Tag Archives: dark fiction

Bog-Oak and Brass

You will recall that the Necromancer, T’Abram Spitch, had conjured the ghost of Lars Pedersen, in the mistaken belief that, during his lifetime, The Woeful Dane had hidden a horde of silver somewhere upon the island. Although the wraith was helpless to resist T’Abram’s commands, the fact that no such treasure existed gave him the freedom to lead the necromancer to a place where something entirely different had been buried; something that had been there for many centuries and was never meant to be released again.


T’Abram Spitch was tired beyond belief. For more than a week he had toiled, moving rocks and boulders in an attempt to find the Viking treasure. The ground was hard and unforgiving, reluctant to yield to the simple tools that he had stolen from the people who lived in the shadow of the Gydynap Hills. At last, after much toil, many blisters and the occasional profanity, the necromancer had unearthed his prize. Standing in a crater of his own making, deeper than he was tall, T’Abram surveyed the fruit of his labour. It was a medium-sized chest of bog oak, bound with bands of brass.

If T’Abram had thought that his work was over, he was very much mistaken. The apparently easy task of cracking open the chest proved to be a greater problem than he had anticipated. Despite attacking the box with every pilfered tool at his disposal, it remained stubbornly sealed. A succession of blows with a hammer, a pick-axe and, in frustrated desperation, his boot, left no mark upon the wood or brass. Despondent at the end of a disappointing day, he covered the hole with foliage and returned to his lodgings, at the strangely named inn, ‘The Swætan Tæppere’ (‘The Sweaty Tapster’).

The necromancer lay in his bed, exhausted but unable to sleep, troubled by thoughts of failure. It must have been a very precious treasure indeed for the Viking to have gone to such lengths to secure it. He racked his brain to think of ways of opening the chest. Being a man who had studied widely, T’Abram was aware that gunpowder might do the trick. As a student he had been required to read Friar Roger Bacon’s ‘Opus Maius’ and although written some three centuries earlier, the book was precise in its instructions as to how the explosive might be made.

“What was it that Bacon had written about the composition of gunpowder?” T’Abram asked himself, out loud.

“Ah yes… I remember. Willow charcoal, sulphur and… something else… saltpeter! That was it. That is the answer.”

He sat up in bed, elated. Gunpowder will definitely blast the box open. Then his mood changed abruptly when the realisation dawned upon him that he had no means of procuring any of these ingredients. He flopped back down and buried his face in the hard pillow, totally defeated. At last, just before dawn, sleep overcame him and with sleep came clarity.


The answer had to be magic!

Only magic could have sealed the chest so securely and only magic could open it.

What a fool he had been.

Suddenly his eye was drawn to the staff, resting against the wall in the corner of the room. The sigils carved along its length had once more started to glow, as they did when he conjured the wraith of Lars Pedersen.

So, magic it was to be, then. It was time to finish the work that he had started.


The brass-bound chest lay where he had left it. It looked innocent enough but T’Abram knew that it must contain something more than mere silver: he dare not imagine the vast wealth that lay within those dark, wooden walls.


Although a chilly, freshening wind blew from the sea, T’Abram was sweating profusely. It had been no easy task to drag the chest out of the crater; the effort of will and concentration needed to precisely incant the spells required to open it left him weak.

An audible groan emanated from the box as each uttered cantrip gradually loosened the tightly bound bonds that had served to constrict it for countless centuries. The sigils on his staff burned now with a new intensity.

He hoped it was his tired eyes playing tricks but T’Abram was convinced that the rock-hard bog-oak heaved and shifted like mere cloth as the spells gradually took effect. Suddenly, with a great sigh, the chest gave a final shudder and the bands of brass burst with a huge bang. They spun off in all directions, one narrowly missing the necromancer’s head and burying itself in a nearby tree. Filled now with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, T’Abram peered into the depths of the newly-opened chest to see what manner of treasure – if treasure it was – he had unlocked.


There appeared to be something wrapped in a fleece of some description. Or maybe the fleece was the treasure? From the dimmest recesses of his mind T’Abram dredged up the memory of an ancient tale that he had heard as a child. It told of a hero who set out to find a fleece made of pure gold. Could this be it? Had he discovered the legendary Golden Fleece? His heart raced. Gingerly he reached into the chest.

Having spent much of his adult life consorting with the spirits of the dead, T’Abram Spitch was confident that there was nothing left in the world that could surprise him. It just shows how wrong you can be. Life is nothing, if not full of surprises, even for a magician.

The moment his fingers brushed, what he fondly imagined to be, the fleece, it suddenly acquired a pair of lurid, glowing eyes that glared at T’Abram with something that fell far short of affection. He recoiled with horror and with a whimper jumped back a full and athletic six feet.

With a series of guttral groans the ‘fleece’ began to move, to expand and blink in the daylight. Through a tangle of hair a face appeared, not quite human but not quite bestial either. It looked somewhat bemused. The glowing orbs of eyes regarded the necromancer fiercely. To T’Abram’s horror a pair of hairy legs appeared over the side of the chest and gaining leverage, eased the creature out to freedom. T’Abram remembered his own legs and retreated to what he hoped was a place of safety.


Discovering that his treasure was an, apparently, living creature of some description had come as a shock. This, however, was as nothing compared to the revelation that followed. The beast that stood before the startled necromancer was terrifying… and weird, to say the very least.


Imagine, if you will, a lion. That was easy, wasn’t it? It gets a bit trickier now, though. Imagine that the lion has some almost human characteristics to its face. And that it has five – yes FIVE – totally leonine legs, except that these legs did not end in paws but in hooves. Cloven hooves. Oh, and there was one other thing… this lion-like creature – which for ease of description I will call a demon – has no body, just a head from which its five legs radiate like the spokes of a wheel. You can surely see why T’Abram was feeling somewhat unsettled by all of this. Things are to get even stranger, however. The demon was at least a dozen feet tall, dwarfing both the necromancer and the bog-oak chest in which it had been impossibly imprisoned. T’Abram stood stock still, processing the details of the figure that stood before him, by now on the opposite side of the crater. The necromancer was forcing his brain to accept its strangeness as something perfectly normal. Then the demon moved and T’Abram Spitch screamed.

