Category Archives: Tales from the Squid and Teapot

The Thirst Noel

Regular readers may recall that on Christmas eve in 1886, the very year that I tell of, ‘The Annie C. Maguire’, a three-masted barque, capsized off the coast of Maine. Happily her captain and crew were saved by the keeper of the Portland lighthouse. Unbeknown, however, to the ship’s  captain, Mr O’Neill, there was a stowaway on board. This was Manchachicoj, a hideous  Argentinian demon from the Salamanca Caves, who had been hiding in one of the many barrels of salt-beef stowed in the hold. The reason for the barque coming to grief as it did was entirely due to  Manchachicoj  industriously banging a hole in the ship’s side in order to answer the beguiling call of a siren (whom, uniquely in the history of sirens, he successfully managed to seduce). This and the subsequent damage caused when the floundering craft hit a reef, allowed some of the barrels to float free. These were accompanied by several firkins of the finest Argentinian wine, carefully procured by Captain O’Neill while ‘The Annie C Maguire’ sat anchored in Buenos Aires.

 

Imagine, if you will, the average Christmas on Hopeless, Maine. Tidings of comfort and joy are in short supply, as is everything else. The general lack of seasonal cheer ensures that any stockings optimistically hung up over the fireplace are certain to remain empty. There will be no great feast, no Bacchanalia. Most will find that it is a day like any other dismal day. For some islanders, however, during one Christmas long ago, all of this changed. Unsurprisingly for Hopeless, the change was not exactly for the better.

 

Amos Gannicox, a former ship’s carpenter, looked with satisfaction at the fine wooden cabin and workshop he had constructed from the pieces of wreckage and driftwood salvaged from around the island. He was now able to bid a grateful farewell to The Squid and Teapot, an establishment that had provided his lodgings for two years, ever since his arrival on Hopeless. In exchange, Amos  had happily used his art as a master carpenter to greatly enhance the appearance of the inn.

From his earliest days on the island, Amos  found that he was frequently visited by Elmer Bussage, a youngster who loved to watch him at work. Indeed, Elmer far preferred the company of the carpenter to that of his own mother and father. You will recall that the Bussage family, along with the Reverend Malachi Crackstone and Tobias Thrupp, were companions in the liferaft that had brought Amos to Hopeless.

There could be no doubt that the Bussages’ parenting skills were decidedly lacklustre, by any standards. While most newcomers to Hopeless  generally made an effort to earn their keep, Jethro and Maybelle Bussage had other ideas. They preferred to beg, scavenge and steal to get by. They made just two exceptions to this lack of industry; the first was on the occasions when Maybelle, with the full approval of her husband, competed with Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for the dubious attentions of various discerning gentlemen. The second exception was Jethro’s indisputable and frequently used talent for distilling moonshine, which they both consumed with an untamed enthusiasm. All in all, they were not the best role models for a boy of ten years old.

 

Amos gazed out at the worsening weather with some trepidation. It looked as though Christmas would be blown in on an ice storm this year. Little Elmer was sitting happily in front of the wood-burning stove that Amos had ingeniously created from a disused water tank. There was no point in sending the boy home in this weather. The carpenter threw another piece of driftwood into the stove and turned up the gnii-oil lamp. There was little chance that Jethro and Maybelle would be worrying too much about their son anyway, he reflected. The lad was far safer with him.

 

The Bussages had not, indeed, given their son a second thought since he had left that morning. He always came back eventually. Besides, it was Christmas Eve and some interesting looking barrels – one very large and two much smaller – had washed up almost on their doorstep and demanded immediate attention. Who said there was no Santa Claus?

In view of the impending inclement weather it would have been sensible for Jethro and Maybelle to attend to some pressing and basic practicalities. These they neglected, instead making their priority the task of getting the barrels under cover before the oncoming storm carried them away again. This  was easier said than done. The firkins, the five-gallon barrels, were heavy enough to carry but the tun was beyond carrying and had to be rolled. It was unwieldy to manoeuvre and wanted to go anywhere but to the place where it was supposed to be. Eventually, however, after much sweat and profanity, the job was done.

It was with no little excitement and exertion that Jethro prised the lid off the tun. Once opened, he viewed the contents with mixed feelings. He knew a bit about salt-beef and its preparation. There was no doubt that this was top quality, for there was no evidence of hide, bone or offal. As a boy he had often watched his uncle, who had been a butcher in a victualling yard. He recalled that the flesh was cut roughly into four-pound pieces and rubbed generously with a mixture of salt and saltpeter. This was followed by a lengthy process of further salting until, eventually, the meat was barrelled and floated in brine.

Jethro held his breath as he drew the first piece of beef from the tun. If the brine had leaked the meat would be rotten. He prodded the cut with his finger. It was firm to the touch. He breathed a sigh of relief. For the first time in over two years there was the real promise of a sumptuous Christmas dinner in store.

Maybelle, meanwhile, was exploring the firkins.

“Please let it be brandy.”

This was as close as Maybelle ever got to praying. Had she tried harder, who knows, the contents may have been miraculously transformed. In the event the wine in the firkin would have no truck with Christmas miracles and stubbornly refused to change.

