Tag Archives: Hopeless Maine

Dr Cornelius Porridge arrives on Hopeless, Maine

He knew he couldn’t run much further. His lungs burned with the effort and his teeth ached as he inhaled the dense, wet fog that seemingly blanketed every square inch of the island of Hopeless Maine. His legs felt like bags of wet sand as they carried him out of the thick woodland and to the edge of the granite cliffs that held back the Atlantic Ocean.

Realising he had nowhere to go he fell to his knees and looked down over the edge, towards the clamour of the water crashing against the rocks below. He couldn’t remember when he had started running or even how he had come to be on this cursed island. He just knew he had to get away.

The sound of branches being ripped from a tree focused his mind. He looked round to see the creature that was pursuing him. It was nearly eight feet tall, covered in furry, dark green and brown scales. Yellow eyes blazed at him hungrily as a blue, forked tongue licked saliva from its sharpened teeth.

“What do you want?” He shouted breathlessly at the beast. “Why do you constantly haunt my dreams?”

The beast’s eyes widened as it began to charge. He tried to get up and run, but it was no use. His legs refused to push against the ground. It was only when he looked down that he realised the ground was breaking away from the edge of the cliff. He scrambled forward, but it was too late. He instinctively reached out, succeeding only in grabbing a handful of dust, before falling towards the rocks below.

 

Doctor Cornelius Porridge woke with a start and stared, out of breath, at the ceiling. Blinking as sweat rolled from his forehead and into his eyes, he pushed the blanket down to the bottom of the bed and sat up. Despite it being the middle of January and no fire being lit, the sweat made his nightshirt cling to him as if it were a second skin. He looked around the room and realised he had been dreaming again.

He washed and dressed and as he was waxing his red moustache he looked at himself in the mirror and said, “How did you know it was a dream?” He stared at his unanswering reflection for several moments before putting on his greatcoat and top hat and letting himself out of the house.

 

When the steel tipped arrow thudded into his front door, missing his head by less than an inch, Porridge began to wonder if it was going to be one of those days. It wasn’t the first time someone had tried to kill him. In the six months since his return from a two year expedition in the Arctic and Northern Canada, there had been several attempts on his life. At first he thought the falling plant pot that had shattered by his feet had been blown off the high wall by the wind. Then there had been the horse drawn carriage that had lost control coming down Steep Hill in Lincoln. It was perfectly understandable that the driver had lost control. It was reckless of him to even attempt such a descent. It was strange however, that there was no sign of him when the horses had been steered away from him at the last moment.

It was only when he woke one morning face to face with the frothing mouth of a rabid llama that Porridge began to suspect foul play was afoot. Fortunately he was in the habit of keeping a loaded blunderbuss under his pillow for just such emergencies. It was as the beast began to chew the cud, getting ready no doubt for the first projectile of spittle, that Porridge grabbed his trusty weapon and let fly. The result had left a nasty mess on the curtains, but it was for the best he told Gertrude, his horrified maid.

Porridge pulled out the still quivering arrow and inspected the hole that it had made in his front door. “I wonder if his Lordship will lend me a fiver to get that fixed?” he mused. He turned around to look for the failed archer and noticed a group of people standing near the house. I wonder if they saw anything, Porridge wondered as he slowly walked over to the small crowd. As he drew near he could see that everyone had gathered around a woman prostrate on the floor.

“It was horrible,” cried the woman. “It was covered in green and brown scales and had yellow eyes like the devil himself.”

“Impossible,” said Porridge to himself. Shaking himself out of his reverie he stalked towards the prone woman. Kneeling down, he put his hand on her shoulder, “Did you say Green and brown scales?” asked Porridge. The woman looked at him and weakly nodded. “Yellow eyes?” the woman nodded again. “About eight feet tall?”

“You saw it too?” the woman asked. “It was horrible,” she re-affirmed.

“Impossible,” Porridge repeated as he released the woman and pushed his way back through the crowd. It was then, as he looked up towards his house, that he noticed the front door was open. He was certain he had closed it. He looked at the arrow in his hand. He had just locked the door when it had struck, narrowly missing his right ear. The door had definitely been closed. Also, it was a Tuesday. A fact in itself quite unremarkable, but Tuesday was Gertrude’s day off and she never came near the place if she didn’t have to. When he had left the house it had been empty, which could only mean one thing. Someone, or something, had gone in.

Porridge looked around in vain for a constable. “Typical,” he muttered. “Never one close by when you need one.”

He threw the arrow onto the floor and pulled a navy flintlock from inside his greatcoat. Gently pushing the front door open, Porridge stepped over the threshold and into the hallway.

“Who’s there?” he called, his voice croaking rather more than he would have liked. If it was a man he could dispatch him without any hesitation, but the thought of finally coming face to face with the beast that had been haunting him for the past six months had set his nerves on edge.

“I have a pistol,” he shouted. The affirmation engendering a firmness to his voice.

Porridge drew level with the door to the sitting room, it was ajar. He never left the doors inside open for fear of fire spreading. His mouth was dry and he could hear his heart pounding. Porridge had no doubt the creature was inside.

He drew breath and kicked the sitting room door open with a violence he hadn’t realised he could muster. The door crashed against a wooden bookcase. Porridge was showered with books as the bookcase wobbled in a most precarious way. A shadow darted from the window. Porridge instinctively threw out the hand containing the pistol towards the window and pulled the trigger.

A small hole appeared in the window as the small, lead ball flew into the street and shattered the glass of a nearby street lamp. Porridge’s attention was diverted from the window by a dull thud followed by a loud creak. He turned to look at the book case as he realised the massive oak structure and the several hundred volumes it contained was falling towards him.

His face paled as the realisation dawned on him that this was the end. Before he could draw breath the shadow fired towards him, hitting him like a cannonball in the midriff. Porridge slid into the hallway gasping for breath. As he managed to draw oxygen into his body he heard books falling, like leather raindrops, onto the floor. The books were followed by the crash of oak shelves as the bookcase shattered.

The sound in the sitting room faded into irrelevance compared to the sight unveiling itself in the hallway. A huge creature, a cross between a bear and a dragon, stood before him. Its yellow eyes glared at Porridge with complete puzzlement.

“I say old boy, what on earth do you think you’re playing at?” asked the creature, pushing the words through a gap between its two front fangs.

“W…what?” stammered Porridge.

“That firearm,” the creature pointed at the pistol. “You could have hurt someone.”

Porridge blinked as the creature flicked a thin, blue forked tongue at him.

“My pistol, I still have it,” said Porridge as he pointed it at the creature.

“It’s a single fire flintlock, so it won’t do any further harm unless you throw it.”

“What do you want?” gasped Porridge as he let the pistol fall to the floor.

“Well, a thank you would be nice.”

“Thank you?”

“You’re welcome. After all, I did just save your life in there,” the creature gestured in the direction of the sitting room.

“Save me? You’ve been trying to kill me for the last six months,” exclaimed Porridge as he struggled to sit up.

“Kill you? Nonsense. If it wasn’t for me you would have been dead six months ago.”

“What about the bookcase?” asked Porridge.

“You had far too many books on the top shelves,” said the creature. “When you kicked the door open with such force into the bookcase, even I wouldn’t have been able to stop it crashing over. Quite unnecessary if I may say so ”

“What about the arrow? That only just missed me.”

“Yes, it did, but it didn’t miss the Loxosceles reclusa on the door,”

“The what?”

“Loxosceles reclusa,” repeated the creature. “A brown recluse spider. Quite deadly and about to bite you. I don’t know how you didn’t see it. One bite and your bowels would become an unstoppable force of nature.”

“Oh,” said Porridge, not entirely convinced.

“What about the llama?”

“Alouitious?”

“Who?”

“Alouitious, the llama. I sent him to watch over you. Why did you shoot him?”

“He was rabid.”

“Rabid?”

“He was frothing at the mouth.”

“He wasn’t rabid, he was just a messy eater.”

“He had red eyes,” added Porridge.

“Yes, he’d been crying. His girlfriend had just left him. I asked him to do me a favour, I thought it would take his mind off things and you shot him. Talk about having a bad day,” the creature shook its head and looked at Porridge. “He was very upset and he’s not too keen on coming back either. After everything that’s happened I can’t say I blame him to be honest.”

Porridge studied the creature for several seconds. “What about the plant pot?”

“Ah, yes. Sorry about that. I did whistle though. Stopped you in your tracks.”

“So you didn’t push it?”

“No, why would I push it? It was the wind.”

Porridge looked slightly crestfallen, but rallied when he remembered the runaway carriage.

“Well, what about the runaway carriage? There was no driver and you were nowhere to be seen.”

“Ah yes. The driver had lost control. I managed to throw him off and steer the carriage away from you at the last moment. The horses seemed quite spooked, I can’t imagine why.”

Porridge raised an eyebrow. “There was no one driving,” he insisted.

“I didn’t want you to see me so…I hid.”

“Where could you hide on an open carriage?”

“It was my defence instinct kicking in. When I want to hide I become…invisible.”

“This is ridiculous,” snorted Porridge.

“How else do you explain the horses turning at the last moment?”

Porridge considered the question as he stared at the creature.

“Do it now. Become invisible.”

“I can’t,” said the creature with an indignant tone. “I can only do it when I’m startled or under stress,” the creature could tell Porridge was still having trouble believing him and decided to push on. “Anyway, the driver was an idiot. He should never have been allowed to drive a carriage down such a steep hill.”

“He wasn’t allowed. The City Magistrates banned all carriages from using that street because of the sharp incline.”

“The City Magistrates you say,” the creature looked out of the window before settling his unnerving gaze straight at Porridge. “Tell me Doctor Porridge, do you know where you are right now?”

“I’m in the City of Lincoln. In my house. In the hallway to be precise.”

“Are you certain?”

“Quite certain. Where do you think we are?

“Well, I’m afraid we’re not in the City of Lincoln and we’re certainly not in your hallway.”

