If you backed our kickstarter a few years ago, you may already have copies of New England Gothic or The Oddatsea. You may have since managed to acquire one at an event. But, maybe you didn’t, and maybe this has left a gaping hole in your bookcase…
Much to our delight, Outland entertainment (who are publishing American editions of the graphic novels) are also publishing the prose fiction. It comes out in August and is widely available from book selling places, including…
A tale in three parts by Keith Errington (AKA the KEITH OF MYSTERY)
Part one – a beginning and an end
Not much was known about Flora, she lived on the edges of what many in Hopeless just called ‘the town’ – but which was in essence little more than a sprawling, overgrown village. She kept herself to herself and had few visitors. A pale beauty, some suggested she must have suffered from a touch of tuberculosis in her youth – although others pointed out how unlikely this was, as tuberculosis was generally fatal – especially here on Hopeless.
Like many on the island, she was raised in the orphanage and when she came of age she went to work for Mrs Grangewurm – the laundrywoman, but she didn’t last as she started to suffer from syncope – she would faint at inopportune moments. At first, they lasted but a few seconds, and were a minor inconvenience, but over time they became more pronounced and poor Flora became embarrassed and unable to face either Mrs Grangewurm, her job or other people.
So she moved out to the seaward side of town, and somehow, she eked out a living doing washing and ironing for folks who couldn’t afford Mrs Grangewurm’s prices.
And that’s the scene set for our story.
— < ooo > —
Enter young Horace D’Arblay – a thoroughly disagreeable individual of the type usually found in Victorian penny novels tying ladies to railroad tracks for not paying their rent. Although he was brutish and gruff, he nevertheless paid attention to his appearance – his one and only redeeming feature. As if having a neat beard could really compensate for a life of nastiness, meanness and petty grudges. When his latest manservant ran away, he decided to do without and so he called on Mrs Grangewurm to have his collars starched and his trousers cleaned and pressed. There followed an extended argument over prices – which ended with Mrs Grangewurm almost pushing Horace out of her door (she was a tough one, that one), and this meant that Horace had to look elsewhere for sartorial satisfaction.
Asking around in his usual polite and diplomatic manner – that usually consisted of shouts punctuated by thumps – he eventually learnt about Flora and set off to visit her.
Horace arrived at Flora’s humble cottage early evening – the sun was thinking about leaving – but had yet to make up its mind. So there was still enough light to adequately illuminate Flora’s figure as she answered the door to several, unnecessarily loud and insistent knocks.
Even Horace – with his heart made of ironwood – was struck by her beauty. She had a perfectly proportioned face with large, limpid eyes, her skin was wonderfully smooth and almost translucent, and her small delicate hands moved gracefully as she opened the door to face the brute.
For the first time in his life, Horace was stuck for words but managed to mumble something about his trousers, and getting things stiff again. She beckoned him inside and he lay his collars and trousers on the table in the small front room.
Horace now regained his composure and spoke about the work he needed doing and the price he wanted to pay. Flora listened quietly to his demands and simply nodded. The light from the window caught her dress in such a way as to emphasise Flora’s figure, the smooth curves of her breasts lying underneath the thin cotton, and Horace felt a familiar rising of the blood. Horace had always got what he wanted – he never asked permission and never thought of others. Now, with his passion rising he wanted Flora.
He stepped towards her and grabbed her – she didn’t flinch, even though his intentions were plain enough – evident in his burning eyes. He leaned in to kiss her roughly and she fainted, going limp in his arms. Horace simply bared his teeth in an unsightly grin.
— < ooo > —
Are you imagining the hideous fate that is to befall Flora? Are you shocked, dismayed, truly horrified at the events that have come to pass in my story? But no, I am not that kind of writer. Let me continue…
— < ooo > —
Over the next few days, there were no sordid tales in the local paper, no funerals for fallen women, in fact, no stories related to Flora at all. Flora’s small band of loyal customers continued to get their needs met – no shirt went un-ironed, no clothes were left unclean. If anyone asked how Flora was (although they never did) they would have received the reply “same as ever”.
Over the next few months, tales of Flora’s beauty attracted a number of visitors whose motives were not entirely wardrobe-based. Some were young men who were too shy or too polite to actually do anything, but at least they came home smartly dressed with the most immaculate collars and clean, pressed clothes.
A second group were bolder and propositioned Flora – presenting flowers or other small tokens and asking her to walk with them, but Flora always refused in the most wonderfully polite and sensitive manner, and these considerate fellows left it at that – disappointed but satisfied that they had at least tried their luck.
Sadly, there was a third group – a few bold and brazen types who were cocky and self-sure, pushy and occasionally violent who didn’t understand the simple no and would go that one step too far, with no regard for the consequences.
— < ooo > —
In many societies, suicides would be remarked upon, they would be noticed amid much outrage and outpouring of emotions – why didn’t we do more? I wish I had just spoken to them. How could they be so inconsiderate? And the like. In civilised societies, suicides are rare – or at least rare enough to cause comment. Some sectors of society even consider them sinful and frown upon the practice perhaps hoping to stop practitioners repeating their offence. Not so in Hopeless, Maine where suicide is often seen as a valid option for escaping the island. In fact, one could truthfully say that death was pretty much the only option if you were bored with life on Hopeless, Maine. And deaths were surprisingly common as the many interesting obituaries attested to.
And so it was, that no-one really thought too much about it when Horace’s body was found washed up on the shore. He’d probably just walked into the ocean – a common occurrence amongst the lost of Hopeless, Maine; or perhaps he had jumped off of the nearby Corpulent Cliff – a site well-known for attracting those tired of what passes for life on Hopeless.
