle. The goat plunges to his doom in the sea. In a strange act of continuity, whelks are involved.

Chapter eight: This chapter gives every impression of having been written by someone else entirely – someone who only read the title and not the rest of the book. This author expounds at length on the various moral and philosophical truths we can take from the story of two headed Jim and the death of the one eyed goat. The word ‘pathos’ is used seventeen times in this chapter, while the term ‘over intellectualising’ doesn’t even come up once.

Written in dust

Dustcats are clearly flavour of the month, so here’s a bit more dustcatty goodness!

Dustcats sleep in the air, often floating in profoundly undignified positions. It makes them attractive to other sorts of cats, who will, if chance arises, lunge after their wafting tails and dangling tongues. On the whole, this causes the dustcats very little trouble.

To protect themselves while sleeping, dustcats exhale small clouds of dust intermittently. It is enough to inconvenience a would-be predator, and the ensuing coughs and sneezes will wake a vulnerable dustcat, usually giving it time to flee upwards. The lingering taste of dust makes it more tempting not to eat a dustcat, but merely to try and play with its tail without suffering too much. Sometimes small children will participate in this sport as well.

Theophrastus Frog is probably the only person, living and not living, to have paid much attention to the dust that emerges from the tongue of a sleeping dustcat. Often it is of no great consequence. Sometimes however, patterns emerge in the cloud of exhaled materials. A person might observe landscapes – familiar and unlikely. There may be faces – horrific or identifiable, or both.

Theophrastus Frog has kept a diary noting the forms the dust takes. Or at least, the forms he perceives, for there may be some element of interpretation involved. It gratifies him to know that on the day before he died, three different dustcats made a dustface that he recognised as his own. He wonders if there is a predictive quality to the images made of dust. He wonders if these might be fragments of dustcat dreams, given form. He wonders most often if it is just that he is entirely mad, and seeing images where no images exist.

In the dust, he has seen shipwrecks and monsters from the deep. He has seen views of the island as though from above, and wonders if dustcats themselves go high enough for such views. His own dustcats seldom leave the snug safety of the library. He does not think they can have witnessed these perspectives first hand. Do they share their dreams with some other being? Or does the island perhaps breathe out through them sometimes as they innocently exhale?

(This piece was originally posted on Patreon some years ago. Making comics is time consuming, and does not pay a living wage, so Patreon support is really helpful for keeping us going. https://www.patreon.com/NimueB )

The Prospect of Joy

Why yes, that is a very steampunk looking submarine, isn’t it? What would happen if some intrepid adventurer took a steampunk submarine into the troubled waters around the coast of Hopeless, Maine?

When Keith Errington first suggested the idea, we were slightly uneasy because one of the features of the island is that no one ever leaves (aside from Owen) and this device was so obviously designed the work around that premise. But, as we found out more about his mad scheme, we became ever more enchanted by it, and so, dear readers, we let him have his way.

The result of this, is the rather fabulous tale The Oddatsea – illustrated by Tom. Keith is a bit prone to the puns, so if the title gives you a small shiver of horror, the rest of the book will only prove worse. You were warned! More of it over here – https://hopeless-maine.backerkit.com/hosted_preorders

One of the things that is an ongoing joy around the Hopeless Maine project, is seeing what happens when other people get in to play with it. Keith Errington’s novella has been one of the more ambitious moves so far, alongside Keith Healing’s role play game. But, participating in Hopeless is not just for people called Keith and we are pretty much always open to suggestion!

The Little Drummer Boy

As has been noted before in these tales, the good folk of Hopeless, Maine, are not renowned for their love of walking. This, in many ways, is understandable. The island is a veritable smorgasbord of hazards, natural, supernatural and downright unnatural. The business of staying alive is tricky enough, without wandering around and taking unnecessary risks and – some would maintain –  unnecessary exercise. Philomena Bucket, however, was the exception to the rule. She loved to walk, especially in the early hours, with Drury, the skeletal hound, more often than not jogging happily along by her side. Despite appearances, Drury was not Philomena’s dog. He had been on the island for as long as anyone could remember and had but one objective in life (or death, depending on your point of view) and that was the pursuit of fun. At that moment, he considered Philomena to be the human most likely to provide the wherewithal to achieve this.

Our tale begins one grey, late summer morning. Summer mornings on Hopeless, it must be admitted, are very much like the mornings of any other season, except that it tends to get light earlier. So, it was almost 6a.m. when the sun finally managed to persuade the fog to let it through, the signal for Philomena to set off for her daily constitutional.

