Tentacoils

‘Twas chillblist, and the tentacoils
  Did writhe and wrangle ‘midst the waves:
Beleaguered was my little boat
Far off the coast of Maine.

Above the storm, a voice sang fell

 A knell, if not a note in tune,

But th’ wind did snatch the words away

 And left my soul in swoon.

 

“Beware the mermaids, child!” it cried
  “The howlers wild, with nails that slash!
The noisome gnii, the beasts of sea
and those your spoon wouldst snatch!”

 

 

“Beware the tentacoils!” it sang

“Beware the stinging succubus

The eyes that glow, the shades that grow,

And demons of the dust!”

 

But firm I took my oar in hand:
  Long time in dark for hope I sought —
‘till in Hopeless State I came to rest,
And lay awash in thought.

 

And, as in lone despair I lay,
  Demonic Shades, with eyes of flame,
came salivating for my soul
And sang, o sang, my name

 

And so a while I’ll linger on

To wander Hopeless in a daze

And bathe my soul in demon song

For all remaining days…

 

‘Twas chillblist, and the tentacoiled
  Did writhe and wrangle ‘midst the waves:
Beleaguered was my little boat
Far off the coast of Maine…

 

Words by Lou Pulford.

Art by Tom Brown

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Goodbye Hopeless

“Goodbye, Hopeless I must leave you,
For it’s time for me to go.
I won’t miss your dismal sea-views
And the cold Atlantic blow.
No more trudging over headland
In the fog and driving rain.
So Farewell, Hopeless, I must leave you.
Goodbye Hopeless Maine.”

Granted, it wasn’t exactly up to the standard of Messrs. Cobb and Barnes, the original authors of the song, but the colonel was quietly pleased with his parody of “Goodbye Dolly Gray”.
The truth was that Colonel Ruscombe-Green was feeling out of sorts. Spending five years on the island of Hopeless had not been his plan when he and his valet, Ebley, had set out to row across the Atlantic and seek their fortunes in America, the land of adventure and opportunity. While the islanders had been generally welcoming and supportive, it was, he reflected, no life for a professional soldier. Too boring by far… except, maybe, for the ever-present threat of being attacked by various night-stalkers. One could not discount the danger, either, of being whisked into the ocean by any passing kraken. These blighters seemed to regard the island in the same way that a child might approach a bran-tub at a vicarage fête; something to dip into for its own amusement. And don’t mention those blasted spoonwalker wallahs, who either drive one mad, steal one’s cutlery, or do both. Oh yes, then there was the unpleasant likelihood of being infested by nameless squiggly things that had a nasty habit of  disappearing up trouser legs. Thank goodness he’d hung on to his puttees after the war. No, life on Hopeless was totally uneventful for a man such as himself.
The colonel’s mood did not improve when an urchin from the orphanage delivered the following wedding invitation.

Mr William Ebley and Miss Constanza Gannicox request the pleasure of your company on the occasion of their marriage…

Ruscombe-Green knew that Ebley had been spending a lot of time at the distillery lately but he had no idea that his ex-valet was doing anything other than helping out; certainly not wooing the owner’s sister. He  supposed that he should be happy for Ebley and his bride-to-be but it was difficult. Despite their differences in rank, education and class, he and his batman had been brothers-in-arms for years and had survived many a scrape together. The colonel, feeling suddenly alone, decided there and then that the time had come to find a means of leaving Hopeless for good.

His opportunity came some weeks later. By then Reverend Crackstone had consecrated the marriage of Ebley and Constanza and the misty island was enjoying a brief spell of basking contentedly in the slightly jauntier weather that masqueraded as late summer on Hopeless. It was while visiting the newlyweds in their cottage next to the distillery that Ruscombe-Green stumbled upon the means for escape. Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs, of  the Passamaquoddy tribe, was making one of his bi-annual trips to the island. He was trading furs and brightly coloured textiles in exchange for the Gannicox moonshine that had become extremely popular in certain quarters of the mainland since the introduction of prohibition. With gentle persuasion and the promise of future remuneration, the colonel secured himself a cramped seat in a small canoe, overloaded with bootleg alcohol.
That evening, in The Squid and Teapot, Sebastian Lypiatt threw a farewell party for the colonel. It was there that Ruscombe-Green found out that he had many more friends on the island than he realised. Not least among them was the barmaid, Betty Butterow, who by now was twenty years old. Betty had, over the years, grown especially fond of the colonel. Despite his occasional brusqueness and strange and starchy English manners, she had always found him to be as kind and big-hearted a man as you could wish to know. This evening, however, she was genuinely worried. While Joseph’s skills in handling a canoe were widely acknowledged as being excellent, there really was only room for one in the little craft, loaded as it was with moonshine. Besides that, the permanently fog-bound channel that lay between Hopeless and the mainland was a treacherous stretch of water with unpredictable tides, hidden reefs and rife with an assortment of nightmare creatures that could easily crush an ocean liner, much less a simple canoe. Betty knew these things more than most for, as you may remember, she was a Selkie, a seal-woman.
The following morning the colonel was glad to see that his old friend and ex-valet, Bill Ebley had come to see him off and wish him well. Their parting was particularly emotional. Both men were fully aware that any chance of their meeting again was unlikely but this remained unspoken. They both made promises that they would keep in touch by letter via Joseph, who had happily agreed to the arrangement. And so it was that amid much back-slapping, hand-shaking and the shedding of an occasional manly tear that not even the stiffest of stiff-upper lips could drive back, the colonel bade a fond farewell to the curious island of Hopeless, Maine.

The first letter arrived in the following Spring when Joseph next returned to the island, a full eight months after Ruscombe-Green’s departure.