The Bussages were only slightly disappointed.

“It’s all fine,” said Jethro reassuringly. “We can drink this one straight away and the other I’ll distill. We’ll have brandy yet – after all, brandy is no more than distilled red wine. Oh, what a Christmas this will be!”

 

The weather deteriorated as the day wore on. Before long a full blown ice-storm had developed. It raged for four long days, all over the Christmas period, before there was any sign of it abating. Even then the numbing cold and bitter winds were sufficient to quell any thoughts of moving far from warmth and shelter.

 

Amos had prepared well for the winter. Over the year he had stockpiled the meat from the dead whale that he had found beached. This he had dried and salted. Seaweed was fairly plentiful and nutritious and not unpalatable, once a taste for it was developed. Best of all was the huge tub of beef that had washed up that very day. This was a gift from the sea that he would be very happy to share with his neighbours once the storm had passed.

 

While Christmas on Hopeless was nothing like the ones of his earlier life, Amos was content enough. He had good friends, simple needs and a snug cabin. What more could a man ask?  He looked fondly at Elmer, curled up in front of the stove, guarding the wooden boat that the carpenter had made for him. Amos was glad that he had resolved to have Elmer stay throughout the storm. He knew the Bussages well enough to have little doubt that Christmas with them would have been less than merry for the boy.

 

By New Year’s Eve the weather conditions had improved considerably and islanders could be seen to emerge from their homes in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of bears coming out of hibernation. At such times a degree of camaraderie prevails and neighbours, who rarely take the time to say ‘Good morning’ to each other, will rally round and often go to great lengths to ensure each other’s well-being.

It did not take long for someone to notice that the Bussages had not come out to join them. Their door was firmly closed and opaque sheets of ice veneered their windows, giving the appearance that the house had not been heated for days. Something was obviously wrong and although Jethro and Maybelle were never likely to win the title of ‘Hopeless Maine’s Good Neighbors of the Year’ there was a genuine concern for their well-being.

It was the young parson, Reverend Crackstone, who took the initiative and made the decision to force the door and Amos, who possessed the best toolkit on the island, was sent for. He left Elmer with a neighbour and made haste to the cottage.

The door had little inclination to open. The ice that had set around the frame proved to be as efficient in preventing ingress as the stoutest padlock. It took almost an hour of chipping and levering, seasoned with a few robust oaths, before the door would budge. Even as it broke free of the ice, something still prevented it from opening. Eventually, after much pushing, Crackstone and Amos managed to move the obstruction just enough to gain entry.

The sight that greeted their eyes was not a pretty one. It had been Jethro and Maybelle themselves obstructing the door and they were very dead. Swollen and blackened tongues lolled horribly from their gaping mouths . Blood on their fingers and scratches on the wood gave testament that they had desperately clawed at the door to get out but to no avail. The two firkins lay empty on the floor and much of the meat in the tun had been consumed.

“ Make sure the boy is kept away” yelled Crackstone to anyone who was within earshot.

“ He can’t see his parents like this.”

Both men agreed that there was no great mystery surrounding the Bussages’ deaths. Crackstone summed up the scene in no time.

“Greed, sloth, gluttony and avarice are the killers here, I’m afraid,” he observed. “The wages of sin is indeed death.” Then added, helpfully, for Amos’s benefit, “Romans 6:23.”

“It looks to me more like the result of too much salt beef and no water in the house” said Amos. “They tried to quench their thirst with red wine, which only made things worse.”

“Exactly!” snapped back Crackstone,”Had they had the wit to provide themselves with wholesome provender this would not have happened. Did they think to share? No! It is the Lord’s judgement upon them for the deadly sins of greed, sloth, gluttony and avarice, I tell you.”

Amos said nothing but gathered up his tools and returned to his own home, where Elmer was waiting for him.

 

The carpenter would dearly have loved to adopt Elmer but Reverend Crackstone and the trustees of the orphanage would have none of it. The boy needed to be with others of his own age, they said. Besides, he had promise. He was just the sort of lad they needed to one day play a vital role in the life of the island.

Amos was puzzled. He could not comprehend at all exactly what was meant by this but in the end was forced to accept their decision.

“I’ll visit you soon” he promised the tearful Elmer.

He tousled the boy’s hair and as he turned to leave, spotted a figure on a nearby hill, watching the proceedings. Amos noticed Crackstone make some gesture of greeting and the figure waved back; there was something odd about this, not least the figure’s shape. Then all became clear as it turned and stood in silhouette. It was a man – a Night Soil Man with a large bucket strapped to his back.

 

Nothing is wasted on Hopeless but the Bussages left little of value for their neighbours to use. No one seemed to have any use for Jethro’s still, or the now empty barrels, so, on a whim, Amos took them, though he had no idea how the still worked.

