Of dustcats, lullabys and singing snails

Hello people! (and others)

We have begun a thing.  We are making and publishing tiny books. Our first one (Lullaby for a Dustcat) took about two months from concept to having it out there among you. This is *Very* exciting for us because it creates a more immediate relationship with the book, as an act of creativity, and with all of you. (Yes, we love our publisher, Sloth, who brings out the graphic novels, but one a year is the limit there) So, Nimue and I will be making more of these. Probably three annually.

They really are tiny books. A6 size, which means that they can be sent instead of greeting cards in the same sort of envelope. They are very young-human friendly too.

This has also been made possible by Nimue’s Patreon people.  One level is that of Dustcat and she writes letters to them. (as though they were actual Dustcats) This poem/lullaby is one of those. Also- one of the illustrations and part of the border motif features the singing snail, which was brought to the island by Meredith Debonnaire who is one of our favourite writers and she is the one who brought singing snails to the Island. (Or as a way of getting to the island…) If you would like one of these tiny (but adorable) books you can do so by going here.


We hope (as always) this finds you well, inspired and thriving.


Dreams of New Delhi

Occasionally, when the weather is clement and the their carers are in a beneficent frame of mind, the youngsters from the orphanage go foraging along the coast. This was as true in the past as it is today, an activity providing not only a modicum of fresh air and exercise but also the chance of replenishing the orphanage resources with whatever the sea has provided.
It was on one such expedition, in the latter part of the nineteen twenties, that the Reverend Malachi Crackstone and a group of boys discovered a sealed box washed up on the shore. The box had been addressed to a priest living somewhere on the mainland.  Since the addressee was a man of God, and therefore unlikely to be the recipient of anything that might be remotely inappropriate for young eyes, the Reverend could see no harm in allowing the lads to open the package unsupervised. Secure in the knowledge that their continued innocence was ensured, he left them to their explorations while he went across the rocks to help the girls’ group, who were cheerfully eviscerating a recently deceased porpoise.                                                                                                              
The contents, at first, proved to be something of a disappointment. There was a birthday card from someone called ‘Cousin Roy’ and a batch of out-of-date religious magazines. Closer inspection, however, unearthed a real treasure that warmed the cockles of their adolescent hearts. Hidden among the copies of ‘The Catholic Educational Review’ was a slim but risqué publication called ‘Dawn’. A brief description of the contents emblazoned upon the cover helpfully described the magazine as being concerned with ‘the erotic intersection of eugenics, nudism and figure studies’. While ‘Cousin Roy’ may have been sending this to a Man of the Cloth, there was a conspicuous absence of cloth on the young ladies who graced the pages, which were certainly not aimed at those of a pious persuasion.
The lads were gazing with wonder and appreciation at the revelations concealed

between the covers of ‘Dawn’ when the Reverend made his way back to them.       
“What are you boys so interested in?” he asked, suspiciously.
The children of the orphanage had been taught never to lie to their elders.
“It’s an educational magazine sir.”

Clarence Coaley was a quick-witted fourteen year old whose answer was nothing but truthful.
The other boys stayed silent. They had no wish for the real truth to come out. As far as Reverend Crackstone was concerned the boys had found a copy of National Geographic; this he had surmised when he heard Clarence say that they were studying pictures of New Delhi. This was wonderful. Some of the newspapers that Colonel Ruscombe-Green had sent from the mainland, via the trader, Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs, told of the planned creation of this exciting new capital of India. The city was even now under construction and  still some years off completion. The Reverend had often dreamed of visiting India himself one day, his father having been a young army officer there at the time of the mutiny.

Clarence reasoned to his young colleagues that what he had said wasn’t exactly a lie; if the Reverend had misunderstood, it was not his fault. After all, a caption next to one of the young ladies said that her name was Eleanor. In all probability she was known to her friends as Ellie and she definitely had no clothes on.

The interests of the young never ceased to amaze Reverend Crackstone. It did his old heart good to see how Clarence quickly and carefully placed the magazine inside the collection of Catholic Educational Reviews for safe keeping.
“Make sure you study that magazine properly,” he advised. “You’ll see places that you never even dreamed existed. But don’t stay awake looking at it half the night, you’ll ruin your eyesight.”