Obadiah had forty different words for fog. From his fishing shack on the waterfront, he watched various fogs come and go, ebbing and flowing around the town. He needed every one of the words to describe the varied types that ran their blurry touch over the island.
There was the mist, the slight tendrils of cloud just barely wrapping around the houses. That one was so omnipresent that folks rarely even bothered to note it. Most of the town was mist-touched at any given time. The moments where you could see clearly end-to-end were the real rarities. Obadiah had no word for that kind of weather. It had never seemed worth it.
There were the pea-soupers, the thick deep fogs that ate the sound and blocked out all sight more than an arm’s length away. They rolled in on the regular, removing the rest of the town from view and giving Obadiah the impression that he lived on an island the size of his three rooms. If the windows weren’t sealed it was even less than that, as the fog seeped in through cracks and hid even the corners of his own house from him.
In between the two extremes were the mousters, the corrywinders, the bell-smiths and dozens more. Obadiah knew every sort of fog the sea could cough up and had names for them all. Seventy years of waterfront living would do that to a man.
Which made this fog all the more unusual. It wasn’t like any other he’d ever seen. It crawled along the ground in slow waves, gently rolling along paths and around corners like it was looking for something. It didn’t spread out evenly, either, but clumped together in great dense folds. Parts of it were nearly transparent, while others seemed almost solid.
Despite its intermittent thinness, it muffled sound as well as the thickest fog Obadiah had ever seen. The whole house felt wrapped in cotton batting. The lapping of the sea, the creaking of the dock, the mournful calls of the birds—all of these, the background of Obadiah’s life, were gone. It was this sepulchral silence that kept him staring out the window. He told himself he was just casually watching, but the truth was that he needed to keep an eye on the world to reassure himself that it was still there.
A booming knock sounded at the front door. Obadiah startled from his chair, the sudden sound no less concerning than the silence that had preceded it. He craned his neck to try to see along his front porch, but the drifting fog and awkward angle kept him from getting a good view.
The knock came again. Obadiah headed for the front door, taking up his stout oaken stick as he did so. If it was a neighbor who needed help outside, he’d be happy to have the extra support to keep his footing in the thick fog. And if it turned out to be someone who meant him ill, he could still hand out a pretty good wallop.
A third time: the knock. “I’m coming!” called Obadiah, his voice abnormally loud in the silent house. “Who is it, anyway?”
“Me, Obie,” came the muffled reply. He cocked his head. Sounded a bit like Isabel, the neighbor woman. Nice woman, lovely young mother, but not the sort to just drop by randomly. Especially not in weather such as this.
“What do you need?” he asked, opening the door. To his surprise, the battered wooden porch stood empty. The rocking chair creaked gently next to the door, but only the wind was stirring it.
“Your help.” Isabel’s voice drifted up from the bottom of the steps. Obadiah squinted into the fog. It was swirling thickly here, obscuring even the railing posts beside the stairs. He could make out a humanoid figure, but no more.
“What is it, Isabel?” Maybe she needed his help finding a lost animal. Maybe she’d gotten lost herself. “You need to come in?”
He took a step back, holding the door open, but the fog-shrouded figure shook her head. “No. I need your help. Can you come down here?”
Obadiah hesitated. Something was off about her voice, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. Still, if she needed help, he wasn’t about to turn her down.
“Let me get my coat,” he said.
“You don’t need it. Please, hurry.”
The air was chillier than he liked, but if Isabel was that desperate, he could handle the discomfort. Surely she only needed him for a short time if she was encouraging him to go out coatless. With a sigh and a shrug, he stepped onto the porch and closed the door behind him.
The fog had thickened again. Everything was a uniform shade of grey. Even the bottom step was hidden from view now. Obadiah gripped the railing with his left hand and his walking stick with his right, stepping carefully down the weathered steps.
“Isabel?” he called, unable to see her through the fog.
“Right here,” came the reply. He took a few tentative steps toward the sound.
“No, over this way.” Her voice was to the left of him now. He edged forward again, but still saw nothing.
“Where are you?”
“I’m here.” Her soft tones came from the right of him now. “I can see you. Just walk toward me.”
Two more steps, and there was still nothing there. “Girl, are you playing games with me?”
“Never, Obie.” But there was laughter in her voice, and not the kind sort, either.
“All right, enough of this. Nothing better to do than taunt an old man? I’m going back inside,” he grumbled.
“How do you plan to do that?”
Obadiah took several steps forward, expecting to see his house swim into view. It did not. There was nothing but an endless grey wall. He stopped, befuddled. “Musta gotten turned around in this.”
He turned back and tried the other direction, but found nothing there either. The fog swirled hungrily at his legs, hiding his feet from view. Isabel’s voice rang out from all around him, laughing gaily, shifting positions with every sentence.
“This way.” “No, over here.” “You’re close.” “Right here.”
“Obie.” This one practically a breath in his ear.
“Enough!” He whirled, striking out with his walking stick, but the heavy wood swooshed uselessly through the air. Obadiah staggered and nearly fell as the momentum tugged him to the side. The fog fluttered in its wake, forming curlicues that winked and smiled before vanishing into the main mass.
“Try again,” whispered Isabel’s voice. Clearly mocking though she was, Obadiah settled his grip on the cudgel and took her advice. He struck out blindly, swinging from shoulder to hip in a repeated X-shape. The laughter rose around him, mocking as he hit nothing but air over and over again, but Obadiah gritted his teeth and continued.