Philomena liked to vary the route she took for her walk. Some days she would wander up into the Gydynap Hills. On others, she might choose to stride out along the headland towards Chapel Rock, or maybe to the secluded part of the island which at that time was unnamed but known in later years as Scilly Point. Today, however, Philomena was feeling bold and decided to walk a particularly  long strip of narrow beach, only accessible at low tide. This was hazardous for a number of reasons. Besides the slimy, many-eyed and tentacled rock dwellers, whom Philomena felt could be avoided with Drury’s help, was the danger posed by ocean itself. While, even at low tide, these waters could be capricious, more worrying still were its denizens. Chief among these was the mighty Kraken, with suckered arms long enough to reach across the waves and drag the unwary into a watery grave. (Some say that the Kraken is as old as the ocean itself. Personally, I cannot believe this, but it is certainly ancient and quite pitiless).

Call Philomena brave, or merely foolhardy, but oblivious to any danger, she resolutely set off along the beach with Drury scampering happily along beside her. Within minutes an obfuscating sea-fog began to roll in, even more relentless than usual, until nothing was discernible beyond more than a dozen feet. Most people might have given up at this point but Philomena was nothing if not stubborn. Even Drury was slightly hesitant to proceed but emboldened by his companion’s determination, soldiered on with a spring (and a rattle) in his step.

Philomena was not able to say how far or for how long she had been walking. Fog tends to do that to the senses. Time and space can become meaningless in that grey cocoon and it is not unusual for one to easily lapse into an almost trance-like state. This was exactly where Philomena’s mind was hovering when she was pulled back to reality. There was a muffled drum-beat coming from somewhere in front of her, further down the beach. She stopped, wondering who, or what, might be making such a noise at this hour of the day. Then, to her surprise, she found herself suddenly confronted by the figure of a child, a boy with a drum marching through the mists.

“Are you lost, young fella,” she asked as he drew closer.

The boy looked at her with large, soulful eyes but said nothing, not missing a beat as he passed her by. He could not have been any more than twelve years old, Philomena reckoned.

“He’s too young to be out alone on such a dangerous spot,” she said to herself, seemingly unaware of her own vulnerability.

“I can’t leave him.”

She turned to Drury.

“Come on Dru’, we’ve got to catch him up, before he gets into real trouble.”

She turned back, following the steady beat of the drum but her eyes were unable to penetrate the fog and see the drummer.

“Hey, slow down, we’ll walk with you,” she called but to no avail. All she could do was follow the rhythmic rat-a-tat-tat of the drum and hope the lad stayed safe.

The tide began to come in, forcing Philomena and Drury to scramble to safety. There was no sound of a drum anymore, just the crash of the waves on the rocks.

“I’d best go to the orphanage, the lad will be one of theirs, I guess.” She had aimed the comment at Drury; by now, however, the dog had lost all interest in the walk and was attempting to extricate a diminutive but somewhat irate gelatinous creature from a crevice in the wall.

 

The office was small and badly lit.  Miss Calder chose to remain standing while Philomena told of her encounter with the drummer boy.

“No, he’s not resident in the orphanage,” Miss Calder said sadly. “Although, I wish he was.”

Philomena rubbed her eyes. The fog must have really upset them for the woman in front of her seemed to waver slightly as she spoke. Once or twice – and this must be a trick of the candlelight, Philomena thought – half of her face even appeared to be little more than a skull.

“I think you were in great danger, Philomena,” Miss Calder said gently. “The Drummer Boy is known to me; a ghost who came to save you. Three fishermen were taken this morning, from just up the beach where you were walking.”

Philomena raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Ghost? But it was broad daylight… well, except for the fog…”

Miss Calder smiled mischievously.

“Ghosts are all around, Philomena. They don’t need darkness. The very need to manifest is enough.”

Philomena shifted uncomfortably in her chair.

“Long ago,” said Miss Calder, “a convict ship left England, bound for Virginia. A terrible storm blew it hundreds of miles off-course and few survived. Those who did settled on Hopeless but not all who made landfall lived to tell the tale. The boy you saw was part of the detachment of marines guarding the convicts – the drummer boy who used his drum to call the marines to quarters, an important role. I don’t know how, exactly, he met his fate, but the story is that, when they landed on Hopeless, he beat his drum to warn the others of a terrible danger – a danger that he did not survive. He has been seen a few times, over the years and generally thought to save only the good and innocent, like himself. You have been fortunate, Philomena.”

Philomena reddened and lowered her eyes. After the briefest moment she looked up to reply but Miss Calder had vanished.

Not Quite A Dog

By Detective Deirdre Dalloway

What he got was not quite a dog. It was just a sort of dog. The sort-of-dog certainly acted like a dog, alternately running around in circles chasing its own sort-of-tail and wriggling around on its sort-of-back with its sort-of-paws flapping joyfully. But it was a sight that made Michael Dalloway smile and shudder at the same time. Because the dog was composed entirely of bones.