All would have been well, had Clarence been inclined to be less possessive. He was loathe to let anyone else look at the magazine, which he increasingly regarded as being his own property. With a fraternal indifference that would have met the approval of Cain himself, Clarence’s younger brother, Cuthbert, anonymously spilled the proverbial beans to Reverend Crackstone with a single, damning note, placed on the parson’s desk within a week of the discovery. Clarence’s brief infatuation with the comely Eleanor was brought to an abrupt end, therefore, when Crackstone, full of biblical wrath, fell upon the boys’ dormitory like Lord Byron’s wolf upon the fold. The affronted parson had little difficulty in locating the offending publication among Clarence’s few possessions. Not being one to subscribe to the philosophy of sparing the rod, he wasted no time in deftly meting out no small amount of punishment. Although almost seventy years old, he was still able to wield a fierce and unforgiving cane, designed to drive all impure thoughts from the unfortunate youth.

If he achieved nothing else, Crackstone managed to secure Clarence’s undying enmity. Following the magazine incident, a week would barely go by that the reverend failed to beat the boy for some misdemeanour, real or supposed. This he administered with a self-righteous rigour that verged upon madness.


During the summer of that year some visitors arrived on the island, which was, in itself, a rare event. When one of them was dragged away by an army of spoonwalkers a rescue expedition was mounted and Crackstone, who had briefly enjoyed a friendship of sorts with the missing stranger, volunteered to be part of it. Clarence was glad to have a day free of the parson’s puritanical zeal and took the opportunity to slip away and do a spot of beachcombing on his own, fostering the forlorn hope that he might stumble upon another saucy magazine.

By mid-afternoon Clarence was weary, crestfallen and empty-handed. As the day had worn on it had become increasingly obvious that the chances of his happening upon another such find was miniscule.

‘Just another hour and I’ll call it a day,’ he thought to himself. Suddenly he froze. A movement in the nearby rocks caught his eye. As a lifelong inhabitant of Hopeless, Clarence had learned to be constantly wary of the unwelcome attentions of its various denizens. This particular specimen, however, was of the human variety and crouched over a rock as if spying on something, or someone, by the shore. It took a moment for Clarence to register that the faded black suit was somehow familiar. Then it dawned upon him. Those pale hands resting on the rocks like albino crabs and the dusty, ill-fitting trousers flapping over scrawny buttocks could only belong to Reverend Crackstone!

If the beatings Clarence had received had been meant to purge his soul of whatever demon was lurking within, then they had failed. The thoughts that bubbled up in his mind now were darker and bleaker than any he had yet had. The sight of Crackstone, absorbed in something unseen and totally oblivious to Clarence’s presence was too much for the orphan to bear. He picked up a hefty stone and stealthily crept towards his hated enemy, intent on murder.

Clarence was seconds away from dashing the parson’s brains out when a surprising thing occurred. Crackstone stood up, ranting and raving at someone on the shore. The words ‘whore’ and ‘abomination’ were unfamiliar to the boy but he guessed them not to be too complementary. Still shouting, the parson picked up a large rock and hoisted it above his head with surprising ease.


Was the day growing darker?

Clarence gasped as the sky behind Crackstone became swallowed up by a vast shape that emerged from the ocean and blotted out the sickly, fog-bound sun. The creature resembled a huge octopus with long, suckered tentacles that writhed terrifyingly in the air above it. As the boy watched, fascinated but frozen to the spot, one of the tentacles wrapped itself around the body of the parson. The elderly man’s voice became muffled as more of the serpentine arms completely enveloped him, then he fell silent as they tightened and twisted, wringing his, thankfully hidden, body like an old rag. Clarence fell back in horror, not certain what he was witnessing. It was only when the remains of Reverend Crackstone were hoisted high into the air did he summon the courage crawl to the cliff edge.

Strange and vast though the sea-creature was, Clarence’s eye was drawn to the tiny figure on the shore before it. He recognised her at once. Betty Butterow, the barmaid of The Squid and Teapot had long been a favourite topic of conversation for the older boys in the orphanage. Long limbed and beautiful, she had fuelled their erotic fantasies as no other girl on the island could, despite her advanced age of twenty two years. And here she was, naked before his very eyes. What a story he would have to tell the other lads. That old hypocrite, Crackstone, had been spying upon Betty, whose revealed charms far surpassed those of the monochrome nude Ellie in the confiscated magazine, and now he was dead, killed by a sea monster who appeared to be protecting the barmaid.