It advanced towards him, propelling itself like a wheel but as its legs went round the head was a hub that stayed perfectly still, never taking its eyes off the hapless magician.

With less than a second to spare before the demon was upon him, T’Abram had the presence of mind to raise his staff. It crackled and hissed as a bolt of magical energy pulsed through it and caught the demon full in the face. The force of the bolt not only stopped the creature in its tracks but also sent T’Abram sprawling back into the crater. It took but seconds for the demon to recover and before the necromancer could do anything, he found himself caught beneath a single cloven-hoof that threatened to crush his ribcage. The demon glared down at him, a cold fire in its eyes. T’Abram felt his mind becoming blurred and his body numb. Feebly he reached for his staff and aimed it once more at his attacker. It spat no fire this time but just emitted a lacklustre glow. The demon smiled at him. This was not a pleasant smile but a horrible, drooling, leer that wordlessly indicated that the game was up and all resistance would be futile. The demon reached down and caught the staff in its grinning maw and effortlessly chewed it up completely. The  necromancer could only watch, aghast, as it raised a hoof, ready to deliver the death blow. Then something strange happened. The whole of its grotesque body began to glow. The five legs began to spin, slowly at first, then speeding to a fiery blur like a Catherine Wheel, spitting sparks of every colour. Meanwhile the ghastly head in their centre had become an incandescent core and no longer recognisable as a face.


The landlord of The Swætan Tæppere was standing at his back door when the explosion struck. Although it came from the far west of the island the reverberations shook the inn to its foundations, rattling the windows and sending tiles skidding from the roof. A plume of brightly coloured flame could be seen, bursting a hundred feet or more into the air.

“Magicians!” he exclaimed in disgust.

“I knew he’d be trouble.”


The explosion had shaken the whole of the island. Unsurprisingly, as soon as the initial panic was over, people started to drift towards the area. They were surprised to find that, while the flames had been worryingly high, the hole that was left behind was more than impressive. Bottomless would be an understatement, for one could reasonably expect a bottomless hole on an island to have water where the absent bottom should be; this one did not. It was an abyss, dark and uninviting. There was, in its unfathomable depths, a suggestion of something of an iridescent nature, a mere pinpoint that swirled and churned; something more to be experienced via the hairs on the back of the neck rather than being seen. No one spoke a word or made a sound but as one, retreated back to their homes. Frightened parents told their children that child-eating monsters lurked by that hole. These were stories designed to keep them away; to keep them safe. It is ironic that the truth was far scarier than any nursery tale.


It was a full two hundred and fifty years, following the demise of T’Abram Spitch, that the founding families arrived. By then The Swætan Tæppere had become The Squid and Teapot and within a generation the island’s first Night-Soil Man, Killigrew O’Stoat, had set up in business. The job suited a young man who was as painfully introverted as Killigrew. When he discovered the abyss, which he assumed was a sinkhole, he was delighted. Here was somewhere to safely dispose of the night-soil.With the addition of a simple cottage this would be the perfect base for his trade. And so, that is how Killigrew and the generations of Night-Soil Men who followed after, became custodians of the mysterious and unfathomable abyss, the grave of T’Abram Spitch.

Art by Tom Brown
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The Necromancer

There are some who maintain that Hopeless, Maine, has not always been as fog-bound as it is today. It is thought that there have been odd, brief periods in its history, when the island has enjoyed a reasonable climate and played host to all manner of flora and fauna. It was, presumably, in one of those gentler times that the Vikings settled here.
Many of these early settlers became adept at gathering the eggs of the gulls that lived and bred, in their thousands, in colonies on the cliffs. In the tale ‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’, it was revealed how one settler, a spoon-whittler named Lars Pedersen, was driven to madness and death by the spoonwalkers who stole, not only his spoons but also his precious horde of eggs. As a result his wraith, locally referred to as The Woeful Dane, was frequently seen roaming the area searching for the pilfered eggs.
All that we know of Lars’ demise and subsequent haunting is thanks to young Ophelia Chevin, a child of one of the founding families, who had been blessed with the dubious gift of ‘The Sight.’ Ophelia faithfully recorded the information in her journal, having had several amiable conversations with the ghost.
Prior to these revelations, those who witnessed this apparition roaming the island had no idea that he was merely looking for eggs. Over the years various theories evolved regarding the reason for The Woeful Dane’s ceaseless quest and unsurprisingly, favourite among these theories was that he was looking for a lost horde of Viking silver that he had buried somewhere, carelessly omitting to mark the spot.
Four long centuries had passed since Lars had died and the legend of lost Viking silver was firmly established as fact. Many a brave – and some would say foolhardy – adventurer perished looking for it. Life on this island is hazardous enough without wandering around at all hours, digging in vain for something which has never existed. Despite the high casualty rate, people continued to risk life and limb, seduced by the promise of untold riches. T’Abram Spitch was one such person.