Suddenly aware of his presence, in spite of its lack of nose, eyes and ears, the sort-of-dog bounded up to him and within seconds Michael Dalloway’s fears were gone and he was sharing his trek with a bouncing, bounding companion. Along the top of the cliffs they went, and the dog set quite a pace. It was as though it had a purpose. Yes, it definitely seemed to have a purpose, and before long Michael Dalloway realised that in following the skeleton dog, he was getting further and further from the lighthouse. He was being guided by a dead animal away from the only sign of human life that he could discern.

And yet the dog was clearly not dead, in the conventional understanding of the word. It had no eyes, nose or ears but this did not hamper it. It had no tongue either, but if Michael Dalloway slowed down for a rest from the load he was carrying, it would seem to lick his hand to encourage him onwards. And when he had lightened his load by drinking tea and eating most of the biscuits, the sort-of-dog had sat and begged like any other dog to be fed. That the biscuits fell straight through onto the wet peat did not seem to bother it at all.

Yes, the dog was sort-of-alive, so Michael Dalloway decided to take a chance on it, and sure enough, just as the drenched, rain-blinded and exhausted traveller was wondering about regretting his decision, they cleared a small copse of dead trees and a dimly lit settlement came into view. Both of them now bounded through the spikey gorse towards it, the dog still leading the way through the darkness, now past simple, mainly unlit dwellings, to a rather more welcoming looking inn. Scratchy recorded music was audible through a broken window. The dog threw itself at the door to make its presence known and it was opened from inside by a man in an apron.

“Drury!”, he exclaimed, “There you are! Everyone, look! Drury’s back! We put your favourite tune on, old boy, to encourage you to come in from the rain”. The man stooped to tickle the dog’s skeletal jaw. “And you’ve brought someone with you. Do excuse my manners, Sir. I’m  Rufus Lypiatt, the landlord of the Squid and Teapot, and this is my pub. We welcome all unhappy travellers. I take it that you are one of those? Do come on in. We were just about to play ‘Molly Malone’ on the gramophone again.”

Find out more about Detective Dalloway here – http://detectivedalloway.com/ 

Kit Cox had no one to blame but himself

By Mrs Beaten

Kit Cox, dandy and self-proclaimed ladies man got no more than he deserved, if you ask me. He has been flirting his way round the island for some time, making a nuisance of himself and lowering the tone with his immodest behaviour. While his shirts are indeed immaculate, his manners are sadly lacking and his wanton antics have clearly led to his undoing.

As far as Kit Cox knew, he went as he might have wanted to go – dying in the arms of a beautiful monster. For the rest of us, it was a somewhat different experience.

I do not blame the mermaid. They are not human creatures and cannot be held to the same standards. Anyone not ruled by the uncivilized lusts of the body can see them for what they are – hideous, hungry and persuasive. They are not to blame for what men do in response to them. Perhaps they are here to judge us, and bring down those who are too involved with their own base instincts. In this way, I feel some empathy with our water-dwelling neighbours. I would not object to being such a creature.

We had all gone down to the beach to watch the Mari Lwyd’s shout at the sea. It is a perplexing ritual, but a good opportunity to see, and be seen. Kit Cox had positioned himself so as to be seen, in a waistcoat of such bright colours as to be wholly indecent. Standing near to the sea – where all attention was then directed, he was rather close to the mermaids.

She surfaced, turning a terrifying visage towards the land. I thought that her long teeth sparkled. Seaweed tangled in her hair and fell down across her chest, failing to obscure the exposed bones of her desperately thin body. Anyone could see she was hungry. Kit turned towards her, his expression one of rapture. And thus began the most shocking litany of improper statements.

“I love you…. you are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen! What exquisite eyes you have! Will you not come closer? How have I lived so long without you in my life? What are your plans for the evening? Would you like to see my other waistcoats?” And so on, and so forth. Those of us who have experienced his courting behaviour before were all too familiar with these lines.

The mermaid opened her mouth wide so that we could all see her teeth. Several gentlemen rushed forward, while averting their eyes from the sea monster, to try and pull Kit away. To no avail. He walked towards the surf, crying out his ever more ridiculous expressions of love and longing. We watched, powerless to help him. Or too entertained to help him. Or in my case, too delighted by the poetic justice inherent in the scene, to help him. He splashed in the surf, protesting his love, while the mermaid wriggled and gyrated in the water, and licked her lips in evident anticipation.

He kissed her with shocking abandon, right there in front of everyone. It was as well, for the moral defence of the islanders, that the mermaid did not toy with him longer, and we were not seduced into watching anything worse. She plunged with him beneath the waves.

Some hours later, the remains of his waistcoat washed ashore, and we gave it a decent burial on the beach and made a little cairn next to the other little cairns for people who have not listened to warnings about mermaids.