With his bragging rights ensured, Clarence could not wait to get back to the orphanage.

It was then that his eyes met the deep and solemn gaze of the sea-creature.  Clarence suddenly felt helpless, like a kite on a string that was being inexorably drawn in. There was nothing in his world now but those eyes. They held no malice but no pity either. The Kraken – for Kraken it was – reached deep inside the boy and read his every thought. Clarence screamed, though no sound came from his lips. Then there was darkness.


When he awoke, Clarence found himself alone upon the headland. He had no idea how he had arrived there; his only recollection was having left the orphanage earlier that day. Everything else was a blank. He could only imagine that he had fallen into a faint for some reason.

It was getting late but, being midsummer, darkness was still an hour or so away. He was in so much trouble and needed to get back to the orphanage quickly.

He shuddered at the consequences of staying out too late.

Crackstone was going to have his hide for this.

Art by Tom Brown

Tales of the Sinimus

Hello people! (and others)

Last week we asked you to help choose the name of this wee sleekit (probably not timorous or cowering) beastie, and you have come through for us. It is scientifically known as a Sinimus, and commonly known as a Puddle Rat. Then I went on the social media ether and asked you for tales and anecdotes regarding the most recently discovered fauna of the island. You came through yet again. Or, at least these people did! There may be more tales of the Simus to come, so watch this space…


“The Sinimus, or rather hosts of the little blighters, are the bane of bakers across Hopeless, Maine. They have a tendency toward scones, you see. They don’t just eat them, but gnaw them hollow from the underside and then wear them like shells. Due to their teeny feet and scratchy nails, many a Hopeless baker has woken in the night to the sound of enthused scratching only to enter their kitchen to the sight of a host of scuttling scones by candlelight. For Hopeless, inanimate objects becoming anything but is a relatively normal occurrence. But there’s something about the way the scones chitter that makes them truly disturbing.”

Craig Hallam

“They’s fast; I seen one race down a weasel, eviscerate it with one kick o them clawfoots, then drag th’ twitchin’ carcass back ta its den, fulla blind, hairless, and carnivorous spawn. Their sharp li’l teeths makes short work of a body, leavin’ behind nuthin but fur, feathers, an mebbe gizzard-stones. If the stayed small, it wouldn’t be such a thing…but my ole Gram told me bout some what gets biggah an biggah. An ole bull Puddle Rat’s clawfoots can take a badger, ole boar coon, dog…er child. They done a big stermination on em, back in ’69. Some fellers got a little excited an used dynamite an a home-made flame-throwah fashioned out of an ole Indian tank, burnt down two houses, a toolshid, the Mayah’s cah, an Gino’s Pettin Zoo. No great loss, cos all he had was some chickens, an incontinent three-legged sheep, and somethin’ he called “Gordie Th Whatzit”, ayuh. Was able to salvage enough roast chicken an mutton foah a BBQ but Gordie? Ole Gordie dissapeahed.

Huh? Oh, yeah, they wasn’t to many confirmed Puddle Rats kilt, but they mostly stayed outta sight after that. Ain’t seen one in yeeahs.”

Cardiff Piltdown

Ever seen their mating ritual: The Scone Dance?

Attenborough tried but the footage wasn’t usable, distorted by arcane symbols.”

Anth Hodson-Curran


Upon seeing a puddle rat.

Beneath the leaden sky

I sat to take in the cool Hopeless evening

The waves whispered

The air was still

Vainly I tried to draw the stillness within

Something stirred.

A puddle rat

Ears twitching and alert, nose sniffing the air

Long shanked and nimble

It watched me

Reared on its hind legs, tail swishing

Its eyes gleamed

Such natural candour

That cares nothing for form or outward appearing

A mirror to my soul

In your dark eye

Writhe unquiet spirits in constant turmoil

My long denied demons

And for your dark eye

That sees true and shows unguardedly its seeing

People call you wicked.–

Jim Snee


The Sweaty Tapster


Almost a century before the arrival of the island’s founding families, a British convict ship, bound for Virginia, was caught up in a violent storm and blown several hundreds of miles off-course. Fortunately, though some might have said otherwise, the ship ran safely aground on the fog-bound rocks that generously punctuate the coastline around Hopeless, Maine. Although the captain, guards and crew tried valiantly to contain their captive charges, it soon became obvious that any hope of rescue was unlikely and either the convicts would have to be released, or left to drown in chains when the ship eventually broke-up completely. So, having absolutely no idea where on earth they were, the collection of shipwreckees struck an uneasy truce and made their way warily inland.

