I looked at the first question on my list, and experienced a moment of panic. Back home, the questions had seemed perfectly reasonable, but after all the risks I had taken to reach this moment, they seemed trivial, shallow, and mundane. I dearly hoped that Salamandra wouldn’t find them boring.
“Ahum, erm,” I began. “Salamandra. What is your favourite colour?”
Owen laughed. “Seriously? You’ve doomed yourself to Hopeless to ask Sal what her favourite colour is?”
I shrugged apologetically. “They’re readers’ questions, not mine.”
“I like the question.” Salamandra smiled. “My favourite colour is daylight.”
“That’s not a colour,” I objected.
She blazed with sudden fury, her hair rising in an angry cloud. “Now listen, Scribbler. I don’t know how often you’ve seen daylight, but I’ve seen it about four whole times. That makes me quite the expert, and as such, I assure you that daylight is a colour.”
I nodded quickly, reminding myself that my job required me to be an objective observer. “Daylight it is.”
“It better be,” Salamandra declared with satisfaction. “Next.”
“Do you have a favourite book?”
Owen drew a sharp breath.
Salamandra’s face darkened. “I do, and the less that is said about it the better. Next.”
“Alright,” I said, scanning the list, seeking something less likely to cause offence. “This one is from Mrs Albert Baker’s Soup Kitchen in Lancaster, for street urchins and whatnot.”
“Does street urchin soup taste nice?” Salamandra asked. “It sounds prickly and spiky.”
“No, no, Mrs Baker feeds the urchins soup, so she’s always on the look-out for new recipes. She wants to know what your favourite soup is. To feed the urchins.”
“Ah, I see, to fatten them up a bit before serving them. That makes sense. Before your arrival, I would have said Owen’s kyte kidney soup. But I’ve changed my mind on that one, it’s bug chowdah now. Wouldn’t mind trying urchin soup though, for comparison.”
“That’s good,” I said, scribbling away. “As the ingredients for chowder will probably be easier to find in Lancaster than bits of kyte. The urchins are big fans of yours, by the way…”
Owen frowned. “There’s something I don’t understand.”
“Hush,” Salamandra said. “I’m being interviewed, don’t you know.”
“It’s about the interview.” Owen looked pensive. “Ned, you say you know me, know Salamandra. And more people do, because you were sent to ask their questions. How does that work, precisely?”
I was put off by his question, not expecting it because I assumed they knew. “Well, people buy the books…”
“Books?” Salamandra asked. “What books?”
“There’s books about us?” Owen asked.
“Well, yes. The Illustrated Adventures of Salamandra in Hopeless, Maine. Surely you…”
My voice trailed away as Salamandra and Owen exchanged a dark look.
“Must be that Brown fellow,” Owen mused. “And his missus.”
I knew the name of course, for who hasn’t heard of Tom and Nimue Brown? However, it seemed that there was potential turbulence ahead on our current course, so I deemed it wiser to know as little as possible.
“Who?” I asked innocently.
“Two outlanders,” Salamandra answered.
“Regular visitors to Hopeless,” Owen added. “The Aunties only know how they get in and out. They seem quite harmless; just wander about with sketchbooks, notebooks, pens and pencils.”
“Which is why I haven’t changed them into floating newts or spoon walkers,” Salamandra said darkly. “…Yet.”
It occurred to me that I might have got the Browns into a spot of bother.
“Truth be told,” I confessed, determined to take some responsibility. “When I write out your answers to these questions, it will be published in a newspaper, which people will hopefully buy to read more about you…”
“You’ve paid us,” Owen said. “That was the best meal I’ve ever had on Hopeless.”
“Bug chowdah,” Salamandra said dreamily. Then she furrowed her brow. “That Brown fellow better get us something nice to eat, or else…”
“There’s something else I brought for you,” I interrupted her, eager to change the subject. “A gift.”
When Salamandra opened the door, she barely glanced at me, focusing on Owen instead.
Although not any of the many warm welcomes I had imagined, I didn’t mind so much, as it gave me an opportunity to stare at her. She was simultaneously familiar, I had – after all – seen her grow and mature since childhood, while at the same time I realised I didn’t know her at all, as if she was a complete stranger.