My dear Ebley,
Greetings, would you believe, from the Nevada Desert.
I trust you and Mrs Ebley are keeping well. For myself, I have never felt better. My passage from the island was happily uneventful. It was a delightful addition to an otherwise nondescript journey when a harbour seal accompanied us all the way to the mainland, swimming as close to the canoe as it was possible to get.
Upon reaching Portland I immediately went to the Masonic Lodge in Congress Street, knowing that my fellow masons would aid a chap in need. From there I was able to wire my bank in London and, again with the help of the masons, prove my identity and release the not insubstantial  funds therein. I have left five hundred dollars with Joseph, whom I trust implicitly, to furnish you and others on the island with anything you might need until the money runs out. Just ask and he will bring it across on his next jaunt – providing it fits in the canoe, of course!
With these affairs in order I at once decided to explore the continent. After visiting Utah (where polygamy seems rife!) I caught the splendidly named Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad down to this strange and fairly new city called Las Vegas. I can’t for the life of me imagine why it was founded in the desert. There is very little here and I confidently predict that within ten years it will be no more than a ghost town.
Over the next few months I fully intend to explore the continent before returning to New England.
Please send my warmest regards to my good friends on Hopeless and do not forget to avail yourselves of anything you may desire from Joseph.

Yours sincerely

J W Ruscombe-Green (Col.)

The letter caused quite a stir on the island and before long Joseph found himself holding a batch of modest requests, ranging from building materials to toilet paper. The Gannicox distillery wanted as much crushed corn as possible. Betty Butterow needed something to wear, preferably low-cut, sultry and saucy. Someone had sent word to Randall Middlestreet, the Night Soil Man; he was desperately in need of a new bucket; one that had a decent lid that stayed securely in place. He also needed a new jacket. Joseph correctly guessed that the two requests were not unconnected. As the day wore on it became obvious that this would not all fit into the canoe. In view of the colonel’s generosity, the Indian resolved to make several trips to the island this year instead of his customary two.
Joseph took only a week or so to fulfil the first few requests. He recognised that Randall’s bucket and jacket were a priority. The supplies of corn for the distillery were in the first consignment, too. Joseph had also included a quantity of blackstrap molasses and barley; he was nothing if not pragmatic and the continued survival of the Gannicox distillery served his own business interests.
Although Joseph traded moonshine, he was not a drinking man; it caused a certain amount of surprise, therefore, when he walked into the bar of the Squid and Teapot. Much to the barmaid’s delight, Joseph had taken it upon himself to deliver Betty’s dress personally. To his great embarrassment she made him stay to see how it looked. No one could criticise Joseph’s judgement as the new dress was quite stunning upon her and fitted perfectly, in all of the right places. It was no wonder, really. The Indian had gazed at Betty with great admiration for some time. For this he was rewarded with a less than chaste kiss upon the lips and a knowing look in Betty’s eyes.

Over the next few weeks the little canoe shuttled back and forth between Hopeless and the mainland; each request for goods was duly met and every dollar spent. On each trip that he made Joseph could not help but notice the harbor seal that accompanied his craft. The legends of his people were full of tales of shape-shifters and spirit creatures. This was plainly no ordinary seal. Joseph instinctively knew it was there to protect him. He could only wonder who his guardian might be.

The months wore on and Bill Ebley eagerly awaited the colonel’s next letter. When it came he thought that his old friend had at last gone quite mad. Apparently Ruscombe-Green had been drinking somewhat excessively in a bar in South Dakota with chap called Robinson. Between them they had come up with a hare-brained scheme to carve a huge likeness of Abraham Lincoln and any other presidents with suitably craggy features, into the sides of a mountain known to the Lakota Indians as The Six Grandfathers. To his great annoyance, a few weeks later the colonel read in a newspaper that the bounder Robinson had stolen the idea and, along with a sculptor chap called Borgum, was actually going to do the job and with government funding no less!
Ebley shook his head in disbelief. The colonel always had one or two tall stories up his sleeve but this one took the biscuit. Carving massive faces into mountains, indeed! Besides, the Ebleys had little time for such rubbish. They had their own exciting news to pass on; William and Constanza were about to become parents. Suddenly, Hopeless was not feeling quite as hopeless as it once had.

Art by Tom Brown

The Asylum Vendetta

This edition of the Hopeless Vendetta classified ads section came out of a workshop at The Asylum. And by ‘The Asylum’ we mean that big steampunk gathering in Lincoln. Thank you, everyone who took part.

Help Wanted:

Scavenger for island wrecks. Must be able to carry heavy loads. Wings, experience and sanity optional.

 

Services offered:

Airship windows cleaned (tethered ships only) Polished portholes.

Tree herder. Any trees herded except pine.

Pine tree herder. No other trees herded.

Tentokil – Do you have a problem with cephalopods? Annoyed by octopi? Niggled by rising squid? Clean, neat and keen, Tentokil™ will be delighted to de-infest your domicile. Professional and discreet, you won’t know we have been. Contact by semaphore.

Wanted:

Wanted urgently, unclaimed soul. Delivery before the rising of the next new moon or not at all.

Wanted: Teaspoons as all of mine have gone missing. Please respond quickly as my need for tea is urgent. Contact Merriweather Jones, the Old Church House.

Wanted: Metal neck brace, preferably coated in garlic.

Wanted: Arm replacement for a human. Silver or any shiny metal would be best, please.

Wanted: gold paid for any information regarding the dark, malign entity that lurks in the depths beyond the shores of this isle. Contact the Captain on the Southern Sands.

Wanted: A bigger boat.

 

Lost and found:

Lost: Dead cat. Fond of mice, cheese. Tabby pattern. 3 lives left.

