To anyone but the most dedicated outdoor type, Scotland's Rannoch Moor in winter must be one of the most desolate, bleak and inhospitable places on God's earth. It certainly felt that way when Dave McKinlay stepped down from the tiny, single-coach, diesel-engined train onto the pitch dark, snow-encrusted and deserted platform of the tiny, unmanned station, now defined only as a "REQUEST HALT". At Glasgow's Queen Street terminus station Dave had been rewarded with a shake of the driver's head in wonderment and disbelief at his request to stop there. Why the station had ever been built in such a desolate place seemed to defy all reason.
Reaching up he closed the compartment door and the train slowly and forlornly moved away northwards with a seemingly compassionate single toot on its whistle, which echoed eerily off the surrounding hills, leaving Dave, minutes later, with only the all-enveloping sound of deafening silence. In the obsidian darkness he could sense the cold and lonely wilderness about him. He removed his flashlight from the side pocket of his rucksack by touch alone. He was already having misgivings about the sanity of accepting the dare, set for him by some of his fellow hill-walking enthusiasts, to spend a winter night alone in an isolated and derelict moorland cottage which was reputedly haunted.
It was only seven p.m. but with the sky completely overcast the world appeared to end at the limit of his flashlight's beam. From his daylight knowledge of the area, in his mind's eye he could see the moor stretching its apparently barren emptiness for ten miles and more to the east. Here stood the haunted cottage, his objective for the following day.
The only other human habitation within a radius of ten miles was the tiny Creagach Inn, two miles away, close to a small lochan of the same name, where he had arranged to stay this first night. The Inn was officially closed for the winter, catering mostly for the summer angling fraternity, but it was owned by an old mountaineering friend of Dave's, Richard, who now lived alone at the Inn after the tragic death of his wife in a road accident on the notorious A9 road two years before. He had been pleased at the prospect of Dave's company and had agreed to act as his host for this first night, free of charge.
In summer it was an easy and attractive walk to the Inn from the station but he was now surrounded by what only country dwellers and the blind normally experience - total and utterly obliterating darkness. Pulling the bottom part of his balaclava over his nose and mouth he tightened the hood of his mountain jacket around his face. He then donned his Helly-Hansen mittens against a bitterly cold north-east wind which was already bringing the tears to his eyes and which, although fairly light, would be blowing almost directly into his face all the way as he walked.
Shouldering his rucksack he used the flashlight to negotiate the now-redundant station barrier and started his lonely walk, his boots crunching on the light covering of new snow on the narrow path. He was looking forward to an evening with his friend in front of a comforting log fire, reminiscing over their old mountaineering days and with a glass of his favourite twelve-year-old malt whisky within easy reach. He started off, enjoying the exertion of the walk and totally engrossed in his own thoughts.
Until he heard it. The noise. It started some way off up the unseen snow-clad hill to his right. An unearthly scream which gradually faded to an inhuman and wind-muted howl. He stopped to listen, thinking it might be some trick of the wind. Nothing. Pushing it to the back of his mind he resumed his walk but after a few minutes it came again, and this time it sounded closer. He still had about a mile to go so he continued his journey, his strides somewhat lengthier and unconsciously quicker than previously, despite his normally calm and unflappable nature.
He tried to convince himself he was becoming alarmed for no reason other than the cry of a night bird, or a wild animal in pain. He failed totally and as the unfamiliar and frightening sound came for a third time he began to experience a real and uncharacteristic dread. This time the source of the unholy sound was now definitely much closer.
It was with great relief, and thankfully without hearing the sound again, that the welcoming lights of the tiny log-walled Inn's paraffin lanterns came into his view. Although the Inn was linked to the electricity grid via the unmanned station Dave had just come from, Richard had always preferred the olde-worlde atmosphere created by these lanterns. They were part of the Inn's rustic attraction.
Now unashamedly trotting despite the weight of his rucksack, Dave scrambled through the front door and closed it firmly behind him with a sigh of relief.
Removing the rucksack he placed it on the floor of the Inn's tiny entrance vestibule and went into the small, heavily-carpeted lounge, complete with the crackling log fire which he had envisioned throughout the first half of his walk, and called his friend's name.
