The Spider Cliff Mysteries

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A Tentative Solution to Story 8: The Gondola Cypher

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A Tentative Solution to Story 8: The Gondola Cypher

Posted by FFWF, 1:29pm, 10 Oct, 2015

It has been over nine years since Story 8, “The Gondola Cypher,” began its hiatus. I still hold out hope that one day we will learn the truth, and perhaps even see this amazing series resume, but in lieu of any guarantee of such a thing, I thought it was about time somebody put down a full and plausible solution to the story – the sort of solution that could stand for another nine years if necessary, or indefinitely. This story has tormented me, but at last I chose to return to Spider Cliff, reread all the chapters, and then return to Story 8 with a completely blank slate. I took extensive notes, documented all clues and many other background details, and wrote a detailed analysis of the material available so far. In writing this analysis, several points arose which have yet to be posted on the forums, some of which appear to me to be quite decisive. In the following analysis, I will pose eight key questions, and provide answers to them which will range from highly credible to conclusive.

If you wish to skip my lengthy thoughts on the matter, I have posted a brief summary of my answers to the big questions at the bottom of this document; if you choose to read on, I will dwell expansively on the following questions, which I consider the integral ones to the story. Thank you for your attention.

1. What is the story’s theme?
2. Who is leaving the messages?
3. Who helped the demon into town?
4. Who cut the gondola cable?
5. How did the gondola passengers die?
6. How do the Smoggy Woods work?
7. Who is the woman in the woods?
8. Where was the story going to go next?

WHAT IS THE STORY’S THEME?

The theme of the story has to do with boundaries – respecting them and transgressing them. This applies not just to locations but also to personal roles.

The story opens with Annabelle talking about her inability to communicate her feelings to Alex, having even gone so far as to write love letters to him – a situation which clearly parallels the passing of secret, unreadable messages around the town later in the story. We’re asked whether a zombie can love, or whether Alex is in denial of his own feelings, and these ideas are caught up in the town’s senses of what it is proper for an individual to feel and whether a mortal-zombie relationship is appropriate. Should they be together, and what is the proper way for them to bridge that gap or not to bridge it?

You can say the same thing about the relationship between a demon-hunter and a demon, one which is perfectly balanced; each of them needs the other, the demon-hunter to be relevant, the demon to be answerable. The most recent chapter – the last, for now – of the story concerns Barlow and Crystal, both on the right track, being asked to switch roles to take on investigations that they might be more suited to. Once again, they’re asked to step outside of their comfort zones and their chosen roles, and to respect and trust another person. Think also of the fog poppies in the Smoggy Woods, which can’t survive for long in direct sunlight; there’s a question of belonging and the right place for something to be.

Ultimately, this all extends to the gondola project itself, which aimed to bring Spider Cliff into closer contact with Sprawling-Mossville and the outside world. The project was sabotaged, and I think it’s a fair bet it was done by somebody with very strong opinions on the propriety of that relationship, but it’s a case of one person using unnatural means to force the issue. I’d like to suggest that the building of the gondola system is comparable to Annabelle using a love potion to win Alex; it’s an unnatural violation of a boundary that is dangerous to interfere with. Likewise, I would suggest that the severing of the gondola cable is much like the application of an anti-love potion – an equally dramatic and unnatural attempt to force the issue.

One of the themes of Spider Cliff overall, I think, is respect for people you don’t understand. Crystal, Annabelle, and Turnip exemplify this; they have close relationships with some of the townsfolk who respect them despite their not being human, but others in the town have much more negative views on them – Alex’s disgust with the supernatural, the sheriff’s hatred of a preternaturally intelligent paper mammal, Eliza’s complete denial of both. In the end, I think that we, as readers, are asked to respect the personhood of all three of these individuals. This suggests to me that the solution to the mystery is, ultimately, not a xenophobic one, about outside dangers. But it might be about the paranoid fear of outside dangers, and the extreme measures people are willing to go to guard against them. Don’t go looking for answers to the mystery which involve the supernatural and outside dangers, but rather for answers about human beings making mistakes.

WHO IS LEAVING THE MESSAGES?

We have three messages so far: One burnt into the side of the retrieved gondola on the edge of town; one chalked onto a wall in town; one also burnt onto a wall in town. I don’t think we’re in a position to fully explain the circumstances of all of these, but I think it’s pretty obvious by now who wrote each of them.

