Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

story, poetry, rumour and gossip

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.

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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

The Hopeless Mari Lwyd

 

The Mari Lwyd is a Welsh traditional item, a horse skull on a decorated pole, usually taken round to houses for riddling games, and general frolicking. It’s also worth noting that Davies is a common Welsh surname, and that a great many pirates came from Wales. Whether Reverend Davies is descended from Welsh pirates is a question for another day.

In this picture, taken from the next volume of Hopeless Maine – Victims – we see Reverend Davies and a group of Marie Lwyds heading for the beach. Clearly this is not the usual door knocking riddle making activity you normally get up to when you have a collection of horse skulls on poles.

What happens is that they all go down to the beach together. This is a small beach and the sea doesn’t move that far as it goes in and out. The ritual has to be carefully timed. The Mari Lwyds follow the tide out. They shout at the sea, demanding that it let them leave and return to their native lands. Most of the people inside the Mari Lwyds do not remember Wales personally, but they have been brought up to understand that hiraeth is a thing to take seriously. And so every year, when the tide is just right, they go to the beach and shout at the sea about how they want to go home.

Then every year, the tide turns, and the waves wash over their feet and over the hems of their kit. The Mari Lwyds shuffle slowly back up the beach, usually a bit faster than the advancing waters. The sea declines to let them go home. The Mari Lwyds admit defeat and go back to the Squid and Teapot to get riotously drunk and do all the riddles that more normally go with having a horse’s skull on a pole. Reverend Davies does not join them for this bit. He has his own words to say to the sea at this time, and they are not words anyone else gets to hear.

Dancing on a Sunday

A celebrated entertainer (whose name escapes me for the moment) once opined, via the medium of popular song, that Saturday night is, apparently, alright for indulging in a certain amount of fighting. Being one not renowned for pugilistic endeavours, I could not possibly comment on such an assertion. What I do know, however, is that, traditionally, Saturday night is definitely alright for throwing a party. This seems to be true the world over. True, except, maybe, on the island of Hopeless, Maine, where, let’s face it, one day is very like another and if anything can go wrong, it probably will.

This particular tale was born around the time when the founding families first settled on the island. Two centuries have passed since the fateful Saturday night that Clarissa Cockadilly celebrated her twenty-first birthday. As it happened, it was also May Day Eve. Even on Hopeless, one of the most cheerless places on earth, Clarissa truly felt that no date could have been better for the occasion.

The party was well under way when the first, few early stars began to shine wanly through the ever-present mist, their sickly pallor shamed by the gentle glow of the restless and innocent gnii, quietly meandering through the foggy skies. As the day was lost to darkness, the flickering firelight, coupled with the candle lanterns hanging from every tree, gave the celebration a dramatic chiaroscuro backdrop, endowing the bleak island with a mysterious, theatrical atmosphere. Trestle tables, while not exactly groaning beneath the weight of party provender, grumbled ever-so-slightly as more starry-grabby-pies, elderflower fritters and moonshine liquor was heaped upon them. For once, Hopeless felt almost as cheerful a place as one could wish to be, the night air alive with fiddle music and the energetic dancing of Clarissa and her companions.

In those distant, more pious times, the one gaping disadvantage of celebrating anything remotely joyous on a Saturday night was the inescapable fact that it would be followed by Sunday morning. The chimes of midnight would inevitably sound the death-knell of any merriment, ushering in the strict and stultifying observance of the Sabbath, with all of its attendant ‘thou shalt nots.’ And so it was with this particular celebration. If the revellers appeared to have had wings on their feet, then time itself danced even quicker. Clarissa could have sworn that only minutes had passed when the fiddler abruptly halted his playing, right in the middle of Sir Roger De Coverley.

“Midnight,” he said, packing up his violin. “Time to go home. I can’t play for you on the Sabbath.”

Clarissa looked at him defiantly.

“Why ever not? We’re not doing anything wrong.”

“There are those that will tell you otherwise. All this frolicking is sinful on the Sabbath.”

Clarissa looked at her companions.

“Sinful? If innocent pleasure is a sin, then I don’t care if I go to Hell, what say you?”

After some nodding and uncomfortable laughter at her blasphemy, the partygoers unanimously agreed that it would be pleasant to dance a little longer.

The fiddler stomped away angrily, promising to inform Preacher Chevin of their wickedness.  The dancers, fuelled by adrenalin and no small amount of moonshine liquor, merely laughed at him.

Despite the fact that the music had stopped, they made a valiant effort at dancing ‘The Bishop of Chester’s Jig’ and ‘The Collier’s Daughter’ but it was not the same. Just as they thought to give up in disgust and call it a night, a jaunty figure came over the hill brandishing a violin.

“Anyone fancy a dance?” he called brightly.