Lost: Missing arm. Taken by stranger who started licking the bloody end. Would like it back soon.

Lost: Pitchfork. Probably dropped near the old windmill during the last mob. Has arm stuck on prongs. I hadn’t finished eating it.

Found: Assorted body parts. Various states of decay. If any of these may be yours, please contact soon as some are unable to disintegrate.

Lost: Feathers, 3ft long, purple and green.

Found: Feathers, 4ft long red and blue.

Lost: My sister Mary, who is identical to myself, completely real and in no way fictitious.

Lost: 2 gallons of wine. It was here last night, before my house went sideways.

Found: Smaller boat.

Lonely hearts:

Wanted: beautiful, rich, young lady, 18-25, preferably who won’t try to murder me this time.

Real person who is not at all imaginary in any way seeks gentleman with the requisite number of fingers and toes for companionship and quiet contemplation. Must be prepared to meet alone.

Lonely spoon seeking other cutlery for a fun time. Will try any arrangement. Bring your own brasso. Sporks need not apply.

 

 

Betty Butterow

It was midnight when the full moon rose over Hopeless, Maine, to welcome in the Vernal Equinox. It shone palely through the grimy window of a small, candlelit room where a young mother was giving up her own life in order that her baby should live. The year was 1905 and Betty Butterow was about to become the newest, and by far the youngest, child in the orphanage.

Even as he took her from the weeping midwife’s arms, Reverend Crackstone disliked the girl. It was not totally irrational; while there was nothing in particular that he could identify to mark her as being remotely out of the ordinary, he knew her ancestry only too well. According to the information that he had been given her mother was Amelia Butterow, an unmarried woman who had lived on the island for all of her short life. What irked Crackstone was the knowledge that Amelia was a direct descendent of the O’Stoats, a  family riddled with heathen tendencies. Not just any branch of the family, either. Colleen O’Stoat, Amelia’s great grandmother, was known to have had the gift of ‘The Sight’. During her lifetime there had been tales of witchcraft and shape-changing told about Colleen which had, over the years, grown in the telling. Added to this the fact that there was no clue to as to whom the child’s father might be only served to strengthen Crackstone’s disapproval of her. These Godless and immoral practices had always been all too common on the island. Time was no healer, in this instance. The passage of the years did nothing to dispel his hostility towards Betty, who was growing up to be quite stunningly beautiful, though no one ever told her so. The reverend gentleman was more than relieved when, at the age of fifteen, she left the orphanage to watch a cricket match and decided, for reasons best known to herself, never  to return.


Betty was a sensitive girl and acutely aware of Reverend Crackstone’s chilly indifference to her. She assumed that it must be her fault, somehow. She knew of her disreputable lineage; Crackstone had mentioned it in disparaging tones more than once, and she decided that she must have been born with wickedness flowing through her veins. Trying to ignore these thoughts, she left the orphanage and went to the cricket match at Creepy Hollow with mixed feelings. Although her fellow orphan, shy and introverted Randall Middlestreet, was blissfully unaware, Betty had developed something of a crush for him. Her heart would race, her cheeks flush and her knees turn to jelly on the odd occasions when he spoke to her.

That trickster, Cupid, plays a cruel game when he fires his arrows, for now that Randall had become apprenticed to the Night Soil Man he was beyond her reach forever. It was an unwritten rule on the island that Night Soil Men were unmarried, unattached and, save for their apprentice, solitary. Even, in the unlikely event of her being willing to put up with the more anti-social aspects of his job, the islanders and indeed Randall himself, would not have tolerated such a breach of tradition. From now on she would have to be content with seeing him from afar, if at all. Today, however he was allowed to play in the match; she really hoped they might have a chance to spend some time – maybe their final time – together.

She was disappointed to find, upon reaching the impromptu cricket ground, that he was nowhere to be seen. Betty had no idea that, due to a misunderstanding, Randall had gone to another part of the island altogether. Crackstone had done a good job in destroying any self-esteem Betty may have possessed and Randall’s absence was all that was required to convince the girl that he was going out of his way to avoid her. Walking along the headland, lost in her own thoughts, she allowed this erroneous belief to blossom; it grew inside her mind like a cancer.  Was it because people could see her as she really was? Ugly and horrible? Hideous even? Is this really what everyone thought of her? The world saw her as some foul creature to be avoided at all costs.

Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth but each new thought was increasingly irrational and had her descending ever deeper into The Slough of Despond. Beaten down with self-loathing she walked blindly on until, finding herself by the shore, she decided that maybe the best course of action for all concerned was for her to end her life there and then. At least everyone would be spared the burden of her continued existence; she would walk into the ocean and never return.

Even in this unbalanced frame of mind, however, her first thought was for others. Everything on the island was in short supply; it would be selfish – sinful even- to destroy a perfectly good, albeit seventh-hand, set of clothes when another girl would be happy to wear them. With this in mind and with an uncharacteristic lack of modesty, she took off every stitch of her clothing, folding it neatly on a rock where the waves could not reach. Then, closing her eyes tightly, she waded into the mist-bound  ocean.

