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The old man said it would happen.  He said that Simon would forget the route to the bay.  Now, in the early morning dawn, Simon clambered across the rock-strewn shore straining his gaze into the bay for a glimpse of the isle; but it was too dim to discern anything through the thick fog.  All that he could see was the glass-like surface of the calm, dark water receding into the wispy mist.  He cared little for routes now.  The destination was the sole focus of his mind.

Simon looked like a figure from a by-gone era traversing this rugged shore in a long, woolen, white cloak.  He looked closer to an ancient druid than a well-to-do gentleman.  The old man was adamant about the cloak – going so far as to supply the garment himself.  He said it was the only attire that would ensure the meeting would take place.

Simon was beginning to wonder if he had discovered the wrong inlet when he spotted the boat mooring about fifty yards down the pebble-ridden shoreline.  He turned in its direction and picked up his pace in anticipation.  Arriving at the mooring, he quickly began to inspect its ancient structure.  The wood was aged, but timeless.  Not of any tree that had grown on this Earth for an unimaginable epoch of time, it appeared dark and shiny.  The metallic fastenings and accoutrements were of a metal no man could have identified.  They had a luster completely alien to anything Simon had ever seen.  He rubbed his hands over the wood and the metal fascinated by their texture and timelessness.

As he exercised his sense of touch, his gaze once again strained for the island.  Still concealed by the copious amounts of fog, it was useless to strain the eyes.  It was not like growing accustomed to a darkened environment.  No amount of re-focusing or iris adjustment would penetrate the cottony, ghost-like haze rising from the surface of the dark waters.  But it didn’t matter to Simon.  Oh no, he knew by the mooring, which his hands still caressed, that this was the destination he so longed for.  But now it was time to find a hiding place, for Death would be arriving soon to meet the Ferryman with another load of his precious passengers and this was the spot where the transfer of cargo would take place.

Simon picked his way up the eastward slope of the bay to find a place of concealment amongst the large boulders.  He wanted to find the perfect vantage point to witness both the island and the boat landing.  Finding a low spot behind a large rock outcropping, Simon squatted down into the cool shadows and tried to find a comfortable position to wait for the dawn’s events.

Simon turned his gaze from the misty bay towards the inland direction from which Death would be coming.  He tried to imagine in what form Death would appear.  Would it be as the Grim Reaper, with his black, hooded cloak and harvest sickle poised above his head like the antithesis of a halo, walking slowly in front of the dead as a shepherd leading its doomed flock?  Or would he be riding some nightmare steed and come with the long line of the dead, shackled in tow?  And then it struck Simon that he had never asked the old man in what form that ghastly apparition called Death would appear.  How very odd this seemed to him now.

Simon had more-or-less stumbled across the eccentric old man while in transit aboard The Juleinder from America to Scotland.  That particular night was a pleasant night – neither too cold nor too muggy.  A cool breeze was blowing out of the North Atlantic.  Simon went out onto the promontory bow for a cigar to complement his cognac after dinner.  He was enjoying the cool, night air when the old man joined him uninvited.  Rather than being put off by the intrusion, Simon was more than welcome for the company. “Delightful night is it not?”  The old man announced in a Scottish accent as he looked out across the sea.  He could have been talking to anyone, but Simon was the only one within earshot.

“Yes, sir, it is that.  Would you care for a cigar my good man?”  Simon offered out of politeness.  “They are from my farm in Winston-Salem.”

“That would be magnificent,” the old man replied.  Simon produced another cigar and assisted the old man with the lighting.  The old man took a long draw on the cigar, smacked his tongue and lips as if tasting a piece of cake then he exhaled the smoke and nodded in approval to Simon.

“Excellent cigar, lad.  So, you own a tobacco farm you say?”

“Yes, sir, it is a family business my father started, and I am now the chief executor of the estate and the family business.  The name is Simon Bancroft,” Simon said offering his hand in formal greeting.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance.  I am the Earl Roland McDermott.”

“Ah, a nobleman.  I am honored by your company,” Simon said in surprise.  He didn’t expect this elderly gentleman to be more than common folk.  Simon leaned his back against the railing of the ship and regarded the old man.

“Yes, but I am afraid it is little more than a title in this day and age.  I was out of my homeland for quite some time on business and upon my return I was saddened to discover that my family had mismanaged my estate and land holdings.  But, I am happy to announce that I have made great strides in the recovery of my estate and am just now returning from a very productive business venture in the United States.”