 

This is a Christmas tale and traditionally such tales have happy endings and promises of hope. The legacy of the Christmas of 1886 – The Thirst Noel as it was irreverently dubbed – took many years to be realised. Those who frequently peruse The Vendetta will be well aware of the emergence of the Gannicox Distillery. They will also know that this achievement will be somewhat overshadowed by the heroic but dreadful fate of Elmer Bussage, The Night Soil Man.  Sadly, there can be little expectation of hope on an island called Hopeless. The very best we can ever look forward to is a bittersweet conclusion. Merry Christmas.

Art by Tom Brown

(References: People from the Sea; The Wendigo; The Distiller)

People from the sea

In the early hours of May 8th, 1884 the passenger ship ‘The City of Portland’, bound from Boston to St.John, New Brunswick, came to grief on North West Ledge, by Owl’s Head, off the coast of Maine. Happily, thanks to the cool-headedness of the captain and crew, there was no loss of life. In worsening weather conditions most of the passengers were safely ferried to the steamer, Rockland, but in the confusion the ship’s carpenter, Amos Gannicox, found himself adrift upon the open ocean, along with five very different companions. Sitting in the bows of the lifeboat was the recently ordained missionary, the Reverend Malachi Crackstone. Next to him was Tobias Thrupp, a solicitor’s clerk from England, a man given to long spells of moody silence, while huddled in the rear of the little craft  were Jethro and Maybelle Bussage and their eight year old son, Elmer.

A small life-raft is not the most comfortable place in an angry sea. The six bedraggled survivors were relieved, therefore, when, through the mist, they spotted land. Although the dark rocks looked forbidding they were as welcome a sight as any golden beach or tropical paradise.

There had been little time to grab any personal belongings before ‘The City of Portland” capsized but Amos had managed to salvage his beloved tool chest. The assortment of saws, planes, chisels, files and numerous, esoteric-looking gadgets of the carpenter’s trade contained therein were his pride and joy. On reaching land, however, the chest became an encumbrance and it was only with the aid of the young parson was he able to carry it over the rocky terrain. The Bussage child, Elmer, walked with them while his parents and Thrupp went on ahead, scanning the horizon for any sign of human habitation.

It was not long before they came upon a small stone cottage. A girl, no more than two years old, was playing outside. As the party drew near, a pale, worried looking woman came out of the doorway and gathered the child up, into her arms.

“Amelia, you need to come in now… ,” she eyed the strangers warily.

“My dear madam, you have nothing to fear from us,” Reverend Crackstone’s tone was one of reassurance. “We are castaways, looking for shelter. We mean no harm.”

The woman was obviously agitated and reluctant to let them in but seeing that Crackstone was a man of the cloth, she felt somewhat happier and relented, all the time apologising for the poor state of her home.

The inside of the cottage was clean but in dire need of repair and sparsely furnished. The castaways, however, were only too glad to find somewhere dry and warm in which to rest. Amos found a pack of coffee that he had managed to rescue and soon the inviting aroma of strong coffee filled the air in the tiny room for the first time in many a long year.

The woman, who introduced herself as Harriet Butterow, told them of a nearby inn, The Squid and Teapot, which habitually welcomed strangers. It appeared that until such times as they could support themselves, the landlord, one Bartholomew Middlestreet, a kind and generous man, offered board and lodgings in exchange for any skills their customers might offer in return.

This was music to their ears and the little band wasted no time in making their way to the shelter of the curiously named Squid and Teapot and into the care of the kindly Mr Middlestreet.


A few days later Amos decided to pay a call on Harriet to thank her for her hospitality. He sensed that there was no Mr Butterow in evidence. The least he could do to repay the lady’s kindness would be to offer some help in repairing the cottage. It was an offer that Harriet was quick to agree to but if Amos had entertained any hopes of something of a more romantic relationship evolving from their arrangement, he was to be sadly disappointed.

Over the coming days Harriet unfolded her strange history to the ever-attentive carpenter.

Until five years ago she had been living with her maternal grandmother, Colleen O’Stoat, a fierce old lady with a dark reputation. When Colleen died there was no real funeral, for even her own family had disowned her. It had been Colleen’s wish that, upon her death, her body be put into a small open boat and given to the wild ocean. In the absence of other mourners, Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man, carried the corpse to the shore and gently laid the old lady to rest in a rickety and somewhat decrepit rowing boat that had been lying, half submerged for years, in the inky waters that filled the inlet beneath Tragedy Ridge. This is how, early on one spring morning, Harriet was left to cast her grandmother out to sea, back towards the land of her birth.


Despite its apparent unseaworthiness, the tiny craft was borne easily upon the waves, drifting eastwards, unharmed, until it became but a speck upon the pale sun that was beginning to rise out of the ocean. As a tearful Harriet turned to leave, a movement in the nearby rocks made her freeze in her tracks. She held her breath; strange and perilous terrors were known to inhabit these waters.

Of all the creatures that might emerge from the waves, the last thing Harriet expected to see was a man. This particular specimen, though lean and muscular, looked totally exhausted. He was also completely naked. Harriet blushed and lowered her eyes to the ground. The naked newcomer staggered unsteadily towards her, arms outstretched, then, with a groan collapsed at her feet.