With every strike, he took a small step and made a quarter-turn. Swoosh, swoosh went the stick, and the circle Obadiah walked in grew steadily larger. He might not know which way his house was, but he knew it had to be close. If he just maintained the pattern….
Suddenly, the stick collided with something solid with a resounding crack. The impact jarred the walking stick from his hands, sending it spinning off into the fog. Obadiah reached out with desperate fingers and grasped the wooden ball that topped his porch’s newel post. He wrapped his arms around it, grabbing it like a drowning man seizing hold of a piece of floating wreckage.
“Wait!” called Isabel as Obadiah hauled himself up the three stairs to his porch, one hand always maintaining a strong grip on the railing. “I’m still out here, Obie. I still need your help.”
He shook his head. “No, you aren’t.”
“Look.” And then, in a voice quieter and more tremulous than before, “Obie? Is that you?”
He looked over his shoulder. Behind him, a path had cleared in the fog, the mists shifting aside to make a brief corridor. At the end of it, fifty yards away or more, stood Isabel. She looked confused and afraid. She appeared to have been crying.
“Obie, help!” She took a running step toward him and then the mists fell over her again, consuming her.
“See?” Isabel’s voice again, though Obadiah knew well it was not her. “She needs your help.”
Obadiah shook his head once more. “All I can do if I go out there is give you another voice to play with. And I don’t even have my coat.”
“Wait!” called the voice once more, but Obadiah was already at his front door, opening it to step into the safety of his house. Fog swirled in with him, but it dissipated quickly when the solid wood slammed shut behind it, tiny wisps of cloud vanishing against his carpet runner.
The knocking started again, loud and insistent. Obadiah, ignoring it, walked slowly around the house, checking the latch on each window and then pulling thick curtains to block out the view and muffle the sound. He turned on the record player, settled into his chair and let the scratchy sounds of a trumpet flow over him. He could still hear the knocking in the background, but he figured it would give up soon enough when it realized he couldn’t be lured back out.
Soft cries could be heard behind the trumpet now, the sounds of a young woman in distress.
“You can still save her,” whispered a voice clustered outside his windows.
Obadiah dragged his chair over closer to the record player and increased the volume. He’d seen too many men swept overboard in storms to wonder if Isabel could really be rescued. All you could do by jumping after them was add another death to the tally.
“A murk,” he said out loud. “That’s a good name for it. A murk.”
The fog would pass. They all did, eventually. He’d go find Isabel after that. If there was anything left of her to find.
By Micah Edwards, with art by Tom Brown.
Micah and Tom have collaborrated before and it is likely that they will do so again.
We can now reveal that Hopeless, Maine is returning to North America with Outland Entertainment! The first two volumes will be printed and released soon, along with illustrated prose novels by Nimue Brown and Keith Errington and the Hopeless, Maine RPG is in development and may well be out at the same time. Here is the press release!
Cover art – collaboration between Nimue and myself.
One of the things that really bothers me with fiction and comics is the way that bad history and white supremacy get in the mix. The number of times I have seen people suggest that including People of Colour in a situation is woke and historically inaccurate is distressingly high.
The problem is that so many people have got their minimal historical education by watching films that were made by people who were racist and/or had other issues. American films from the first half of the twentieth century would cheerfully have white men playing people from anywhere in the world while failing to include People of Colour in times and places they most assuredly would have been. It’s not improved much since then.
The evidence is widespread, the art, the historical information, the written records, the photographs… Ignorant of actual history and fed only a whitewashed history, some people get really cross when faced with better representation.
The oceans of the Victorian era were multicultural places. People working on boats worked on whatever boats they could. If you lost a few key crew members to accident or illness, you’d take on people wherever you next landed. Crews were diverse.
And therefore we can confidently say that people with an option of shipwrecking off the coast of Hopeless, Maine would also have been diverse. We’ve populated the island with people whose ancestors came from all over the place and had no intention of getting stuck here! We’ve also kept it deliberately vague because we don’t have the knowledge to depict the specific experiences of people from around the world. It’s a balance to try and strike – inclusion but not trying to speak for people. We’re very aware that the publishing world lacks for diversity, and that representation matters.
We’re not good history, we’re wilfully anachronistic, and we like to play with things. But we’re still more accurate than the whitewashing.
Annamarie Nightshade is going to die. She knows this in her bones, in her toes. She knows this the way she know how to breathe. Annamarie Nightshade is going to die. Just not today.
Seeing the future is not a particular specialty of hers, but sometimes you don’t need to See. you just have to pay attention, and as a witch a lot of her job is paying attention. People are sick, the cemetery is full of vampires and O’Stoats, and they’re looking for someone to blame. Annamarie knows how that goes
She’s got tea on the hearth. She’s cursed Durosimi O’Stoat one last time. She’s hidden her broom in the attic, and tucked a bucket of seawater outside her door where it’s unlikely to be knocked over. Lamashtu is glaring at her. His tail twitches.
“I could just move you away from here,” he says.
“Oh, so they can burn me again next time?”
“You have no idea if this will work.”
“You have no proof that it won’t.”
“I won’t stay about to watch.”
“I’m not asking you to.”
The kettle sings. Annamarie reaches over and strokes Lamashtu carefully. He allows it.
“Keep an eye on Sal,” she says. He vanishes.
Annamarie waits until she can hear the mob approaching before she drinks the tea. It tastes sharp, and it burns all the way down. She doubles over, snarling, and collapses. She loses feeling in her fingers, in her toes, in her ankles. Her vision is beginning to blur when the door is kicked in.