The icy chill of the wild Atlantic took her breath away but she knew what had to be done and steadfastly carried on. By the time the water was lapping around her thighs her body was blue with the cold. Soon it would be over. No more cold, no more ugly thoughts. No more rejection. No more…oooh… her descent into the waves was terrifyingly accelerated as a deep shelf beneath the waterline caught her unawares and before she knew it there was salt-water in her eyes, ears and nostrils. Tendrils of seaweed – she hoped they were seaweed- wrapped themselves around her legs.  Despite her plans to die, some primitive survival instinct made her kick out and try to escape. She thrashed ineffectively in an attempt to clutch on to life at all costs but it seemed to be to no avail; every movement made her predicament worse. Then, for reasons she could not fathom, she became perfectly relaxed and a great calmness came over her. Closing her eyes once more, she felt a comforting warmth enveloping every inch of her frail form, cosy and caressing, like a soft blanket. She was not breathing but strangely, she no longer seemed to need to. If this was death then it was not so bad – but no, she knew that this was not death. This was life in its truest form, with every sense vibrant and alert with a strength and certainty that rushed through her blood and sinews in a way that she had never before felt. Fearing nothing now, she threw herself into the embrace of the ocean, giving everything up to its irresistible will. Opening her eyes for the first time since her fears had subsided, Betty received the biggest shock of her young life. Her limbs had receded far into her body and where there was once pale flesh there was now a mighty grey frame of muscle and a warm, insulated hide.She had become a seal, strong and free and mistress of the seas. Then, as she swam, joyous and reckless, she remembered. This was not her own memory but the memory of soul, the memory of blood; the memory of bone; the memory that flowed through the countless generations of her kind. She was a Selkie, a seal-woman tasting the freedom of her birthright for the very first time. She knew then that her doubts and fears were groundless. Breaking the surface of the water, the seal that was Betty looked at the island with different eyes. Not only had her body changed but so had her perception. Where once there were only mists, there were now ghosts. Even from this vantage point she could feel their loneliness, sorrow and sometimes rage. These, she realised, were the gifts of her ancestors; ancient gifts that they had brought from a distant land when they fled persecution.

Little did she realise, as she revelled in her new body, that the greatest gift she had been given that day was a powerful sense of self. The despondent Betty who had left the orphanage that morning had died and had been re-born.

Having circled the island, roaring and bellowing and savouring her new-found abilities, she decided to rest. Finding a suitable spot she dragged herself up onto the rocks to bask for a while and as she slumbered, so she dried. Gradually a change came upon her. The comforting, heavy sealskin slowly sloughed off and once more the Selkie became Betty, shivering and naked as the day she was born. Waking, she instinctively folded the skin and concealed it in the rocks, promising herself many more Selkie adventures in the days to come.


It was purely by luck that Madrigal Lypiatt was alone when she made her way back to the Squid and Teapot after the cricket had finished. Seeing a naked girl sitting on the rocks was not a common sight on the island and Madrigal made it her business to find out what was going on. Betty’s story about going swimming did not fool Madrigal for one moment. No one in their right mind would swim in these treacherous waters but having no better explanation, accepted what the girl had told her without argument. Throwing her shawl, which was fortunately of generous dimensions, around Betty the two quickly made their way back to the inn, thankful that most people were still hanging around Creepy Hollow, barely able to believe their eyes after Crazy Wally’s dramatic departure from the island.

It did not take Madrigal long to work out that Betty was unhappy at the orphanage. Astutely, she wondered if the alleged  swim was really something much more dramatic, possibly a drastic effort to escape its walls forever.To send her back would cause nothing but harm. Fortunately, a good landlady is never short of a plan or two and, following a short conversation with her husband, Sebastian, a solution was hit upon. Betty found, to her great delight that The Squid and Teapot had acquired in her a new barmaid who would work for board and lodgings. A cosy attic room in the inn was to be her very own, a luxury that she had never before known. Betty Butterow was home at last.

Few of the wild creatures found in any known zoological taxonomy venture very close to the island. Even fewer live to tell the tale. Many folk were surprised, therefore, to hear that a full-grown harbor seal had, on several occasions, been seen boldly swimming close to the rocks. There was talk in the Squid that this was an omen, maybe things on the island were set to improve. From her position behind the bar, Betty Butterow, gently blossoming into womanhood and still tasting the salt-water tang of the sea in her nostrils, quietly smiled. She mopped the ale slops from the counter and said nothing.

Art by Clifford Cumber

The Supper Guest

In 1630, or thereabouts, the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina published a play entitled ‘The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest.’ (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, later adapted the plot of this play for their opera, Don Giovanni). I may be going out on a limb here but I feel certain that Senor de Molina is unlikely to have expressed the remotest interest in the concept of time travel. It is equally unlikely that he knew of the existence of the island of Hopeless either. In view of these assertions we can be reasonably confident that he was not influenced by the events I am about to unfold to you.

 

Standing, somewhat larger than life-size, in the courtyard of Madame Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen (which still bears the name today) is a statue of the lady herself, who parted this life in 1891, aged eighty three. It was placed there a short time after her death in recognition of the many good works she did on the island.

While some may disapprove of her chosen trade (after all, a bordello is a bordello, whatever else you might choose to call it) few would deny that she was a true philanthropist. Her business interests made her a considerably wealthy woman and she was never slow to use this wealth to help the poor and needy of Hopeless – and there are many.

 

In the opening years of the twentieth century the Squid and Teacup had become a sad place indeed. The inn had long fallen from its former glory, when it had been host to such notaries as Mr. W.S.Gilbert, to become no more than a run-down drinking-den, serving cloudy beer and occasional bouts of dysentery. To call it squalid would be to give squalor a bad name. This was all attributable to the extreme idleness of the landlord, one Tobias Thrupp. He was a stout, squat man who sweated profusely at every opportunity. If asked he would tell you that he was someone who believed in fairness. The only indication of this, however, was the way in which he embraced each of the seven deadly sins with an equal degree of enthusiasm. If the truth is to be told, his only friends bore the names Pride, Gluttony, Sloth, Envy, Avarice, Wrath and Lust.