The revellers could hardly believe their luck. For a fiddler to turn up at such an hour was surely more than chance, but who cared? He wanted to play and they wanted to dance, so where was the harm? Had they noticed that his boots bore an uncanny resemblance to cloven hooves, a pair of small horn-like projections protruded through his cap and that a shower of sparks flew from the neck of the fiddle every time he drew his bow across its strings, they may have been more cautious. Such was their enthusiasm to dance, however, they were blind to all else.

‘The Beau’s Retreat’ and ‘Old Noll’s Jig’ went normally enough. It was only when the fiddler struck up the appropriately named ‘Midnight Ramble’ did the tempo change. Faster and faster the fiddler played and faster and faster the dancers danced. They pranced and gavotted, polkaed and fandangoed all the way from the partying ground to the old swamp that lay on the eastern borders of the Gydynap Hills. As the dance quickened and the dancers tired, a strange thing happened. One by one, they turned to stone, leaving an avenue of petrified sentinels marking the route towards the narrow causeway. By the time the road through the swamp was reached, only Clarissa remained, tirelessly spinning and reeling in time to the music. The causeway is exactly one hundred and seventy six yards long, a tenth of a mile. Clarissa danced at such speed that the fiddler, whose multi-tasking skills left much to be desired, could hardly keep up with her and play at the same time. It took her just forty seconds to cover the distance, end to end. Upon reaching the furthest bank she put her right leg in, put her right leg out and just as she was preparing to shake it all about, missed her footing completely and fell headlong into the swamp. It is sad to relate that poor, twenty-one years old. Clarissa, was sucked into the morass, where she drowned immediately. To look on the bright side, by dying unexpectedly Clarissa at least managed to cheat the fiddler, thereby avoiding the eternal embarrassment of being turned into stone.

Of course, most of the above account is patently untrue. The story of various innocents having some fun on the Sabbath, only to be rendered into stone by Satan, often playing a violin, is a common one in the western world, there to explain the existence of groups of standing stones and unusual rock formations. I have often wondered how these tales would have panned out if the devil had chosen to take up playing the tuba instead of the fiddle. It would have made this whole business of playing until someone danced themselves into a lump of stone a much more ponderous and drawn out enterprise. However, I digress. It is true that there is, indeed, an avenue of largish rocks lining the path to the causeway. It is also true that they look too staged to be natural. All that this means is that they have, at some point, been put there for a purpose. This is where my tale grows dark.

There exists another version of this story, still spoken in anger by the O’Stoat family, close cousins of the now extinct Cockadilly clan. After the party was over and the fiddler had left to report the blasphemous goings-on to the self-appointed Preacher Chevin, a terrible retribution took place. Full of self-righteous indignation and a seething dislike of the O’Stoats, as well as anyone connected with them, Preacher Chevin and a handful of like-minded islanders turned up to teach the party-goers a lesson. With one side fuelled by hatred and the other by alcohol, violence was sure to erupt.  According to the O’Stoats, not one of the dancers was ever seen again. It is thought that Clarissa and her companions were thrown into the swamp. The rocks that marked the road to the causeway, however, appeared overnight and the legend of the devil and the dancers spread rapidly, probably by the Chevins, to cover up the atrocity and strike fear into the hearts of anyone rash enough to seek enjoyment on the Sabbath. If this account is true, then it is clear that we have no need to believe in devils while people like this walk the earth.

In the years following the disappearance of the dancers, tales began to be told of a ghost haunting the far end of the swamp. It was – and indeed, is still – believed that unless you clear the length of the causeway in exactly forty seconds, the wraith of Clarissa Cockadilly will rise from the swamp and demand that you dance with her. If you are fortunate and dance well, she will thank you and you may leave. Resist, however, or dance badly and she will drag you into the stygian depths forever. Such is its reputation, the way through the swamp has long been shunned by most people. Despite this, it has acquired a name. Don’t be fooled by its innocence, however. You most decidedly won’t wish to meet those dancing feet on the avenue I’ve described to you  –  40 Second Street.

Author’s note: There is one tiny fact in all of this that disturbs me disproportionately. In order to cross the causeway (which, you may remember, is exactly a tenth of a mile, or one hundred and seventy six yards long) in forty seconds, you would have to be running at 6.666 miles per hour…

Story by Martin Pearson-art by Tom Brown

Above we see the Chevins enjoying their favourite pastime (which is to say, being a mob)

Baking Bad

Regular readers of ‘The Vendetta’ may recall that The Squid and Teapot once experienced some difficult times under the stewardship of one Tobias Thrupp, a most egregious sort of fellow.  Thrupp’s evil nature and eventual downfall is recalled in the tale ‘The Supper Guest’.  To my knowledge, this is the only period in the inn’s long history that its reputation for generosity has  been tarnished. Except for this brief interlude, newcomers to the island have been given board and lodgings in exchange for some basic chores. This arrangement has continued until such times as they were able to make their own way or, as is more likely, disappear without a trace, as so many do on Hopeless, Maine.