I assume we’re all familiar by now with the Sprawling Code and how to decipher it, but I’ll go over it again anyway. Take the sign outside the Lazeby Sprawling paper mill, all three lines of it, and write them out in sequence; that’s your code key. The highlighted letter to the side of the coded message tells you where to start writing out the alphabet in order against the key – so, if the highlighted letter is X, you write A above the first X in the sequence, and go on from there, striking out duplicate letters from that point (so in this example, you strike out the O in FOUNDED, because you’ve already had an O in XPORTS). You should be left with twenty-six letters matched to twenty-six letters. Once you have the whole alphabet mapped out, you simply match the letters in the coded message to the letters in the key phrase and read up for the corresponding letter – so in this example, X reads up to A, and for that matter, O would read up to C. This gives us the following messages, the authorship of which I’ll discuss in order:

1. BEWARE DEMONS MUST STOP GONDOLA REPAIR DESTROY BOOKS

Why would somebody need to ask for the books to be destroyed? Because they cannot operate in the town themselves. The gondola documentation was left out in the open in the public archives, so anyone should’ve been able to walk in and grab them; Eliza, the sheriff, Turnip, even Annabelle, since all the dried bumberberry had been torn down earlier by Crystal. This instantly rules out the entire known cast. Added to this, Rebecca spoke to everyone in town about the first message, and nobody seemed to be lying about not having written it.

To address two possible objections: Rebecca, obviously, can’t prove that she’s telling the truth herself – but remember, Crystal’s airtight alibi for having written the first message was that she was with Rebecca the whole time, so by extension Rebecca couldn’t have done it. Rebecca did introduce the possibility of a powerful witch causing skeletons to move, but witchcraft as presented so far does not seem capable of allowing her to, in front of another person and without it being remotely noticeable that she was doing anything, control a skeleton to write a complex message by burning it. Added to this, Rebecca has no known reason to know the Sprawling Code. As for Turnip, his vulnerability to fire, as a paper mammal, means he couldn’t have burnt the books himself – but he also wouldn’t have left the burnt message, either; he couldn’t have risked the miniature acetylene torch, even if he did steal it. With that said, I think there is a real possibility that he acquired it on behalf of the real messenger: The woman in the woods.

I’ll discuss the woman’s identity a bit later, but the relevant points here are as follows: The woman doesn’t seem willing to venture out of the thick fog of the Smoggy Woods, and she flees at the approach of anyone other than the sheriff. Her only means of safely communicating with the outside world other than “hope that the sheriff randomly turns up” is to leave a message like this. Granted, the gondola was on the edge of the woods at the time – but that just shows that she was desperate. In other words, assuming that the woman in the woods is responsible also tells us that she had a very strong motive.

As for, indeed, the woman’s motive: For what it’s worth, “BEWARE DEMONS” is almost certainly a scare tactic. At the start of the story, Alex’s demon-detector points towards the Smoggy Woods, but there’s something he forgot: His demon-detector is attached to a weather vane. The sheriff states on the day of the fogtide that wind from the town is presently blowing the fog farther out into the woods than normal. The weather vane wasn’t pointing to the woods because of demons, it was pointing to the woods because the wind was blowing out into the woods. Also, shouldn’t the demon-detector just be pointing to Crystal all the time, anyway? Clearly it doesn’t work at all. The woman’s actual motive, I believe, is to protect the gondola station in the woods, which I suspect she has made into her home and safe haven. She simply doesn’t want her privacy to be disturbed. (Although the gondola station may also hold some secret shame she doesn’t want anyone to know about, relating to the doom of the Sprawlings.)

2. DID AS ASKED AWAITING NEWS

Who knows more about the history of Spider Cliff than anyone? Alex. Who has comprehensive knowledge of Katharine Ivy Sprawling’s diary, as indicated by the fact that he was so dismissive of its contenst? Alex. Who had access to the gondola documentation and indeed discovered that it had gone missing? Alex. Who, immediately after the discovery of the first message, started ranting about warnings of demon invasions and changed his mind about going forward with the gondola project? Alex. The second message has Alex written all over it and he frankly might as well have just put his signature on it; he’s the most likely person to have understood the first message, the most likely to have acted on it, and the most able to have acted on it. Oh, and by the way, the second message appears to be written in chalk, and Crystal and Annabelle discover right afterwards that the Revolving Spider Diner’s blackboard is missing its chalk, so that’s another reason to be looking at the family which owns the diner.