Unsurprisingly, he was a frequent visitor to Madame Evadne’s, which, since her death, had become something of a social club for both sexes, offering additional facilities for a small remuneration (and half price for the over 60s every Tuesday).

Being the man he was, the unlovely Mr Thrupp used Madam Evadne’s as a vehicle to give full vent to those seven vices. The young ladies of the house (and also their ‘paying guests’) quailed visibly when his shadow crossed the threshold, which it did often. One didn’t need to be a soothsayer to know that the next few hours would bring a world of pain and violence to any who displeased him. While he always paid, albeit grudgingly, for his pleasures, there was not enough money on all of the island to compensate for the misery he caused. After his lusts and violent tendencies had been sated he would repair to the kitchen and devour alarming quantities of meat and beer, then stagger home drunkenly.

 

According to documents kept in The Squid and Teapot its fortunes changed for the better on Monday May 1st 1905. That was the day after Thrupp had rolled into Madame Evadne’s in his usual bullying fashion for the very last time. He had always been used to getting his own way but on this occasion things turned out differently. One of the young ladies, Madrigal Inchbrook, was entertaining a gentleman who had every intention of making an honest woman of her. He was Sebastian Lypiatt, a merchant seaman who had found himself to be the lone survivor of the shipwreck which had brought him to the island some months before. Sebastian was a big man and was not inclined to be pushed around by anyone. When Madrigal told him of Thrupp’s awful ways he decided to put matters right. To cut a short story even shorter, before he knew what was happening, an extremely disgruntled Thrupp was picked up like a rag doll and unceremoniously ejected from the building, being advised that he might not, in future, find himself in full receipt of the contents of his trousers should he return (or words to that effect).

Lying on the flagstones with his dignity and much of his clothing in tatters Thrupp gazed up at the stone effigy of Madame Evadne.

He rose unsteadily to his feet and waved his fist at her.

“ What sort of hospitality is that supposed to be?” he yelled. “Nobody treats me like that. Come to the Squid I’ll show you how to entertain a guest. Have supper with me sometime, you stone-faced trollop.”

The statue gazed impassively at him, as statues are wont to do.

Thrupp staggered away, muttering curses and vowing revenge.

Beltane eve, Mayday eve, Walpurgis, call it what you will, is not an ideal time to challenge the dead, especially on Hopeless.

 

The following night Thrupp was sitting in his parlour eating a lonely supper. His few customers had long departed, heading for home or maybe to The Crow, where the beer was less likely to be life-threatening.

Suddenly, he heard an ominous slow, scraping noise outside that made him pause. He put his fork down and looked around uneasily. The scraping continued; it sounded heavy and laboured. Silence. Then, just as Thrupp was about to resume eating his meal, there came a horribly loud series of knocks upon the door.

“Go away, I’m closed.”

The knocking continued.

“Didn’t you hear? I said I’m closed.”

More knocking.

Thinking it was the merchant seaman coming to dole out another dose of punishment he picked up a stout cudgel and carefully opened the door.

It was not Sebastian Lypiatt who met his eyes. It was the cold, blank stare of Madame Evadne’s statue.

The blood drained from his face.

“Wh..what do you want?” he stammered.

“You invited me. Here I am. What about your promise of hospitality?”

The voice was cold and hollow with a slight French accent (which was entirely false but during her lifetime she felt it gave the place a certain degree of class).

“Leave me alone… you’re not real… this is someone’s idea of a joke.”

“Believe me, it’s no joke,” she said and reached out a stony hand and grabbed his wrist. Her grip was hard and icy and a numbness flowed through him.

He whimpered with pain and fear.

“Come with me and let me show you how you can be truly hospitable”

He could give no resistance as she slowly, terrifyingly, dragged him through the darkened streets. He saw the outline of the bridge, the silent houses, the  monuments in the cemetery, all cold and still in the moonlight. Then he saw their final destination.

He screamed when she led him into the caverns beneath the town. He had heard the stories but had always laughed them off as fantasies to scare children.

“Don’t let them kill me,” he begged.

She made a noise that might have been a chuckle. It was hard to tell.

“Oh, they won’t kill you,” she said. Her words were as hard and cold as the stone that formed her. They offered little comfort.

“This is where the vampires nest. In their hundreds, I believe. They will certainly appreciate the endless supply of… hospitality you will be doubtless be giving them. Don’t worry, you are to live for a long time yet. Oh yes, a very long time.”

Somewhere, from deep within the caverns, a chorus of hapless souls wailed. In reply a score of bright eyes flickered in the darkness. White teeth flashed.

If you are familiar with Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni you will know that the statue consigned him to Hell. I can’t help but think that the Don got off lightly compared to Tobias Thrupp.

 

After Thrupp’s disappearance the Squid stood empty for months. As no one else showed any interest in restoring the inn, Sebastian Lypiatt and his new wife Madrigal decided to try and raise it back to the condition that it had enjoyed in happier times. According to my good friend Rufus Lypiatt (their great grandson and current landlord of The Squid and Teapot) within a year or so it once more became something of a haven against the fog and darkness that lingered beyond its walls. And so it remains today.

Art by Tom Brown

The Hopeless, Maine arts and crafts movement.

This is a rather grand title for a thing that we are doing. We are combining the philosophy of Wombles ( “Making good use of the things that we find, things that the everyday folk leave behind”) and a cottage industry/arts and crafts movement. It began because we are having a week-long exhibition as part of the upcoming Stroud Book Festival. We thought it would be much more interesting to create a Hopeless, Maine environment than just to have pictures framed and stuck on a wall. (There will be those too, but the things we have done to the frames make them the sort of thing you might actually find on the island in a home) All of the best things we have made so far (I think) have been things that Nimue and I passed back and forth, so it’s great fun to find a new sort of collaborating for us too. In the photo above, there is a thing that we are still not certain is a bowl or a pet, though we expect it needs regular feeding in either case.