Philomena Bucket had been a resident of The Squid and Teapot for two months. Originally, she had been living in a room on the ground floor of the inn but wishing to be as unobtrusive as possible, she asked to be moved to a tiny attic space that boasted a single window that looked out towards the ocean. At least, it would have, had it not been for the thick and ever-present mist that obscured everything. Now and then an inquisitive gnii would nudge against the glass, spilling its soft, warm light into the room. At first Philomena was alarmed by this intrusion but it had not taken her long to come to love these strange and enigmatic creatures.

Philomena had spent her early life on the streets of Cork, making a precarious living sketching anyone who might give her a few pennies for her efforts. After such an existence, Hopeless, bleak as it was, posed few challenges to her. She was given shelter and food – not plentiful but adequate – and no one looked twice at her, for which she was grateful. Her hair and skin were as pale and translucent as winter moonlight. This albinism, which had occasionally been a source of fear and derision, went by unnoticed on Hopeless. People had better things to worry about than the way that others looked. Besides, she was a hard worker who more than earned her keep, and that counted for much.

One of Philomena’s chores was to forage, in the hopes of finding something a little different to excite the palates of the inn’s patrons. On the day that our tale begins she came across a wreck washed up on the rocks. It reminded Philomena of her own recent arrival on the island. She had been a stowaway, the sole survivor of the ill-fated merchant ship, ‘Hetty Pegler’, which had been carrying a cargo of Irish whiskey. Unsurprisingly, this had been enthusiastically liberated from the ship’s hold and safely stored in the cellar of The Squid and Teapot.  Philomena wondered if this latest wreck contained such a treasure and without another thought, scrambled over the slippery rocks to find out. Being light and nimble, it took her no time at all to reach the ship and climb into its hold. To her disappointment, much of what remained of the cargo had been damaged beyond salvaging when the ship had been ripped open.  A dozen stout barrels, however, stacked above the water level, still looked as though they might contain something worth having.

News travels fast on Hopeless, especially when it concerns bounty from the sea. Before long a small procession of islanders could be seen carefully rolling the barrels over the rough coastal path, headed by Philomena who wanted to make sure that at least one of them reached The Squid and Teapot.

There was much rejoicing on the island when it was discovered that the recovered barrels contained rye flour. Although denser than that ground from wheat, it would make a pleasant change from the acorn flour they usually used, made from the acorns dropped by the island’s scanty oaks, or those washed up on the shore. Fortunately, those living on Hopeless have never demanded much in the way of choice or sophistication in their diet. The most exotic dish known on the island is starry-grabby-pie, which should not be confused with the Cornish delicacy, starry-gazey-pie. Starry-grabby-pie is far more appetising, having tentacles sticking out of the pastry, rather than fish heads and tails.

The rye flour was fairly distributed and before long the air was redolent with the intoxicating scent of baking that wafted from almost every home.

That afternoon, Philomena, standing in the kitchen of The Squid and Teapot, was preparing to make a batch of pies. She had not bothered to look too closely at the contents of the barrels earlier. After all, there was not really that much to see once the initial excitement had passed. Now, however, something disconcerting caught her eye. There were small black flecks in the flour that ought not to be there. She picked some out and examined them closely. They certainly were not mouse or rat droppings, as she had initially thought. She paused. Something in the deepest recesses of her memory stirred, stretched, yawned, scratched its belly and tried to go back to sleep. Philomena, being the woman she was, had no intention of letting it rest until she had remembered whatever it was that was bothering her.

 

It had been a long, tiring day but Philomena could not sleep. Buttoned securely into an industrial-strength, full-length, Victorian nightdress, she lay in her bed in the little attic room, idly watching the gnii floating quietly by outside her window. She smiled to herself in the darkness, reflecting on the way in which time changes everything. Here she lay, three thousand miles from home on the strangest island imaginable. Why, just a few months ago, if she had witnessed these weird but strangely beautiful creatures passing by her bedroom window she would have thought that she was hallucinating… hallucinating! She suddenly sat bolt upright in bed. Hallucinating! That was it. A series of gears and cogs shifted in Philomena’s brain and several pennies started to drop. It must have been well past midnight but her earliest childhood memories finally gave up their secrets, providing her with the answers she had been looking for.

 

Doc Willoughby was not accustomed to waking quite so early in the morning. The insistent rapping at his front door, however, was enough to waken the dead (on Hopeless, one does not say these things lightly!) He peered out of his bedroom window to see that the disturber of his slumbers was Wilhelmina Woodfield, spinster of the parish and fully paid-up member of the hypochondriacal society. The Doc opened his window and glared angrily at her.