Putting her embarrassment to one side, the young woman persuaded the stranger to get up and with a great effort of will from both of them, managed to stagger back to her cottage.

With rest and recuperation, plus some dutiful nursing from Harriet Butterow, the man from the sea soon recovered. His modesty was not fully retrieved, however, until the landlord of The Squid and Teapot kindly contributed some odds and ends of clothing and a fine pair of boots.

Within a very short space the two inevitably, became lovers. Strangely, in all their time together, he uttered not a single word. She never learned his name or heard him speak her own. That was her great sorrow.

For two years they lived this way. Sometimes he would disappear for days, only to return home laden down with mussels and lobsters and enough fish to feed them for a week. Their life together was simple and contented, though Harriet, in the back of her mind, was only too aware that this happiness would soon end.

In the winter of 1881 there was a great storm that blasted the island for days. As it raged, the man from the sea seemed to become more restless, like the ocean itself. He would sit upon the rocks, seemingly unaffected by the the howling winds and lashing rain, and gaze, with melancholic eyes, out into the tempest. Harriet knew that she was losing him and felt helpless to stop it.

A few nights after the storm had passed Harriet was awoken by an eerie, almost unearthly sound. Recognising the cries as being the call of harbor seals, she lay in the darkness, a sense of dread clutching at her heart. She could tell by his breathing that her lover was awake too. His body was as tense as a coiled spring. The mournful barking of the seals filled the air again, plaintive and urgent. With tears in her eyes, Harriet felt him arise from their bed. Moonlight poured through the open door of the cottage as he slipped silently out of her life and into the night.

Quickly throwing on some clothing Harriet followed from a distance, stumbling over the uneven ground.

He seemed to have no idea she was there and continued, like one in a trance, towards the shoreline, his naked flesh ivory in the moonlight. Without looking back he paused by the edge of the ocean and searching among the rocks, retrieved a package which he carefully unfurled and slung over his shoulders. Only then did he turn; he must have seen her for he faltered, as if his intention was to go back. Suddenly, the siren-song of the harbor seals rent the air once more and the spell was broken. The last Harriet saw of her silent lover was a flash of white as he dived beneath the waves. A second or two later the unmistakable head of a seal bobbed to the surface, stopped for an instant to look at her, then disappeared forever.

“It wasn’t until then did I know what he truly was, Mr Gannicox,” said Harriet. “Granny O’Stoat had told me tales of the seal people but I never really believed her. But I do now. He was a Selkie, to be sure.”

Amos said nothing. It sounded all very improbable. After all was said and done, they were within sight of a new century, a modern age where such fairy-tales had little place. The woman was obviously deranged. That was still no reason for her lover to desert her, he reflected.

“It was only after he left I found I was pregnant,” Harriet confided, unaware of the carpenter’s scepticism. “Do you think Amelia is similarly cursed? When she’s older I’ll forbid her to go anywhere near the ocean. It scares me, sir. I’m terrified she’ll go and never come back”

Amos made some soothing comments and wondered why a grown woman should believe in such things.


Night was falling as he made his way back to the Squid and Teapot. Somewhere, far away in the vast Atlantic ocean, a seal called to its mate.

Amos smiled to himself.

‘’Selkies indeed!’’

Art by Tom Brown

A Marriage on the Rocks

I owe my readers something of an apology. Without any explanation, I have, in recent tales, referred to Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs as being the husband of Betty Butterow, the barmaid of The Squid and Teapot.

“When did that happen?” you might well ask. Regular visitors will know that a great affection grew between the two and romance blossomed. My grandmother might have said that they were ‘courting’, however, given the intensity of their relationship, she would more likely have tutted and said that they were ‘carrying-on.’ I remember ‘carrying on’ as being a disapproving and euphemistic verdict passed on those conducting any liaison not compatible with her own rigid moral compass. In granny’s view Joseph and Betty’s moral compass would have been spinning around madly with no hope of ever finding north, either true or magnetic. Happily unaware of this, the couple joyously carried on ‘carrying-on’ with great gusto and enthusiasm at every opportunity until, at last, the day dawned when they both decided that it seemed only sensible to make their carrying-on respectable and official with the exchange of marriage vows.

The word ‘wedding’ conjures up visions of flouncy dresses that resemble fluffy white confections; blizzards of confetti and lucky horseshoes made of cardboard; giggling bridesmaids and awkward pageboys; a best man delivering an embarrassing speech and the wrong person catching a tossed bouquet.

Well, you can forget all of that. This is Hopeless, Maine and none of these things have any place in this tale. Remember also, Betty was a Selkie, a seal-woman and Selkies have their own ways of getting wed.

Every wedding needs a celebrant. This one was no exception. Neither Betty nor Joseph would have tolerated having their vows sanctified by a beaming minister or one of the stern, hard-faced Jesuits that Joseph had encountered in his youth. Instead, both decided that the one person who would understand them best (and not bat an eyelid at Betty’s shape-shifting predilection) would be a shaman from Joseph’s tribe, the Passamaquoddy. And so it was that the two lovers found themselves crossing the choppy channel to the mainland (he paddled, she swam) to exchange their vows on a windy outcrop overlooking the ocean on the rocky coast of Maine. The shaman had made it clear to Joseph that he was disinclined to travel. Perilous expeditions into the spirit world were one thing; going to Hopeless was a completely different teapot of squid that the elderly medicine-man had absolutely no intention of experiencing.