It must be remembered that those felons transported to the Americas and later, Australia, were not, by and large, hardened, dangerous criminals. Such people were swiftly despatched at the end of a rope. More often than not, the unfortunates who found themselves banished to the colonies had been forced into petty crime and prostitution by the simple requirement to survive in a time of great need.

Over the following days and weeks partnerships developed and little clumps of like-minded people found themselves drifting away from the original company. Some built shelters from rocks and driftwood, while others took advantage of the ready made dwellings that they found, mysteriously abandoned and in varìous states of disrepair.

Other survivors, it must be said, disappeared without a trace. There was a nervous but optimistic assumption by the rest of the company that they had simply gone their own way without a word of farewell. Anyone remotely familiar with the viscious nature of the fauna – and indeed, some of the flora – of Hopeless would recognise this as a perfect example of the triumph of hope over experience.

Twenty or so of those with a more adventurous disposition took themselves to the far north of the island. In the shadow of a range of hills that they later learned were known as the Gydynaps, they were surprised to discover a small, friendly and somewhat inbred community that appeared to have resided there for generations. Even more surprising was the fact that these people conversed in something approximating to Old English.

Those interested in the history of the island have spent many hours scratching their heads over the origins of this little community. The general school of thought is that they were descendants of Saxon slaves brought over by the Norsemen who settled on Hopeless a thousand years ago, or more. There is no indication that pre-Norman Conquest Britons ever knowingly ventured this far west. Such a voyage – to all intents and purposes to the very edge of the world – would have been either founded upon foolishness or desperation, or, more than likely, a combination of both.

Unsurprisingly, it was here that the remains of the convict ship diaspora, a rag-tag band of whores, petty-thieves and sailors, decided to stay. While most of the sailors hoped for rescue eventually, the convicts were happy to call this place home. There were some empty buildings and even an inn, of sorts, although the beer was inclined to be flat, warm and cloudy. On the upside, they had at last found something to remind them of England!

A short distance from the inn was a church. This will come as no surprise to anyone who grew up in a village where the juxtaposition of religious disapproval and earthly delights is all too common. After all, robustly assuaging the thirst and then sanctimoniously staggering into church to purge the soul has a certain logic.

This church, however, was long deserted (organised religion has always had a tenuous hold on Hopeless. Even Saint Brendan gave up trying while he was here). Anyway, for whatever reason, the place had not heard a hymn or a prayer for decades.

It seemed as good a place as any for the small band of ‘ladies of the night’ to call home and resume business – and the sailors, being sailors, tended to agree. On an island where money has little meaning, it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to find a suitable reimbursement for the various services transacted but somehow both parties concerned managed to reach a agreeable arrangement.

Over the next few years the newcomers became fully integrated with the descendants of the earliest visitors, whose language gradually became diluted and transformed.  Although it is now many years since anyone spoke in that tongue its legacy may still be found in various landmarks, place-names and surnames north of the Gydynaps. Indeed, the very name of these hills gives every indication that they were once sacred.The word appears to be derived from the Old English ‘Gydenu’, relating to the presence of a god or, more likely, a goddess. Given the reputation for mystery that the hills still have, this is hardly surprising.

Another example worth mentioning is the family name of Negelsleag which eventually mutated into Nailsworthy, a name regular readers will recognise as being that of our current and much-loved  (from a distance) Night Soil Man. Being the last of his line, it is sad to reflect that when Shenandoah dies this ancient moniker will die with him.

Similarly, the way in which archaic words evolve is generally believed to have given rise to the origin of The Squid and Teapot. Many hundreds of years ago an ale-house would often have been identified by a nearby landmark, the owner’s name or even a description of the landlord. The rough tavern, beloved by those living north of the Gydynaps, was no exception and had, for many years, been fondly known as The Swætan Tæppere, or, roughly, The Sweaty Tapster (or innkeeper), doubtless a homage to a risible but unfortunate characteristic of one of its long-dead landlords.