“Doc, you must help me. My arms and legs are on fire and a colony of woman-eating turnips in ginger wigs are nesting in my tin bath.”

The Doc eyed her wearily.

“Madam, your extremities are decidedly not on fire. As for the turnip infestation, I cannot possibly comment. This is, after all, our beloved Hopeless.”

By now a handful of Doc’s patients had joined Wilhelmina, all complaining of similar symptoms. Percy Painswick claimed that a candy-striped kangaroo has taken up residence in his bed. This was an especially remarkable revelation as Percy had never seen, or even heard of, a kangaroo, candy-striped or otherwise. Further down the street a growing throng of islanders could be seen running wildly around in various states of undress, screaming and gibbering through the morning mist.

“I need to think about this” exclaimed the Doc and slammed his window shut.

An hour or so passed before anyone knocked on his door again. By now, Doc Willoughby was up and dressed.

“Go away,” he shouted, without opening the door. “I can’t help you.”

“But I can help you,” said a voice. It was Philomena’s. “I think I know what the problem is. I’ve seen this before, in Ireland, years ago, when I was a child.”

 

Word soon got around that Doc Willoughby wanted to address those afflicted, summoning them to the courtyard of The Squid and Teapot that afternoon. This was easier said than done, as most of those attending were, by now, exhibiting a certain amount of noisily challenging and eccentric behaviour.

“I have been doing some research into your problem, at no small inconvenience to myself.”            The Doc had to shout to make himself heard over the cacophony. He caught Philomena’s eye and reddened a little.

“With some… ah… minor assistance from Miss Bucket I … that is, we… have come to the conclusion that you are suffering from Ergot poisoning, commonly known as St. Anthony’s Fire. The rye-flour that was found yesterday was infected with ergot fungus. It causes hallucinations and a burning sensation in the limbs.”

“What can we do?” asked one of the more lucid sufferers.

“Throw away your flour and eat nothing else that was made from it. Other than that there is nothing you can do. One of two things will then happen. You will survive… or you will die. Horribly, apparently, and in great pain. The good news is that I haven’t eaten any of the blasted stuff myself”

The Doc wandered off, leaving the assembled throng somewhat disappointed. Philomena decided to pour oil on troubled waters.

“Don’t worry,” she advised them. “This malaise will pass. You will all be fine. Just remember, these strange things you are seeing are just hallucinations. Go up and touch them and they will pop like a bubble.”

Philomena was, of course, perfectly correct. Once the ergot had done its work and the remainder of the flour was safely disposed of, tossed into the depths of the mysterious and bottomless sinkhole in the Night-Soil Man’s garden, all was well and there were almost no fatalities. Almost…

If you have read the tale ‘Bog Oak and Brass’ you will remember that the sinkhole was created centuries earlier, following a battle between the necromancer, T’Abram Spitch and a demon that he had inadvertently and magically freed from a sealed chest. The demon was a bizarre looking creature with the head of a lion, no body and five legs radiating from its head. These legs had cloven hooves and revolved like a Catherine wheel around the head, which remained static. A quick perusal of a 16th century grimoire – still available in various forms – snappily titled ‘Pseudomonarchia Daemonum: The False Monarchy of Demons’ by Johann Weyer, will tell you that the demon’s name was and indeed, still is, Buer. As scary things go, Buer sounds far-fetched, even by Hopeless standards. This is exactly what Percy Painswick thought. Whether Buer had been disturbed by the flour barrels being hurled into the sinkhole or just paying a social call, I have no idea but he was lurking in all his demonic glory when Percy passed by.

Taking Philomena’s advice to heart, Percy strode boldly up to, what he imagined to be, his latest hallucination and tugged its leonine mane with some force, then tweaked the demon’s nose. For a second Baur was a little taken aback – but only for a second. Strangely, since then, no one has seen hair nor hide of Percy.

By Martin Pearson, art by Tom Browm

Why Mrs Beaten makes so much jam

Sometimes, when it is late and she does not sleep, Mrs Beaten misses her husband. She thinks at great lengths of the things they did together, late at night, when there was no one else to see, or judge. She considers it important to be clandestine about some things. It is a gesture of respect to your neighbours to make sure that they have little or no idea what you do. One should have multiple lines for laundry so that items revealing too much can be hidden from viewing.

Mrs Beaten notes that it is curious how one can hate a thing at the time and miss it when it is gone. This is true of both her late husband, and the things he liked to do in the night. She does not regret his absence.