She’s glad that her mouth has stopped working, because she’d have to laugh. Or cry. Or curse. Emanuel you fool, she thinks. The fog creeps in behind them, crawling into her house. Emanuel Davies is raving about purging the town, cleansing it of evil. Nobody seems to question that their witch is conveniently not struggling or cursing anybody.
At least if this doesn’t work I won’t feel anything, she thinks. She’s dragged along, head lolling. People are holding her, they must be. Torchlight gleams in eyes and she recognises face in the crowd.
Hopeless is small when it comes to people: that’s Incompetence Chevin whose broken leg she set last month. Josephine, who goes to church and prays and comes to Annamarie for preventative tea. Her mouth tastes dry, and salty. Something in her gut boils.
Emanuel yells something. His face looks like a horrible mockery, stretched and unreal. You stupid bastard, she thinks, not entirely without fondness. She loses feeling in her ears, and all she can hear is the mob roaring. It sounds like waves. It sounds like an ocean coming to eat her.
She can still mostly see when they drag her to the stake. She just isn’t paying attention because her insides are crumbling into sand. Annamarie is aware of the heat. In the same way she is aware of the smoke. Of the crackling around her feet. She is already burning. She’s just thankful her sense of smell is gone too: she doesn’t want to smell herself cook. Please, she thinks, please…
Outside Annamarie’s cottage, Frampton Jones stands very still looking at the mess. At the bucket of seawater next to the door, which bothers him for some reason. Something inside it moves; it has a lot of eyes. Frampton does not step nearer to the thing in the bucket. He instead finds a stick and gently pokes it. It steals the stick.
Frampton is looking for another stick when he hears footsteps and turns. The blind fishermans walks out of the mist.
“What are you doing here?” he wants to take notes, but, well, Annamarie was a friend of sorts. It feels crass.
“Job to do.”
“I can’t imagine there are any fish here,” says Frampton. Seth sighs. He walks past Frampton and goes to the bucket. Frampton notes that he does so confidently, with no indication that he doesn’t know where he is. He crouches by the bucket, and mutters. Frampton inches closer. “Hello Aunty,” he hears. Which makes no sense.
Seth picks up the bucket, apparently not worried about the whatever-it-is. He walks away. Frampton follows him, because the alternative is to stay here at the empty house of a murdered friend. He’d rather not do that.
They reach the sea. It’s chilly, there’s a wind, and Frampton can still smell smoke. Seth carefully empties the bucket into the water. Something goes ‘ploop’. Frampton feels as if an important thing has happened. Seth remains quiet. Water seeps into Frampton’s shoes.
“Well,” says Seth, “that’s dealt with.”
The two men stand there, Frampton looking for a horizon he cannot see and Seth, presumably, thinking whatever mysterious thoughts a blind fisherman has. The fog gets thicker.
“Come on,” Seth says abruptly, “I’ve got tea.”
Annamarie doesn’t hurt. She doesn’t feel anything that she can recognise. She shudders. There are voices. She knows them. There’s a gentle puff of power. A breeze. She shivers. She moves. She dances, oh! This is it! It’s like flying a broom, except for how it’s entirely different. The wind carries her up. She holds onto the power in the air, moves it. Pushes. Drifts across the island and over the sea in a thousand tiny pieces. Concentrates, and draws herself together into… something. A form. It’s different, yes, but who said change is bad?
She pulls herself together and drifts upward, up and up and up through the mist and fog and ah! She turns her face (is it a face? She has to hold it together. She’s ash and water and flakes of salt) she turns her face up and feels the air move through it, looks up and sees sky. She grins.
Annamarie Nightshade is going to die. Just not today. Today she changes. I’ll have to see if the island can still hold me, she thinks. It might. She might be more attached than ever before. But it’s worth a try, she thinks. And if it turns out she’s still trapped, well. She’s never been any good at backing off from a challenge. But first, there’s a monster in the ocean she wants to check up on.
Annamarie gathers herself together, all her little pieces, and soars.
This piece was written by the rather astounding Meredith Debonnaire. She is the creator of Tales from Tantamount and other wonders. We wish to thank her, as this is utterly wonderful and gave us many feelings.
Ever since the episode with the phonograph – described, you may remember in the tale ‘Ghost in the Machine?’ – Gwydion Bagpath had begun to register the existence of Philomena Bucket. Previously, she had barely caught his attention. As the self-appointed elder of the Commoners, his lofty position had rendered him far too busy to notice her. There had been beachcombing and salvaging expeditions to oversee. In addition to this, he felt that it was his duty to ensure that the Nailsworthy family were attending properly to the venerable elder trees that the community relied upon. Then there was his role as both chairman of the Gydynap Preservation Society and the Common Committee (organisations which met for a liquid lunch, twice yearly in ‘The Crow’). On top of these onerous duties was the business of standing around and looking important; the gravitas that his position required would not cultivate itself. But I digress. Gwydion had noticed Philomena Bucket and realised that, despite her pale skin and white hair, she was an extremely attractive young woman – that is to say, young by Gwydion’s standard. He was at least twice her age, but he was a widower looking for a young wife to comfort him through his old age and Philomena seemed to be perfect for the task. Philomena would be honoured, he felt certain, to be invited to step out with him, with a view to courtship and eventually marriage.
Blissfully unaware of Gwydion’s long-term plans, Philomena was happy enough (if not exactly honoured) to join him occasionally for a brisk stroll along the headland. As ever, Drury, the skeletal dog, would amble along beside her, sniffing everything in his path and chasing shadows.
‘Damned infernal creature,’ thought Gwydion uncharitably, seeing Drury as being less of a dog and more of a passion-killer. Of course, he would never voice this opinion aloud, knowing how fond Philomena was of her strange companion.
In order to win Philomena’s approval, Gwydion would use these walks to inform her of his many qualities. He would speak, at some length, of his altruism, his bravery, his generosity – the man’s virtues knew no bounds, at least in his own mind. Philomena, of course, was no fool and soon realised that she was being played like a fish on a line. She did not dislike Gwydion but the feelings he invoked in her were far from romantic – and she could never love anyone who displayed such obvious coldness towards Drury. She resolved, therefore, to find reasons to avoid these strolls. She would do this gently, however, to avoid hurting Gwydion’s feelings. That was her intention, anyway but being, perhaps, too kind for her own good, she left things too late and found herself, one foggy afternoon, in the position of being subjected to a proposal of marriage.
They had been walking towards the town when Gwydion suddenly dropped down on one knee and asked for her hand in marriage.
“I’m sorry Gwydion, but I can’t possibly marry you,” she stammered.
A pained look passed over the old man’s face and his voice shook.
“Your hand… give me your hand… “
“I told you no…”
“For heaven’s sake, give me your hand, you idiotic woman, and help me up. My back has gone and goodness knows what else. I’m stuck.”
Try as Philomena might, this was to no avail. Gwydion was well and truly locked into a kneeling position and no amount of heaving by Philomena could budge him.
“I’ll get Doc Willoughby,” she said. “He’ll know what to do.”
Doc Willoughby knew exactly what to do. He arranged for a couple of burly lads from the Common to come along and carry Gwydion, still stuck with one knee bent in the time-honoured proposal attitude, back home.
“Silly old fool,” the Doc muttered. “What was he doing down there, anyway?”
“He was proposing marriage,” replied Philomena, simply.
“Well I propose that he stops making himself look ridiculous and give up chasing young women. He must be seventy, if he’s a day.”
Sad to relate, Gwydion never recovered from this latest affliction. Even though he was eventually able to stand normally again, his joints were past their best and his life was never the same. To the relief of everyone concerned, he reluctantly gave up his committees and overseeing duties. The job of Elder of the Commoners was discontinued; most had long realised that elder did not necessarily mean wiser. It came as something of a shock when Gwydion realised that nothing had suffered for his absence and life on the Common progressed as it always had. Before many months had elapsed, he died, a broken man. Little by little the name of Gwydion Bagpath faded from people’s memories.
It was many, many years later that an American soldier named Dwight Eisenhower, (who, I am reliably informed, did quite well for himself in later life) revealed that he always carried in his pocket a copy of the following poem. It’s a pity that Gwydion had not read it…
A month had passed since Hank had wandered unwittingly into Hopeless. For some days previously he had been searching for the legendary Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, deep in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, when his path led him to a fissure in the rocks, through which daylight and wispy fog issued improbably.
Hank was tall and wiry, two yards of whipcord draped in buckskin. He had had no problem in slipping through the narrow gap, though persuading his bulky backpack to follow had been more of a challenge. Eventually he had emerged, blinking and somewhat confused into the daylight.
You may recall, from the tale ‘Dutchman’s Gold’, how Hank had met Philomena Bucket, who managed, with some difficulty, to convince him that he was not in Hell but in Hopeless, Maine, some two thousand miles from Arizona. Though he accepted Philomena’s assurances, to Hank’s mind, Hell seemed a more likely explanation, not least because of the presence of the skeletal dog, Drury.
With his usual generosity, the landlord of ‘The Squid and Teapot’ had given Hank board and lodgings in exchange for a few chores. While grateful, the prospector was keen to leave the island. He reasoned that if there was one path that could bridge two thousand miles in a hundred paces, there must be another and – dagnabbit! he was going to find it.
Hank said nothing of his plan to leave, either to the landlord or Philomena. As a token of thanks he left his pocket watch on the bar; it was a beautiful, antique half-hunter that he had won in a card game a few weeks before. For a man who had journeyed two thousand miles in twenty seconds, time and space had become irrelevant. The hands of the watch showed seven o’clock and somewhere, high above the ever-present fog of Hopeless, the sun was rising and attempting, with little success, to illuminate the island. Without looking back, Hank closed the door of the inn quietly behind him and set out for the Gydynap Hills, the place where his life on Hopeless had begun.
The path that wound into the heart of the hills was steeper than Hank remembered. A month of being relatively inactive had taken its toll on his stamina and despite the morning chill, he broke out into a sweat.
For hours he wandered the hills, desperately searching for something – anything – that would lead him away from Hopeless. Squatting on the damp ground, Hank gave himself time to get his breath back. The sun was low in the sky by now, ready to drop below the horizon, having given up all hope of penetrating the unforgiving blanket of fog. Stuffing his pipe with his last, precious, twist of tobacco, Hank scanned the area pensively, looking for some likely cave or feature in the landscape that would lead him away from this accursed island forever. There was nothing obvious, nothing that indicated ‘Arizona – this way’. With a heavy heart he was about to give up his quest when a barely discernible movement caught his eye. Dimly, in this half-light, he spotted a small figure tottering unsteadily into a cluster of rocks, no more than twenty feet away, its tendril-like arms and legs clutching more spoons than it could comfortably manage.
“It’s one of them weird things,” Hank said to himself. “Dam’ nasty little critters that walk along on cutlery.”
What was it that Philomena had called them? Spoonrunners? Something mad like that. As Hank recalled, one such creature had slipped into the doorway that had brought him here, just before it snapped shut. It could be worth following it.
By the time Hank had reached the tumble of rocks, the spoonwalker was long gone. A few yards ahead, however, a dropped spoon was lying on the rocky ground. Hank stopped to pick it up, noticing, as he did, the hole through which the creature had disappeared. Hank gasped. It seemed to be washed in a dim, green light which issued from somewhere deep inside the hill. This was hopeful! The gap unfortunately, was no more than ten or twelve inches high and of half that in width. Maybe that garish, unearthly glow was some sort of sign that there was a path that could get him back to the Superstition Mountains. Hank looked around for something to prise the rocks apart, but could find nothing remotely suitable to use as a lever. Cursing his luck, Hank sat down, leaned against the cliff wall and closed his eyes.
”Dagnabbit!” he said aloud, “What I wouldn’t give to get to the Dutchman’s gold mine.”
“And what would you give?”
Hank jumped up in alarm, not expecting a response. A tall, pale, almost cadaverous, figure dressed in funereal black was leaning languidly against the rock face.
“Jumping Jehosophat you gave me a turn,” complained Hank, indignantly.
“I repeat… ” said the stranger, firmly, “what would you give to get to the Dutchman’s gold mine.”
Hank eyed his new companion with some disquiet. From the outset he had been convinced that Hopeless was Hell; if that was the case, this fellow was probably after more than he was prepared to part with.
“Well, you ain’t having my soul, if that’s what you’re after…” he said, angrily.
The cadaverous stranger threw back his head and laughed. It was a hard, mirthless sound.
“Your soul… whatever do you think I would do with your soul? You might as well offer me your unkempt ginger beard or the ridiculous floppy hat that you’re wearing.”
Somewhat offended, Hank grew defensive. He was fond of his hat.
“Well, s’obvious I ain’t got nothing you want, so you might as well go before you get me all riled up and I do something we both regret.”
The stranger smiled. It was not a particularly pleasant smile but in that poor light Hank did not notice.
“How about…” said the stranger, in measured tones, “how about we come to some arrangement when you get to where you’re going?”
Hank was becoming suspicious that there was more to this stranger than he was telling. He had heard tales of what happened to folks in Hopeless after the sun went down.
“And you ain’t a-going to hurt me?”
“My dear fellow, why on earth would I wish you harm? No… no, I give you my word as a gentleman, I will cause you no pain whatsoever. This is purely a business transaction.”
Hank shrugged. If this character was being less than honest with him there was little he could do to avoid it.
“Alrighty,” he said, throwing caution to the wind, “get me to the Dutchman’s gold mine and you can have half of what I’ve got.”
“Wonderful!” exclaimed the stranger, giving the cliff face the gentlest of pushes, “then we’ll go straightaway. Follow me.”
With a faint scraping noise the rocks parted and the two stepped into the lurid green light of the cavern.
Hank had expected the road back to the Superstition Mountains to be rough and narrow. He was quite incorrect on both points. He found himself on a broad thoroughfare that meandered gently down through the belly of the hills. He was feeling better already. That green light – wherever it came from – seemed less sinister now and his travelling companion appeared to be decidedly light-hearted, despite his gaunt appearance. The only niggle that bothered him was the fact that it was taking a darned sight longer to get there than it had to come. A darned sight longer!
“Are we nearly there?” he asked, unwittingly repeating the mantra chanted by every child, ever since the earliest human migrations began.
“Indeed we are,” said the cadaverous stranger. “But first we must stop and eat. I have some particularly delicious cake that I’m sure you will enjoy.”
Hank took the cake gratefully. The stranger was right. It was delicious.
“Ain’t you eating too?” he asked suspiciously.
“No, I have a meal waiting for me at home. It would be a pity to spoil it.”
Hank finished the cake and they walked on for another mile or so. Suddenly the stranger stopped and pointed ahead.
“Look, look – there it is. The Dutchman’s gold mine.”
Hank stared into the cavernous space before him.
“Where? I can’t see nothing.”
“Oh you will.. you will. Here it is – yours to work for all time.”
The words flowed into Hank’s consciousness like a river of honey. He shook his head and sure enough, there was the mine, just as he had imagined. Thick veins of gold ran like ribbons through the rock and the ground was littered with nuggets of every size and shape.
“The Dutchman’s gold!” exclaimed Hank dreamily.
“Ah, yes, the Dutchman’s gold.” said the stranger, soothingly. “Look there are tools on the floor, picks and buckets – everything you need.”
“Everything I need,” echoed Hank in a flat voice, totally lacking in emotion. He bent down and reached for a pick that was not there.
Deep beneath the island of Hopeless, Maine, in a cavern wrapped in utter darkness, a figure goes through the motions of excavating gold from a mine that only he can see. Day and night he works, stopping only to drink brackish water and eat the thin shards of the mercifully nameless meat that is left for him. He has been told that it is beer and the best beef that Arizona can offer. He is content. His buckskin clothes are little more than tatters and shreds and his once red beard is now long and grey. Sometimes he sleeps and that is when they come to feed. The stranger told him no lies. There is no pain, no discomfort. Just a numbness as he unwittingly gives half of what he has. He is gradually fading and soon he will be no more than a wraith; only then will the illusion fade and the torment begin.
Killigrew O’Stoat loved mornings like this. As mornings go, this particular one was not exceptional, pervaded, as always, by copious amounts of chilly fog. The quality that Killigrew appreciated was daylight. It was midsummer and although very little occurred to mark the changing of the seasons on Hopeless, the summer months gave him the gift of being able to finish his work while basking in the semi-opaque dawn of another Hopeless day.