T’Abram  found himself on the shores of Hopeless following a shipwreck. Anyone who knows anything about the island will recognise that this is by no means unusual. The ever-present fog that clings to Hopeless like a cold, damp mantle has claimed, over the years, many a good ship and an untold number of lives. On the plus side it has served to bestow a reasonable supply of salvageable goods and some occasionally interesting castaways. T’Abram Spitch was nothing, if not interesting. I have no idea where, exactly, in the world he came from but what I do know is that he claimed to be a magician. I am not talking about someone pulling a spoonwalker out of a hat or inviting you to pick a card. T’Abram Spitch was a fully-paid up, practising necromancer who had fled his native shores to avoid persecution and a toe-curlingly unpleasant death.
It must be remembered that even those with saintly ambitions, lofty aspersions, devilish plans for world domination or the power to invoke the spirits of the dead are all subject to human failings; strange, unbidden thoughts; annoying tunes popping into the head and the occasional urge to speak in silly voices. It is what makes us who we are. And T’Abram Spitch, despite his billowing robes, flowing beard and sigil-carved staff was no different from the rest of us. T’Abram had, besides an ample supply of annoying tunes and silly voices at his disposal, a host of secret desires. Chief among these was a lust for great riches.

The necromancer had been on Hopeless for just a few weeks when the rumour of a long-lost Viking horde came to his notice. Since his being shipwrecked he had looked bedraggled and despondent, a shadow of his former self. It was as though the words ‘Treasure’ and ‘Silver’ immediately cast a glamour over him and the veil of despair slipped away at their mere mention. His eyes glittered like stars as he visualized himself unearthing such wealth. Though many had searched for centuries to no avail, T’Abram was certain that he, above all others, was destined to find the Viking silver. His ability to conjure and command the spirits of the dead would surely be the key to his success.

In those days it was even rarer for people to wander abroad during the hours of darkness than it is now. There was no Night Soil Man patrolling the headland, standing downwind and keeping a benevolent eye on the unwary traveller. The only inn on the island, The Sweaty Tapster, would bar its doors and pull down the shutters to keep out unwelcome night-walkers. This is why no one was there on that moonless night to see T’Abram Spitch on the bleak headland, robes wildly flapping in the wind, as he prepared to conjure the spirit of Lars Pedersen, the legendary Woeful Dane.

Those who have read the tale ‘Ghosts’ will be aware that Lars Pedersen, the ghost and Lars Pedersen, the tenant of his own private Valhalla, were two very different entities. When he stepped into our dimension Lars was the gaunt, mad-eyed wraith who had struck fear into the hearts of so many. Lars, at home, as it were, was far removed from that. He was enjoying an eternity of wine, women, song and sunshine. This version of Lars was young, strong, handsome and as full of life as someone who has been dead for centuries can be. He would pick his hours of haunting with care, especially avoiding Valpurgis (May-eve) and Midsumarblot (the 21st of June). These were especially popular events in the spirit calendar and tended to attract more ghosts than Lars wanted to associate with. There were also other occasions that The Woeful Dane made a point of staying in his feasting-hall; these were the nights of the dark of the moon, when the waning moon has vanished and the new moon is yet to appear. These two or three days in the lunar calendar always attracts the worst kind of wraith. These are the ones who tear through the night, screaming and wailing. They frighten children, tear at the flesh and make fun of other spirits who, for example, might be going about their legitimate business searching for lost eggs. These were certainly not the type that a gentle ghost, such as Lars, would wish to encounter. No, Lars Pedersen stayed at home during the dark of the moon. Or, at least, that was his intention.
There can be few things more annoying than being pulled by some unseen force from one’s feasting-hall just as the party is getting started. This is exactly what happened to Lars. One minute he was happily swilling back mead, with a wench on either arm and a roasted boar on the table. The next, he was whisked away to some dark, chilly rock and suddenly transformed into the gaunt madman of legend, The Woeful Dane. To say that he was miffed would be an understatement.

Although he had called up a score of spirits during his career, T’Abram had never encountered one like Lars before. The Viking’s madness had struck after being caught in the malevolent gaze of a spoonwalker raiding party. As a result his dead eyes now bulged horribly and shone with a ghastly green light.
From Lars’ point of view, the necromancer cut an equally unsettling figure. If was plain to see that T’Abram had adopted the deranged wizard look with some enthusiasm. The pointed hat, star-spangled robe and long, bristling beard was almost comical in appearance. What was deadly serious, however, was the staff that he wielded. It was the source of all of his power. Everything else about him was pure theatre. It was this staff, carved with powerful sigils and now glowing with an unearthly light, that had drawn Lars from his feasting-hall and held him powerless before the necromancer.
In the tale ‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’ I mentioned that, for ghosts, there exists no language barrier. They converse with each other and understand all human – and probably animal – speech. So when T’Abram commanded Lars to find and reveal his long-lost treasure the old Viking understood every word. Unfortunately, as the long-lost treasure did not actually exist, he had absolutely no idea what the necromancer wanted. This served to weaken the hold that the glowing staff held over him, allowing Lars to use a little bit of artistic licence in leading T’Abram to his heart’s desire. It also gave him the chance to get his own back for being rudely removed from, what had promised to be, an agreeably pleasant evening of Valhallic debauchery. Lars knew where something was buried. It was not treasure but it would do nicely.

This world of ours is old beyond our imagining; a thousand or more cultures may have risen and fell long before we began recording history. It would be arrogant in the extreme to believe that only within the sphere of our knowledge did anyone set foot on Hopeless. The Vikings were certainly not the first settlers on the island. Lars knew this; he knew that buried deep beneath the rocks was something that so offended some of the island’s very earliest inhabitants that they bound it with spells and cast it deep into the earth. It was something that really ought to stay buried.
T’Abram followed the wraith with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. They wound through the scrubby trees and rocks until, in a clearing, Lars stopped, and pointed to the ground. The necromancer immediately set to and started removing the stones and earth. Lars’ work, it seems, was done; he was dismissed. The ghost was relieved. He really did not want to be around when this particular ‘Treasure’ was finally unearthed.
The work was long and hard, even with the tools that T’Abram had slyly taken from the people who dwelt in the shadow of the Gydynap Hills. At last, after many days, his shovel hit something that was not made of rock. His heart missed a beat. Could this be it at last – the long-lost Viking horde?