Sometimes, when the town is too quiet, and there is no sound of wind or wave to distract her, Mrs Beaten stalks her own kitchen at night. She reaches for the jams that did not quite work. For the fish jams, and the crab jams that of course aren’t sweet, or pleasant, or anything at all like jam, but which keep through the winter… She opens them, and painful compulsion takes over. She smears the contents onto her skin, her clothing or even her hair. Sometimes she wails aloud as she does this, but only very quietly so that none of the neighbours will notice her keening sounds as anything distinctive amongst the night cries of the island.

On the following morning she will have to clean herself and her home, as she always did. It feels less shameful, now. She does not judge herself for these compulsions.

The Devil’s Fingers

In Britain, there are many bits of landscape named after the Devil. There’s usually a story to go with it. Other landscape features not called after Satan may also have stories that involve him. Here he threw some rocks at a giant. This hill is a pile of shoes that were part of a massive bluff to keep him out of town. This rather phallic outcropping is… well, you get the idea.

Hopeless Maine has a cluster of rocks called The Devil’s Fingers. These rocks form a sort-of island, not very far out to sea. It’s close enough to the main island that, during the ill-fated attempt to build a bridge between Hopeless and the mainland, a bridge actually got this far. You can read more about that here – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2010/07/02/the-devils-fingers/

Over here is a story about the civic band playing on a platform when the bridge reached The Devil’s Fingers – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/bridging-the-divide/

It’s also a spot where mermaids are especially likely to show up – more here – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/disaster-narrowly-avoided/

If you look at the rock formation, it’s obvious why the locals saw fit to call it the fingers. As to why it’s The Devil’s fingers…. there is a tale…

When people first came to live on Hopeless Maine, a long time ago, the Devil got wind of the island. Now, being the Prince of Darkness, ruler of Hell and other equally unlovely titles and job descriptions, Satan feels possessive when it comes to horrible things. One day, he heard the colony of monks praying from Hopeless to their God. Now, the monks hadn’t intended to set up home here, they had been looking for a remote and spiritual island, wanting to emulate Iona, but they’d got horribly lost, and then horribly shipwrecked. Forced to remain on the island, they set up a distillery and got on with praying.

So imagine all these lost monks, trying to find something to make whiskey out of in this inhospitable land, and praying to God for a decent grain crop, and the Devil hears them. And the Devil thinks to himself that he’ll go over to this miserable island for a look. He likes tormenting monks by making small mammals and landscape features look like sexy women. So the Devil heads off towards Hopeless. As he gets nearer and can see the island, he realises it’s the sort of horrible place he particularly loves, and feels angry because he didn’t make it, and it isn’t his, and he wants it.

He gets even closer, and he can see all the things with eyes living in the mist, and he wants to grab this whole place and take it down to Hell and use it to torment the damned. You can get bored with fiery pits after a few thousand years, trust me on this.

Just as the Devil reaches out to grab the island, something happens. Something awful and nameless and terrifying rises up to meet the advancing Devil, and the Devil falls back into the sea, cold stone dead, with just his fingers sticking out. He lies there to this very day. And whatever it is that killed Satan of the coast of Hopeless, well, people say it’s still here, and you’d best hope that’s all you ever find out about it.

Mrs Beaten’s Secret Vice

Mrs Beaten slept for a long time. It was a deep, unmoving, dreamless sleep into which nothing intruded from the waking world.

She awoke, eventually, with two thoughts in her head: Firstly that she must have tea. Secondly, that she must have oil. This had happened before.

Mrs Beaten took her gnii hunting net on its long pole, and went out after dark. Their fondness for little lights always gave them away. She caught one with ease, then pulled it forcibly from  the stone it had been clinging to. It squirmed in discomfort, but not for long.

Always best to press them fresh.

You couldn’t get any fresher than still alive. The oil looked more golden than green as it dripped into her glass, accompanied by those final, muffled screams.

Mrs Beaten drank the oil slowly, and felt herself rejuvenated.

Gnii are shy and charming creatures.

The Journey of Faith

You may have heard of the disappearance of the explorer Lady Alison Tiffany Hempton Addleby Pettigrew and the subsequent rescue expedition organised by her nephew, Jason Hercules Pettigrew Johnson. At the time the papers reported it a great success – a wonderful story of a family reunited. But the few that knew the truth, were aware that it was anything but.

Auntie Ally, as she was known to her devoted nephew, had launched an audacious subaquatic expedition to observe new species and explore ancient wrecks around a mythical island. But she had returned from her ill-fated expedition little more than a husk of a human being. Despite her nephew’s best efforts, as the months passed, that truth eventually came out and poor Auntie Ally’s fate was news again. She was even described in the parlance of one of the more fanciful penny dreadfuls ‘reporting’ the story as a revenant or zombie-like creature – albeit one that did not shuffle, threaten, or hanker after the meat of humankind.