“Well,” said Simon growing more intrigued by this mysterious old man of royal blood, “I am pleased to hear of your recovering good fortune.  As I said, my business is the tobacco business, but my pleasure is something entirely different; and, while it is your business that brings you to my homeland, it is my pleasure that brings me to yours.  I should very much like to talk to you about my hobby so that maybe you can assist me on my trip.  I am quite a bibliophile, and I am going to Scotland in search of some antiquarian books.”

“Oh, you are a collector of classical texts then?” the old man said, his eyes lighting up with interest. 

“Well, in a sense, yes; but, to be more precise – books that are of an occult nature,” Simon said cautiously, not sure exactly how the elder gentleman would receive this.

The old man’s face broke into a broad grin and he said, “My son, I believe now it is me who must congratulate you on your good fortune.”

The two men talked through the night until the first tentative rays of light topped the distant, unobstructed horizon.  They did not even pause to enjoy the beautiful sunrise, so enthralled in tales of the arcane and forbidden.  The Earl told stories of ancient and forgotten locales that so intrigued Simon that Simon could swear the man had actually been there.  It wasn’t until late into the night, and several cognacs later, that the old man finally told of his intimate knowledge of the Isle of the Dead.  While at first Simon was skeptical of this tale, he was more than impressed with the Earl’s knowledge of the occult and especially rare books.

After making landfall the Earl invited Simon to his estate just north of Perth.  He promised him that it would be worth his time and promised fine hospitality.  Simon had several appointments in Edinburgh with book dealers but promised to rendezvous with the Earl at his estate in four days’ time.

Any doubts Simon had about the Earl’s integrity were quickly abolished upon beholding the Earl McDermott’s impressive library.  At first, he was thinking of avoiding the estate altogether but something in the old man’s mannerisms had arrested his intrigue.  The old man seemed to be a man out of place in the current day even more so than the average elderly person who is not “with the times” – almost as if the old man were from a bygone era of time.  Fortunately for Simon he decided at last to visit the estate, partly out of disappointment in his book hunting in Edinburgh and partly out of a peaked interest in the vague timelessness of the old man.

Upon beholding the rare and well-preserved texts in the library at the McDermott Estate the two men once again descended into conversations of the occult and arcane.  It was on this evening that the Earl McDermott swayed the conviction of Simon in regards to the existence of the Isle of the Dead.  The old man had been there himself!  Not only did the old man discover the location and visit the exact spot where Simon now waited amongst the rocks, he had met with Charon!  Yes, the old man had met with Charon, the Ferryman of the River Styx; and the Earl promised Simon that he too could make that same journey!

Simon was, of course, skeptical in the fashion of any man with sound reason.  That was when the Earl escorted Simon into the underground tunnels that led through secret, subterranean passageways, which appeared to have been carved from the rocks under the Scottish soil in ancient and mythical days.  Through twisting labyrinths of lichen and niter covered stone they progressed until they arrived at the Earl’s hidden prize – a small, circular room lined with ancient tomes.

“Here you will find the most forbidden and ancient works, dating back through the epoch of the human soul into the distant and remote infancy of our race.  There have existed many dark and secretive societies throughout time.  From the most sinister tribes of the darkest jungles to the most horrific and power mad dynasties.  What is represented here very few men would believe and even fewer have seen,” the old man spoke in a delicate whisper as if speaking his words too loud would invite the presence of ill forces.

Simon browsed the books without touching them in an awe he had never felt in his life.  The old man said, “It’s all right, go ahead and touch them.  I encourage you to read them.  Many are in languages that this Earth has not heard for eons of time; but these here are in Arabic, Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek.  These here are the ones that have been translated into English.”  Simon reverently touched the thirty or so books the old man had indicated.

“I will leave you to read now,” he said preparing to return to the main part of the mansion above ground.  “I shall return to retrieve you when dinner is ready and we shall discuss the things you have read.”  The old man left, the light of his lantern creating a flickering orb of light on the stone walls that slowly disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel.  Simon watched the old man go and then he began to devour the books like a stray dog on scraps.

It was in these forbidden and ancient texts that Simon discovered the most shrouded and clandestine knowledge ever uncovered by the human species.  Forces of such magnitude and mystery that most men would laugh in disbelief should they be touted in a public forum.  But here, here in these books, Simon found indisputable reason, logic, explanation, and even proof of things many cultures had only hinted at and few had directly encountered.  The ramifications of these things were mind-boggling, terrorizing, and even maddening.  When the old man returned to announce that dinner was ready, Simon was swarming with questions.  His entire outlook on reality had altered and he viewed the world in a new and radically alien comprehension.  The Earl smiled as one being “in the know” of some inside joke.