“Of course we’re in my hallway,” said Porridge, unaware he was angrier at the creature’s geographical repudiation than he was in fear of its physical presence or intent. “Where else do you think you are?”

The creature studied the prone figure for several seconds before reaching out a muscular, scaly paw. Porridge shuffled back, but the creature grabbed hold of his arm and hauled him to his feet as easily as if he were a kitten and walked into the sitting room. Porridge followed the creature as it cleared a path through the fallen books to the drinks cabinet. The creature poured brandy into two glasses and offered one to Porridge. He hesitated.

“Take it,” the creature said. “You may need it with what I’m about to tell you.”

Porridge took the glass and sat in a large leather chair, satisfied that if the creature had wanted him dead they wouldn’t be drinking brandy together.

“How did you get back?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t follow,” said Porridge, the question taking him by surprise.

“The island of Hopeless Maine. How did you get from there to here?”

Porridge shuffled uncomfortably in his chair. In the six months since his escape from that dark, mist shrouded island he had often wondered exactly how he had returned. He had spent two years surveying Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in a small, hydrogen filled dirigible. During his last flight he had been caught up in a huge storm which had caused considerable damage. He was already losing height when the gondola was hit by lightning and caught fire. It was only by luck, or so he had thought, that he found land. The island of Hopeless, Maine.

“I can’t remember,” he said after a short pause.

“Let me see if I can help restore your memory,” said the creature. “You were undoubtedly drawn to the island by the lighthouse on the North shore. You actually crashed by a small lake on the South side of the island. I was being held captive in that lake,” the creature’s face altered. Porridge wasn’t sure if it was a smile or indigestion.

“There are squid in that lake,” continued the creature, “Who now think you’re a deity.”

“I’m worshipped by a cephalopod?”

“Not just one, there’s a whole village down there. We all saw you come down in a ball of flame and they thought you were going to liberate them onto dry land. Whilst they were distracted I made my escape. If it hadn’t been for your, very timely, arrival I may have been next on the menu. I knew I owed you my life so, when I saw your balloon…”

“Dirigible.”

“…Dirigible burning on the shoreline, I had to help.”

“So it was you who dragged me from the shore line and into the woodland?”

“Yes, it was,” said the creature. “The squid were about to come ashore and they would have undoubtedly dragged you back in. They do come out of the water occasionally, usually to hunt, but tend not to venture too far. As soon as you were safe I had to leave as they were rather upset at my disappearance and may have tried something stupid. ”

Porridge realised he hadn’t touched the brandy and took a large gulp. “This is all very interesting,” he said, wiping his lips with the back of his hand, “and I’m very grateful, but how do you get into my dreams?”

It was the creatures turn to take a swig of brandy.

“I have the ability to project myself into people’s dreams.”

“Why would you want to?”

“As I said, after your fortuitous arrival helped me escape, I felt I owed you a debt. But every time I tried to say hello, you ran screaming. So I decided to project into your dreams. It was only when there that I realised you are as clumsy when dreaming as you are when you’re awake.”

The furrow on Porridge’s brow deepened.

“They say,” continued the creature, “that if you die in your dreams you will die in reality. I think I’ve saved your life seven times in all. You’re a full time occupation Doctor Porridge.”

“So…” said Porridge, trying to collect his thoughts, “when I was last asleep, you were there. When I fell off the cliff you saved me?”

“Sort of,” said the creature, putting his empty glass next to the decanter. “Except, you weren’t asleep. I caught you just before you hit the rocks and you fainted.”

“But I awoke with a start. My heart was pumping,” said Porridge, the words coming out slowly as the truth sank in.

“No,” said the creature. “As you fainted you re-entered a dream state. I projected myself in and that’s when I saw the spider. Unfortunately, when I fired my crossbow I became visible and a woman saw me. I managed to take the key from your greatcoat and hide in your sitting room,” the creature looked at the fallen bookcase. His attention turned to Porridge at the sound of glass shattering on the floor.

Porridge was slumped in the chair, his shoulders rounded and his face as white as the morning frost.

“So…” he leaned forward in the chair, “…what you’re saying is…I’m still on Hopeless Maine. That this is just a dream?”

“I’m afraid so.”

The remaining blood drained from Porridge’s face and he fainted.

 

Doctor Cornelius Porridge opened his eyes and looked around. He was in a log cabin which was dimly lit by a small oil lamp resting on a table in the corner of the room. The door opened and the creature from his nightmares walked in. Porridge felt no fear.

“Ah, I see you’re awake. No ill effects I presume?”

Porridge shook his head. His body ached as though he had fallen off a cliff. He smiled at the thought and looked at the creature.

“So, this is real then? I’m still on this cursed island?”

“I’m afraid so. Many have tried to leave. All have failed.

Porridge sat up on the edge of the bed and extended his hand.

“Doctor Cornelius Porridge,” he said. “At your service.”

The creature extended its huge arm and its paw engulfed Porridge’s hand.

“Barnaby,” said the creature. “Pleased to meet you at last.”

“Tell me,” said Porridge, “why were the squid holding you prisoner?”

Something akin to a smile spread across Barnaby’s face. “Well,” he said, “that’s a long story.”

 

Written by S. A. Sanderson- author of Out of Time

Based on the Fictional person Dr Cornelius Porridge

Art by Tom Brown

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The Burn

A midnight stroll, paddling. The water is strange here, but I am stranger. It hisses from me as I wet my ankles, as it rises past my calves, vapour twisting into odd shapes that silently howl and disappear. I am almost up to my waist, but I am yet alight, flames submerged in elemental paradox. Small wisp-like things pretending to be fish play about down there, darting from the heat.
It is dark, but I don’t fear it. I provide my own light. This little bay all to myself, illuminated. I drag fingers through the shallows, little more than bone already, creepers of muscle. I look up at the moon with sockets almost vacant. My companion. My challenger. Does it seem different, here? Or have I merely spent so long inspecting its surface that I have begun to create the things I see?
And now, that familiar prickling on the vertebrae. I turn back towards the cliff-face.
Again, there is someone watching.
I washed up on this shore. I awoke to something slithering across my hand. It had burrowed away before I saw it.
I was cold. Naked. The clothes had burned from my back like they always did. I turned over and shivered on the sand, remembering the night. Hoping they had survived, the stupid mischievous lot of them.
The mast had been burning. The crew were running about. Someone screaming. And I was overboard.
I scrunched sand in my fist.
Stupid.
They tried to turf me out, once. The inhabitants here. I hesitate to say native, as I’m not sure anyone is. Gathered on the shore, tools and shovels, pointless anger. Or fear. Who knows the difference? They had their reasons.
Some of the mob waved at me with their implements and said “Begone or we’ll force you!”
I turned, opened my lipless mouth, and flame-tongued said, “Try.”
They haven’t come back.
It’s fortunate they don’t know where I sleep, during the day.
I took to swimming quite quickly.
By night, for one such as I, the perils of this island’s waters bear little danger. Things like eyes watched me pass in the dark. Some tried to do more than that. Tentacles and other, more indistinguishable appendages coiled around me, not quite touching because of the warmth, even down here, but probing nonetheless.
To their surprise, I had moved closer, right up to those maws, between the grasp of those mighty claws, looking into pupils the size of my torso. They had considered me, found me unappetising, and I turned away with a skull’s grin, feeling disappointment.
I became bored of those depths with similar swiftness.
“What are you doing?”
The words startle me. An answering flare of firelight. I turn towards the beach, and she is standing there. She blinks a little at my appearance, the light, but doesn’t move otherwise. This is rare.
I ask, “What do you mean?”
“It’s a pretty clear question.”
I hesitate, clearing a throat which isn’t really there. “Nothing.”
She tilts her head, frowns a little. “Sounds boring.”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
She frowns. “Why not? My beach too. Besides, you’re one to talk, standing there like yourself.”
She vexes me. I turn away, sighing out my frustration. It makes a little puff of embers that float into the night. “Are you just here to torment me, then?”
“Sorry. I’ve seen you here before is all. Just standing.”
“So you’re the one who’s been watching me.”
“Sometimes,” she says. “Hard to say whether it’s always been me of course, round here. Lots of beasties to do the watching, and some of them aren’t as polite as me.”
I turn back to her. “And you came down here anyway?”
“Yep.”
“What if I was one of the ‘impolite’ ones. What if I ate you, or something?”
She shakes her head, “Nah, could see you weren’t like that.”
“How could you tell?”
“You looked too lonely.”
Weeks on that vessel. Walking the same deck during the day, hiding myself away at night. Through sufficient palm-greasing and careful negotiations, I had secured my rather unorthodox arrangement. I was sure the sailors thought me eccentric. This suited me. They left me alone.
It was still dangerous, the safety of the crew and any fellow passengers a constant worry while I had the planned the venture. That was why I chose a smaller vessel, not a liner. I would not be culpable for disaster. In the end it was a necessary risk. I needed space to lose myself, somewhere where I could endure the burn without endangering a soul. I had a fantasy of losing myself in those great American plains.
Every dusk my cabin would glow with flickering light, lowering myself into the bathtub that had been installed within, a tried and tested method back in Islington. I endured the sniggering and raising of eyebrows with ease.
If only they had known how important it was.
I found only one marker of civilisation after I awoke. One small derelict house overlooking the bay, at the cliff-top. Things skittered from my shambling, much of what I found already damp and useless. But there had been clothing, at least.
Sure that this meant others existed here, I set out in search of sustenance. I found both. When I asked where I was, the people gave me knowing looks and grim smiles. “You’ll be from the sea then. Welcome to Hopeless.”
Somewhat fed, and no wiser about this place that had saved my life without asking, I saw the sun sinking, noticed my flesh begin to steam. I hurried away to the bay.
She comes again, often. Jessenia. Sometimes I am sat, hip-bones grating uncomfortably on rock. Sometimes I wander, footsteps searing the sand and the flotsam. Sometimes, like that night before, I wade out into the waves.
Talking is not always what we do. Just to exist with another while in my state is a painful luxury, a previously impossible thing. But this place is full of them.
She asks me. “Do you never talk to anyone?”
“No.”
“You can’t be,” she gestures, “like this all the time though.”
“No, I’m not. It’s just easier that way. People have become confusing things, best avoided.”
She snorts, “You don’t have to be on fire for that to be true.”
I smile at that, in my fashion. And somehow, she knows, and returns the favour.
The truth is, I don’t know how I feel. My intentions of isolation have borne unexpected fruit. Rather than bring me peace, it has given me time to stir things within myself. Fear of harm, the shame of being the other, and perhaps a little resentful bitterness, that they do not also burn. I could walk through their houses at night, leave them as charcoal.
I say as much.
“But you don’t,” is all she replies.
They decided to play a trick.
Returning to my cabin one night, already feeling the heat beneath my skin, I found my bathtub vanished away somewhere. I remember letting out an involuntary guttural sound, like a lost animal. And then I heard the laughter. Heads around the door, looking in.
I railed at them, but this only heightened their amusement. I felt myself grow hot, with embarrassment but also the promise of my curse. I grew desperate, pleading with them. They laughed in my face, a pampered baby.
Their expressions changed when the steam rose from my skin, when patches of it began to fry, then fall away as the flames built.
I have thought about them many times. I have changed my opinion just as many, but I still come back to the same thought.
I wish them to have lived.
“Why do you come here?” I ask of her one night. The critters wicker and rattle around us, kept away, I presume, by my light. “You must sleep, surely?”
She shrugs, “It’s not of much use to me if I’m honest.”
“Don’t you have things to do in the day? In town?”
“Nah. Never been there.”
“Why not?”
She grins, but it’s lopsided.
I found a cave. I wished not to exist somewhere obvious, or somewhere vulnerable to my nightly form. I would hide myself away. This choice proved to be shrewd, considering the locals’ views on me. I managed to fit a cot into the dankness, a small stove and some lamps, purchased from the town. I acquired some money, doing small jobs where I could, to keep my cupboards stocked.
I had no need of a clock or watch. After sleeping away most days, I would always be woken with enough time to vacate my new home. Thus I existed for weeks, only attracting unwanted attention with my strolls.
Until her.
Talking with her makes me feel human. I had convinced myself long ago that the word no longer applied. So I decided, a wavering hermit, to take another step.
“You know…” I begin, and falter. A man wreathed in his own fire. It is somewhere between senseless and farcical. “We could talk sometime… when I’m not…like this.”
She smiles gently. “That wouldn’t be very easy for me.” Even in the midst of the burn I must look downhearted. “It doesn’t bother me.”
I reach up, trace the line of my jaw, bone rasping on bone, tap fingers over my teeth in tuneless rhythm. “You’d be the first.”
“There’s always a first. If there wasn’t, there’d never be a second. That’s maths that is.” She cocks a brow.
“You’re odd.”
“Bang on lad.”
I am walking, waiting for her to appear. For once I see her first. She is standing up on the cliff, watching something. I dim myself, bringing my flames to a lull. It is a skill I learnt quickly but never usually exploit. Around the rocks of the cliff’s base I skulk.
She stands, the moon shining full on her, still watching, perhaps waiting. I’ve never noticed before, but up there on the headland she almost seems to be pierced by that lunar light. Shot through by moons-shine.
A time passes, and then she abruptly turns and disappears, obviously descending some unseen slope hidden from me. As her face turns my way, for that moment, I think I see the light reflect off her cheeks.
I return to sea and hide beneath, feeling strangely ashamed.
“That’s where you’ve been.”
I am emerging from the water, feeling like enough time had passed, that she may have gone away. I dip my skull, thankful at least for the lack of expression.
“What is it?” She asks, like some parent or teacher. She’s learned my pauses by now, the slight movements of bone and muscle remnants among the inferno. It is both strange and wonderful to be read when one is like this.
“I saw you earlier.”
She blinks, looks down. Where my stomach would be lurches. She sighs. “I was hoping to see him.”
“Who?”
Her smile is broken.
Above all, I deserve this.
People do things in a crack of time. They peel away part of themselves with an action, a dire flaw in their judgement. They clutch a certain logic which they revere as the only possible key. They destroy all else.
I have done such things. I have persecuted what I did not understand.
I hung a boy who didn’t deserve it. I was young and callous and filled with self-importance, a lack of understanding, no desire for it. I had found him poaching.
While he kicked and struggled for breath I locked eyes with someone in the crowd. A woman, staring at me with such hatred that it seemed like her eyes would boil me where I stood.
That night my home burnt as I slept.
I watch another boy now, younger than the one I put to death. He walks in file with a dozen others, all clad in the same drab colours, body and soul.
I catch the attention of a man who follows the procession. “That boy there,” I point, “What’s his history?”
The man frowns over spectacles. “A very fine way of asking such a gloomy question.”
“Please.”
He sighs, glances away to make sure someone else is still leading the children. “About, hmm, twelve years ago now, there was a shipwreck. Another shipwreck. We found a woman, washed up. Pregnant. She was barely alive when we found her, but she clung on until we were able to deliver her child, right there on the beach. And now there he walks.”
I stare at the retreating back. “Which beach?”
I am selfish, another truth. Here I stand, lamenting my grotesque and awkward existence, while others more deserving are robbed of the time they could have spent with those dearest. The reflection of my crime is not unnoticed.
Jessenia is waiting as I emerge from my cave that night. I feel myself studied. “You know, don’t you?”
I nod. “Yes.”
She nods too, says nothing more.
I say, “I’m sorry.”
She smiles weakly, turns away. “Don’t be. I’ve had twelve years to feel sorry, for myself. I don’t need anyone else’s apologies.”
There is a silence.
“I will try my best, to see he is cared for.”
She looks back at me. “You would?”
“Maybe, circumstances allowing,” I raise an en-flamed hand, “I could do it myself, one day.” Her eyes are beginning to shine in the moonlight. “Or, I can stay away-”
“No,” she shakes her head, bites her lip as one tear falls. “Thank you.”
“You should know,” I begin, unsure of myself, “I have done… terrible things. There is a reason for my curse. You may want me apart from him.”
She comes closer. “I know the person I’ve been speaking to. Whoever this man was, he must have been burnt away.”
I let out a breath I didn’t realise I had been holding. It gusts out as heat and fireflies. I start for a moment in shock, realising Jessenia is close enough to be set alight, but she is not.
She is moving towards me, fearless. I have not had someone so close to me in the night for many years. The flames move around her, through her. She does not heed them, has no need to. For the briefest moments they brush away silvery skin to show bone.
Jessenia puts her arms around my waist, her head to my chest, and again I find myself holding my breath. Carefully, as if she may break, I encircle her with my own.
Maybe, just maybe, I can find a way.
This lovely haunting tale was written by Tam Caddick, a new writer you should be keeping an eye on.  In fact, you can, right here.
Art by Tom Brown

Fire and Brimstone

The story so far…

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

The three men froze.

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

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

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

“Give me your shotgun” he said to Bowbridge.

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

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

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

“What the…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give ‘em another round,” he shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Art by Clifford Cumber

Hopeless, Maine Horrorscopes

Hopeless Maine Horrorscopes

Virgo: September may have been the cruelest month for you. You will survive it, but you may wish you hadn’t.

Libra: You love balance, which is unfortunate because the next few weeks will see your life spinning out of control. You have an above average risk of dying in an improbable, work-related accident.

Scorpio: This month, an illicit love affair from your past may come back to haunt you. Quite possibly in a literal sort of way.

Sagittarius:  This month is all about love and money for you. Beware of anyone offering you gold, as their designs on your body may not be what you had hoped for. Turn down invitations to mysterious gatherings and offers of hairy coffee.

Capricorn: You are made of bad ideas at the moment, and are the single biggest threat to your own life until after the full moon. Then your immediate family and neighbors become your biggest death threat.

Aquarius: Now is a singularly bad time to do any serious digging. Best ignore what other people have gone to the trouble of burying, even if it is in your garden.

Pisces: You should learn a new skill this month. How to stitch wounds, detect poisonings and how to undertake an exorcism would all work well for you.

Aries: Don’t get too excited. If it looks promising now, it’s just lulling you into a false sense of security.

Taurus: The stars have aligned really badly for you this month. You may start to feel there’s just no point to anything – and you’d be right!

Gemini: Beware of falling trees, tall, dark haired men who lack for hats, and surprise chickens.

Cancer: Shipwreck foraging will lead to splinters in your hands, and these will go nasty and swell up and possibly kill you, and if not you, your social life.

Leo: Keep asking the awkward questions and you will eventually get to the truth, although you aren’t going to like the truth in the slightest.

 

Words by Nimue Brown

The Game of Spoons

There are few who can claim to have been kidnapped by a dead relative, albeit one aided and abetted by Spoonwalkers but Julian Thrupp had achieved just that. Even on the island of Hopelesss, Maine, this is a comparatively rare occurrence and of those selected for the privilege, none had yet returned. Fortunately, Julian was totally unaware of this nugget of information as he sat huddled in the corner of a dark cavern. Ignorance is indeed bliss, for had Julian realised that the very caves in which he was sitting were infested by all sorts of ghouls, ghosts and vampires, the abject terror he was now experiencing may have escalated sufficiently to reduce his already fragile mind to something possessing all of the mental agility of a semolina pudding. Luckily for Julian it was still daylight outside and Night-Stalkers are not called that because of their propensity for wandering around and enjoying the sunshine. Even a ghoul has to rest occasionally.

Julian had been dragged to the caverns by a horde of tiny men wearing metallic boots; at least, that is what he believed. To begin with he had been temporarily blinded by the flash that occurred when he reached for the wraith of his cousin, Tobias. The rest was something of a whirlwind adventure, and now he appreciated how a spider feels, being whisked up into a Hoover Company vacuum cleaner, a trick that Mrs Bellpitch, his arachnophobic housekeeper, was wonderfully adept at performing.

Once his sight had been restored Julian was only able to hear his captors; he  had made a point of squeezing his eyes tightly shut, for fear of what he might see. This probably saved his sanity, as a malevolent glance from even a single Spoonwalker can incite madness.

 

Joseph Dreaming-By-The-River-Where-The-Shining-Salmon-Springs squatted on his haunches and examined the ground carefully for signs. He had no idea what manner of signs he was supposed to be seeing but it seemed to satisfy his six companions. It annoyed him slightly that there was a general assumption that, being a full-blood Passamaquoddy Indian, he would have an instinctive ability to follow the faintest of tracks over rocky terrain. He had been a trader for all of his adult life and had little knowledge of, or interest in, a skill that would pay few dividends when haggling with the proprietors of the various Speakeasies that he supplied. Today, however, that did not matter. He was content to play the role of the Noble Savage, bring honour to his people and hopefully impress the rest of the search party, especially Betty Butterow.

He suddenly remembered something that he had seen in a Tom Mix motion picture, while once visiting The Strand Theatre in Portland. To the accompaniment of dramatic organ music, an Indian tracker – or at least the actor playing him – had pressed his ear to the ground and was apparently able to ascertain all sorts of vital information from whatever it was that he heard. It was worth a try. Getting down on all-fours, Joseph planted his ear to the cold rock. There was absolutely nothing to hear. There was, however, a teaspoon lying close by, hiding in a small cluster of diseased-looking grass and not visible to the others. Joseph nonchalantly slid his hand over the spoon, as if to steady himself. This was a clue worth following up.

“They went that way, “ he said, pointing his finger to a spot vaguely south of them.

Everyone looked at the direction in which he pointed and while they were distracted he quietly slipped the spoon into the buckskin bag slung over his shoulder.

There was a general murmur of appreciation and marvelling at his skills as a tracker. Joseph, who was usually as honest a man as you might wish to find, blushed a little but consoled himself with the knowledge that this small deception pleased his companions immensely; far more than if he had just said “Ooh look, I’ve found a spoon!” All he needed to do now was to keep his eyes open. There were bound to be more.

He was not wrong. He surreptitiously gathered up each discarded teaspoon along the way and continued the deception that he was following the faintest of tracks. All went well until they reached the crossroads. Joseph scanned the ground but it was worryingly cutlery-free. He had to admit defeat.

“The trail grows cold here,” he announced. “I think maybe that this is where the Spoonwalkers split up. I can’t tell which party took Julian.”

After some hurried deliberations it was decided that they should split into three groups. Joseph and Betty would take the  east, towards the sea and where Joseph’s canoe was moored; Ebley and Dorian the south, where the caverns lay, while Isaac and Sebastian would go west, towards the far shore. The Reverend Crackstone, almost seventy and not as agile as the others, would return to the Squid on the offchance that Julian had found his way back unaided.

 

Joseph and Betty stood on the rocks by the little sheltered cove where the trader had left his canoe. Human logic would play no part in deducing where the Spoonwalkers might have left the Englishman, so for want of a better plan they agreed to hunt for Julian among the network of inlets and shallows that marked the eastern shore. This was as good a place as any to begin.

Joseph was feeling pangs of guilt for deceiving the girl he had grown to love.

“I need to confess something that I have been concealing from you…”

“I could say the same” Betty smiled. “There is something you need to know about me – but you first.”

Sheepishly the Indian reached into the buckskin bag and pulled out a handful of teaspoons.

“I can’t track,” he admitted. “I just followed a trail of discarded spoons.”

Betty laughed. Joseph had the distinct impression that she already knew.

“Now my turn. Stay where you are, say nothing and watch,” she said and unfurled something resembling a grey rug that had been stowed in her knapsack, then started to strip off her clothes.

The two had secretly been lovers for some months and Betty had long stopped being shy in front of him but this was a new departure. Joseph looked around nervously, hoping no one was there to see.

When she was completely naked and her clothes safely stowed in the canoe, Betty draped the rug over her shoulders and stepped daintily over the rocks and into the sea. She shuddered as the icy cold water lashed around her legs.

Joseph found it disconcerting as he watched her descend deeper into the angry water. His instinct was to pull her back from this foolishness but trusting what she said he did as she had asked.

Betty had disappeared beneath the waves for longer than he liked. Deciding something had gone very wrong the Indian cursed himself for not having acted earlier and resolved to go in after her. He had only waded into the water for a few feet, however, when the surface was broken by a harbor seal. Joseph had seen this creature before on several occasions. It had often swum with his canoe during his trips to and from the island. The seal nuzzled his legs, then swam towards the canoe, obviously inviting him to follow. Then the truth dawned upon him and took his breath away. Joseph knew of shape-shifters but had not knowingly met one, that is until now. He had never suspected that Betty was a seal-woman and his secret guardian. Joseph knelt in the icy water and wrapped his arms around the seal’s strong body, buried his face in her fur and breathed in her musky, salty tang. For reasons he could not explain tears welled in his eyes. So many things suddenly now made sense.