By extension, Alex is probably responsible for putting Elkwood’s skeleton in Barlow’s room, and also for the Hatchetpaws red herring in Vedalia’s secret study (more on Hatchetpaws later). It seems like his style, frankly; executed sneakily, but not even remotely subtle in its effects. He has a lot of respect for the town and its traditions, but is in no way above subverting them in some way if he thinks it’s for the greater good; compare to him creating the illusion that the Mayor’s urn had been stolen in Story 2, which I think isn’t dissimilar to shuffling Elkwood’s skeleton about if he believed it would protect the town. It’s fully credible that he could sneak around the Bean mansion without being noticed; he has some experience of sneaking around with Annabelle anyway.

One thing I do think is clear, though, is that Alex doesn’t know who wrote the first message. He left his reply on a random wall in town; if the message was written by someone in the woods, or even by Elkwood’s skeleton, there’s not much chance of either of them reading Alex’s response. But I think his motive is clear: The first message was a message from the past for somebody with great knowledge of Spider Cliff’s history and great caution of demons. He would take the message completely seriously.

3. DANGER LOVE POTION IN PASTRY

The handwriting of this message appears to be the same as that of the first, but I think this is a red herring we shouldn’t pay much attention to; let’s just say that the writer attempted to imitate the handwriting of the first messenger.

Who knew that the love potion was in the pastry? I’m going to rule out “someone spying on the situation who we don’t know about,” as that’s something we have no proof for and can’t guess. That leaves us with Crystal, Annabelle, and Rebecca. The first two I think we can pretty easily rule out as it was their plot and they wouldn’t leave a warning. Rebecca, on the other hand, had just been told exactly what was going on by Crystal, had seen Crystal decode an example of Sprawling Code right in front of her, and then proceeded to drop a huge hint on how to decode Sprawling Code more generally. Rebecca also has an obvious motive for warning the intended recipient of the pastry: Alex, her son.

I think Rebecca understood the code after seeing Crystal’s demonstration, and also suspects that Alex is the second messenger, or the one who obeyed the first message, at least. The third message is her warning to her son, but also a test for him, to see if he takes the warning and therefore understands the Sprawling Code. She’s checking her suspicions. I’m grateful that she did, as in doing so she proved that Alex was the second messenger: We subsequently learn that Alex did somehow know about the love potion in the pastry and swapped it for another, harmless one in the freezer at the diner. The only way Alex could have known, given the speed with which Annabelle swooped upon him with the love potion pastry, is if he decoded the third message on the spot.

WHO HELPED THE DEMON INTO TOWN?

There’s only one person who it could have been, but there’s no evidence of a clear motive yet – although some of the circumstances are a little suggestive. But first, one important fact to establish: The bridge was down at the time of the gondola disaster.

This leaves us with a situation where there is no way in or out of town at the time of the gondola disaster except for the gondola system itself. However, the first launch of the gondola was simultaneous with the demon’s attempt to destroy Spider Cliff; thus the demon got into the town without the gondola system. We are also told that the demon in question is a weaker demon, normally a child-stealing rather than assassinating one, and would have required inside assistance to get into town. I rule out the possibility, therefore, of the demon having individually crawled along the cable or anything. No, we must look instead to the means by which the gondola system was built: By ferrying workers to and from the woods station in a dirigible. Incidentally, the fact that a corresponding gondola station, connected to the woods station, was built in Sprawling-Mossville indicates that the dirigible also ferried workers between the woods and Sprawling-Mossville. Conclusion: The dirigible was the only means of transport between the outside world and Spider Cliff at the time. Therefore, the demon entered Spider Cliff by way of the dirigible.

Who was in charge of the dirigible? This issue is only raised once, and when it is, the answer isn’t outright stated; we’re merely told that the designer of the gondola system was also an accomplished dirigible pilot who ferried workers out to the woods station. But who is the designer of the system? We’re told repeatedly and very clearly: Hannibal Monoculous Bath, one of the partners in the whole gondola project, though he contributed none of the finances owing to his depleted personal fortunes. Is it possible to sneak onto the dirigible and be smuggled between stations? Yes, because the sheriff did it when he was a child… but was caught almost immediately by none other than Hannibal Monoculous Bath. So Hannibal knew about the hiding-places on his own dirigible.

It was Hannibal Monoculous Bath. It had to be. There was no way of getting into Spider Cliff at the time of the gondola disaster without his assistance. He owned and operated the only means of getting into town, and if anyone had tried to sneak in without his permission then he would have known about it. The only possible answer is that he actively assisted the demon’s entry into town.