 

This death was brought to you by the Hopeless Maine kickstarter, in which there are now stretch goals and extra rewards… https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/countrostov/tales-of-hopeless-maine 

The Indispensable Man

Ever since the episode with the phonograph – described, you may remember in the tale ‘Ghost in the Machine?’ – Gwydion Bagpath had begun to register the existence of Philomena Bucket. Previously, she had barely caught his attention. As the self-appointed elder of the Commoners, his lofty position had rendered him far too busy to notice her. There had been beachcombing and salvaging expeditions to oversee. In addition to this, he felt that it was his duty to ensure that the Nailsworthy family were attending properly to the venerable elder trees that the community relied upon. Then there was his role as both chairman of the Gydynap Preservation Society and the Common Committee (organisations which met for a liquid lunch, twice yearly in ‘The Crow’). On top of these onerous duties was the business of standing around and looking important; the gravitas that his position required would not cultivate itself. But I digress. Gwydion had noticed Philomena Bucket and realised that, despite her pale skin and white hair, she was an extremely attractive young woman – that is to say, young by Gwydion’s standard. He was at least twice her age, but he was a widower looking for a young wife to comfort him through his old age and Philomena seemed to be perfect for the task. Philomena would be honoured, he felt certain, to be invited to step out with him, with a view to courtship and eventually marriage.

Blissfully unaware of Gwydion’s long-term plans, Philomena was happy enough (if not exactly honoured) to join him occasionally for a brisk stroll along the headland. As ever, Drury, the skeletal dog, would amble along beside her, sniffing everything in his path and chasing shadows.

‘Damned infernal creature,’ thought Gwydion uncharitably, seeing Drury as being less of a dog and more of a passion-killer. Of course, he would never voice this opinion aloud, knowing how fond Philomena was of her strange companion.

In order to win Philomena’s approval, Gwydion would use these walks to inform her of his many qualities. He would speak, at some length, of his altruism, his bravery, his generosity – the man’s virtues knew no bounds, at least in his own mind. Philomena, of course, was no fool and soon realised that she was being played like a fish on a line. She did not dislike Gwydion but the feelings he invoked in her were far from romantic – and she could never love anyone who displayed such obvious coldness towards Drury. She resolved, therefore, to find reasons to avoid these strolls. She would do this gently, however, to avoid hurting Gwydion’s feelings. That was her intention, anyway but being, perhaps, too kind for her own good, she left things too late and found herself, one foggy afternoon, in the position of being subjected to a proposal of marriage.

They had been walking towards the town when Gwydion suddenly dropped down on one knee and asked for her hand in marriage.

“I’m sorry Gwydion, but I can’t possibly marry you,” she stammered.

A pained look passed over the old man’s face and his voice shook.

“Your hand… give me your hand… “

“I told you no…”

“For heaven’s sake, give me your hand, you idiotic woman, and help me up. My back has gone and goodness knows what else. I’m stuck.”

Try as Philomena might, this was to no avail. Gwydion was well and truly locked into a kneeling position and no amount of heaving by Philomena could budge him.

“I’ll get Doc Willoughby,” she said. “He’ll know what to do.”

Doc Willoughby knew exactly what to do. He arranged for a couple of burly lads from the Common to come along and carry Gwydion, still stuck with one knee bent in the time-honoured proposal attitude, back home.

“Silly old fool,” the Doc muttered. “What was he doing down there, anyway?”

“He was proposing marriage,” replied Philomena, simply.

“Well I propose that he stops making himself look ridiculous and give up chasing young women. He must be seventy, if he’s a day.”

Sad to relate, Gwydion never recovered from this latest affliction. Even though he was eventually able to stand normally again, his joints were past their best and his life was never the same. To the relief of everyone concerned, he reluctantly gave up his committees and overseeing duties. The job of Elder of the Commoners was discontinued; most had long realised that elder did not necessarily mean wiser. It came as something of a shock when Gwydion realised that nothing had suffered for his absence and life on the Common progressed as it always had. Before many months had elapsed, he died, a broken man. Little by little the name of Gwydion Bagpath faded from people’s memories.

It was many, many years later that an American soldier named Dwight Eisenhower, (who, I am reliably informed, did quite well for himself in later life) revealed that he always carried in his pocket a copy of the following poem. It’s a pity that Gwydion had not read it…

The Indispensable Man

Sometime when you’re feeling important;

Sometime when your ego’s in bloom

Sometime when you take it for granted

You’re the best qualified in the room,

Sometime when you feel that your going

Would leave an unfillable hole,

Just follow these simple instructions

And see how they humble your soul;

Take a bucket and fill it with water,

Put your hand in it up to the wrist,

Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining

Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.

You can splash all you wish when you enter,

You may stir up the water galore,

But stop and you’ll find that in no time

It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example

Is do just the best that you can,

Be proud of yourself but remember,

There’s no Indispensable man.

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown