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Dead Pages

open book with a skeleton key lying on top

Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

We all have our monsters. Anywhere you go, anyone you meet; they all have their myths,  legends and ghost stories. People love them. They grow like webs, entwining whole communities in a gleeful celebration of their own little slice of the unknown. They become badges of honour, a way to put your town on the map. Tourists come from far and wide to hear the tall tales, buy the souvenir t-shirt and take a selfie on the spot the other-worldly visitor supposedly set foot. But it’s not those stories you should worry about. 

There are other monsters, squirrelled away in the dark corners of the world, tucked into the nooks and crannies of life that people don’t want to talk about. They exist in the breath of rumour and the cracked pages of ancient, forgotten books. There are no tall tales; no t-shirts. Should you ask about them you will not be met with the eager eyes of the local raconteur, gleefully guiding you through the chills and thrills of the creature of the hour. You will find something altogether colder in these places.  

These are the real monsters. And for those who care to look, they will give you a glimpse of a world you might wish you hadn’t seen. 

Maxwell Carruthers was a man who cared to look.  

On November 27th 1984 they found him, a wandering wild-eyed figure a few miles north east of Cruden Bay – a Scottish village whose greatest connection to the wider world was its status as Bram Stoker’s holiday home – a place where he penned the first chapters of what would eventually become Dracula.  

But there were other things written in Cruden Bay that have not been so lauded. A middle-aged bookseller, Carruthers lived in Aberdeen, but took the half-hour journey to the bay as regularly as twice a week. Friends and colleagues never knew what he did there – he passed it off as a couple of days to himself, time to himself in a nice seaside town. Time to read. That much, at least, was partly true. Maxwell Carruthers went to Cruden Bay to find a very particular book, one that most people didn’t know existed. An author-less, title-less, colourless volume, grey-bound and paged with crisp white parchment, it was this book that led Maxwell down a path better left untrodden. 

We’ll never know how he knew where to look, but he did. He worked out the book’s approximate location in the woodland to the north of the town, and he went there with nothing but a  map, a shovel, and a formidable will. If you believe the word of mouth he worked like a man possessed, leaving half-filled pits in his wake for dog-walkers and hikers to stumble across the next morning. It continued for two months, but just as the locals were about to confront Maxwell about his wanton vandalism of the woodlands, the digging abruptly stopped. Although people continued to mutter and grumble their opinions of the city bookseller in private, the matter was considered settled. 

But not long after the digging stopped, the … thing appeared. 

And thing was the only way it could be described, at least at first – like a glimpse out of the corner of your eye, a shape moving in the dark that disappears when you try to look at it. When it was first seen it didn’t really have a shape. It was just a grey-white oval that shimmered its way through the moorland to the north before winking out existence. In those early days the people that saw it dismissed it as a trick of the light. If only it could have been explained away so easily. 

Days passed and the thing continued to appear, mostly confined to the treeline and the hills,  but occasionally flickering into life near roads and the town itself. Rumours stirred. The more lurid minds wondered if Cruden Bay had found its very own ghost. 

But when a young couple swerved off the road one night, plunging their hatchback through a  ditch and into a tree, the ‘ghost’ began to gather a more sinister reputation. When police and paramedics arrived to extract the unfortunate pair from their stricken vehicle, the woman driving swore that an apparition had appeared in the middle of the road. Upon searching the area not so much as a footprint was discovered of this supposed phantom, but that same night, a few miles away in the warmth of his room, Maxwell Carruthers was reading from his damnable tome. Decide for yourselves if you believe in coincidences that big. 

Only now with hindsight could you corroborate the spectre’s appearances with Carruthers’  journeys to Cruden Bay. Now that his digging expeditions were over he drew significantly less attention from the locals, slipping into town and settling into solitude with nothing but the book and his notes.  

The only person that noticed this curious correlation was the young woman running the small hotel where Carruthers made port when he visited: Rona Dugget.  

A bitter, sarcastic individual who’d been trapped in the family business when her parents passed away – she was the gatekeeper to Cruden Bay as far as Carruthers was concerned. Twenty nine years old, long blond hair scraped flat over her skull and tied into a tight ponytail, she made no secret of her unhappiness with life. Anger sizzled in those grey-green eyes, shining from behind thick, circular spectacles. For a long time his regular visits didn’t mean anything to her beyond a  steady stream of income, with no reason to pry into his comings and goings, and no wish to encounter her guests for a second longer than necessary. 

But with little else to do all day beyond tending to her guests and watching the news, she was the only one in position to make the connection. Even then, she put it down to coincidence. At first. 

As those days and weeks slipped by, the thing began to take on a definite shape – a robed,  shuffling figure in the night. It still defied true definition, sputtering out of existence before most could even take a proper look at it. Those that did wished they had not. The stories took a darker turn now – accounts of a faceless horror that somehow stared into the soul of those who encountered it. People were shaken for reasons they couldn’t explain. More than one local bartender had to serve a measure of stiff whisky to calm the nerves of unexpected guests.  

Stories grew and spread their tendrils beyond the sleepy little town. It wasn’t long before a  trickle of journalists, thrill seekers, tourists and supposed ghost-hunters made their way to Cruden  Bay, eager for a glimpse of Scotland’s newest ghost. To anyone in the outside world it was a  delicious new curio; a spark of the unknown and unexplainable in a world otherwise mapped out. 

The more people that saw it, the more it seemed to take on a definite, almost human appearance, as though over the past weeks it had been dragged kicking and screaming into existence. It ceased being a barely-glimpsed spectre, becoming more and more corporeal with every sighting. A fluttering of photographs began to make their way into local newspapers from men and women claiming to have captured the thing on film. Some were hoaxes. Undoubtedly some were not. 

Then all the excitement that swirled around this new attraction was bloodily extinguished one cold November night.  

Two students on a weekend trip from Aberdeen decided they would try their hand at capturing an image of the monster. They camped out in the woodlands north of the Cruden Bay,  kitted out with torches, cameras and a bottle of whisky to burn away the night chill. You could say they succeeded, but at a price no-one ought to have paid.  

Other prospective spotters claimed to have seen the spectre from a distance that same night,  shuffling its way through the woodland. In the deepest, darkest part of the night the students encountered their ghost, and were slaughtered. Hellish screams in the woods that night dampened the spirits of the other would-be explorers out that night. 

And in the warmth of his room, Maxwell Carruthers was once again reading. 

Early the next morning police responded to a call from a panicked dog-walker, whose faithful companion had uncovered a frightful scene. The two students had been left in pieces, tent destroyed, their campsite smothered in a sulphurous odour and torn up remains. Through all the carnage though, their camera lay intact. At first the police refused to release the film to the newspapers, but one of the investigating officers must have felt differently. For one day, and one day only, the local Press & Journal ran its front page with one of the images captured by the camera. 

The image was blurry and unfocused, the last panicked act of one of the doomed students.  To any who had seen it, however, it was unmistakable image of the ghoul haunting the moors and woods – a man-shaped, robed thing lunging out of the night, the edges of its shape fuzzed and warped as though fighting against being snared on camera. But that was not what made the image so horrific. 

In the centre of what had once been a faceless, empty mass, a pair of eyes now stared. Eyes tinged with yellow, wide and bloodshot. Eyes twisted into an expression of rage more visceral than words can describe. Those eyes were the last thing the unfortunate students ever saw. 

polaroid of demon hanging on a line
Created by Danny Ingrassia

As the news broke, and the spectre of Cruden Bay began to take on its deadly new reputation, Rona Dugget was left wondering impossible things as she stared at the signatures in her guest ledger. In a barely legible whorl of ink Maxwell Carruthers’ familiar signature was scrawled.  She knew he was upstairs right now, just as he had been present every time some new sighting of the town ghost was reported.  

“Terrible business,” he remarked that afternoon when departing to catch his bus back to the city. “Those lads, out for a good time and then…” His voice trailed off into a meaningless sweeping gesture of one hand. 

Rona agreed and bid him farewell, but she examined her regular guest with a closer eye than ever before as he made his way across the diminutive lobby and out into the cold sunlight. His black hair lay lank and long, thoroughly unkempt. His skeletal frame was swamped by a tan overcoat,  hooked nose slightly reddened and eyes hollow, sunken back into his long face. He looked ill, but sounded quietly pleased with himself in a manner that put a chill in Rona’s blood. 

When he left that day, he left her with a thousand questions she could never ask.

The days that followed saw Cruden Bay sink into a fug of oppressive worry. People stayed indoors, keeping lights burning deep into the night for fear of what might be lurking there. But without Maxwell Carruthers there, the spectre made no appearance. It became increasingly clear to  Rona Duggat that, willingly or not, her guest was responsible.  

It took a long time for her to pluck up the courage to act. Most people are not naturally brave. They would rather get on with their lives wrapped up in as much safety and security as they can scrape together. It was not until a second incident shredded what remained of that sense of safety that she was driven to put her fears to the test.  

On Carruthers’ next visit a house on the outskirts of the town was torn apart, along with the retired lumberjack who owned it. The reports were the same as the first – the man-shaped horror glimpsed moving through the woods and moors by concerned observers, before descending on the home. That night a single gunshot echoed through Cruden Bay, and when the police arrived that night they found the elderly resident torn up, his face frozen in a rictus of pure terror. In the warmth of his room, Maxwell Carruthers was reading. 

The revelation that even their homes weren’t safe was the last straw for Cruden Bay. The journalists and cheery hunters of the supernatural stopped coming. Many people fled to the city,  leaving a depleted, petrified remnant to hold out against the thing. Maxwell Carruthers, however,  showed no signs of strain or stress – simply a weary satisfaction. During his visit he set out from the hotel, claiming he was going to take a walk on the beach to clear his head before returning to collect his things. 

And on that day, breaking every unspoken rule she knew, Rona finally cracked and ascended to the man’s room. With more fear than she’d expected, she forced herself to unlock the door and enter that sanctum of secrets.  

At first it seemed normal enough. Carruthers kept the place tidy, and she never needed to do more than change the bedsheets and give the place a cursory dust-down before it was ready for a  new occupant. Given her own disillusionment with the job itself, she never looked closer. Until now

Her stomach twisted uncomfortably at the prospect of searching a guest’s room, breaking a pact of privacy that kept the whole business turning. But she wouldn’t let that stop her searching for the truth of the matter. If she knew nothing else, she knew that her reclusive boarder and Cruden Bay’s murderous phantom were connected.  

So she searched. The en suite bathroom provided no clues, a nondescript white-tiled affair barely big enough to have escaped being called a cupboard. The bed lay perfectly made, barely a  crinkle in the grey duvet cover. Rona’s attention, therefore, turned to the small table and chair positioned against the opposite wall. On top of it was a small television set and a tray of tea and coffee, untouched.  

She rifled through the drawers shamelessly, a sense of frantic urgency beginning to descend on the young hotelier. 

Upon examining the television case, through its immaculately cleaned vents she saw it: a  book concealed away within the guts of the machine, just visible behind a tangle of wires. Her stomach knotted tighter.  

The case came away easily, unclipping to reveal the inner workings of the television, and the book nestled within. Taking great care to ease it from its hiding place, Rona laid the tome flat on the desk and for a moment just stared at it. The rational part of her mind told her it was just a book, just like every other on the planet. Just words printed on paper. Even still, she couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness that crawled across her skin just looking at it. 

Feelings would not be enough, however, to stop her from looking further. Carruthers was mixed up in this, and he was under her roof. A small spark of indignant anger was enough to push her over the edge, and open the first page.  

The text was unreadable to her. If her memory served it might have been Latin, but languages had never held her attention at school. She could only frown at those pages, making out the odd word here and there. Feeling foolish, Rona began leafing through the pages, looking for something that might give her a clue as to how this hidden book was connected to Maxwell  Carruthers and his pet phantom. 