The newcomers found this name alien, unpronounceable and somewhat uninviting so, in time The Swætan Tæppere became jocularly known The Squid and Teapot and the name stuck. (Another, no less interesting but somewhat disappointing theory is that the inn was so named after someone discovered a small cephalopod comfortably ensconsed in a kitchen vessel of the spouted variety, generally used for the concoction of herbal infusions).

Over the years the building was added to, spreading outwards and upwards, until it became the imposing tavern that it is today.

As for the deserted church that was reincarnated as a bordello, ever since that time it has been home to a number of young – and not so young – ladies, all of whom have been happy to make whatever sacrifices necessary in order to enjoy the shelter and security that its stout walls provide. Many years would pass before the establishment was granted a whiff of respectability by the enterprising and philanthropic lady who called herself Madame Evadne, a pioneer who, euphemistically, marketed it as being a lodging house for discerning gentlemen, which in all fairness, it was and still is. But that, dear reader, as I have often said before, is a tale for another day.

Art by Cliff Cumber

The nameless beastie

Hello people! (and others)

We have come to a terrible realization, which is to say, the island of Hopeless, Maine has no sinister mice (or similar). They find their way into nearly everything else Nimue has written and now that this terrible flaw, this gaping void (as it were) has been revealed to us, it must be rectified. Therefore- I drew this little chap on Monday and posted it around on social media and asked for what we might call it.

You all did not disappoint us, and gave many suggestions. We are now throwing the decision back to you, using this cunning poll thingie. The name with the most votes will be the species name for the nameless beastie. Here we go…

Next week, we will be asking you all for tales regarding this, as yet nameless thing!


Hoping as always this finds you well, inspired and thriving.



Hopeless, Maine-sister communities

Hopeless, Maine can be a lonely sort of place.

Over time it has become cut off from the rest of the world and is beset with all manner of dire circumstance. (and there is no actual coffee, or, for that matter, tea) It may be a comfort for us to know that Hopeless has sister communities around the world. These are places that have similar problems, challenges and all manner of strangeness. It may be a comfort to us, but the residents of the island remain unaware of their counterparts. (and can not import actual coffee)

This first sister community is very closely related indeed, and the first that we discovered. I am speaking of Ragged Isle, the award-winning web series produced by Barry Dodd and company. It takes place on an island off the coast of Maine. They found us online in the early days and we are great friends and admirers. In fact, one panel of the graphic novel pictures a boy reading a book called “Ragged Isle” and there is a scene in the web series that shows a book called “Hopeless, Maine” Also- we are in the credits! The whole series can (and should!) be watched from beginning to end here. (and you will not have to endure the cliffhangers like we did when it was being produced) Additionally, Erik Moody (Deputy Dan, in the series) appears in a series of two page spreads in the next volume of Hopeless, Maine.

The next is Tantamount, which is being blogged by Meredith Debbonaire. (We are a great fan of her writing and she has contributed one of our favorite pieces to the Hopeless, Vendetta and has brought singing snails to the island.)  Tantamount, is another place where one can arrive, but it is difficult or impossible to leave. Also- it is strange and wonderful. Here is an example-

Headlines in Tantamount, January 1st
The Tantamount Herald
Surprise triumph of Heathens over Anglo-Saxon forces in History Battle: all time losses! Story on p2
Auspicious end to the year with ascendance of local choir, photos on p12
Oakshade Primary shock at first year in Battle: headteacher statement here!
The Tantamount Life
Journalist spots big cat on towpath – cat was wearing a cravat and bowler. Are cats no longer fashionable? p9″

You will now want to know more, and you can, by going here.


The last (and we are embarrassed to have just recently discovered it) is Night Vale. Night Vale can not be described, it must be experienced. (and we are well and truly hooked) You have probably known about it for years but if you are like us and needed direction, here they are. Go…here. (and for the love of all that is good, do not approach, look at, or even think about the dog park)


A note regarding the art here- this is a piece which will be the center bit of the cover art for the Hopeless, Maine RPG by Keith Healing, and also serve as The World card image for the impending Hopeless, Maine tarot deck which is by Laura Perry. We work with very cool people.


As always, I hope this finds you well, inspired, and thriving.


The Fishwife’s Fortune

There are villains and mermaids, sailors and shipwrecks, a larger than life Dame, an evil mortician. There are snake skirts and kelp forests, a bearded lady and even – quite unexpectedly – a creature that is half dog and half squid!

Yes, it’s Panto season on Hopeless, Maine! The Grand Ole Opry is putting on its annual performance of The Fishwife’s Fortune and this years version is just as silly and noisy and colourful as you would expect from the Gristlemain Players. 

The Grand Ole Opry stages its first in-house production since the theatre reopened after the regrettable discovery in the basement last year of the body of Calico Jones, which was covered by this periodical. This reviewer noted the similarities in historic cases at the venue where is seems every 10 years or so an amateur Thespian meets with an untimely curtain call.

However, It was clear from the start that cast and crew were determined to put that all behind them and make it one of Hopeless’s best-ever Pantos.

This reviewer was once more swept off his feet and whisked away to the mud hut on Spikers Moor and the heart-rending plight of wee Mell Mildew. We first see her toiling in the home of her wicked half-mother.

There were a few fluffed lines, the lighting was a bit dim, there was one unfortunate accident with one of the props (a cheese-wire fishing net) but the cast rose to the challenge admirably and we were spirited away to ancient Hopeless and the classic rags-to-riches story we know and love so well. It was truly an evening of music, glamour and glitz.

The performances would surely not have shamed the stage of a mainland theatre. It was impossible at times to believe that we were in modern age and the events on stage took on a reality of their own.

Appearing in his 45th panto as the Dame and directing the performance (as usual)  is local showbiz legend, magician and raconteur, Wilbur Gristlemain. Wilbur brings his wicked wit and cheeky smile to the role of the Ur-hag, who grants wee Mell her most heartfelt wishes.

There really is something for everyone in this show and the gags come thick and fast – much like the very lifelike swarm of horseflies that take Mell’s neglectful family off to the pit in act two when she is first granted a wish by the Dame. This particular set-piece was without doubt a show stopper of epic proportions, the screams of the cast were wonderfully authentic sounding.

In fact it’s hard to single out the best performance. Jenny Greenteeth shines in the title role of Mell, displaying a confidence and maturity beyond her years. In his wonderfully over-the-top role as the mortician, Nahum Drabdoyle had me guffawing from the off – whilst Cressida Jowlfeather took the stage by storm as the villain of the piece (her outrageous headdress and face-paint matched by an equally outrageous performance where she only speaks in tongues). The entire supporting cast were enchanting and delivered one captivating scene after another.

As usual the music is provided by The fishermen of Gro, singing their haunting shanties. There was also plenty of ripe, traditional, panto banter intended to (hopefully) go straight over the heads of the younger audience, including an hilarious skit involving the spring fertility doll, an octopus and the old blind fisherman seeking a new bride… (you get the gist).

Remarkable, too, that this incredibly talented cast has not had the luxury of day-in-day-out rehearsals. When interviewed afterwords in the makeshift dressing room they all said that is was if they already knew their lines and always had known them and that they felt that they were almost in a dream when performing – a testament to the magisterial direction of Wilbur Gristlemain who has assembled a stellar array of local talent.

Gristlemain himself provided the most insightful comment on the Panto when I caught him ducking out of the back door. ‘The story is telling itself, the actors are just the vessels for it and the story will never end. It’s part of what roots us all to this island.’ Then the veteran performer went on his way into the evening, not without a touch of mystery about him.

All-in-all a truly remarkable achievement. Tickets available from the box office of The Grand Ole Opry.

Written by Charles Cutting-art by Tom Brown


The new year was less than an hour old when Betty Butterow, her work at The Squid and Teapot finished, had almost reached the cabin that she shared with her husband, Joseph, in Creepy Hollow. With the exception of the Night Soil Man, there are few who voluntarily venture far afield on Hopeless after darkness has fallen. This is true even in the middle of the year, when the last few strands of daylight are reluctant to leave the sky; to be abroad on a dark and moonless midwinter night was unheard of. However, Betty,  you will remember, was a selkie, a seal-woman, and had enjoyed the protection of the mighty Kraken itself when Reverend Crackstone had tried to kill her. Since that day few creatures, on sea or land, would have dared cause her harm.