To be continued…

Art by Tom Brown

An Englishman in Hopeless, Maine

He did not come with storm and tempest, he came with a small leather suitcase.

He paid the ferryman in cash, muttering a combination of thanks and apologies that the English seem to think necessary for such transactions, and then set off up the beach. He walked with a stick, a simple length of hawthorn with a V at the top, but he put no weight on it. Even when he stumbled on a rock, or slipped on the seaweed, the stick was a balance more than a rest.

By the time he had reached the saltmarsh his woollen overcoat was glistening with droplets of water, and his scarf hung limp. He wore no hat, and his untidy red hair was plastered to his head with the fine cold rain.

He paused to take in his surroundings. It’s strange how the mind plays tricks on people. The Englishman knew he was many hundreds of miles away from home, but his eyes were tracing familiar landmarks in the sparse vegetation and rocky outcrops.

Just like Begger’s Lane back home”, he thought to himself.

It was certainly true that the Hopeless landscape around him seemed remarkably similar to the abandoned staithes and marshes of the Fens where he had grown up.

Finally, the Englishman appeared to reach some sort of decision of the “this will do” variety and put down his case. Opening it, he revealed the sparse contents within, begging the question in the mind of the casual observer of why he bothered with a case at all. Had the Englishman written an inventory of the contents, it would have listed just three items; a jar marked salt, a candle and a box of matches. The Englishman took the jar marked salt and used its contents to trace a circle in the tussocky grass. Then he used the matches to light his single candle. And, with his staff in one hand and candle in the other he stood and waited.

I can smell your fear.” Came a soft voice from behind him.

Quite!” replied the Englishman. “Under the circumstances, anything less that absolute terror would be evidence of a foolhardy spirit.”

And you are not fool hardy?” Replied the voice, moving now; edging round the circle. A tall lean dark shape stepped into the Englishman’s peripheral vision. “You, weak and afraid, have come to Hopeless to see a vampire, and you are not a fool?”

I just want to ask a question…” the Englishman began.

A dangerous question that I refuse to answer!” snapped the vampire. He was stood in front of the Englishman now. Tall, pale (naturally) his white hair was long, as were his fingernails. He wore a morning suit, old but well-tailored and immaculately turned out.

The vampire took a long stride towards the Englishman. “Did you think a circle of salt would keep me out?” he asked with a sneer.

No” replied the Englishman, drawing himself up and casting off his shivers and muttering tone. “The circle is to keep you in, and it’s not salt.” With that he cast the lighted candle to one side, and where it fell a flame sprung from the ground, spreading quickly until it had encircled the two adversaries with a tall sheet of red and yellow flame.

You challenge me?” asked the vampire, his voice rising a little in his surprise.

I knew you would not give me my answer willingly, but if I can beat you then you will be compelled to give me my bearing.” The Englishman said, raising his voice of the noises that were emerging from the marsh around them. The vampire was summoning up support. Vampires and deamons could not cross into the circle of fire, but their rituals and spells could.

You will lose and I will claim you.” the vampire hissed.

Then that is our wager.” the Englishman called back. The noises around him were no longer indistinct, but definite chanting. The Englishman closed his eyes in concentration and began to recall the old words of the marshlands.

Needing something to focus power upon, the vampire began taking items from his pockets; piece of broken china, an old coin, a dog hair brush. With each item he uttered a single syllable and the darkness around him grew deeper.

The Englishman could feel the chill of the darkness begin to bite him. This would be close run thing. But first he must drive off the vampires allies.

Fire and Water, Land and Sea.” He called, and as he did so there was movement in the mist around his legs. “The horn is sounded, the drum is beat. Clay’s light shines on the marsh, carried by the wind.” The Englishman whistled through his teeth, a long forlorn note like a lonesome bird calling over the sea.

Lights began to jump from the marsh outside the circle.

The Englishman whistled again. “Whistle and they will come!” he called.

The lights came toward the circle, scattering the deamons and vampires as they moved.

The Englishman took a dandelion stalk from behind his ear and blew upon it, sounding it like a small horn. “Up Shuck!” he shouted, “Up Bryard! The wild hunt rides!”

A roar of hooves suddenly split the air and passed through both Englishman and vampire, though the circle of flame did not waver for a moment.

As suddenly as it came, it went. Leaving only silence. The vampire would have to fight alone.

But the vampire was old, cunning and powerful. Even as the first jack o’lanterns flickered into light, he had changed his chant and charms. Long fingers passed tokens and tools from hand to hand, some seeming to hang in the air until needed. Again the darkness thickened, and the cold bit and stung.

The Englishman knew that his last effort had come and that this would be the making or breaking of him. He gripped his staff tightly before him, both hand locked together. He thought of his lands and his people; the men from the water, the men from the marsh, the dark eyed travelling folk who had raised him. The woods spilt out of his mouth like blood from a wound.

There is a light at the end of the world!” he cried. “A light that burns so bright that none can ever endure it. A light that burns a hole in the hearts of men and boils the blood of fey.”

As he spoke, luminous mist appeared to rise form the ground around his feet, spiraling around him. His staff glowed hot and he, himself, began to radiate light.

I am touched by that light, and though the shadow falls upon me, I welcome it!”

The thunderclap split the twilight.

The mist and drizzle scattered.

The circle of flame shrank and died.

The Englishman stood alone.

Cast your staff down and it will point your way, coldblood!” came the vampire’s voice. As he spoke he rose from the ground like a mist, a short distance in front of the Englishman.

Coldblood?” the Englishman asked in horror?

Your heart is stopped.” replied the vampire, “Your blood runs cold.”

The Englishman looked at his hands and as he watched the colour drained from his fingers.

But I won!” he shouted.