It seemed a sad tale, and soon the public started to lose interest in even reading about the more sensational, and let me say, entirely fictional versions of the story. So poor Auntie Ally eventually moved from being a passing concern to a forgotten tragedy. But there was one person who never gave up hope, never lost his faith in an eventual solution to Aunt Ally’s lamentable condition; her devoted nephew, Jason.

Jason had grown up into a determined young man – a man who, by virtue of a series of circumstances, had essentially inherited a considerable fortune and a number of residences. Since Aunt Ally’s return, he had become obsessed with returning to the spot where her submersible was found, to investigate, and to find some way of returning Aunt Ally to normality. Let me point out dear reader, right here, right now, that although he was obsessed with his Auntie, it was an entirely innocent obsession; this is not one of those stories.

Jason had few friends, but one, in particular, seemed to put up with his single-mindedness and adored him for his pureness of heart. Homily Williams was a singular young woman who had known Jason from his college days. They had met at an evening science lecture on the talking cure and had long discussions over coffee afterwards. She was an intelligent and pragmatic lady and had remained a faithful friend when his fixation with his aunt took hold. Although when she learnt of his plan to return to the seas and dive in that fateful craft, she urged him to reconsider. After all, she argued, one soul had been lost to those hopeless waters, why lose another? And particularly why lose his, she thought to herself.

But Jason was not to be swayed, he spent time, money and a great deal of thought on planning a new expedition using The Prospect of Joy – Lady Allison’s revolutionary underwater craft. He had made sure the finest English mechanics and engineers had checked the entire vessel more than once for faults or possible weaknesses in construction or design. But the famous French marine designer had done his job well, and Jason was reassured on that score. He did, however, add some new elements – he fitted bigger, stronger windows, five, lead-shielded compasses, added a more powerful periscope, several inches of armour, multiple torpedo tubes, and mounted a waterproofed machine gun of radical design to the front deck. He even fitted a device based on Tesla coils that would pass an electrical current of great magnitude through the outer hull at the throwing of a knife blade switch. As originally conceived, The Prospect of Joy was purely an exploratory vessel, the product of an inquiring, innocent, peaceful mind. But in Jason’s determined hands it was turned into a most potent weapon of war. To transport it, the expedition utilised as it’s floating base an old steam cruiser retrofitted to suit Jason’s more single-minded requirements and renamed: The Journey of Faith.

A week before the scheduled start of the expedition, the Admiralty caught wind of the submersible and its militant new capabilities. This forced Jason’s hand, and he slipped port in the dead of night having checked that Auntie Ally was being looked after, but without the chance to say goodbye to faithful Homily.

The journey to the area of sea where Lady Allison had met with her singular fate was largely uneventful. It is true that when they left port, they were hastily followed by navy ships, mustered as quickly as they could manage, but Jason’s expedition had a decent head start and soon outdistanced them.

Arriving at the most likely spot to start their search for… well, to be honest, Jason wasn’t sure. Alison had written of an island – but she had never seen it, it wasn’t on any charts and there was simply no evidence of it. What he had seen with his own eyes was a wall of mist, beyond which human vision could not penetrate, but which seemed to have a definite influence on the psyche. If there was an island in the mist, he was determined to press ahead and find it, for he was sure that there he would find the means by which to save his aunt.

It took them several days to locate the mist – and to be honest, Jason had been prepared for this, sending out no less than six steam launches in a complex, scientifically developed search pattern that would cover an enormous area of ocean in a short space of time.

Once located, they recalled the launches and sailed to the relevant spot. Jason viewed the swirling mist ahead of him and remembered the last time he had witnessed it. Lady Alison was always very fond of quoting literature, but all Jason could think of at that moment was Dickens: “There are strings in the human heart that had better not be vibrated.” He pulled his jacket tighter against the slight chill that had crept up on him.

“Well”, he said out loud to himself, grabbing at another quote:

“Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero”.

“What’s that?” asked the captain of The Journey who had quietly pulled up alongside Jason on the ship’s rail.

“Oh, sorry – it means to pluck the day, time for action. Launch stations Captain if you please.”

“Aye, aye sir!”

Jason felt a strangeness as he lowered himself into The Prospect of Joy – he must be experiencing some of the same emotions and sensations that Lady Alison had felt as she set off on that fateful undersea voyage. He had left strict instructions for The Journey of Faith to withdraw at least twenty leagues from this spot – he did not want them becoming yet another disappearing victim of the mist.

Unlike his cautious Auntie, Jason set his teeth together, strapped himself in, and set a course directly for the water under the mist. As he advanced, he could see the water getting darker, seemingly heavier, and the pace slowed. Almost immediately he noticed strange sea creatures in the murk around him and the vague shapes of masts and funnels of wrecked ships beneath.