We’ll be talking more about all of this closer to the event, and as we Womble further.

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

The Wendigo

The impressively named Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs was one of the very few people who actually visited Hopeless regularly and of his own free will. A Native American of the Passamaquoddy people, twice a year he would load his canoe with furs and woven blankets and brave the treacherous ocean and dense fog banks to trade with the islanders. In the past there had been little on Hopeless worth bartering but in the last few years, Since Solomon Gannicox had opened his distillery, things had improved. Now, with the very recent imposition of prohibition laws in the United States, Gannicox ‘Fire Water’ had become a precious commodity on the mainland.

Today, however, he was puzzled. Standing on a hillside, overlooking Creepy Hollow, Joseph was convinced that he was witnessing some arcane religious ceremony. A small band of worshippers, men, women and children, formed a loose circle around two combatants, each carrying a club. A third combatant would occasionally hurl a missile at one of the other two, who, in turn would wave his club feebly at it. This usually resulted in a small bundle of sticks disintegrating behind the club-wielder, who was immediately banished from the arena, only to be replaced by another. This continued for some time until the throng were joined by a wild man. This strange character was alone in managing to hit the missile and send it towards the ocean, to devastating effect. It was then that Joseph suddenly realised what was going on. He was witnessing an invocation ceremony. These combatants had summoned a great undersea god, who astonishingly, and not without creating a certain amount of terror in all who witnessed the event, took the wild man as sacrifice. Joseph shook his head in amazement. The ways of the white skinned people would never cease to surprise him.

 

As he made his way home, Elmer Bussage reflected that he had just experienced the most enjoyable and unusual day of his life. A few weeks earlier he had rescued the Englishman, Colonel Ruscombe-Green, from certain death and as a consequence had been invited to participate in the cricket match that the colonel and his valet, Ebley, had organised. For most of us this would have meant very little but Elmer Bussage was the Night Soil Man and invitations to social events were not so much rare as non-existent. From his fielding position on the far boundary Elmer had watched the team from The Crow fail miserably. Not that he had fared much better, being bowled out for no runs. None of this mattered, however. People had clapped him when he went into bat and applauded again when he was bowled out thirty seconds later. It had been a perfect day. Well, almost perfect; after all, Crazy Wally had been taken by a kraken and that did put something of a dampener on things.

 

Someone else who had been invited to play was Randall Middlestreet, a youngster who had, until recently, lived in the orphanage. Randall had an altogether different take on the day’s events. Due to the confusion that ensued because of his being unfamiliar with cricketing terms, he found himself at Scilly Point, a mile or more away from the rest of the team. Realising his mistake he decided to make his way back to his lodgings but could not help but wonder how the match had gone and if his ball was safe. He was not unduly put out by missing the game but Randall had lent the cricketers a prized baseball and was keen to get it back. The hope was always with him that the previous owner might come looking for it; after all, she had gone to the trouble of inscribing it with her name. In his mind’s eye Randall could picture her clearly, sleek and gorgeous; as seductively beautiful as her name suggested. His heart raced slightly.

“Babe Ruth, I love you,” he whispered quietly to himself.

He had virtually reached home when his train of thought was derailed by the noise of rocks being disturbed just over the ridge. He wondered if the delectable Ruth had finally tracked him down and come to reclaim her ball. Why she would want to disturb rocks to attract his attention was something of a mystery but ever the optimist, he went to investigate.

The sight that greeted him was far from seductive. A creature, skeletally thin and as tall as three men was making its way towards the small collection of low buildings that Randall had recently begun to call home.

To call this monster hideous would not do justice to the abject ugliness of its face – if face you could call it – and body,  Its red eyes caught sight of the boy and drool slavered from the cavernous mouth. A tongue, black and lanceolated, swept over the yellow, needle-like teeth. Randall was terrified and momentarily frozen to the spot as the creature lunged towards him. He screamed as an icy, gnarled hand caught him around the throat and roughly dragged him upwards towards the gaping, salivating maw. The air was thick with the stench of rotting flesh and poor dental hygiene; the troubling thought occurred to Randall that he was far too young to die. Suddenly a volley of rocks peppered the air, bouncing off the monstrous head. Randall felt every breath of wind knocked from him as, with an unearthly snarl, his cadaverous attacker casually discarded his frail body in favour of this new, more fierce, and frankly, better nourished, prey.

“Randall, get up boy. Get up and run.”

It was Elmer Bussage. He had little fear of this or any aggressor. Years of experience had taught him that nothing seemed to want to tangle with a malodorous Night Soil Man. Sadly for Elmer the loathsome creature was not aware of this and swept him up as easily as a child with a doll.

Randall watched in horror as Elmer was ripped to pieces before his very eyes. Every morsel of the Night Soil Man was stuffed quickly and greedily into the huge gaping mouth. The creature chewed and crunched its way through Elmer’s bones, flesh and clothing in a noisy and disgustingly rebarbative fashion. Meaty gobbets and streams of gore dribbled from the monster’s chops, macabrely decorating the rocks and greasing the puddles. If, by chance, any other dark denizen of Hopeless smelt the bloody feast and felt slightly tempted to join in, they wisely made a point of keeping well away, being more than aware that they would probably be next on the menu.

Coming to his senses, Randall, in blind panic, ran as he had never run before, knowing he had just witnessed the impossible. Nothing can kill the Night Soil Man, he told himself. Nothing. That is what Reverend Crackstone had led him to believe at the orphanage and that was what everyone thought to be true.