Of course, while I’m very sure that this theory is correct, what motive could be possible? Well, we’re looking at a weaker demon, who needed help to get into town; does this really sound like the kind of demon who would have been successful in destroying Spider Cliff? I think the demon was a distraction intended to keep Vedalia Bean off the scene of the gondola launch – such that she’d be unable to comment on the possibility of demonic interference in the sabotage of the gondola, much less prevent the whole incident. It was a precaution, in other words, but naturally this sheds some light on a couple of related matters…

Following this chain of logic, if Hannibal let one child-stealing demon into town, why not another? A child-stealing demon also stole the child of Elkwood and Katharine Ivy Sprawling. Could Hannibal have been conspiring for years to get rid of the Sprawlings and seize their wealth? Let’s turn to the next question to give us our answer…

WHO CUT THE GONDOLA CABLE?

I’m going to discuss three suspects, but I’m settling on one. I wasn’t sure before, because I didn’t have a motive… but now I do. You see, it’s easy to say in retrospect that “nobody stood to gain,” but what if that wasn’t such a certainty at the time?

Hatchetpaws: Well, he had the tools available, but Turnip is pretty sure that Hatchetpaws was already dead by the time of the gondola disaster. I am willing to take Turnip’s word for it on this. However, who captured Hatchetpaws, who tried Hatchetpaws, who executed Hatchetpaws? Paper mammals. In other words, the townsfolk didn’t know that Hatchetpaws was out of the picture (and therefore, notably, neither did the person who planted the Hatchetpaws warning in Vedalia’s secret room). Hatchetpaws is the perfect scapegoat for the gondola disaster – past and present. He’s a huge red herring. So, not him.

Vedalia Bean: Notably wasn’t present at the gondola launch, due to being occupied slaying a demon that was attempting to destroy Spider Cliff – a routine occurrence at the time. When this detail first came up, I considered the possibility that Vedalia was lying; that the demon was her alibi, and in actual fact, she was the one who cut the gondola cable. However, she later provides too much unnecessary detail on this incident for me to think that the demon was fake. It’s still possible, of course, that she had time to make it back to the gondola station for the gondola’s return journey. It’s worth noting that, because nobody should have been in the gondola on its return journey, the sabotage of the gondola system shouldn’t have hurt anyone. I think we can also say with some confidence that Vedalia Bean was a staunch traditionalist who probably didn’t approve of Spider Cliff having closer relations with Sprawling-Mossville, especially if it might make it easier for demons to reach the town. But there’s a still more likely suspect…

Hannibal Monoculous Bath: I’m certain that this is the man who let the demon into Spider Cliff that tried to destroy it at the time of the gondola launch. The only motive I’m able to offer for this action is that the demon was meant to be a distraction to keep Vedalia off the scene of the gondola launch. It follows that Hannibal had something to hide. Now, let’s consider the best place to sever the gondola’s cable from. The cable was cut clean across at a single point. I don’t see how this could have been done in mid-air. Remember also that the cable was cut between the gondola and the town – and not on the woods side. In other words, there are only two places the cable could have been cut from: The roof of the gondola itself, or the gondola station in Spider Cliff.

Now, who was at the gondola station in Spider Cliff, operating the gondola machinery? The only person who knew how, having trained nobody else to do it, Hannibal Monoculous Bath. Who probably suspected that the gondola wouldn’t be running for long, given that they were obliging themselves to be on call to run the gondola all-day every-day? The sole operator, Hannibal Monoculous Bath. Who should have recognised that the severing of the cable did not happen naturally? The system’s designer and builder, Hannibal Monoculous Bath. Who never told anyone or gave any indication that there was anything suspicious about the failure of the system? Hannibal Monoculous Bath. Who is the only one who could have let a demon into Spider Cliff in time for the gondola launch? Hannibal Monoculous Bath.

(I would imagine, incidentally, that he severed the gondola cable on the gondola’s return trip both as the crowds would have dispersed by then, and also to prevent anyone attempting a rescue mission into the woods for the passengers.)