The vampire laughed a cold harsh laugh. “When will you mortals learn?” he sneered. “There is no winning. There is nothing to win!”

And with that he sank and faded away.

The Englishman threw down his staff in anger. It spun and then came to a rest, pointing his way. Next to it lay a shell, one of the vampires discarded trinkets. The Englishman picked them both up.

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,

My scrip of joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.”

Words by Jim Snee

Art by Tom Brown

The Revenant

The grubby note pinned to the cottage door contained just five words:

‘Look at the Gydynaps – Randall.’

Joseph frowned. It was unlike Randall Middlestreet, the Night-Soil Man to leave messages, however brief. Wondering what it might mean, the Passamaquoddy trader, yawning and scratching, made his way to the front of the cabin to get a better view of the hills. At first he could see nothing strange, then he noticed it; a thin wisp of blue smoke was curling its way into the foggy air.

This was unusual. For Randall to have seen the fire, it must have been burning through the night – and the Gydynaps was not a place for camping. The hills were strange, even by the standards of Hopeless. Someone could be in trouble up there and Joseph, being the man he was, decided it was his duty to investigate.

As it happened, others had seen the smoke and had had similar thoughts. Bill Ebley and Solomon Gannicox were standing outside the Squid and Teapot  when they spotted Joseph. Bill waved a greeting and the pair waited for their friend to catch up before going on.

Joseph was quietly relieved that the others were there. Any expedition on this island – especially into the hills – could be hazardous and there were few men he trusted more than Solomon and Bill.

The three walked in silence for much of the time, aware that their every move was being scrutinized. By and large the watchers were invisible, their presence felt rather than seen. Then there were the ever-present eyes, hovering in the misty morning skies. These, while somewhat disconcerting, were deemed to be harmless. They were a phenomena of Hopeless known to everyone yet rarely mentioned. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement throughout the island that the eyes in the sky were to be ignored, as if by acknowledging their presence it would somehow cause them to be something more than the passive observers that they apparently were.

At last the trio reached the summit of the hills without incident. The plume of smoke was thicker here. It reached up from behind a ridge, where, Joseph remembered, there was a small cave hidden in the folds of rock.

Warily they made their way towards the smoke.

Standing perfectly still and warming himself before a small fire, was a slight figure – a young man – dressed in what appeared to be a long, white nightshirt.

Joseph could hardly believe his eyes.

“Daniel… is that really you?”

“Joseph?” the young man was obviously surprised. “How can this be?”

Bill Ebley looked at Joseph.

“Is that Daniel Rooksmoor?” he asked, half whispering. “I thought he was taken by that bird thing.”

All of the island remembered the Hallowe’en party, when Daniel Rooksmoor had wandered up into the Gydynaps and been taken away by Pamola, the bird-demon.

Daniel looked at the three men with some wonder.

“I imagined you all long dead,” he said. “I have been the guest in the kingdom of Pamola for untold years. From that lofty place I have watched this earth and all in it, wither and die.”

Bill looked at Solomon and twiddled his index finger next to his right temple, the worldwide sign denoting that someone is not in full receipt of their senses.

The distiller gave a small smile and raised his eyebrows in agreement.

Daniel saw this mummery and became angry.

“Daniel,” said Joseph, gently, “You have been gone but a few months. You are back on Hopeless now. Oh, Daniel, it’s good to see you. I thought you were dead.”

The boy was not placated.

“You all mock me. I have seen things beyond your understanding. You must believe me. It will be people like you who will grow deaf and blind to the plight of the world, who will let the greed of a few destroy it. There will be cruelty and bloodshed that would cause you to quake. I have seen the future and it is bleak – bleaker than you can ever imagine.”

Solomon Gannicox was losing his patience with the boy’s rambling.

“Come back with us Daniel, it’s not safe up here.”

“No. Never. It must be the will of Pamola that I have been returned to this time and place. I will not budge until I learn why. Go now and leave me in peace.”

Joseph made his way towards the boy.

“Daniel, you’re not well. I’m begging you, come with us…”

He reached to put a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder and it was then that something happened that neither of the three islanders would ever speak of again, even among themselves.

Daniel Rooksmoor fell to dust before their eyes.

Daphne and the dead seagull

Daphne woke up and knew she had to go for a walk by the sea. The hissing and cold wallops of its tides called her and she listened wondering what the sea wanted to show her. A wrecked ship? A beached kraken? A crystal bottle where inside was sealed another smaller crystal bottle? Daphne had found one of those. If she held it up to any light that was willing to shine on the morgue where she lived on that bleak, dour hill the crystal bottle inside the crystal bottle shimmered with flitting rainbows.

Daphne wondered if there was a ghost trapped inside, and thought she’d leave it sealed because ghosts imprisoned in bottles were there for a good reason. The weather that morning was fairly grey and the clouds were all grey. Not a bit of it seemed like it was going to be cheerful, which was entirely in keeping with Daphne had grown up to expect of it. She had started walking on the twisted lonely path away from the morgue. Behind her the morgue stood like a beached plinth of light sucking stone and plenty of curious lichens and mosses which possessed tiny eyes. Just next to the morgue was a small stone cottage with two squat little windows that looked like the morgue had a child. Daphne lived in the cottage, but she never thought to distinguish it from the morgue. They were the same to her.

As Daphne walked on the path she sang a traditional and soul destroying ditty to herself.

There was a sailor

who nailed himself to his boat

not meaning to

there was a sailor

who got eaten by the moon

he should not have gone out that night

there was a sailor

who tied himself to a big cod

why did he do that?

And on it continued as Daphne savoured the familiarity of its maritime vexation which she enjoyed keeping alive, perhaps she’d make somebody else learn it so its tune would never ever leave people alone?