 

Solomon Gannicox was deep in conversation with Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs, when Randall crashed into him. Sturdy though Solomon was, the blow knocked him off his feet and on to his backside.

“Steady there, youngster,” he scolded. “There is no excuse for dashing around like that.”

“A monster,” wailed Randall. “A monster just chewed Mr Bussage up into tiny pieces.”

“Don’t lie boy.” Solomon said dismissively. “You know as well as I do that nothing can harm the Night Soil Man.”

“ It did with its great big teeth. It shoved him into its horrible gaping cake-hole. It’s a huge walking corpse with stinky breath. A monster, if ever I saw one, Mr Gannicox, sir. It was awful.”

Something had obviously distressed the boy. Solomon rose to his feet and banged the dust from the seat of his trousers.

The face of Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs had become suddenly grim. He looked hard at the orphan.

“ You say this giant corpse ate Mr Bussage?”

Randall nodded.

“Take no notice, Joseph…” began Solomon but the Indian raised his hand for silence.

“Now tell me exactly what you saw,” he said to Randall.

The boy described everything about the creature that he could remember.

Joseph was silent for some time, then said quietly and to no one in particular,

“Wendigo. Wendigo has come and it is my fault.”

“Wendy? Wendy from Peter Pan?”

The orphans had been read Mr Barrie’s story several times but Randall could not quite grasp the connection between the monster and the heroine, Wendy, with whom he had long ago fallen in love. That was, however, some time before his infatuation with Babe Ruth had taken hold.

“No, Wendigo. Wendigo is The Windwalker, an evil manitou, a dark spirit known to my people. He has followed me to this place. I am the one he is here for.”

Solomon Gannicox paled visibly.

“But why…?”

“I stole from his food store. Wendigo does not always eat his kill. He will hang the corpses from trees and feed later. I stole some of those corpses from him… “

“But why…?”

Solomon’s usually rich vocabulary seemed to have been reduced to these two simple words.

Joseph looked away and he took a long time to answer.

“They were the last earthly remains of my wife and my mother. Now Wendigo wants vengeance… and so do I. I will go to him. ”

Despite the protestations of the distiller the Indian had made his mind up. So had Randall.

“ I’ll take you to where I saw him,” he said, bravely.

Solomon was about to object but Joseph cut him short.

“The boy will be safe, I promise. Wendigo is not – how would you say it? – not very bright. I have tricked him before. This time I will finish it.”

 

Wendigo had not moved far. He was sitting on a rock by the Night Soil Man’s cottage, half dozing and still digesting his meal, when they spotted him. On the way over the two had formulated a plan to get rid of the monster and with his still being in the vicinity, the conditions were as near perfect to ensure its success as either could have hoped. Randall slipped into the bunkhouse by the side of the cottage and, a minute or so later, appeared with an old rush mat rolled up under his arm. He gingerly made his way around the rocks, making sure that he gave the creature a very wide berth. After a few minutes Joseph began yelling and beating the wooden walls of the bunkhouse with a discarded cricket bat that he had found. He hoped that if all else failed, this religious artefact might allow him some protection against evil.

Wendigo immediately reared up and snarled angrily, recognising his adversary. Whooping and waving his bat Joseph taunted him. Nimbly avoiding the massive reach of his abominable foe, Joseph ran. He ran for his life. Wendigo was so close behind him that Joseph could smell his foul breath in the air around him. Just when capture and death seemed inevitable Joseph spotted what he was looking for; the bunkhouse mat lay incongruously on the earth before him. As he leapt nimbly over it Joseph felt Wendigo try to grab one of his long braids of hair but it slipped through the Windwalker’s gnarled fingers. Hot in pursuit the enraged monster stepped on to the rush mat but found no support beneath him. For the briefest of moments a look of confusion crossed Wendigo’s hideous features, then in an instant he was gone, tumbling down the narrow shaft to depths greater than anyone could imagine. It was fortunate, but unsurprising, that Randall knew of the sinkhole near the cottage and had used it to trap the monster.

It took only a short while for the shock of the events of the previous few days to recede sufficiently for the island to return to its default state of mild panic rather than abject terror. It was then, in a simple ceremony witnessed by Solomon Gannicox and Reverend Crackstone (who had been Randall’s guardian before he left the orphanage) that Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs made Randall his blood-brother and member of the Passamaquoddy tribe. And so, Randall recently apprenticed and dreadfully unprepared, became the next Night Soil Man and bore the distinction of having the longest name of any of his profession: Randall Blood-Brother-Of-Joseph-Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs.

Babe Ruth would have been proud of him.

Art by Clifford Cumber

Hopeless, Maine and Some Freaks

Greetings people! (and others)

This week, I bring you a video that Nimue has made in order to introduce people to our strange playground. She made it specifically because we are involved in a local event called Stroud Book festival, and we are going to be in a gallery for the week (Which is why the Hopeless, Maine Arts and Crafts Movement has begun and is now completely out of control. More on that later) They asked for a video to promote HM, and so, here it is. (I’ll be back after you watch/listen. Promise)

You will notice that the (Bloody amazing) music is by Walter Sickert. Walter is one of our art heroes and leads one of our three favorite bands in the world/ever- Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys. 

Walter wrote and performed this song for us. (sorry. Having a moment here) and it’s a thing we go back to whenever we are having creative doubts (Much less often than in times past, admittedly) He has also written the soundtrack for the film Some Freaks, which is out in theatres now! It can also be found online if you don’t have the sort of enlightened theatre that shows unspeakably cool things.