There are many legends surrounding selkies. Some say that the man who steals her skin possesses her. I have no idea if this is true. Even if it were, Joseph had no wish to possess Betty and, frankly, I would be amazed if any man ever could. Having said this, when a Selkie woman chooses to marry a landsman, it is customary for her to entrust her husband with her sealskin. This, you must understand, is purely symbolic, for without her skin she is unable to become a seal, something neither of them would have wished. So, having ceremoniously handed the still wet pelt to Joseph, Betty immediately took it back. After all, she needed to return home that evening and swimming was vastly more exhilarating and comfortable than riding in a cramped canoe that was loaded down with Passamaquoddy wedding gifts.

Joseph had regarded himself to be part of the Hopeless community for some time and the island was the only home Betty had ever known, so there was never any question that they might live anywhere else. They set up house in a cabin in Creepy Hollow, just a short distance and generally upwind of the Night-Soil Man’s cottage. It was a place close to Joseph’s heart, for it was there, some fifteen years earlier, that he and the apprentice, Randall Middlestreet, had disposed of the Wendigo, the creature that had killed Josephs’s mother and also his first wife. Randall not only took on the mantle of the Night-Soil Man that day but also became Joseph’s blood-brother.

Beneath the bar in The Squid and Teapot sits a battered leather journal. Within its covers are the histories and genealogies of many of the island’s dwellers. It is also the book in which many of these tales are recorded. If you could only look through its yellowing pages you would see that the story of Betty and Joseph is far from over.

Art by Tom Brown

Spoonwalker Blues

Pinned up behind the bar of the Squid and Teapot is a yellowing scrap of paper upon which are the written a few verses of a song. There would be nothing remarkable about this other than the fact that the lyrics are specifically about Spoonwalkers. That in itself is, as far as I am aware, almost unique (you may recall that, although he had no idea of their identity, W.S. Gilbert referred to them in his song ‘Why is the cutlery moving?’).

What makes these verses especially interesting, however, is not the subject matter but just three letters and a date written carelessly at the bottom of the sheet: RLJ 1936.

Looking through the guest-book of The Squid and Teapot (which is not a particularly time-consuming activity) it seems that no one with those initials appears to have stayed at the inn during the year in question. One entry that does stand out, however, is that of ‘J Shines and friend’.

Could ‘J. Shines’ be Johnny Shines, a musician and travelling companion of the blues singer, Robert Leroy Johnson? Although usually associated with the southern states of America, it is well documented that Johnson and Shines performed as far north as New York, Chicago and even Canada. Excitingly, if ‘RLJ’ is  Robert Johnson it is proof that he came to Hopeless in the last couple of years of his short life. Sadly, however, the why and how of his visit may never be known but it would be safe to assume that the two men would have shared a room to save money.

Now for a leap of faith; if Johnson was on the island could it not be that his famous ‘Crossroads’ was actually penned here on Hopeless? There is a school of thought that the blues singer sold his soul to the devil on a crossroads in Mississippi – but Hopeless is a far better candidate for diabolic dealings, surely. if Johnson was here in 1936 and stood on the crossroads that lead to the caverns just as the sun was setting, who knows what he might have experienced? There are demonic forms enough on this island to make him think that the devil was after him. All this is speculation of course; the blues song pinned up behind the bar may be nothing to do with Robert Johnson at all. What do you think?

 

Spoonwalker Blues

 

Woke up this mornin’

Got them Spoonwalkers on my mind.

Woke up this mornin’ baby,

Had them Spoonwalkers on my mind.

They been in my kitchen

Takin’ all that they can find.

 

Soup and puddin’s off the menu.

Stir my coffee with my thumb.

Soup and puddin’s off the menu.

I’m stirring coffee with my thumb.

Since them Spoonwalkers been here

I been living like a bum.

 

Got no eggs for breakfast,

Got no butter on my bread.

No, I got no eggs for breakfast,

Got no butter on my bread.

How I hate them ol’ Spoonwalkers

And now they gotten in my head.

 

So I went down to the doctor

He say “Get some walkin’ shoes.”

Yeah, I went down to the doctor,

Told me “Get some walkin’ shoes.”

He say “Walk away from Hopeless, boy,

You gotta lose them Spoonwalker blues.”

 

RLJ  1936

Art by Tom Brown

Pamola

Hopeless Maine’s very first and much-anticipated Hallowe’en party had been a disaster. The ancient cauldron in which the stew was cooking had exploded into a thousand pieces and, as if by magic, a huge and slightly comical bird had risen, squawking from its ruins. More worrying, by far, were the actions of Daniel Rooksmoor, the orphan who had been given the task of feeding the fire beneath the cauldron. Daniel had ingested three drops of the ill-fated stew (the remainder having seeped into the ground) and a profound change had come over him. Looking suddenly older and with a wild light in his eyes, the orphan had followed the Cauldron Bird’s flight and like one in a trance, wandered out towards the mysterious Gydynap Hills.

Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs was wracked by guilt. He had inspired the islanders to hold the event and now felt responsible for Daniel’s disappearance. He quickly resolved that he should go into the hills himself in the hopes of persuading the boy to return to the orphanage.

 

Hallowe’en is not an ideal night to begin such a quest, especially on Hopeless, but Joseph, wary of the dangers, felt that he had no choice.

He was not a little surprised, therefore, when he reached the highest point of the hills without a single problem; dawn, however, was still some hours away and there was plenty of time for trouble to manifest. He had expected it earlier when, on several occasions, he thought that he had spotted someone – or more likely something – following him from a distance. In the event nothing too awful had happened so maybe, he reasoned, it was his own uneasiness making him see things that were not there.

 

Besides his beloved Betty Butterow, only one other person had watched Joseph head for the hills. This was Randall Middlestreet, the Night-Soil man. He was half-way through his rounds when he caught sight the Passamaquoddy trader. Randall could not but help wonder what was going on; the hills were no place for a lone walker at night.

It is both the gift and the curse of the Night-Soil Man to repel most creatures, human or otherwise, and it took but an instant for him to make the decision to abandon the rest of his shift, follow Joseph and try to keep him safe. A Night-Soil man has few friends but Joseph, Betty and the Lypiatt family had always been kind to him. Randall would die before allowing harm to befall any of them.

While he had taken care to keep well downwind of Joseph, the reek of the Night-Soil Man had kept all but the most olfactory-challenged beasts at bay. There had been few incidents for Randall to attend to; happily the creatures showing any interest in pursuing Joseph tended to be small and could be efficiently  despatched with a well-aimed boot. It was fortunate that the nastier predators, the night-stalkers, would not be up here on the empty hills but busy hunting their prey in the dark streets below, where flesh and blood was in plentiful supply.

 

Joseph had run out of ideas. He had walked for hours and found no trace of Daniel. His best plan now was to find somewhere to rest, light a fire and wait until sunrise. A dozen or so yards to his rear, Randall did the same, minus the fire.

 

It was just before dawn when the wind changed direction. Joseph had been dozing fitfully for a hour or more. He was jerked awake when his nostrils twitched involuntarily at the intrusion of a sudden and decidedly unpleasant aroma. Joseph smiled; there was only one person, as far as he was aware, who could announce their presence in such a way.

“Randall…?” he called, not looking back.

He heard the Night-Soil man stir, then begin to wander over.  The stench became stronger. Joseph tried not to gag; he knew that after a minute or two the smell would become tolerable.

“Hi Joe. I was just passin’. What’s going on?”

Joseph smiled to himself again upon hearing Randall’s white lie. He immediately guessed the real reason for the Night-Soil Man being there. In truth, Joseph was glad of the company and soon found himself telling Randall the whole sorry tale of the Hallowe’en party and how Daniel followed the Cauldron Bird to the hills.

“I’ll happily help, as long as you can bear my company,” Randall offered.

Joseph assured the Night-Soil Man that he was very welcome to join him. Indeed, the combination of familiarity and fresh breeze had diluted Randall’s smell considerably.

As a watery sun battled through the ever-present mist, the pair made their way deeper into the hills. Neither mentioned the several disembodied eyes, watching from the sky above them. They had both witnessed these before, of course. Everyone on Hopeless had, but there was an almost superstitious tendency to pretend they were not there. Here, however, high above the rest of the island, they were hard to ignore.

It was Randall who spotted Daniel first. He was about fifty yards away, kneeling before a large boulder. The boy was gently rocking back and forth, his arms outstretched; they could hear him chanting.

“Pamola, O Great One, come to me… Pamola, O Great One, come to me…”

 

Joseph stiffened, scarcely believing what he was hearing. This was unexpected.

He put his hand on Randall’s shoulder, a wordless command to remain still.

The two men watched for some minutes as Daniel continued to rock and chant. The chanting became more and more intense, gradually mingling with what seemed to be the roar of distant thunder. Little by little the noise grew louder, as if something was drawing near, responding to the boy’s call. Although Joseph knew the name of Pamola, even he was unprepared for what happened next. A huge bird of prey alighted upon the boulder in front of Daniel. There was some resemblance to the Cauldron Bird but the strange creature had metamorphosed into something very much bigger and far more terrible. If once it had appeared comical, that aspect was no more. There were no signs of vegetable talons or cabbage-leaf wings. This creature was wrought as if out of brass and leather; it was god-like and not in a sweet and gentle messianic way. It was quite obvious that this was something from a savage and distant past that would have little time for changing water into wine, healing the sick and suchlike.

Daniel leaned back and spread his arms wide, as though in welcome.

The bird screeched, making both men cover their ears. It hopped clumsily on to the ground and flapped its mighty wings, raising a dust storm. Joseph and Randall could only watch, helpless, as Pamola mantled Daniel with its wings, as a hawk would do when devouring its prey. They could only guess at what was happening. Suddenly, with some more dust-storm inducing flaps, the great bird rose into the misty air, leaving no trace of the boy behind.

The two observers remained in silence for some minutes, watching as Pamola gradually disappeared from sight, heading across the channel to the mainland.

It was only when he was certain that the bird was many miles away did Joseph dare to speak its name and give Randall an explanation.

“ A neighbouring tribe, the Penobscot, has a legend,” Joseph said. “Pamola – it means ‘he curses on the mountain’ – is an evil spirit who is said to reside on Mount Katahdin. It is called The Greatest of Mountains, yet it is feared by all of the Indians of Maine, even today. Pamola will kill and injure unless he is appeased by a sacrifice every now and then. He can be capricious, though. There are tales of him giving favour by taking a hunter to his own lands and lavishing upon him all that he might desire. I’d like to think that such a thing has happened to Daniel, but I fear that is unlikely. Daniel Rooksmoor is gone, Randall and we have been cursed – or maybe privileged – to have witnessed all of this.”

The Night-Soil man said little as they walked down from the hills. He had much to think about. Ancient Welsh cauldrons and Native American demons were strange bedfellows. But this was Hopeless, Maine, where strange was all too commonplace. Randall yawned and suddenly realised how tired he was feeling. He needed to sleep. Somehow, though, he did not imagine he would find sleep particularly easy to come by for some time.

Art by Cliff Cumber

The Unquiet Gravy

These days, unlike much of North America, Hallowe’en is not widely celebrated on Hopeless. This is fairly understandable; there seems little point in masquerading as some shabby version of a supernatural creature when living on an island where encounters with ghosts, ghouls, werewolves, vampires and a host of nameless horrors are fairly commonplace. This, however, has not always been the case.

Hallowe’en, as a trick-and-treating, dressing-up and scaring the neighbours affair, kicked-off as a commercial  success in America in the 1930s. Although Hopeless was then no less of a haven for the weird and not particularly wonderful, the novelty value of the occasion was not wasted upon its inhabitants when the trader, Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs brought news of the festival to the island. (Joseph was now living on Hopeless, having very recently married Betty Butterow, the barmaid of the Squid and Teapot).  It must be said that much of the enthusiasm generated for the occasion had a great deal to do with the prospect of a feast, for Joseph had loaded his canoe to the gunnels with candies, fruit, pumpkins, corn, vegetables and one very skinny game bird.

If the various communities of world have one thing in common, it is the desire to form a committee whenever the opportunity arises. There seems to be a universal belief that anything of the slightest importance which needs to be organised requires a group of people with vastly differing opinions to put it together. The Hopeless Hallowe’en committee was no exception. Arguments regarding the the distribution of the food, the venue or venues involved, even the exact specifications regarding the carving of the Jack O’Lanterns abounded for days. Hallowe’en was in danger of slipping by unnoticed while the committee debated the way in which it should be celebrated. At last Joseph, who was a patient man and had kept an inscrutable silence so far, banged the table with his moccasin and threatened to scupper his canoe, complete with cargo, if no decision could be made by supper time. This seemed to concentrate minds wonderfully and it was unanimously decided that all preparations for the celebrations should be put in the capable hands of the staff of the Squid and Teapot. It was a huge task and Joseph pretended not to notice the withering glance that Betty threw at him. Since marrying, the couple had set up home in a small cabin in Creepy Hollow. Joseph had the distinct impression that he might well be banished to the spare room for a night or two.

Both Betty and the Lypiatt family, who owned the inn, thought that the children of the orphanage might be recruited to carve the Jack O’Lanterns. Given the number of people to cater for, they reached the conclusion that the most economical use of the meat and vegetables would be to make a huge stew. The most mediocre of cooks will tell you –  and I speak with some authority here – that not only is a stew one of the simplest dishes to prepare but also, when allowed to cook slowly enough to enable the various flavours and textures to combine, can rival the nectar of the gods on a cold October evening. All that was required to create this culinary delight was a container large enough to hold all of the ingredients.

It was Gwilym Davies who came to the rescue. His family had settled on the island over a century before and Gwilym and his descendants on Hopeless were the remains of the Davies diaspora that had left North Wales all those years ago.

Gwilym’s great grandparents, Gruffyd and Bronwen had sailed from Liverpool with few possessions but the one thing they refused to leave behind was the huge copper cauldron that had been in the family for longer than anyone could remember.  As far as Gwilym was aware,  the cauldron had not been used during his lifetime and it seemed an ideal vessel for the job in hand.

One of The Squid’s outbuildings was selected to house the cauldron. So large was the container that it was deemed necessary to keep a fire burning steadily beneath it for at least twenty four hours in order for the flavours to properly mingle. In view of this, a couple of islanders were roped-in to tend to it. These took the shape of Daniel Rooksmoor, one of the boys from the orphanage and old Amos Gannicox. In his younger days Amos had been the ship’s carpenter on the ill-fated ‘The City of Portland’. After the ship capsized Amos had found himself stranded on Hopeless. Now, some fifty years later, on this most auspicious of occasions, he was awarded the task of stirring the stew. Meanwhile, Daniel, a burly fourteen-year-old, volunteered to feed the fire.