A thunderous clip-clop, like that of huge but tired hooves, underpinned by a series of sharp and really quite irritating barks, stopped the barmaid in her tracks. These were not noises one heard on Hopeless very often. A flurry of smouldering paper fluttered by, though there was no breeze tonight. Betty’s heart suddenly began to beat faster, not with fear but with excitement. She knew what this was: a spectacle she had heard of but never actually witnessed. Then she saw them. Filling the heavens with clatter and disapproving sighs came the wraiths of six elderly spinsters, arthritically plodding across the night sky on three flatulent mules. At their feet yapped a brace of ghostly Springer Spaniels. This was The Mild Hunt of legend, eternally doomed to chase some fiery, fugitive pamphlets across the skies over Hopeless.

They could only be so close to her home on such a night for one reason; the old stories told of them often being spotted in the winter months visiting the somewhat deranged ghost of Lars Pedersen, the famous Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow.

Betty kept very still and watched the ghostly cavalcade circle down to earth. In the air above her they had appeared to be colossal, filling the canopy of the heavens from horizon to horizon. Now, however, as they clattered to the ground, landing in awkward disarray, they assumed normal dimensions. The cacophonous chorus of yaps, brays, noisy expulsions of equine nether winds and several exclamations of “Dearie me” was enough to disturb the weary wraith of Lars Pedersen. Betty held her breath as he gradually manifested, as if through a doorway unseen. She was not a little surprised by the old phantom’s appearance. It occurred to her that he was fading away. After haunting the area for almost a thousand years Lars had become little more than an outline, as faint as breath on a chilly night. Despite this, she could see how gaunt and wild-eyed he was.

Betty watched for a while longer. The ladies seemed to be fussing around the old Viking. The mules had calmed down and the spaniels were sniffing anything and everything of interest. One wandered over to where Betty was hiding and licked her hand. It was a cold but not unpleasant sensation. It barked at her.

“Shoo” she hissed.

The dog refused to leave and continued barking.

Betty expected the ladies of The Mild Hunt to react to her presence but all they did was to admonish the dogs for their ceaseless noise.

It dawned on Betty that maybe the spaniels could see her when the other ghosts could not. This would make sense; rather like the way in which mortal dogs are said to be able to see things beyond human vision. Emboldened by this thought, the barmaid wandered into the clearing where the ghostly gathering had assembled. Not one of them saw her but the spaniels continued barking. The ladies were obviously speaking to Lars but their speech had become distant and indistinct to Betty’s ears. Uncanny though the tableau was, the spectacle of a group of elderly people talking, even ghostly ones, was not terribly exciting. Betty was almost relieved when the ladies of The Mild Hunt mounted their steeds, gathered themselves together and once more returned to their endless quest across the skies. The wispy shade of the Norseman waved briefly, then turned to leave, pushing open the portal that only he could see. Betty, never one to deny her curiosity full rein, followed, making sure to keep one foot in the world she knew.

If the ghostly spectacle of The Mild Hunt had been memorable, the sight that greeted her eyes now would be indelibly etched upon her mind forever. Incredibly, the land on the other side of the door was bathed in golden sunshine. The grass was green and lush, affording the half dozen goats grazing upon it rich pasture. Chickens and geese busied themselves noisily, while beneath an ancient spreading oak tree, a spotted pig basked contentedly.

On the near horizon purple hills rose up to meet the few fluffy white clouds that graced an otherwise clear blue sky. Birds sang and the scent of summer flowers filled the air. Although there was no sign of the warriors’ feasting hall or drunken revels of myth, Betty knew she was looking at Lars Pedersen’s private, very peaceful, Valhalla.

It suddenly occurred to the barmaid that the shape of the hills was somehow familiar. Then the realisation struck her. They were the Gydynaps! And if that were so…