She found illustrations. Deathly familiar illustrations. They were ancient, drawn in the style of illuminated manuscripts, displaying a faceless, hooded thing towering over screaming figures.  Lashes of red ink surrounded the underlings. Beneath that illustration the words Sacerdotis ex  Dolorem had been written. 

Rona winced, pain beginning to ebb behind her eyes. She dismissed the headache, pushing on to search for more clues. What she could gather from the illustrations and small snippets of words she did recognise painted the picture of some kind of pilgrimage – a journey made hundreds of years earlier by the figure in the images. She could see the slightly bent corners on the paper where Carruthers had marked specific areas of text. More images of death began to fill the pages – the hooded figure growing insatiable with each fresh kill. The harrowing similarities with what had befallen Cruden Bay hit her like a truck. The headache was growing worse now, like something was pushing at the inside of her skull. For a moment she thought she heard a voice whisper her name. 

That feeling of being invaded was enough for Rona to make a snap judgement and do something. Whatever was happening between Carruthers, the book, and her, it needed to end.  Trembling with apprehension, Rona reached into her pocket and pulled out a packet of matches.  Striking one, she did not hesitate, touching the fire to those crisp, ancient pages. 

As the flames licked over the paper a banshee shriek ripped the air in two, and like the arrival of a thunderclap, Rona found she was no longer alone. Surging through the very wall of the room came a hooded, snarling figure, spitting curses in a language she did not understand and would never hear again. 

She might have screamed had she not been so terrified.  

The figure could be none-other than Cruden Bay’s tormentor, a thing in the tattered,  blackened robes of a monk, but with skin the colour of ash and fingernails like hooking talons.  Sickly, yellow eyes stared at her with a centuries-old fury, foul words tumbling from between broken teeth. The monstrosity stepped forward. 

And Rona Dugget, in her panic, threw the burning book straight at it. The smouldering pages exploded against the apparition’s chest, extracting another howl from the depths of hell itself that shook the building. Then the flames spread, grasping hungrily at the thing as though it fuelled them.  The fire took on a strange bluish tinge as it swirled like a living thing, entwining itself through the monk’s limbs. In a flurry of shrieking, cracking and snarling the blue-red fire bloomed in the confines of the room, before sinking down into the floor, hauling its thrashing burden along for the ride. 

In a matter of seconds, book, ghost and fire had disappeared, leaving nothing but a black scorch mark several feet across, and a very, very frightened hotel owner. Rona lingered in that strange place for perhaps a minute before her wits came rushing back with a vengeance and she went running from the room, ignoring the startled cries of guests disturbed by the commotion. She ran to the bar, drained a quarter bottle of the best whisky she sold before sinking into a sobbing heap. 

And on that beach, the one where Maxwell Carruthers took his stroll? Other beach-goers reported that the mild mannered bookseller suddenly started screaming, clutching his skull before sprinting away like a man possessed towards the northern woodlands. He was not seen again until  November 27th– several days later – discovered by search parties following the missing persons report that Rona Dugget had filed with them.  

Whatever dark things he’d been dabbling in seemed to have backfired with Rona’s burning of the book. His connection to the text and the thing within had apparently purged his mind. A  wandering, gibbering wreck, he no longer seemed cognisant of where he was or what was happening. 

Carruthers was remanded to a professional facility that we’ve been told not to name. At the time of writing he is still there. 

If you go to Cruden Bay now and ask about Maxwell Carruthers, and his book, you’ll be shown the door. The apparition he set loose on that small, quiet corner of the world is not something the town will thank you for reminding them of.  

And Rona?  

Well, we all have our monsters, and she had faced hers. She still runs her hotel, but she is a warier soul. Should you avail yourself of her custom, you might be subjected to more scrutiny than seems polite. Just know there is a very good reason for it.  

There are all kinds of things squirrelled away in the dark corners of the world.

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