But what motive could Hannibal Bath have had for sabotaging the project? The only one I can think of is, perhaps surprisingly, greed. Despite having had no money left to invest in the gondola project, it took Hannibal Bath twelve years from the disaster to go bankrupt, and when he did, he ceded property rights to the gondola system, indicating that he was at the time the sole owner – the Sprawlings being out of the picture, and having no known heirs in town, anyway… and, as I’ve outlined above, it’s quite likely that Hannibal Bath was also involved in getting rid of at least one of the Sprawling heirs. I wonder if he might even have facilitated Hatchetpaws in getting rid of the other one? (It’s worth noting that any child of Ignatius and Ellen would be a cousin of the young sheriff’s, since Ellen was a Sluggmosse before her marriage. Could this incident account for the sheriff’s loathing of paper mammals, and particularly ones as intelligent as Turnip?)

So Hannibal was the Sprawlings’ business partner in the gondola; is it at all unlikely that he was appointed to take charge of their property after they were cut off from the town by the gondola disaster? I think that Hannibal hoped to use the paper mill, paper mammal skin being the town’s biggest industry and biggest export at the time, to restore his lost fortunes. It’s even conceivable that he hoped to sabotage a rival industry to restore the monocle business he was in charge of – another possible factor in the “he worked with Hatchetpaws” theory, for Hatchetpaws’s actions ultimately resulted in the paper mammals being over-exploited to the point where the paper mill was no longer financially viable. Either way, after the gondola disaster, things kept ticking over for Hannibal for twelve years – which isn’t bad, really, considering that he was already out of money in 1958. Where did the cash come from to keep him going until 1970? Monocles or paper mammals. Of course, he did go bankrupt in the end – but this is his punishment for making a pact with a child-stealing demon; as noted in the story, pacts with demons never turn out well for the human. But however it turned out, getting the Sprawlings out of the way allowed Hannibal to profit from the disaster. That was his motive. Hannibal Monoculous Bath is the saboteur.

HOW DID THE GONDOLA PASSENGERS DIE?

No idea, and frankly I don’t think we have enough positive evidence to answer this problem. But the big question is: Why did three of them stay at the gondola station? At least three of the four passengers died, because we have three bodies (well, one of them’s just a skull, but it’s not like we have a great view of the gondola station). I think we can say with reasonable certainty that the fourth was either also stuck at the gondola station or is the murderer – the reason being that, had the fourth person gone onto Sprawling-Mossville, they surely would have reported two people dead at the gondola station if they were innocent of the crime. In other words, the situation we have is at least two people dead at the gondola station, and nobody from Sprawling-Mossville ever having come to investigate. This strongly suggests that the other side of the gondola line was also sabotaged. Need I remind people of who the top suspect for this must be? Hannibal Monoculous Bath could get out to the gondola station any time he liked, and if he severed the Sprawling-Mossville cable sometime between the woods station being completed and the gondola launch, who would know? He didn’t know when the bridge to town would be rebuilt; he didn’t want the Sprawlings to walk straight back into town in a year or two. His plan was a murderous one.

I’ll return to the gondola station in a minute, but let’s talk about Elkwood Sprawling’s body. (Just to do away with two red herrings: Although the sheriff recognises him by his frontiersman jacket and paperskin cap, I do not think there is much chance of an imposture here, for the hair, I presume, also fits the bill; additionally, for reasons I will elaborate on later, the something which had recently been scraped away beside Elkwood’s hand I can only imagine to be a fungus sample taken by Eliza.) Elkwood’s body remains buckled into the gondola; also, Annabelle declares herself satisfied that he did not die in the gondola’s fall. Thus we are presented with two options: Either Elkwood died before the fall, or died after the fall, but he did not die as a result of the fall.

Now, I would declare that signs of the fall’s violence should be marked upon the body whether or not Elkwood was dead already, so I think the fall was not so violent as to have killed him if he were still alive; this also raises the possibility of the missing fourth gondola traveller as having returned with Elkwood and survived the gondola’s fall, although I personally don’t imagine this to be the case. Because Elkwood’s body was still buckled into the gondola, if he died after the fall, it would have to have been extremely rapid, and necessarily of great violence, for him not to have immediately unbuckled himself. I think we may also presume there to be no marks of violence upon Elkwood’s body; we perceive none, his clothes are intact, nobody has remarked upon any such thing or requested an autopsy (as in Story 6). So, I think we can narrow down the cause and time of Elkwood’s death to some subtle, invisible cause, and to have occurred before the gondola’s fall.