 

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

The House at Poo Corner

Regular readers will doubtless have noticed that a recurring character in many of these tales is the Night Soil Man. This is not unsurprising as these solitary figures have been a presence on the island since the time of the Founding Families. The very first recorded bearer of the office was Killigrew O’Stoat, a bright but introverted young man who saw the role not as a punishment, as many might regard it, but as a viable way of escaping the horrors of having to engage with other people. In his small way Killigrew was a pioneer, the first in a proud tradition of artisans.  Anyone who has visited the Hopeless Heritage Museum would doubtless have felt a twinge of excitement to see the actual bucket that he used for much of his career.

Despite his connection to functions rarely discussed in polite company, there is a certain mystique surrounding the work of this nocturnal tradesman which I have touched upon in an earlier article. However, until now there has been little written concerning the facts surrounding exactly how someone might find themselves in this line of work. In an effort to rectify this I arranged an interview with Shenandoah Nailsworthy, the current Night Soil Man, in his small cottage on a remote part of the island. I’ll admit, I didn’t relish the prospect but was pleasantly surprised by the orderliness of the dwelling. There was no escaping the all-enveloping odour, however, which I sensed embarrassed Shenandoah a great deal but I believe it was worth this small sacrifice to bring you his testimony. Here then, in his own words, is Shenandoah’s tale:

“I was just fourteen when I left the orphanage. Seems like I had been especially selected. This is what they do. The people in charge, I mean. The orphans don’t know it but they are watched from an early age. They look for the loners, the introverts who don’t fit in. Then the biggest and burliest of these boys – it’s always a boy – becomes the chosen one, the Night Soil Man’s apprentice. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t happen often; in fact I’m the most recent. My old master has been dead this last twenty five years and he took me on five years before that. An apprentice is called when something in your bones tells you it’s time. I don’t feel that yet. I haven’t got an apprentice. I don’t need one right now but the time will come…

Well, as I said, I was sent out and given directions to go to a house tucked away on the far west of the island. This house has been the home and work base of several generations of Night Soil Men. Back at the orphanage, once they knew I was being sent here, the other kids would make jokes about the place. The House at Poo Corner they called it but it’s my home now and I’ll stay here ‘til I die.

I can’t pretend my predecessor was a particularly pleasant guy. For the five years I was with him I slept in the bunkhouse. It had no warmth or light. I’ll make sure no apprentice of mine is treated like that but I admit, he taught me some valuable lessons.

The first thing he said to me was ‘Once you get used to the smell it’ll become your best friend.’ He was right about that. It’s kept me safe more than once. Some believe that The Night Soil Man has only loneliness to fear, but I don’t agree. Loneliness is different to solitude and solitude is fine. While most things give me a wide berth you’ve got to be a bit careful if there’s a kraken close to shore. They’re the exception…well, almost  the exception. If the legends are true we should also be wary of the Wendigo. Truth is, I’ve never seen one. Don’t know anyone who has but there’s a story that one of my predecessors was taken by a Wendigo in broad daylight, almost a hundred years ago. Broad daylight, eh? That’s ironic. One of the lads at the orphanage swore he saw it happen right after some game or other. It caused a bit of a problem as his apprentice had to start within a couple of months of being chosen. Dropped in at the deep-end you might say.

This is not a life that would suit most people. Besides the nature of the work and the isolation there is a darker side. Like it or not, we are creatures of the night, as much as any werewolf or vampire. Some of the things we see after the daylight fades is the stuff of nightmares.  And some of it is just plain heartbreaking. Not many weeks pass that I don’t find a body. Sometimes it’s a victim, often of their own stupidity and sometimes it’s just Death taking what’s due to him. Or her. I never could decide. Then I’m the one bearing the news, not that I get close enough to say much. If folks see me in the daylight I’m an omen of death.

I don’t want to dwell on death but there is one thing your readers should know, something that few folks appreciate. At the end there is no one to mourn the Night Soil Man except his apprentice, and that’s a heavy burden. When my old master passed I was priest, mourner and undertaker. Come and look…”

Shenandoah led me outside, to the back of the building. About a hundred feet from his cottage was a dark and dangerous looking sinkhole, about four feet in diameter. A rickety circle of palings enclosed it. Gingerly I stood at the edge and craned my neck to look down inside. It may have been some form of optical illusion but it seemed to me that there was a gleam of green fire playing at its very core, unfathomable feet below, in the deep and mysterious belly of the island.

“Here’s where the night soil has gone for nigh on two hundred years,” he said, then added, almost in a matter-of-fact manner, “and quite a few generations of Night Soil Men have gone in there too.”

I couldn’t help but recoil from this. Shenandoah gave me a long and meaningful stare.

“You shouldn’t be shocked. There is really no alternative. The ground here is too rocky for burial and putting someone in the sea seems… well, you know what’s out there; it wouldn’t seem right. This is our way of life and way of death. Besides, no one knows how deep that hole is, or what’s going on down there.”

Shenandoah fell silent then. This was probably the most he had spoken for thirty years. As I made to leave he turned away and, lost in his own thoughts, I watched him as he stared long and hard into the dark depths of the sinkhole. It struck me then that here was a man quite literally gazing into the abyss and I couldn’t help but wonder what might be gazing back at him.

Art by Tom Brown

Fluffy doom!

The Hopeless, Maine arts and crafts movement is go!  See the fluffy doom!

We are preparing for an immersive Hopeless, Maine exhibit this Autumn, and are making sculptures, Painted trays (Hopeless, Maine willow pattern!) and now, this fluffy taste of doom- The gravestone skull rag rug! The design is based on the skull motif found on New England slate gravestones. Nimue has made this because she is a genius and made of gothic win (and dark puppies) Below the back of the rug of doom, as it shows how it was done, and also looks rather like a grim mosaic.

 

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

News for the residents of Hopeless, Maine.