Despite the upgraded engines, he was making slow progress, and weird, dark, twisted, shapes that resolved into loathsome, many-eyed creatures began to investigate this mechanical interloper. Small creatures, but threatening nonetheless, Jason detected a maliciousness in the way they twisted and turned around the craft. Suddenly one darted forward in a flash of fins and teeth. At the last moment, it was propelled unnaturally sideways as one of its brothers snared it between hugely out of proportion jaws – picking its moment to strike against it’s distracted shoal mate.

Jason shivered, and checked all the weapons systems again, although truthfully, these small creatures would be no match for the submersible’s thick iron hull. And almost as he thought that Jason noticed a darker shape off to his right, just too far into the gloom to make out its proper form. After observing it for a minute or so, it became obvious it was of a magnitude larger than of the other aquatic beasts in these dark waters. Indeed, Jason realised that there were no other creatures near it – as if they feared to be in its very presence. At the back of his mind, Jason felt an unnatural fear – a strange contradictory wave of emotions urging him on and yet at the same time compelling him to leave. Driven by his fondness for his Auntie, Jason’s will was resolute. He quelled the rising feelings and pushed on.

The submersible swayed for a moment as something tugged against it and Jason took a moment to swing the vessel around. Swirling purple tendrils were writhing up from the sea bottom – the monstrous fronds of some huge marine flora. Trimming The Prospect of Joy to rise to a higher level, Jason resumed his course.

Something ahead and in the distance caught his eye. A slight iridescence in the gloom. It was getting closer, and brighter. To Jason’s eyes, it was like an underwater waterfall – somehow catching the light as it tumbled down to the depths below. But this was a waterfall that was moving. And not composed of water. And… Jason realised at the last minute that the iridescence was caused by some sort of electrical discharge and that he was witnessing the lower part of what could only be described as some sort of gigantic electric jellyfish. Or more like a Portuguese man ‘o’ war of unparalleled size and literally stunning beauty. Jason slammed the controls hard to port as he broke the spell of the creature’s dangerously enticing glamor.

The Prospect of Joy was a fine example of the best of French marine knowledge and English engineering and manufacturing. It responded fast to helm control and it’s powerful engines and streamlined shape helped it speed through the water at an unprecedented rate and with fine manoeuvrability. It was designed to cope and excel in all waters known to man. These waters, however, were not known to man. And here, alas, The Prospect was a little slower, a little less powerful, a little less manoeuvrable, and in this case, found a little wanting. Jason had almost got away with it, but at the last possible moment a single, smallest tentacle lightly caressed his iron craft.

All the lights in the cabin went out and there was a sudden silence. Jason – to his credit – did not panic and scrambled over to the wall on his left and a huge bar attached to a rotary switch. He grabbed the bar and wrenched it counterclockwise for a count of three, then clockwise for a count of three… nothing. As the submersible sank slowly lower, he tried again: left, one…two…three…, right, one…two…three… This time there was a loud buzz of electricity and a massive clunk as the engines started up again and systems returned. Lights came back on and Jason threw himself back in the chair. He had regained control. Nervously checking the windows all around him, he could see nothing.

Would this reassure you? It did not reassure Jason. After witnessing an ocean teeming with deadly ravenous life, the absence of it seemed to him to be by far the most frightening outcome.

It was not long before those irrational fears proved entirely legitimate. Shapes in the dark distance. Movements in the murk. Darker water now moved around The Prospect of Joy, and the feeble light that was fighting its way down to the depths was fading.

If Jason could see above him, he would have found the surface roiling with violent waves, rocks awash with huge spumes of spray, and a mere few hundred yards away – the cliffs and chines of Shipwreck Bay, the most notoriously treacherous feature of all those that made up the hazardous coastline of Hopeless, Maine.

At the surprising depths below the bay, all was calmer, well, current-wise anyway. This was of absolutely no comfort to Jason however, who now found himself surrounded by a veritable menagerie of misshapen aquatic beasts, monstrous miscreations of teeth and spines and eyes and claws and tentacles and… unidentifiable vicious appendages. Jason did not suffer from nightmares, nor did he read ‘gothic’ fiction, but here was the very embodiment of the most exaggerated form of night horror, or ghastly, obscene, bestiary become life.

He could feel them somehow calling to him like he had ants crawling through his mind. He ran his fingers through his hair, scraping his skin sharply with his nails as he sought to get a grip on his sensibilities. Oddly, it seemed to help and he gained a moment to assess his predicament.

Jason could hear their freakish forms grinding against the outer hull, teeth scraping on metal, tentacles trying to find gaps to worm their way insidiously into. The submersible was not moving forward now and Jason could see a wall of rock ahead of him, so even if he could proceed, there was simply nowhere to go. Jason considered his options as The Prospect of Joy was rocked by unseen brutish forces.