To continue to discuss the timing of Elkwood’s death, we are now given three possibilities: That he died on the way to the gondola station, at the gondola station, or from the gondola station. If the latter, we are tasked with asking why Elkwood – and, possibly, one other person, though I doubt it – chose to immediately return from the gondola station, while two others remained behind. If Elkwood died at the gondola station, why was his dead body then buckled back into the gondola? Also, the way cable-car systems tend to operate would suggest that the gondola was at the station for very little time, probably less than a minute; are we to suppose that Elkwood died and was moved back into the gondola and buckled in in that short time? The simplest explanation, to me, is that Elkwood died before the gondola reached the gondola station; in other words, rather than returning in the gondola, he never got out in the first place. I’d venture to suggest the possibility that his death went unnoticed by two or all three of the other gondola passengers, who got out at the gondola station and didn’t realise until it was too late that Elkwood had not followed.

Now, if I’m correct, this means that the cause of Elkwood’s death was different from that of the remaining passengers – and by the by, I won’t pass judgement on who the missing skeleton is just yet, although I’m pretty confident the fully-dressed skeleton is male, and thus Ignatius Sprawling. Let’s just talk of the gondola station skeletons, then. How did they die? Well, as I’ve proposed above, if Hannibal Monoculous Bath is the saboteur, he had probably already pre-severed the cable on the opposing side of the gondola station; thus, when the cable to town was severed, those left at the gondola station were trapped… and thus would inevitably have died of starvation, or having eaten the poisonous plants of the Smoggy Woods. I’ll return to the case of the missing skeleton in my section below on the woman in the woods, but for now I think this theory on the deaths at the gondola station is reasonably sound.

But what about Elkwood? There’s no possibility of his death being drawn-out; it happened during the gondola launch event. We need a cause of death that doesn’t leave a visible impact on a skeleton, and can creep up on a person quick enough to seize them while they’re buckled into a gondola. Now, much has been made of the dangerousness of love potions – of how they can poison and kill. We’re basically certain that Katharine Ivy Sprawling won Elkwood with one of them. Annabelle thought her recipe looked fairly easy to make, but Rebecca urged caution and precision. Added to this, we know that Elkwood and Katharine remained married for over thirty years, until their deaths in the gondola disaster. Is it so unlikely that, over thirty years, the love potion needs reapplying? Katharine could have been slowly, unknowingly poisoning Elkwood for a long time.

Whether or not that’s the case, the gondola incident is where things come to a head. The Sprawlings are leaving Spider Cliff, perhaps forever, and that means leaving behind things like red-fanged mandrake and matrimonial roots, which are some of the ingredients for the love potion. Continuing to dose Elkwood with love potion would be very difficult after this point for Katharine Ivy Sprawling. What to do? I wonder if she just might have waited until the last minute – maybe even a snack on the gondola journey – and treated him to an extra-large dose of love potion… and bungled it, overdosing him and killing him. It bears noting that this also serves as a cautionary tale to anyone else in Spider Cliff in the present who might feel inclined to toy with mandrake potions.

HOW DO THE SMOGGY WOODS WORK?

I figured this one out pretty early on in the story. I’m talking about things like why the Smoggy Woods consume people, leaving behind only skeletons, and also absorbs some garbage, but not all of it; also, its ability to entrap people within its borders in a seemingly supernatural way. Because of course, the nature of the woman in the woods depends on her being able to overcome such difficulties…

Early on in Story 8, we’re treated to a few bits of information about the plants that grow in the Smoggy Woods. Bumberberry, also known as Annabelle’s Bumberberry and which can be prepared as the zombie-repelling dried bumberberry, grows in the woods – and also on mouldy furniture in town, Alex notes in an early chapter. This and most plants in the Smoggy Woods are highly poisonous. They can’t survive for long in direct sunlight, hence they grow in the woods and the smog. Also, the mushrooms in the woods are mobile and will creep towards the area where the fog is most dense… and there’s the “aha” moment.

Matrimonials are mobile, if invisibly so. These Smoggy Woods mushrooms are also mobile. Eliza regards the possibility of the matrimonials’ mobility as a non-rational explanation, and early on admits that she doesn’t have a rational explanation for how the Smoggy Woods work, but what if it’s the same explanation? Is it so great a leap of the imagination to conclude that all of the plants in the Smoggy Woods, right down to the trees, are mobile within the fog? I’m proposing that the entire Smoggy Woods has limited sapience – each and every plant is the faint evil presence felt all around by those who venture into the woods, like Crystal and Elkwood. And when you enter the woods, the plants move around to disguise your way… to entrap you… until eventually, you either die of starvation, or have to eat a plant to survive and instead die of poisoning. And then…

Eliza notes that she’s known about the gondola for years, and always checks on the growth of fungi and lichens around the gondola. I suspect that whatever was scraped away from near Elkwood’s right hand might have been fungus. Those who enter the Smoggy Woods are returned to the edges as skeletons; some trash is absorbed, but not all others. Bumberberry grows in the woods but also on mouldering furniture. What happens to that which vanishes in the Smoggy Woods? I think the plants eat it. I think they subsist on rotting substances and consume anything that enters the woods and can rot. So people die and they rot and the plants move over them and consume them; rotting garbage is also consumed. And then the plants move away and leave behind the bones and the inedible trash… That’s how the Smoggy Woods work. The plants move, they trap people and poison them and kill them, and then they eat them.

There’s one other point about the Smoggy Woods to explain: It’s also been noted that the souls of those who die within the woods do not enter the world of the dead – they’re cut off from there. As such, I wonder if part of the animating factor of the plants, and the Great Evil of the Smoggy Woods, is that the smog is itself formed from the restless souls trapped there? Crystal and Turnip’s hallucination of Barlow in Chapter 3 does indicate that the woods manifests its hallucinations from the memories of those within; that the atmosphere of the woods is indeed a projection of the soul… If so, this probably has a connection to the fact that the fog lifts from the woods exactly once per year.

But to return to the plants themselves, the fact that red-fanged mandrake can be used to safely create potable love and anti-love potions, and the mushrooms can be used to make drinkable (if awful-tasting) wine, implies that other plants in the forest can possibly be prepared in ways that make them safe to eat. If you understand the workings of the woods, it may be possible to survive there with only your wits, without any supernatural abilities at all…

WHO IS THE WOMAN IN THE WOODS?

This is the question I’m least prepared to answer. I can only speculate. But let’s start off with what the woman isn’t:

The woman isn’t a hallucination. Cast your minds back to Story 3. Crystal and Turnip venture into the Smoggy Woods in search of a chickaree, and see one of the typical woods hallucinations, of Barlow. What they do not see is a chickaree, and Crystal speculates that this is because the woods can only show you things that really exist… Now, one of the conditions to this seems to be “that really exists right now,” for it is subsequently revealed that chickarees really did exist, they just didn’t curse people, and now, evidently, they are gone. So in other words, for the old woman to be a hallucination, there would need to be an actual old woman just like her out in the world somewhere. Now, what’s the point, when she could just… really be there in the woods? Added to which, she’s probably the only one who can have left the first message on the gondola, and I don’t think hallucinations can use miniature acetylene torches.

The woman isn’t a woods nymph. Consider the hallucinations point; hallucinations will only show you something that really exists. Now, Alex and Barlow have used fogtide days to search for woods nymphs for ten years. Alex goes into the Smoggy Woods regularly to dispose of garbage. Have either of them ever seen a woods nymph? No. This implies that they have also never seen a hallucination of a woods nymph. The reason? There can’t be hallucinations of woods nymphs as there is no such thing as a woods nymph. Amusing though it would be for the gorgeous woods nymph Alex and Barlow were imagining to turn out to be a doddery old lady…

The woman isn’t Ellen Sprawling or Katharine Ivy Sprawling. I admit that these are pretty good guesses and I think they’re close to the truth. But I think it’s pretty clear that Rebecca views the woman with romantic jealousy. She sees the woman as a plausible match for the sheriff. Now, the sheriff was six years old in 1958; he is in his fifties at the time of the Spider Cliff Mysteries. How old would Ellen or Katharine Ivy Sprawling be? I admit that I don’t have a birthdate for the former, but going by the birth dates of Ignatius and Katharine Ivy Sprawling and the probable birth date of Elkwood Sprawling, Ellen and Katharine Ivy would be getting on for a hundred years old at this point. They’re practically twice the sheriff’s age. It’s not going to happen.

Now, who the woman is… This is pure speculation, because there simply aren’t enough clues for this at this point in the story. But I think the basis of my idea is credible. If, as I suggest above, it is believable to onlookers that the woman in the woods could have a romantic connection to the sheriff, that presumes that they are of roughly similar ages. The sheriff was a child at the time of the gondola disaster, so that implies that the woman in the woods was born at around the same period.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. What I’m suggesting is that, when the Sprawlings left town on the gondola, there was in fact a fifth passenger with them, a passenger whose presence went unnoticed and who was effectively invisible, because she didn’t yet exist – she hadn’t been born yet. I’m suggesting that either Ellen Sprawling (née Sluggmosse) or Katharine Ivy Sprawling was heavily pregnant with a child, whom they gave birth to while stranded at the gondola station. I won’t speculate as to which just yet.