The rest of the landscape gradually fell into place. Sunlight sparkled on the chuckling waters of nearby Tragedy Creek, while in the other direction ravens circled around the landmark she recognised as being Chapel Rock – minus the ruined chapel of course; Lars did not know about its existence. It was clear that Lars Pedersen was living an afterlife on Hopeless, Maine, but not a Hopeless that any living soul would recognise. Betty looked in wonder. Was this Hopeless as it was, as Lars knew it, or as it might have been? Or even might one day be? The thoughts raced madly in Betty’s head as she drank in the sounds and smells of this idyllic land,  aching to be part of it. In silence, Lars Pedersen himself drifted into her field of vision and stood smiling before her. No one would ever refer to this Lars as The Woeful Dane, a nickname his ghost had acquired over the years. She saw him now as young and strong, his long golden hair and full beard plaited and his twinkling blue eyes bright and mischievous. With a slight bow, he held out his hand to her, invitingly. A delicious mist filled her mind, blanking out all thoughts and memories of the Hopeless she knew. Her life at The Squid and Teapot and even recollections of her soul-mate, Joseph became no more than a distant dream. Betty extended her arm towards the handsome Norseman, more than willing to accept his invitation. Just one step is all it would take to transport her to this wonderful new home – just one step.

“Betty. Is that you?”

A voice dragged her out of her reverie. She lurched back, realising how close she had come to leaving this harsh but love-filled life forever. The vision of Lars faded and the portal to his Summerland suddenly snapped shut.

The voice – and it must be admitted – overwhelming stench of the Night Soil Man, had brought her back to the Hopeless she knew so well.

“Are you okay, Bet’?”

Randall Middlestreet looked worried.

Although she had possibly glimpsed Heaven, Betty knew that this version of Hopeless was where she belonged for as long as she was alive. This was home.

She smiled and blew the Night Soil Man a kiss.

“Never better, Randall” she said.“Never better.”

Art by Tom Brown

(Cross referenced with ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’ and ‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’)

Horroscopes for the coming year

What do the heavens have in store for you next year? With strange alignments in the skies over Hopeless Maine, you can set yourself whatever goals you like, but don’t expect anything to turn out the way you hoped or intended. This will be a particularly bad year for hurricanes, whirlpools, collapsing buildings, and goats.

Capricorn: There has never been a better time to invest in protective gear or to try and figure out who of your so-called friends are plotting against you. Avoid anything that claims to be cheering, and never leave a drink unattended.

Aquarius: Give up on those romantic ideas and aspirations, you’re just setting yourself up for a bucket full of extra pain and social embarrassment. Avoid romantic gestures and gift giving unless you’re comfortable with horrific outcomes and being blamed for everything.

Pisces: Let no one over your threshold until spring and you’ll survive. Stay well away from pies, crab pots and community art ventures and you’ll have a reassuringly mediocre year. Be warned though, the smallest mistake could spell disaster or at the very least, terrible indigestion.

Aries: Full moons will be dangerous for you, with little going to plan. It seems like everyone wants to find fault, or pick a fight and you’ll feel sorry for yourself. If only you could see how it’s all your fault, you might be able to change things. You bring this stuff upon yourself.

Taurus: New business ventures will fail miserably, especially after the spring tides. You have no idea what anyone else wants of how to get them onside, and you’d be far better off if you stopped deluding yourself about your social skills. The thing you do that you think is charming and endearing really, really isn’t.

Gemini: Oh dear.

Cancer: You’ll feel like everyone is trying to take advantage of you. Expect exploitation, manipulation, unreturned loans, debts of all sorts unpaid, and unreasonable demands upon your time, and on your chickens. It won’t get better no matter what you do.

Leo: Looking fabulous has never seemed more important to you. However, those fashion choices may have things living in them already – mice, crabs, diseases, hideous demonic beings…  Sooner or later there will be horrible bite marks and seeping pus.

Virgo: things you thought you had got away with will resurface and people around you will get suspicious. If your dreadful secrets are only about having eaten all the biscuits, it will merely be a depressing year. Otherwise, you can expect any skeletons in the family closet to come out, some of them bearing grudges.

Libra: Keep a close eye on your obsessions, compulsions and urges. If they become more unnatural than usual, seek help. Just because you think you’re being reasonable doesn’t mean sinister forces aren’t controlling your every move.

Scorpio: Give away any old clothes you don’t need. Call in favours. Now is a good time to make demands and to remind people of whatever hold it is you have over them. Repay old insults. This is not the year for being nice to people and you can be sure they won’t be nice to you.

Sagittarius: You may feel that it’s down to you to save the day and put everything right. You’re only fooling yourself. You can’t fix anything and you’ll probably just make things worse. Better not to bother, really.

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)

News for the residents of Hopeless, Maine.