For three years Killigrew had been the island’s first – and self-appointed – Night Soil man. Being reclusive in the extreme, the anti-social stench, coupled with the nocturnal nature of the work, gave him the solitude he so craved. With his night’s labours finished, it was pleasant to rest for an hour on the rocky headland, listen to the waves breaking upon the rocks far below and allow his mind to wander wherever it wanted. On the morning of our tale, however, his reverie was interrupted by a sound he had not heard for some years; the barking of a dog. Although the founding families had brought a few pets and domesticated animals with them to Hopeless, these had not fared well, mostly falling prey to the many hazards – natural, supernatural and decidedly unnatural – that were (and indeed, are) the scourge of the island. The mere sound of a dog barking, therefore, released in Killigrew a wave of nostalgia. If there was a dog on the island he had every intention of getting to it before it met an unpleasant fate.
The little that was left of the life-raft had been reduced to matchwood, having been dragged over the rocks by two long, sinuous and suckered arms. Those arms were now wrapped tightly around the middle of the raft’s former occupant, a grizzled man in nautical gear, who thrashed around like a fish on a hook, fighting desperately to avoid being dragged into the creature’s lair. The source of the barking – a scruffy looking dog of indeterminate breed – dashed frantically around in impotent rage. Killigrew raced along the headland and down to the beach, leaping over rocks and boulders, careless of his own safety. To the Night Soil Man’s horror he could only watch helplessly as the terrified seaman was pulled, kicking and screaming, into a dark cleft in the rocks.
Yet another tendril-like arm slithered out and tightened itself around the frantic dog, who snarled and bit angrily.
Killigrew knew that there would be no reprieve for anything dragged into that lair. He had never seen any more than those serpentine, grasping arms but knew from experience that the nightmare that wielded them was a vicious killer. He had witnessed this before.
Gasping for breath, Killigrew threw himself heroically into the entrance of the cave, thankful that the gaping maw devouring the gory remains of its victim were somewhere deep in the lightless recesses behind him. Immediately, as if by some unheard command, the dog was unceremoniously dropped on to the ground and the writhing arms seemed to shrivel as they receded past him, back into the cave. Killigrew smiled to himself. His overpowering stench had, at least, served to save one life today.
The great curse of the Night Soil Man’s existence is also its blessing. The work is foul and the incumbent, though respected, is a pariah, avoided by all. The silver-lining to this malodorous cloud is that he is also shunned by every living creature ( not to mention the undead and the not-at-all-sure-whether-they’re-alive-or-no) on the island. There are, of course, exceptions but these, like the monstrous Wendigo and Pamola, the bird-demon of the Maine Indians, are as ancient as the land itself and don’t really count. Dogs, however, are the undisputedly non-mythological exceptions that simply adore awful smells. Every dog owner knows that their beloved pet loves nothing better than to inhale or roll in the vilest of things – and this is how the dog on the beach became Killigrew’s only friend and faithful companion.
It would be less than helpful if I continue referring to the dog on the beach as simply ‘the dog on the beach’; in future I will call him by the, frankly unimaginative, name that Killigrew gave him: Dog.
In fairness to Killigrew, he remembered that the hairy, bouncy creature with a leg at each corner and an exceptionally long tongue standing before him was generally referred to, in the English-speaking world, as ‘dog’. The constraints of his amnesia, however, prevented him from recalling that these animals would usually have a unique name bestowed upon them, such as Bonzo, Lassie, or possibly Spot, a useful attribute when summoning them for walks, etc. Fortunately confusion was avoided, as on Hopeless such niceties are not necessary; in the absence of any other canine competition, ‘Dog’ was name enough.
For ten short but happy years Killigrew and Dog were inseparable. If anyone spotted the Night Soil man – usually no more than a silhouette on the skyline – rest assured, Dog was at his heels, or chasing ahead in pursuit of a spoonwalker, or other quarry (which he always failed to catch). Occasionally Dog would wander off on his own, sniffing and snuffling around the island while Killigrew slept but always returning in the evening, announcing his presence by scratching at the Night Soil Man’s door. Those were the best years of their lives. Then one dreadful day, in late spring, Dog went for a lone walk and did not come back.
Killigrew was frantic with worry. He waited for hours, neglecting his work, hoping for the familiar scratching at the door that would tell him that all was well but it never came. At midnight, in desperation, he decided to go and look for his beloved friend. He scoured the island with a flaming torch in his hand, calling Dog’s name, his voice breaking with anguish. It was dawn when he found him, curled up in one of his favourite hideaways, in the shadow of Chapel Rock. At first Killigrew thought – hoped – that his friend was just sleeping, but the awful truth soon dawned. Weeping hot tears, Killigrew scooped Dog’s lifeless form into his arms and grief-stricken, carried him back to his cottage.
The Night Soil man could not bear to think of Dog lying in the bare earth, where his body could be exhumed by any scavenger who happened to pass. To give him to the sea would be as bad, or even worse. He needed to keep Dog as safe in death as he had in life – but what could he do? And then he remembered the sinkhole at the end of his garden. He had not looked into it for years. Though it would break his heart to do, it seemed the best place to let his only friend spend eternity.
With some difficulty Killigrew dislodged the capstone that had served to seal the sinkhole. He peered down into the depths, then fell back in astonishment. He dimly remembered having seen a vague iridescence, deep in the bowels of the island. What Killigrew was witnessing now was no faint glow but a green inferno, raging untold fathoms beneath him.
With a heavy heart, Killigrew picked Dog up for the last time, buried his tear-stained face into his friend’s neck and sobbed a heartfelt “Goodbye, old friend.”