How does a human being live in the woods for a long time? I think that Katharine Ivy Sprawling, if she’d been dealing with red-fanged mandrake for a long time, would know something about how to safely prepare the plants of the woods. It’s also not inconceivable that a child born in the woods would have some resistance to the worst effects of the woods; born and raised breathing its fog, it might be recognised by the woods as one of its own. This would be a child raised literally in the middle of nowhere, whose human guardian would in all likelihood not have lasted very long, who has barely seen people in a lifetime. Her one shelter is the gondola station. Is it at all unbelievable that such a person would be desperately afraid of other people and would do anything to protect her lonely home from an intrusion such as the repair of the gondola system? As a member of the Sprawling Family, she might well have been taught the Sprawling Code as a child, I might add…

What does this make of her relationship to the sheriff? Well, there’s a possibility that Rebecca’s misjudged it. The sheriff runs off every fogtide into the woods to meet this woman, who will only meet with him and nobody else. Clearly they have some understanding between them, but what if it’s not romantic? We are informed that Ellen Sprawling’s maiden name was Sluggmosse, which is also the surname of the sheriff. If the woman in the woods is Ellen’s child, she would be a cousin of the sheriff’s. They’re family. This is the connection between them.

Pure speculation, of course. No positive proof whatsoever. But what few loose ends we have I think are tied up nicely in this theory.

WHERE WAS THE STORY GOING TO GO NEXT?

In the short term, Crystal would tail Turnip and get the truth out of him about that business with the miniature acetylene torch and, quite possibly, his relationship with the woman in the woods. He definitely has a secret at the moment, and Crystal would get that out of him. Meanwhile, Barlow would crack the code, and that would lead him to Alex and Rebecca.

After this, the investigation has a common point of enquiry: The woman in the woods. This calls for some discussion with the sheriff and Rebecca, but ultimately, it calls for an investigation of the Smoggy Woods and the gondola station. The fact is that the gondola station is presently still accessible, and even if the Spider Cliff side of the gondola system can’t be repaired, everyone assumes that the Sprawling-Mossville side is intact; Barlow more than anyone would want to get out there to use the remaining gondola to leave the area. Alex has ventured into the Smoggy Woods and returned in the past by means of securing himself to a string that’s tied up at the edge of the woods. Now, at present, there’s also a “string” between the gondola station and the edge of the woods: The severed gondola cable. One end is lying at the edge of the woods, where the gondola was pulled out; the other is still attached to the gondola station. (Remember, the line was severed between the town and the gondola, meaning that there is a continuous connection between the gondola and the gondola station.) Our heroes would have tied themselves to the gondola cable and followed it safely through the woods to the gondola station, where they would find the final answers to the mystery – and the next resident of Spider Cliff.

SUMMARY:

What is the story’s theme? Try to understand other people and places, rather than forcing them to accommodate you.

Who is leaving the messages? The woman in the woods, Alex, and Rebecca, respectively; their motives in turn are, fear, obedience, and to warn and test a suspicion.

Who helped the demon into town? Hannibal Monoculous Bath; his motive was to create a distraction.

Who cut the gondola cable? Hannibal Monoculous Bath; his motive was greed for the Sprawlings’ business.

How did the gondola passengers die? Elkwood of love potion poisoning; the others, starvation.

How do the Smoggy Woods work? The plants are mobile and feed on rotting material, and are influenced by the fog, which is formed from the restless souls of those who died there.

Who is the woman in the woods? The daughter of Ellen Sprawling, born at the gondola station.

Where was the story going to go next? Eventually, to follow the gondola cable to the woods station.

Posted by Egocentric, 6:59pm, 11 Oct, 2015

This is actually very convincing. I think we finally have a solution. I would love to see Jason confirm this if he is still around.

Admittedly, it's been a while since I played this story, but as far as I remember, everything seems to fit.

Have you made a guess for the Mammon reward?
This message was last edited on 11 Oct 2015.

Posted by FFWF, 4:43am, 12 Oct, 2015

Yes, I've submitted a formal guess. Strictly speaking I think mammons aren't awarded for correct guesses until the final chapter, but if my current sum of 584 increases, I'll let you know.

 

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