Receiving no answer he searched from room to room throughout the single-storied building, but his host was nowhere to be found. He returned to the front door and, reluctantly stepping outside momentarily, called Richard's name again against the strengthening wind. There was still no reply. Instead the unearthly cry came again, even closer. He hurried back into the Inn and this time locked the front door. If Richard came back from wherever he was he would have to ring the bell to get in.
It was then he noticed it. The blood. There was some on the floor of the tiny reception office and more on the lounge carpet. He then realised it was cold in the lounge despite the fact that the fire was stacked high with burning logs, and he saw that there was a ragged hole in the back wall of the room.
He lifted one of the flickering lanterns off the mantle-shelf and moved over to examine the hole more closely. It had obviously been torn, not cut, from the outside, and to his dismay it appeared to have been done by very powerful claws. There was more blood on the snow directly outside the hole and bloody drag marks disappeared across the snow into the night. Fearing the worst, and absolutely terrified, he followed them, swinging the lantern from left to right as he did so. Twenty yards away he came across Richard's body - or what was left of it.
He was immediately overcome by violent nausea. Richard had been disembowelled, one leg was missing and his head lay several feet away, the skull torn open and the brain cavity empty.
Dave was now almost frantic with fear and hurriedly scrambled back into the Inn through the hole in the wall. He would have to phone the police immediately. He lifted the handset in the tiny Reception office. It was dead. He then plucked up courage and checked the outside wires, holding the lantern up to examine the bracket where he knew the single telephone line entered the Inn. It's severed end was flapping uselessly in the wind and he realised he would find no salvation there.
Back inside, he replaced the lantern on the mantle-shelf then desperately upended the heavy oak lounge table and placed it on its side against the inside wall, covering the hole. He reinforced it with the equally heavy sofa, knowing despairingly that if whatever had torn the hole in the wall in the first place wanted to get back in, this would be no defence.
Just as he breathlessly finished his task he heard the blood-curdling howl again, this time loud and clear and somewhere close by outside where the hole had been. Seeking some degree of comfort he moved closer to the fire and tried to gather his scattered wits. It was obvious that escape outside was impossible with the 'Thing' so close by and the temperature well below freezing. In addition, the wind chill factor would greatly exaggerate the effect of the already freezing temperature on his body.
But what defence could he devise? And against what? He had no idea what the creature was but to have wrought the damage it had on the eight inch diameter logs of the lounge wall it must have inhuman strength.
He looked about him for some place of refuge. The rafters? The roof of the log building was supported by an open A-framework of varnished three-inch by six-inch pine beams. These in turn were centrally supported by a line of three vertical, six inch by six inch, square pillars of solid pine. Although he could easily climb up onto the rafters he prayed that whatever was outside might not be able to.
Loud banging noises were now coming from outside the lounge wall, accompanied by the most unearthly and terrifying screams of the creature in its anger and frustration. This completed his terror. What on earth could the Thing possibly be? A 'Yeti'? Ridiculous - this is Scotland. What, then?
There came the sound of splintering wood and what appeared to be a muted growl of satisfaction. Then more sounds of splintering as a new hole appeared in the outside wall to one side of his hastily-erected and ineffective barricade.
Without waiting to see the cause of his terror Dave climbed up into the rafters and waited. He stared in abject terror at the rapidly enlarging new hole, his heart thumping wildly. Another large piece of log wall disappeared and slithering into the lounge, like an obscene giant slug, came one of the most hideous creatures he had ever seen. It was a glistening elephant grey, strangely amorphous in form and, despite the claw marks on the logs, it appeared to have no limbs. It was only about four feet in height but gave the impression of being extremely powerful. The upturned eyes it immediately fixed upon Dave were large, red, and unblinking.
It advanced and stopped directly below him, seemingly grinning, its open tooth-lined mouth drooling with saliva and its baleful eyes glowing in expectancy. The loathsome smell of ammonia rising from it was almost overpowering in its intensity. The creature's intentions were obvious and Dave instinctively knew it wanted him for food. Whatever it was he also sensed it was evil, alien, not of this world.
Having observed its apparent lack of limbs, and although still very frightened, he began to feel he was relatively safe as long as he remained on his perch in the rafters. After all, without any obvious limbs, how could the Thing possibly climb after him? It raised itself up and swayed gently from side to side for a few seconds, watching him, as if assessing the situation. It then advanced towards one of the pillars and wrapped itself around the base. Extreme terror overcame Dave once more as he thought it was going to climb up somehow. Instead, he heard a crunching noise and realised with horror that the creature was actually consuming the wooden pillar itself. He backed away towards the opposite end of the roof support system and looked around him.
There were two more main vertical support pillars. He decided that if the Thing really wanted to get him it would have to destroy all three of them to bring the whole roof down, and him with it. This would gain him some time but he would then have to either make a hopeless run for it in the snow, or climb outside onto the highest part of the collapsed roof in the below-freezing temperature. No - the only alternative was to try to kill the Thing.
Kill it! Yes, that seemed the only obvious answer - kill it! Good. He was beginning to think rationally once more. But kill it how? Could it be killed? What was it composed of? Was it some form of flesh? That wasn't obvious. Fire? Everything could burn so why not this abomination below him. But he couldn't think of an instant way he could do that? Stabbing? Yeah, that had to be the answer. But with what? His ice axe was still strapped to his rucksack which lay in the vestibule near the front door but he would have to vacate his present position in the rafters to get to it.
Over the next hour the Thing continued to destroy the main vertical supports, one by one. Periodically it stopped and eyed Dave up in anticipation and he became even more desperate. The last roof support it was now destroying was the one nearest the front door. He edged his way slowly further along the side rafters, the creature still glancing at him occasionally as it consumed the wood. The feeling of malevolence emanating from it was as thick upon the air as its ghastly odour.
Creaking sounds of imminent collapse began to come from the far end of the roof. By this time he had traversed round the rafters to a point directly above the dining room entrance in preparation for his next move. Just then, as Dave had hoped, most of the now-unsupported roof collapsed, completely burying the creature under several tons of wood and heavy grey slate quarry tiles.
"Yes that's done it. Nothing could have survived that," Dave shouted, and punched the air with relief.
His relief was short lived. The pile of debris first moved slightly, then was contemptuously thrown aside. The creature emerged, apparently unscathed, and stood there defiantly, once again concentrating its malevolent attention on Dave. It even seemed to be grinning at him again in new anticipation.
Dave decided to throw everything into his next move and, dropping down onto the lounge floor, he ran quickly out through the door into the entrance vestibule. He had just enough time to see the Thing advancing across the floor towards him before he was able to slam the door shut.
This gave him time to make the four or five strides to his rucksack, by which time he could hear the Thing scraping on the other side of the door. He retrieved his ice axe and removed the rubber safety covers just as the dining room door crashed onto the floor towards him. And there 'it' stood, silent, triumphant, its next meal only a few feet away.
It advanced slowly towards him and stopped momentarily, its appearance and odour even more obnoxious than before, and now even more terrifying because of its closeness.
In his desperation, instead of backing off this time, Dave gathered his courage and took a few rapid steps towards it. Taking careful aim he buried the end spike of his ice axe almost a foot through one of the Thing's eyes and into where he assumed its brain to be, keeping a firm hold on the head of the axe as he did so. He withdrew it quickly, ready for a second thrust if necessary. He didn't need one and stepped back expecting the thing to collapse and die. Despite its injury, however, the Thing remained unmoving where it was for a few seconds, silent, menacing, showing no signs of pain or distress and apparently trying to analyse this new situation.
Then, to Dave's utter horror, the hole he had just made in its eye with the ice axe slowly closed, and within a few seconds there was no trace of the injury whatsoever. The Thing appeared to be indestructible and Dave's desperation grew.
The door to one of the Inn's dormitory-type hill-walkers' rooms lead off from one side of the entrance vestibule and he hurriedly opened it and slipped through, slamming the door behind him. There was a skylight above the door permitting some light to enter from the lantern-lit vestibule. With his eyes rapidly adjusting to the semi-darkness he dragged one of the double-tier bunks over and wedged it against the inward-opening door. He hoped to prevent a recurrence of the last incident when the Thing merely smashed the whole door down to get at him. He was under no illusions, however. The Thing wanted him and it appeared to be still hungry. Dave represented an appetising meal.
Quickly he lit another paraffin lantern and looked around him. The room had a wooden floor but no rafters for him to take refuge in this time. It was very basic, catering as it did for the hillwalking fraternity. It had a few more double-tier bunks, a single toilet cubicle in one corner, a large cast-iron, solid fuel cooking range, and two stainless steel washing-up sinks. There was a pot-bellied stove in the centre of the room with a metal flue exiting through the roof immediately above, but because the inn was closed for the winter there was no fire in either the cooking range or the pot-bellied stove. The room was frigid. A number of clothing hooks lined the far wall and there were empty shelves for storing walkers' cooking utensils and food. There was little else.
There was a loud scratching at the door once more, accompanied by growls, then more unearthly screams of rage and frustration. He realised he had probably made the Thing angry with his crude attempt at stabbing it. His panic returned tenfold.
It started to rip the door panels off from the other side and in only a few seconds had generated a small hole. Dave then had his next shock. The Thing had the ability to change shape. It began insinuating itself through the tiny hole and reforming on Dave's side of the door in its original shape. This operation completed, it turned its attention on him once more and he realised he had no further means of defence. He virtually gave up and resigned himself to the same horrible death that Richard had met. Irrationally, to gain a few extra seconds of life, he backed as far as he could into the corner of the room, adjacent to the toilet cubicle, and squatted down against it.
It was then that he had one more idea born out of desperation. The wooden cubicle round the toilet bowl seemed to be fairly flimsy and testing it with his shoulder he found it gave slightly. With an outright lunge he managed to collapse the structure completely and, standing up, he kicked the fallen panels away from the open toilet bowl and climbed on top of the waist-high cistern. That was as far as he could go and he watched in terror as the Thing slowly approached, long drools of saliva hanging to the floor from its red-lined maw.
In order to reach him it had to climb up onto the open toilet, which it duly accomplished with little effort. Dave took his last chance. Gathering his courage and remembering the Thing's ability to alter in size and shape, he jumped down onto it. The force of his heavy walking boots and his body weight of one hundred and seventy pounds forced the Thing's body, with its unique metamorphic capability, down into the water in the toilet bowl. Dave's hunch about using its ability to change shape was a good one for it almost completely disappeared round the bend. He grabbed the chance and, quickly reaching out, he pushed the lever down to flush the toilet, at the same time using his weight to push the Thing further down into the bend.
To his utter joy the monstrous apparition completely disappeared. He flushed the toilet several times after that as soon as the cistern filled up, just to make sure. Since the toilet didn't flood back up he knew the Thing must be on its way through the pipes of the inn's sewerage system.
Sitting down on the floor with his back to the wall he wrapped his arms round his legs and lowered his face onto his knees. He sobbed with utter relief at the ending of the terror of his last few hours and at his last-second escape from a ghastly death. Ten minutes later, having composed himself sufficiently, he brought another paraffin lantern in from the lounge. There was some wood piled adjacent to the pot-bellied stove and he soon had a comforting fire going. Although he wasn't feeling particularly hungry he then shakily proceeded to cook himself a makeshift meal on the stove's now glowing cast-iron top.
Having eaten, he sat back in one of the two battered armchairs, with a cup of coffee laced with a good measure of whisky from the inn's small bar to calm his shattered nerves. He reflected on his horrifying experience and the unbelievable story he would have to tell. He would obviously have to forget tomorrow's 'haunted cottage' dare - his experience at the Inn had been far worse than anything he could have encountered there anyway.
Feeling safe now he went outside by the back door and, by the light from a lantern, he rolled Richard's body in a tarpaulin and weighed it down with stones to protect the remains from foxes and other of the moor's animals. He then went back inside.
He realised he had no alternative but to stay the night here and in the morning he would try to dig a temporary grave for poor Richard in the frozen earth. With the telephone out of action he would have to return on the morning train to Glasgow and report the incident to the police. He doubted if they would believe him but the evidence would still be here when he returned with them.
Collecting his rucksack from the entrance vestibule he spread his sleeping bag on top of one of the remaining double bunks and climbed into it by the light of the lantern. He turned the wick down but not out, and despite his recent terrifying experience he quickly fell into the deep sleep of nervous exhaustion.
He was suddenly wakened by a loud crash, the sound of more splintering wood, and an unearthly roaring. He sat up, terrified once more. Four yards from him, glaring up at him from the centre of the floor, was the angry creature, completely covered in glistening, stinking matter.
"You can't be here?" Dave screamed down at it in desperation, "You disappeared down the toilet. You should be miles away by now."
It was then he realised his fatal mistake. Because of its isolation the Inn was served, not by a sewer, but by a large, underground septic tank located seventy yards away.