Her path had come to a steep stony one picking its way down to the oozing sea shore. Beside it was a cairn of stacked bluish-grey stones which was added to every time somebody disappeared at sea. She went down like a spry little sheep to the sea shore, plucking the odd green leaf of salty sea beet that grew here ruminating upon it as she chewed it. A shape had caught her eye on the shore as she now crunched through its detritus of grounded up sea flotsam of stones, shells and brittle things regurgitated from the bottom of the sea.

The dead seagull was laid perfectly out on the gritty tide line. One white wing lay outstretched and crusted with silt and sand. Its yellow orange beak like an abandoned kitchen knife was still. Those rapacious eyes in its head were greyed over. Daphne knelt down in the wet grit staring with interest at the dead bird. She looked at its outstretched wing brushing delicately the feather vanes of their silt. She thought that she’d keep one treasure from the sea. Dead humans were always put in the morgue but it didn’t have to be that way….

Daphne went back up the path and in her arms she cradled the ragged bulk of a dead seagull, one wing hanging out stiffly. Behind her the sea tide hissed and churned. The morgue would have a new corpse and Daphne was pleased that it had feathers.

Story by Robin Collins

Art by Tom Brown

 

Amelia

The story so far…

 

In the spring of 1888 Harriet Butterow and her friend, Petunia Middlestreet, perished in the sea while trying to salvage goods from a shipwreck. Their respective daughters, Amelia, aged six and Lilac, aged three, became the wards of Harriet’s father-in-law, Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the Squid and Teapot. In order to give the girls the best possible education and home life Bartholomew relinquished management of the inn to his long-term tenant, the odious Tobias Thrupp. Ten years slipped by and Bartholomew died. Nothing more was heard of the girls for the next two years, until they were rescued from Thrupp’s clutches by Abraham, a Passamaquoddy trader who took them to his reservation on the mainland. The girls lived happily with Abraham and his family until Lilac fell in love with Abner Badbrook, a silver-tongued rogue. The two eloped in the dead of night, only for Abner to desert Lilac when he learned that he was to become a father. Fearing that she would not be able to support her small son, Lilac left him on the steps of a convent. While being taken for adoption to New Brunswick, the child, Randall and his guardian, Sister Mary Selsley, of the Little Sisters of St. Chloe, were shipwrecked on Hopeless, Maine, along with the ship’s captain, Sebastian Lypiatt.

 

Amelia was saddened but not surprised by Lilac’s departure from the reservation. Her friend had been acting strangely for a week or so prior to her disappearance. It had become obvious to Amelia that Lilac was smuggling food and soft deerskin blankets to someone in the forest but she said nothing to Abraham or his wife, Cenopi.

Over the following weeks Amelia retreated increasingly into her own thoughts. She took to wandering along the river bank, as though seeking something. In blocking out the rest of the world she seemed to have switched on part of herself that had formerly been sleeping.

Amelia had often heard the seals before, of course, going about their business in Passamaquoddy bay. The plaintive barking that was so familiar, however,  one day became an invocation, a siren-call to those who could hear its message. Like one in a dream Amelia made her way to the water’s edge, then hesitated. The abiding memory she had of her mother was of being warned never to go into the ocean. After Harriet herself became a victim of the grey Atlantic, Amelia could see the sense in this, not knowing the real reason for her mother’s fears.

‘Strictly speaking’, she told herself, ’This is not the ocean. I can be careful.’

In truth, whatever her mind had said, a greater force was at work within Amelia and all of the warnings in the world would not have prevented her from being drawn towards the seal-song.

There is a point where practicality, driven by instinct will always prevail over the modesty imposed by social mores. That morning Amelia gazed over the expanse of shining water and without a second thought, took off her clothes. She laid each garment carefully on a dry rock, then – for reasons beyond her comprehension – threw herself into the chilly waters of the bay.

After the initial shock of hitting the water she began to panic. For a brief moment the old Amelia took control, thrashing and screaming in the swirling current. Then a great calmness swept over her. Dimly she imagined that this must be the end. If this was death it was not so bad. It did not come as some hostile enemy but almost as a gentle guardian, come to gather her into its warm embrace. But she was confused; none of the things she had been led to expect was happening. There was no bright light, no welcoming family waiting with outstretched arms to usher her into the afterlife. What she did feel, however, was warmth and strength and a undeniable desire to eat some fish. Amelia looked down at her body. It was sleek, fat and furry. Instead of arms and legs she had flippers. Then something in her remembered; this was a memory not spun from intellect but from instinct. A memory that flowed in her blood and lived in her bones. She was Selkie.

In the event, there was a family to welcome her, after all. The Harbor Seals had sensed that she was near and had been waiting. Amelia had come home.

 

It was a full two years before Amelia once more took on human form and again it was instinct that drove her to do so. She had watched with curiosity as a man, woman and tiny child bobbed across the water on an upturned dining table. Amelia, who still retained some shadow of her former attributes, could not help but swim up alongside the strange craft. It had been a long time since she had heard human speech. The conversation centred around the child, who the woman had referred to as “Young Randall Middlestreet.”

Middlestreet!

She dimly remembered that she had once had a friend with the same name. An ache grew inside the selkie, suddenly wanting to know more and if her friend was close by. She watched as the little party washed up on to a foggy shore – a somehow familiar foggy shore, she thought –  and made their way inland, abandoning the table and rough tarpaulin that had served as a makeshift sail. Amelia dragged herself onto the rocks. As she dried, her skin sloughed off to reveal her human form. She folded the sealskin and hid it in the rocks, then, in the best tradition of Adam and Eve, became suddenly aware and ashamed of her nakedness. The only item to cover her modesty adequately was the old tarpaulin, which she draped about her as best she could and, in bare feet, made her way inland.