With as much tenderness as he could muster, he lowered Dog’s body into the mouth of the sinkhole, then let it go, watching in anguish as Dog fell, for what felt like an age, into the abyss, down to the cold green flames, far, far, below.
Like a man in a trance, Killigrew knelt by the side of the hole for an hour or more, his gaze transfixed upon the final resting place of his only friend.
Replacing the capstone, Killigrew scratched upon its face a large letter ‘D’ by way of a simple memorial.
It was with reluctance that Killigrew strapped on his night soil bucket that evening. He went to work feeling more alone than he had ever felt in his life.
Spring turned to summer, summer slipped into fall and the days became shorter. Killigrew had taken to spending hours just sitting by the capstone, where he recounted to Dog his adventures and the gossip of the island. Then, under the cover of darkness, he would go to work, returning home, hours later, exhausted.
Killigrew had no idea how long he had slept. It was dark outside but night fell early at this time of year. The Night Soil Man lay on his bed, hardly daring to breathe. Something had disturbed him, something familiar. There it was again… a scratching at the door. It couldn’t be… could it? Killigrew dashed outside, half-expecting to see Dog, tail wagging and ready for a night’s adventures. But Dog was not there. Of course he wasn’t! Then Killigrew stopped in his tracks. The capstone had been moved and was standing on end, the scratched letter D clearly visible in the moonlight. He raced over to the sinkhole and peered in. There was some faint illumination in its depths but nothing like the eerie conflagration that he had seen when Dog died.
Sadly, and cursing himself for being a fool, Killigrew made his way back to his cottage slamming the door behind him. Someone was obviously playing a very cruel joke on him.
A short distance away, Hyacinth Jones discovered that her husband’s long underpants had been mysteriously removed from the washing line… and somewhere, out by Chapel Rock, a dog barked.
While attempting, without any great success, to map the island of Hopeless, Sophia O’Stoat believed that she had discovered her long lost cousin, Killigrew. It appeared that since his disappearance, over a year earlier, he had been living among the Commoners, who dwelt in the shadow of the Gydynap Hills. Sophia wasted no time in returning home and reporting back to his father – her uncle Caswell – who asked her to take him to the place where she had spotted Killigrew.
Like all who lived on the common, Corwen Nailsworthy was unused to receiving visitors. When a tall, gaunt stranger rapped at the apothocary’s door, the old man had no idea what to expect. He withered visibly beneath Caswell’s intense gaze.
“Is it right that you have my son, Killigrew, here?”
Corwen immediately guessed to whom the stranger was referring. Both the newcomer and the girl who accompanied him bore an uncanny resemblance to the strange lad that he had nursed back to health. Corwen invited the pair in, offered them a cup of elderberry cordial, and told the tale of Killigrew’s rescue and long recovery.
“His memory is completely blank, poor fellow,” said Corwen. “I had no idea of his name until you told me, just then. We just call him the Night-Soil Man.”
Caswell raised a quizzical and decidedly annoyed eyebrow. He had heard of the night-soil collectors of his own country. This was a job far beneath the dignity of an O’Stoat.
“It’s his choice totally, sir,” said Corwen hurriedly, sensing trouble. “Nobody makes him do it.”
“Take me to him, please,” said Caswell curtly, not entirely trusting the old man.
Caswell could hardly believe that he was looking at his son. He had always regarded Killigrew as being somewhat effete, given to indolence and too much romanticism. The young man who stood before him was sturdy and muscular, not at all like an O’Stoat. Besides this, he smelt like a cesspool.
“Killigrew? Is that really you?’
The young man stared at his father blankly; there was no hint of recognition in his eyes.
“I don’t know. That’s what she called me earlier,” Killigrew pointed at Sophia, adding
“And who are you?”
Caswell placed his hand firmly on the young man’s head and closed his eyes in deep concentration. The two stood motionless for what seemed to be an eternity.
Slowly Caswell opened his eyes once more and removed his hand from Killigrew’s head, placing it instead on Corwen’s shoulder. The old apothecary stiffened uncomfortably.
“You spoke the truth. I can never thank you enough for saving my son – the O’Stoat family will be forever in your debt. And now I’d like to take him home, where he belongs.”
Corwen’s heart missed a beat. He had heard of the O’Stoats. Rumours of their mystical abilities had been whispered in every corner of the island.
If Caswell had possessed a fatted calf it would have been slaughtered in Killigrew’s honour. As it was they had to make do with squid pie (this was, of course, some time before starry grabby pie had been invented). Sadly, despite his family’s efforts to restore his memory – which included no small amount of magical persuasion – Killigrew did not recognise any of them or have any recollection of his past. Nothing worked. A stranger in his own home, Killigrew longed for the solitude he had enjoyed as the Commoners’ night soil collector. Eventually his family relented and decided to let him have his way. They built him a cottage, far away from any other habitation, next to an old and apparently bottomless sinkhole, where few dared to venture. With heavy hearts they gave him their blessing to carry on with his chosen life. If you care to look into the history of Hopeless – or read the tale ‘The House at Poo Corner’ – you will find that Killigrew O’Stoat is recorded as being the island’s very first Night Soil Man.
You will recall from the tale entitled ‘Killigrew and Joliette’ that the Chevin brothers had viciously beaten Killigrew and left him for dead. You may well ask why they did not finish the job, once they learned he still lived. The answer is simple. By the time that everyone was aware of Killigrew’s reappearance he had firmly established the role of the Night Soil Man, going about his work under the cover of darkness, thereby guaranteeing his not having to meet other people. It is a life suited to the the most introverted, the most reclusive. The Night Soil Man, protected as he is by his malodorous calling, repels every terror walking the island – even the Chevins.