 

All seemed to be going well until it came to adding the meat. When the game-bird was plucked it looked too thin and bony to provide any sort of meaningful nourishment. It was a disappointment but by this time it was too late to do anything other than gut the carcass and throw it into the pot as it was, head, legs and all. At least a day of slow cooking would gently ease whatever flesh it once possessed from the bones.

By nightfall, on the last day of October, the air around The Squid and Teapot was rich with the aroma of stew. Folk started to drift towards the inn, bringing bowls and cutlery. It was rare for anyone on the island to give  their jealously guarded spoons an airing, for fear of theft by the Spoonwalkers, but tonight there was a devil-may-care attitude and caution was thrown to the wind. Lanterns, music, laughter and a certain amount of alcohol, all added to the atmosphere of the evening.

Daniel had gone to the woodshed for more fuel and Amos was alone with the cauldron when it suddenly bubbled with a strange glooping noise. The old man dug the wooden paddle, that served as a stirring-spoon, into the mixture and pushed it around. It was hard work – the paddle moved sluggishly, as if through treacle. The stew glooped again just as Daniel walked through the doorway, his arms loaded with logs.

“I don’t know what’s going on with this,” said Amos. “Give me a hand with the paddle, please lad.”

Daniel grasped the paddle and helped move it around. Maybe it was the firelight or something to do with the bottle of ‘Old Colonel’ he’d craftily consumed while supposedly looking for wood but the stew seemed to have taken on a strange hue. There was a certain luminous green quality lingering in its depths.

“Gloop”

This time the bubbles were fiercer and sent a fine spray of stew into the air, three generous drops of it landing on Daniel’s hand. The pair jumped back with some alarm, yelling in consternation and letting the paddle drop into the cauldron. Daniel licked the burning drops off his hand.

By now a crowd, hearing the commotion, had gathered outside the doorway just in time to see Amos fall over and Daniel reel back against the wall, holding his head.

The bubbling noises from the cauldron were louder and more frequent by now. A green steam arose from the surface of the stew and hung ominously in the air above it.

“Get back” screamed Daniel, grabbing Amos by the collar of his jacket and dragging him out of the building, the crowd falling back to let them pass.

The cauldron began to groan as if possessed by some demon and its sides appeared to pulsate in the dancing firelight.

The crowd drew back, everyone well aware that something unpleasant was about to happen. This was, after all, Hopeless on Hallowe’en. Of course something unpleasant was about to happen.

Then it did.

The cauldron groaned once more, a heart-rending, guttural cry that became a drawn-out moan, then a roar. With a blinding flash the cauldron exploded into a thousand copper shards, embedding themselves into the walls and ceiling of the outbuilding. Many of the spectators standing close by were temporarily blinded by the sudden burst of light. Very few saw the creature that arose from the ruins of the stew which, by now, was seeping into the earthen floor. Even by Hopeless standards it was odd. There was something reminiscent of a bird of prey about it, but huge and with glowing eyes, as big as turnips. Its wings might have been leather but looked like massive cabbage leaves and its talons were uncannily like parsnips. With a beak and wattles that glowed, as if made of copper, it rose into the air

with a deafening squawk, then flapped, slow and silent as a heron, into the night sky,  towards the mysterious Gydynap hills.

Daniel Rooksmoor stood alone over the unmoving form of Amos Gannicox. The three livid red scars on his hand marked where the drops had landed and he had changed, for all to see. His skin was deathly pale and he looked older, far older, than his years. There was a light in his eyes that spoke of madness; the madness of prophets and poets. The madness which has little time for the mediocrity of daily life.

Wordlessly he walked away from the throng, into the darkness, following the flight of the Cauldron Bird. He was oblivious to danger and careless of any creature that might be abroad on this most haunted of nights. Those who saw him leave fell to silence. No one moved to stop him.

 

Despite the facts that Gwilym Davies was stoic about the loss of his cauldron, Amos had made a full recovery and there appeared to have been no fatalities, Joseph was wracked with guilt. He was convinced that the responsibility for everything that befell that night was all his own. He felt especially bad about Daniel Rooksmoor and resolved to find the boy and bring him back. Joseph  knew this was something that he had to do alone. There was no changing his mind and so, with a heavy-heart, Betty Butterow watched the love of her life leave their cabin to head deep inland, where loomed the mysterious and forbidding Gydynap hills…

 

To be continued…

art by Tom Brown

The Ravens of Chapel Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The ravens,” I said.

Art by Clifford Cumber

The Headless Lady

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

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

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


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


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

Art by Tom Brown

The Jacobean Manor House

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

To be continued….

Art by Clifford Cumber

Fire and Brimstone

The story so far…

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

The three men froze.

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

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

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

“Give me your shotgun” he said to Bowbridge.

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

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

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

“What the…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give ‘em another round,” he shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Art by Clifford Cumber