 

Amos Gannicox was sitting outside his cabin when he saw her. His face suddenly became a deathly white, as though he had seen a ghost. It must be admitted that seeing ghosts was not that unusual on this island. Amos had seen several in his years there. This particular ghost, however, had a special place in Amos’ heart.

“Ha… Harriet. Is that you?” he asked, nervously.

“ Pardon?” Despite her selkie years, Amelia had not forgotten her manners.

“I’m sorry,” said Amos, seeing now his mistake. “It’s just that you reminded me of a dear friend who died over fifteen years ago. You could be her twin. Her name was Harriet.”

“My mother was Harriet…” said Amelia as memories of her childhood flowed back.

 

It did not take long for Amos and Amelia to piece together the events that had led up to her disappearance from the island. She told him about her time on the reservation and her living with the seals. Amos reddened. Harriet had always claimed that Amelia’s father was a selkie and he had dismissed it out of hand as delusion. The girl’s story now gave the tale some credence.

After Harriet’s disappearance Amos had salvaged some of her things as keepsakes. He had been secretly in love with her and could not bear to see her few possessions scavenged by the other islanders. From these he found some suitable shoes and a dress, which was a much tighter fit than Amelia had expected it to be. She could not remember having been quite so rounded when on the reservation.

When he was told of the child, Randall Middlestreet, Amos made a few enquiries and soon learned that the boy was in the care of the orphanage. Upon hearing this Amelia immediately resolved to go there herself. It was her plan to volunteer to help, thereby allowing her to keep an eye on Randall’s welfare.

Amelia had been there but a few hours before she found an unexpected ally in Sister Mary Selsley. The nun’s calling asked her to accept, without question, many things that, in a secular setting, she would find to be totally implausible. So, to recognise the existence of a shape-shifting selkie did not demand of her a huge leap of faith. Sister Mary had been born and raised on the wild west coast of Ireland where these creatures were known to exist and held in some regard. To those, like herself, who had lived among the selkies, there was something in their eyes and general bearing that betrayed them immediately when in their human form. These things she saw, and loved, in Amelia.

Sister Mary had nothing like the same regard for Reverend Malachi Crackstone, the principal of the orphanage. Besides his being a protestant, which was cause enough to meet the nun’s disapproval, she found him to be a mean-minded, unpleasant man, given to cruelty. She warned Amelia not to reveal any of herself to him, although the parson had already discovered that her great grandmother had been Colleen O’Stoat, a woman widely suspected of being a witch. Crackstone made no secret of his instant dislike for the girl, a dislike that forthcoming events would turn into something akin to hatred.

 

The mind and instincts of a seal and those of a human have little in common, outside of a desire for survival. That is why – perhaps mercifully – a selkie woman recalls her seal life as little more than a dream, and vice-versa. So, when the nun pointed out to Amelia that she was decidedly pregnant it came as something of a surprise. It certainly explained a few things but she had no recollection of ever mating. Sister Mary assured her she must have done so; to the nun’s knowledge there had only been one instance of a virgin birth and to suggest this might be another was nothing short of blasphemous.

“ As far as Reverend Crackstone is concerned,” advised the nun, “you’ve lived on the island all of your life and the father is unknown. He wont like it but it will stop him from asking awkward questions.”

There was another problem. A human gestation period is nine months, while a seal’s is eleven. A massive conflict was raging in Amelia’s body and she was not having a good time. In the event, the strange nature of the pregnancy brought on the onset of labour several weeks early.

It was a hard and traumatic birth. For two whole days and nights Amelia was wracked with pain that took a great toll on her strength. In her heart Sister Mary suspected that there would be little chance of Amelia or her child surviving the ordeal.

 

As the clock struck midnight, heralding the vernal equinox of 1905, Betty Butterow was born. As Sister Mary had feared, the fight to bring Betty into the world had been too much for Amelia, who, by now, was pale and very close to death. Crackstone, with a heart as cold as ice, took the child casually from the weeping nun’s arms and swept off to find a wet-nurse.

Tearfully, Sister Mary stripped the blood soaked shift from Amelia’s lifeless body and washed her.

“This girl should be returned to the sea, where she belongs” she told herself. “Not in the cold earth, where Crackstone would put her”

As I have mentioned before, Sister Mary was no delicate, frail thing. Effortlessly, she lifted Amelia into her arms and carried her out into the night air.

 

Unless you are a Night-Soil Man it can be perilous to walk about the island after dark. Fortune, or something else, was on the nun’s side, however, as she made her way to the precise spot where Amelia had said she had hidden her pelt.

A mist-shrouded full moon watched with a baleful eye as the sealskin was wrapped securely around Amelia’s lifeless form. For her own peace of mind Sister Mary said a few suitable words to her God, then, gathering up Amelia’s body, waded into the ocean, almost to chest height, and  placed her precious bundle upon its surface. She watched sorrowfully as the dark water folded over the girl and drew her into its inky depths. Making her way back to shore, soaked and shivering with bitter cold, the nun was comforted by the knowledge that she had returned Amelia to her true home.

A sudden noise made her turn. Just a few feet behind her a seal’s head burst through the water. For an instant that felt like a lifetime the two regarded each other in the moonlight. A spark of recognition flared in the seal’s dark eyes.

Sister Mary’s heart leapt.

“She’s alive,” she cried aloud, “Amelia, you’re alive!”

The seal lingered a moment longer and the connection that had momentarily flickered between them gradually faded, like a candle being slowly extinguished.

Without giving the nun another glance, the seal turned and headed for the open ocean, completely unaware of the identity of the human standing in the water behind her.

The selkie that had been Amelia Butterow was now a seal forever, forgetful of the life she had once known and the daughter she left behind on the mysterious island of Hopeless, Maine.

Art- Tom Brown

Arrival

Why do we do things we’re not supposed to?