There was really no point in the torpedoes – there was simply too many creatures and only one was conveniently lined up with a firing tube. And hitting it point blank was likely to cause an explosion that might do as much damage to the submersible as to the creature. The Tesla shocker came to mind, but Jason wondered if it would still work after the earlier encounter with the electric behemoth. He reached for the switch, paused a moment, and threw it. There was an extremely satisfying arc of wild blue electricity around the craft, an intense crackling, buzzing sound, a boiling of water and a nauseous burning smell which was so intense, Jason could feel it assaulting his nostrils even through several inches of iron, however improbable that might seem.

The end result, however, was not nearly so satisfying – it merely seemed to drive the creatures outside mad with rage and they buffeted Jason’s vessel with renewed vigour – some even swam directly away and then back again at high speed to ram the sides, the bottom or the top of the submersible. Jason was thrown out of the chair and anything not tied down was to be found rolling around on the floor. The Tesla shocker was effectively a one-shot deterrent – it would be a while before it had built up enough charge to use again. Several more times the iron ship was buffeted. Every time Jason managed to stagger to his feet, he was thrown down again and new bruises were added to his pain-wracked body. All throughout this time, the ants in his head were also getting worse – they felt more like small mammals now – noisy rats talking to him, murmuring, muttering, seemingly urging him to leave the safety of the craft.

Just as he felt he would surely be pummelled to a pulp, the pounding stopped, and things went dark again. But it was not the cabin lights that had failed, they were soldiering on; although much dimmer, they were still illuminating the small metal cabin – no, this was darkness from outside. Two or three huge forms were enveloping The Prospect of Joy. There was a sudden brighter shape in the forward window – Jason made out the shape of a mighty tooth the size of a man – and a tall man at that. It was vaguely ivory in colour, but with much green mould around its edges and a yellowy red vein running randomly across its side. That was all Jason could discern before it was gone.

But then, seconds later, there was an ominous grinding noise. And Jason was no longer sure that the armoured iron would be enough. Should he try to swim to shore? How deep was he? Would he survive the swim to the surface? He could feel the island calling to him.

–– •◊• ––

Out of the three, it was Gertrude who was inevitably the most observant, so whilst Ludmilla and Mildred were often wrapped up in the latest gossip, Gertrude still managed to keep one of her three eyes trained upon the seas around the island.

The three were called the Agents of Change, or The Ocular Ones. Those that had perhaps encountered their influence in some way, or knew them better, called them The Aunties – a name they rather liked. But whatever you named them, they had been around since – well, let’s just say it’s a very long time.

“Look,” Gertrude said, “Stop your fussing for a moment, there is some sort of commotion over there.”

“Oh yes,” said Ludmilla, “the pets are getting obstreperous again.”

“I don’t know why you call those nasty creatures that,” responded Mildred “and stop using silly long words – you know it irks me.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing, just some simple shipwreck I’m sure. Their ship will break up and the silly humans will die. That’s that.” responded Ludmilla.

“Oh don’t be so trite Ludmilla. This is different – it seems to be happening underneath the waves” pointed out Gertrude.

“Oh yes, why there is some sort of tin can with some poor dear stuck inside” observed Mildred.

“Well, they will soon open that and he’ll be pet food for sure!” Exclaimed Ludmilla.

“Stop it with the pets again. Can’t we help him – I sense he has come a long way in search of something… or someone” reasoned Gertrude.

This statement piqued their curiosity and they all turned their many and varied senses towards the trapped submersible.

“Oh – he’s searching for that nice young lady that arrived here a while ago – she was in a tin can too. Most interesting – not at all like the others” said Mildred.

“Oh yes, she was a lot more ethereal – a strange one that. Still, she’s lost like the rest” stated Ludmilla off-handedly.

“I think we should help him to find her” decided Gertrude. “He is resolute and determined to find that lady – he is devoted to her.”

“Oh, not another tale of lost love, how pathetic,” said Ludmilla petulantly.

“No – it’s not that sort of love – she’s family. And family is important.” Gertrude said firmly.

And despite her general reluctance to agree Ludmilla nodded – as did Mildred, family was important.

“Besides, we have to help” affirmed Gertrude.

“Why?” asked both Ludmilla and Mildred in unison.

“Because, dear ladies, she is an Auntie, just like us!”

This piece from Keith Errington (sometimes known as the Keith of Mystery) continues the tale started in The Prospect of Joy (which can be read by clicking on the highlighted text)  We were lucky enough to hear Keith read this aloud at the Vendetta Live at Asylum Steampunk festival this year.

Art by Tom Brown