Salamandra was clad in a dress made from strips of old bed sheets. Her long dark hair was a myriad of braids which seemed to have a life of their own, swaying this way and that, lending her a frighteningly Medusian aspect. She had a broad mouth, with sensuous lips, and compelling oval eyes, but the most fascinating aspect of her face was the animation of it, changing continuously to convey a kaleidoscope of emotions and moods.
Helter skelter, hurry skurry.
“Where have you been?” Salamandra asked Owen. “I was in dire need of something more compliant than lighthouse walls to fly stuff at.”
“I’m sorry to have missed it.” Owen apologized, scratching the side of his slightly hooked nose. “There was a Blood Rain…”
Salamandra’s eyes lit up. “Did you get there in time?”
Owen grinned, indicated the basket on his back. “Half a kyte kidney…”
“You’re my hero,” Salamandra purred. She turned to me. “I have no idea who or what you are. Please don’t be boring.”
I managed an: “Er”, as well as an “Um.”
“Er-um?” Salamandra asked, her mouth stern, but eyes twinkling. “Sounds medicinal.”
“A few hours ago his name was Ned Twyner,” Owen said, setting down his basket. “An outlander. Says he came to Hopeless out of his own free will.”
Salamandra rolled her eyes. “You should have taken him to see Doctor Hedley Case, not brought him to the lighthouse.”
“I’m quite sane, thank you,” I said.
Salamandra and Owen both raised an eyebrow.
I shrugged. “Reasonably sane.”
Owen addressed Salamandra. “I found him asleep in the loving embrace of a bed of snare-moss, where he decided to rest after barely escaping the clutches of tug-weed. He’s a scribbler, writes stories for something called the Brighton Gazette. Said he’s come to ask you some questions.”
“Questions?” Salamandra frowned.
“An interview,” I said. “If it isn’t inconvenient…”
“It’s inconvenient,” Salamandra declared at once. “I’m terribly busy…”
“I’m sure the china won’t mind if you turn your attention elsewhere for a while…” Owen said dryly.
Salamandra glared at him. “None of it complained…well apart from that goblin cup, that is. I mistook it for an ordinary tea cup. It didn’t like that at all. Nearly screamed my head off.”
“If you’re busy, we could make an appointment…” I began to say.
“Busy, precisely,” Salamandra said. “We’ve got to go catch us some lunch, I’m famished.”
I looked at Owen’s basket.
Owen shook his head. “Tougher than a boiled tree creeper. The kidney needs to be left to decompose for a couple of weeks before we can eat it.”
“Delicious when it goes all gooey,” Salamandra licked her lips.
I slapped my forehead. “What am I thinking?!” I patted my knapsack. “I’ve got enough for all three of us. From the mainland: Bread, cheese, dry sausage, and a pot of bug chowdah.”
Salamandra pouted. “I had bugs for breakfast. They tasted bitter. And bits of their shell got stuck between my teeth.”
Owen shook his head. “If that is what I think it is, you’ll absolutely love it, Sal.”
“We’ll save the time it would have taken you to catch lunch,” I suggested.
“So you can ask me questions.” Salamandra looked at me thoughtfully. “But what if you’re boring? Harder to send you away when we’re eating your food. And I do so hate tedious conversation.”
“He’s rather amusing, actually,” Owen said. “Trust me on this.”
Salamandra relented and invited me into the lighthouse, where I was led to a large table on which I began to deposit the ample contents of my knapsack.
“Courtesy of the Merry Tentacle,” I said proudly.
Owen fetched a few bowls, chipped plates, knives and a single spoon – which he clutched tightly. “We’ve only got one spoon left.”
I brightened, and fished a small rectangular linen bag from my satchel. “Ole Ted asked me to give you this. He said you’d appreciate the gift.”
I shook the little bag, which chinked merrily, then drew open the drawstring, turned it upside down to let the contents spill onto the table.
“NOOOO!” Salamandra cried out.
It was another Christina Rosetti moment. Even before the nine spoons in the bag hit the table, skurries appeared from everywhere: Falling from the ceiling, gliding in through a window, jumping from the top of a rackety cupboard, fluttering through an open door…one even gnawed its way through the considerable thickness of the tabletop.
I froze, staring in amazement as a fierce battle erupted between Salamandra and Owen on the one side, and the skurries on the other. All involved hissed, cursed, spat, growled, clawed, pinched, bit, and poked – as they fought for possession of the spoons. Salamandra and Owen were on the losing side, until a black cat – exuding sinister menace – came to reinforce them, allowing retention of two of the spoons. The other seven, along with the skurries, vanished.
“Thank you, Lamashtu.” Salamandra smiled at the cat.
“You’re welcome,” the cat replied.
“It…it…” I pointed at the cat. “It…spoke…”
Lamashtu glared at me. “I’m well educated, I’ll have you know.”
Salamandra scowled at me. “I don’t think you’re going to last long on Hopeless, Scribbler.”
“Three spoons in total now,” Owen said happily. He poured the bug chowdah into three bowls, then set the container from the Merry Tentacle in front of the cat, which sniffed at it cautiously, before beginning to purr loudly.
Owen held out one of the spoons to me. “Whatever happens, do NOT let go of the spoon.”
I nodded, wondering silently how many more blunders I would make during my stay on Hopeless…and what disastrous consequences might ensue.
During lunch, both Salamandra and Owen reminded me of the images of Hindu deities I had seen in a travelogue, all of them with a multitude of limbs. The arms and hands of my hosts seemed to be everywhere at once, reaching for bread, cutting cheese, and spooning lobster chowder into their mouths even as they wolfed down slices of sausage. They ate more gustily than Free Traders returning from a long, hard run over the English Channel, and demonstrated an equal disregard for table manners.
The chowder was particularly favoured. Salamandra used her index finger to sweep up every last remnant of the lobster stew from the sides of her bowl. Owen held his bowl upturned over his mouth, to catch every drop.
I was caught with indecision as to how to clean my bowl, but that was solved by Lamashtu, whose intense green eyes convinced me that I really wanted to push my bowl towards the cat so that it could lap at the remnants, leaving me to chew on a dry crust of bread – wondering sheepishly who got the better end of the bargain.
“Scrumptious,” Owen declared with satisfaction.
“Indeed,” Salamandra agreed, giving me an amiable look. “A most generous gift. I’m minded to be nicer to you, Scribbler.”
Taking that as my cue, I reached into my satchel, placed blank sheets of paper on the table, unfolded the list of readers’ questions I’d brought across the Atlantic, and dipped my quill into my favourite ink-pot.
“Very well,” Salamandra sighed. “Let’s have your questions then. I’ll do my best to answer them.”
Those of you who have read Volume 3 – Victims – will know there’s a silly bit where Owen and Salamandra are going to a party. Salamandra has always been good at illusions and likes messing about with appearances, so she dresses them up. I was vague with the script, suggesting that Owen’s might be more silly and less flattering. Tom decided to give Salamandra a distinctly Japanese look.
This caught Dr Abbey’s imagination, and below is his take on Sal in her party gear.
Of course it raised questions – not least being why Salamandra chooses to look this way at this moment.
There are outside the story reasons – that this is an aesthetic Tom likes, and that he has always wanted to appeal to a Japanese audience is most of it. Manga has been a big influence on Mr Brown and there’s a desire to offer something back. Also, this is how Tom does things – he draws whatever arrives in his head and then someone else (usually, but not always me) has to work out how that makes any kind of sense.
So, why is Salamandra inclined to look this way? Has she seen an image like this in a book? Was there a dream, or a scrying experience? Is there a slightly disturbing doll of her mother’s somewhere, wearing just this attire?
I don’t know. Maybe you do. If you are the person who knows how this story goes, please do get in touch and tell us!
There is an extra story to tell with this one, and on this occasion it is more about the materials than the image. That textured paper was my grandmother’s. I inherited her art equipment, and had quite a stash of paper and oil pastels that were hers. It’s been good putting the paper to use, and I’ve wondered repeatedly what she would make of this process. Hopeless is very different from the kind of art she used to do.
I’m fairly sure that some of the colouring materials used in this were from Dr Abbey’s family as well, and that it is a meeting of people in a rather magical way.
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.
I had a lot of conversations with Dr Abbey about child Salamandra as he started getting to know the deeper lives of the characters on our fictional island. It’s always interesting bringing someone new into the inner life of the books, seeing what is obvious to them, and what I need to talk about, and what new things are discovered in that process.
“How old is she in this book?” he asked. I had to admit that I couldn’t tell him. Her age is vague, reliably, for reasons.
It’s always difficult to know what to say when there are things in a story that are important, and you want people to notice them, but you also don’t want to spell them out. How old is Salamandra? Is she a physically small child? A precocious child? A magical child? What kind of child is she? If you’ve read New England Gothic, you’ll know that many of the monsters on and around the island are probably her mother’s children. What does that make Sal? What was really going on with her when she was thrown into the sea in The Blind Fisherman?
Who is she? What is she? These are questions at the heart of the story. I can encourage you to think about it, but that’s about as far as I’m ready to go.
In this image by Dr Abbey, we see child Salamandra as she starts to add wrappings to her regular attire. The strips of cloth have prayers, charms and spells written onto them and they are a form of protective magic that she builds up over the years until she has an entire dress of it. She is a grumpy child, and with good reason.
A very long time ago, I read a quote from Toni Morrison to the effect that often the most important part of a story is how we shape holes for other people to put things into. It’s an idea I’ve spent a lot of time with. The holes are where we write ourselves in, bring our own stories and experiences to fill in the gaps. The holes are where the collaboration happens between author and reader. Hopeless Maine is the project in which I have given most thought to the gaps. It’s also the only project I’ve done where a lot of people have responded by wanting to bring their own creativity to those spaces. It’s a truly exciting process.
Who is child Salamandra? She’s the awkward, unacceptable one. She’s the child who refused to be tamed. She is your lost inner child. She is the magic your child self wanted. She is the resilience to survive bullying and to overcome setback. She is herself despite where she came from, she is not simply a product of her parents. She is childhood rage and frustration, and a child’s keen sense of justice and fair play. She might rescue you. She might glower at you. She might set fire to your kitchen chair. If she whispers to you, listen carefully – she may have secrets to share, or demands to make.
This week I thought about the fact that I’ve never drawn anyone from Hopeless, Maine. I’ve coloured plenty of them. I don’t draw much – I’m not very confident in my drawing skills. There’s an additional thing that for me, these are Tom’s characters, and as I can’t draw them like he does, I haven’t ever really thought about me drawing them at all.
In recent weeks, I’ve watched Dr Abbey get to grips with the Hopeless Maine cast. He’s drawn all of the main characters, some of them repeatedly. There’s been a process of him figuring out how much of his own, more manga-informed style to deploy and how far to dig in emulating Tom’s style, and what’s resulted is something that clearly blends the two. It’s been amazing and educational to watch.
And it got me thinking about why I’ve never even considered trying to draw the characters from the books I am involved in creating. Seeing what Dr Abbey has done with the characters has left me feeling like I could have a go.
Art, like any other skill, requires time. Talent is nice if you can get it, but time invested in developing what you can do, is key. I am never going to put in the hours that would allow me to become a good artist, because of the time I need to invest in writing, and reading and other aspects of my life. But, creativity shouldn’t be just about being able to produce work to a professional standard.
So, here are my takes on a few of the Hopeless characters. I hope my sharing this enables other people to feel they can have a go too. We’d love to see your versions of our people.
Owen Davies, as he appears in The Gathering, back when his taste in hats was especially bad.
Salamandra in the grumpy, gothic early teens stage.
Melisandra is the monstrous mother of Salamandra, the main character in the Hopeless Maine books. Sometimes these things are just who and how you are – Melisandra’s mother was probably a mermaid, and not the nice sort of mermaid…
So here we have it – the next Hopeless Maine book cover, for the penultimate book in the graphic novel arc. We don’t know what happens after the final book and will worry about that when we get there.
At no point in the story itself does this image get explained. I thought I’d do that here, for the reading pleasure of those of you (you know who you are) who like to ponder the details.
Here we see experimental occultist Salamandra O’Stoat making protective magical glass for the light on her lighthouse. You will see some of this glass magic going on in Optimists, but not at this location. The reason she’s doing this, is to create a light that will drive back the fog. Or The Fog, if you prefer.
The colours of this owe to a version of Hopeless that pre-date my involvement. During one of those rare periods of his life when Tom overcame his fear of strong colours, he did a version of the lighthouse with complex rose designs in stained glass windows. He wasn’t working to deadline then and hadn’t thought about having to draw that design repeatedly. So this is a nod to that, without the nervous-breakdown inducing potential of the original design.