The label on the bottle was clear enough; ‘Do not open’.
There didn’t seem anything particularly interesting in the bottle, just sand, a couple of small pebbles all topped up with a lot of rather murky water. I shook it and something metallic bounced against the glass. I peered closely at the contents and through the swirling cloud of liquid dirt I could see a spoon. The bowl section was partly buried in the sand, the handle resting against the side of the bottle and then, just for a split second, I saw it. There was something written on the front part of the handle.
I squinted, as though that would make any difference. It was no use, the water was just too grim – so, I uncorked the bottle. I could swear I heard a young girl giggle. I looked around, but I was alone on the shingle beach. I looked up; the sunny day had begun to darken as a light rain started to fall.
I emptied the contents of the bottle onto the beach as the rain fell harder. I picked up the spoon and washed it in a nearby rock pool. The words etched onto the handle became clear.
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
A chill ran down the back of my neck. I dismissed it as a lucky raindrop. I felt nervous. I don’t know why, I’m not usually a nervous person, but the message on this spoon just spooked me. I dropped the spoon back into the dirt, firmly replaced the cork and threw the bottle as hard as I could into the Atlantic Ocean.
A fitful night’s sleep followed. I just couldn’t get that message out of my mind. On the rare occasions when sleep did take over there were visions of forbidding granite cliffs and a dense fog muting every colour.
I awoke early the next morning with a sense of doom enveloping me. I walked back down to the sea front to try and clear my head. The clouds had become darker and the rain was descending in vertical sheets as the waves swarmed around my boots. A dull clunking sound made me look down; it was the same bottle I had picked up yesterday.
Again I heard laughter, but this time something else – the sound of someone sobbing. It was only the faint, ghost of a sound, but I know I heard it. The crunching of footsteps on the shingle made me look around to see who I shared the beach with.
No-one. I was completely alone.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” a girl’s voice giggled.
I twisted around to see a thick fog rolling in from the ocean. But fog doesn’t talk, does it? There was definitely no-one else around. The message on the spoon must have spooked me more than I realised. The fog swarmed everywhere and within minutes I could hardly see my own feet. The laughing got louder.
“It won’t be long now,” the voice giggled.
“Who’s there? Show yourself,” as if I could see anything in this pea-souper.
More laughter.
“What’s so funny? Why are you laughing?”
“You’ll see. Not long now.”
“Not long to what? Where are you?”
“You’ll see.”
I tried walking towards the voice, but I was effectively blind. I stumbled forwards, my hands bracing my fall onto the sand.
Sand?
This is a shingle beach, there isn’t any sand for miles in either direction. My hands dug in and clenched into fists. It was definitely sand. That wasn’t the only thing that had changed, the sea had got louder. No longer the gentle lapping motion of water on the pebbles, but now the giant crashing of waves against rocks. There are no rocks for miles.
No rocks and no sand.
I rubbed my hands together and could feel the sand smoothing down my skin. The freezing rain ran off my hair and dripped onto the sleeves of my coat. How can the rain be so cold? This is the middle of July. I looked up and thought I could see the fog thinning out.
“Almost there now,” the giggling voice seemed to mock me.
“Who are you?” I demanded. “Where are you? Show yourself.”
“Let him go,” a second voice moaned.
“No,” said the first voice, “this is fun.”
As the fog thinned into a mist I could see two young girls standing in front of me. One, slightly taller, had a mischievous smile on her face, the other tears trickled down her cheeks; both had a wan, jaundiced complexion. The mist seemed to dull the colour of their clothes, if they had any colour to begin with. I looked past them. Granite cliffs towered high into a dark green sky.
“Where is this place?” I asked
“You’ll like it here, given enough time,” said the taller one, the mischievous smile slowly replaced by a more sinister expression. “And you’ll have plenty of that.”
“It’s not fair,” said the second girl. “You should let him leave.”
“It’s too late for that,” said the taller girl.
“This isn’t the beach I walked onto,” I said. “Where am I?”
“This is Hopeless,” the tall girl smiled.
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s where you are. The island of Hopeless, Maine.”
“No, I can’t be in Maine. I can’t have crossed the Atlantic in only five minutes.”
The taller girl giggled again, “You haven’t crossed the Atlantic silly.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“It makes perfect sense. You opened the door and came in.”
“What door?” I shouted, my anger starting to boil over. “Where am I?”
“When you uncorked the bottle it began. It didn’t matter that you threw the bottle back, you couldn’t stop it. You’re here now and you can’t leave.”
“Where’s ‘here’?” I asked, even though the awful truth dawning on me.
Both girls pointed to the top of the cliffs. Through the swirling mist I could see it. A huge metal sculpture arcing into the sky. Except, I knew it wasn’t a sculpture. The shape was the same and the engraving was the identical; ‘You shouldn’t have done that’.
“That’s impossible,” I croaked as the taller girl started laughing.
“The bottle is green,” said the other girl, “the same colour as the sky.”
“You mean I’m inside the bottle?”
They both smiled.
“You’re on the island of Hopeless Maine,” said the sad one, “and you can never leave.”

In the year of 1724, the month of July was unbearably hot. I sometimes wonder if it was the heat that induced a madness in me. Since I arrived on this forsaken island we have washed up on many shores. I have seen bridges span the widest rivers, buildings touching the clouds and dozens of poor, unfortunate souls have become my unwilling companions. I smile now as I think of the time I uncorked the bottle and I thought that was how I ended up here. It wasn’t. With the bottle came a note, written by the tall girl. It was the story of how she came to be in the bottle. I didn’t tell you that at the beginning because you may not have read this far.
Tell me, what colour is the sky?

 

This dark and lovely tale of Hopeless, Maine was penned by none other than the esteemed Mr. Symon A Sanderson, Author of the Steamside Archives.  Art by Tom Brown (and it is not the first time we have worked in this configuration!)