 

Bill Ebley picked up a discarded teaspoon and his heart dropped. He and Dorian Bowbridge were standing in the yawning gash that marked the entrance to the caverns. They peered into the dark depths with some trepidation. Ebley recalled Colonel Ruscombe-Green’s experience when they first landed on the island. He had been dragged into the caverns by a ghoul and only escaped with his life when Elmer Bussage, the Night Soil Man at the time, arrived waving a flaming brand, keeping the Night-Stalkers at bay. Ebley related the events to Bowbridge, who tipped back his pith helmet thoughtfully.

“We could take some combustible material into the caves with us,” he suggested, “but do we have the means to light it?”

Ebley fumbled in his jacket pocket and produced a box of matches.

“As long as we find Mr Thrupp while it’s still daylight we should be fine. Just in case though, I’ve still got a few of the lucifers left that Joseph brought over.” ‘Lucifer’ was soldier slang for a match  and still very much a part of Ebley’s vocabulary.

“Splendid- and I have an electric torch in my knapsack which we can use to find our way,” declared Bowbridge, then added, “but what will we use as fuel for the flames?”

Ebley looked about him. All was barren rock as far as the eye could see.

“We’ll have to make the best of what we’ve got. I hope you packed some spare clothing.”

Bowbridge looked aghast at the thought of them burning their clothing.

“Let’s get this over with,” he said, slipping his shotgun from his shoulder. With that the two men made their way into the dark heart of the caverns.

 

The Lypiatts had drawn a total blank. There had been no sign of Julian Thrupp on the western shore and if he was somewhere out on the ocean they had no way of getting to him. The sea-fog was rolling inland and getting thicker by the minute. Sebastian decided that their best course of action would be to return to the crossroads and wait for the others.

They had been there for little more than fifteen minutes before Joseph and Betty arrived. They too had been defeated by the sea fog.

Sebastian looked at Joseph. The man looked soaked to the skin, as if he had fallen out of his canoe.

“Did you find any more spoons along the way?” He asked

“No. You?” Joseph was not one to waste words.

Sebastian shook his head.

“It looks as though they’ve  taken him to the caverns.”

The Indian’s face was grim, but he said nothing.

Suddenly Betty blurted out,

“Does anyone else think it’s getting dark?”

The four of them cast their eyes towards the skies.

“What’s the date today?” asked Joseph uneasily.

Betty knew that tone to his voice and it

worried her.

“June the twenty-ninth. Why?”

“It’s been in all of the papers on the mainland. Today there will be a total eclipse of the sun. For a while there will be absolute darkness” replied Joseph, “which means…”

The four looked at each other. It was Isaac who broke the silence.

“Even in the deepest caverns the Night-Stalkers will wake; they will know that there is no sunlight. It’s happened before… Bill and Mr Bowbridge are in a lot of trouble!”

“So are we,” said Betty. Just a few yards away, some unseen creature effortlessly shifted the large rock that concealed its lair. The friends stood aghast as three long and many-suckered tentacles slithered ominously towards them in the dying light…

 

To be continued…

Art by Tom Brown

Tentacoils

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

Above the storm, a voice sang fell

 A knell, if not a note in tune,

But th’ wind did snatch the words away

 And left my soul in swoon.

 

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

 

 

“Beware the tentacoils!” it sang

“Beware the stinging succubus

The eyes that glow, the shades that grow,

And demons of the dust!”

 

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

 

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

 

And so a while I’ll linger on

To wander Hopeless in a daze

And bathe my soul in demon song

For all remaining days…

 

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

 

Words by Lou Pulford.

Art by Tom Brown

Goodbye Hopeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely

J W Ruscombe-Green (Col.)

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

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

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

Art by Tom Brown

The Asylum Vendetta

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

Help Wanted:

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

 

Services offered:

Airship windows cleaned (tethered ships only) Polished portholes.

Tree herder. Any trees herded except pine.

Pine tree herder. No other trees herded.

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

Wanted:

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

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

Wanted: Metal neck brace, preferably coated in garlic.

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

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

Wanted: A bigger boat.

 

Lost and found:

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

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

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

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

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

Found: Feathers, 4ft long red and blue.

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

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

Found: Smaller boat.

Lonely hearts:

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

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

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

 

 

The Supper Guest

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Thrupp staggered away, muttering curses and vowing revenge.

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

 

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

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

“Go away, I’m closed.”

The knocking continued.

“Didn’t you hear? I said I’m closed.”

More knocking.

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

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

The blood drained from his face.

“Wh..what do you want?” he stammered.

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

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

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

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

He whimpered with pain and fear.

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

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

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

“Don’t let them kill me,” he begged.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Art by Tom Brown

The Hopeless, Maine arts and crafts movement.

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

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

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