“You have plenty of time to read to your heart’s content.  Come now and let us eat and talk about the things you have read thus far.”

It was over dinner that the Earl offered to arrange the meeting between Simon and Charon.  “It was many years ago that I learned the name of Charon – his real name I mean.  It is essential to the task of meeting him to obey certain rites.  Charon used to be a mortal just like you or I and he has a mortal’s name.  It is imperative to speak his name when the time is right or else he will not heed you.  Charon is descended from the Germanic tribes and his name is Wilhelm Fruehling.  You must call to him his full name in order for him to be lured back to the shore,” the old man said pausing to take a long sip from his wineglass.  Simon had never had such exquisite wine pass his lips before.

“What do you mean, lure him back to the shore?”  

“You must wait till Death has delivered his cargo and departed,” the old man explained.  “Charon will come from the isle to the shore to meet Death when Death comes.  You must wait till Death has departed.  Death must not see you.  Must not.  As soon as Death leaves, you must hurry to call to Charon.  He has to prepare his cargo, but it doesn’t take long.  He will push back out into the waters, and you must call to him before he gets too far.”

“Will I be able to ride with him into the Underworld?” Simon asked.

“Yes,” said the old man.  “You must also wear a cloak like the one Charon wears on this journey.  You must be as inconspicuous as possible in the Underworld or else suspicions will be raised.  If you’re discovered, you may not ever return to this world.”  Simon leaned back heavily in the ornate and high-backed chair.  The thought of actually taking such a journey had his head spinning.  This on top of the knowledge gleaned from the books in the Earl’s secret repository was too much for one evening.  The Earl recognized this and saved the trouble of an excusal.  “My servants have prepared a room for you.  You have had quite an eventful day.  Get some sleep and we will have plenty of time to continue talking tomorrow.”  Then, just as the Earl was about to ring a bell sitting on the tabletop, he paused and said, “One more thing you must promise.  Never, ever, mention one word of the passages below my manor to anyone.  There are very few people in the world that know of their contents.  Do you swear to never tell a soul about it?”

“I promise.  On my word as a scholar and a gentleman, I promise,” Simon said looking the old man straight in the eyes.  “I thank you for allowing me into your confidence.  You are a most gracious host.”

“You’re quite welcome Mr. Bancroft.  I see something in you that I haven’t seen in anyone for quite some time. A trait that is very rare and very unique.  I think it is a combination of curiosity, fortitude, and a desperate need to know the truth.  Now I bid you goodnight and sleep well.”  Then the old man rang the bell and a servant arrived to escort Simon to his room.

“Goodnight, Earl McDermott.”

It seemed like an eternity but was really only about fifteen minutes before Simon realized that the sun was beginning to burn through the fog.  Instead of a roiling mass of fog above the water there were now thick columns of fog.  It was still very dark since the sun was just rising and was still obstructed by the overcast skies.  

Then Simon thought he heard the sound of water.  Could it be?  Yes! There again was the unmistakable sound of water being disturbed!  Very faint but it was there.  It was the rhythm of an oar dipping into the water.  Simon strained once again to locate the origin of the sound.

It continued for several minutes, slowly getting closer and closer, louder and louder.  And then, finally, the ferryboat emerged from the fog far out in the bay – a ghostly figure standing in the boat.  Its gaunt body draped in a white cloak just like the one Simon wore.  A long pole was in its thin hands, and it rowed with the slow precision of a dead leaf falling from a tree in autumn.   Charon’s face wasn’t visible.  The cowl of the hood hid any trace of a form beneath.  Simon’s heart was racing.  He beheld the boat and its occupant the way an old woman would behold an apparition in the night.  He forced himself to swallow hard and tried to regain his composure.  He was shaking and his breathing was labored and irregular.

Could he still go through with it?  Did he possess the will to rise from his haven amongst the rocks and approach this being that radiated such gloom and utter despair?  He seriously doubted if he could.  He could not tear his gaze from this figure.  He watched for many minutes as Charon made slow but deliberate progress to the boat mooring.

Simon was completely oblivious to the gradual increase in the brightness of the morning.  As Charon continued to get closer to the boat mooring Simon suddenly realized that the day had dawned and that the fog had lifted.  He turned his gaze back into the bay and beheld the awesome sight of the Isle of the Dead.  It was the most enigmatic and majestic terrestrial object he had ever beheld.  Most of the isle was a U-shaped, granite cliff.  The height and sheer vertical surface was staggering.  Simon estimated that these cliffs must be about forty or fifty feet high, but it was difficult to gauge such dimensions due to the distance and with no reference for measurement.  The inside of the “U” formed a small lagoon that was enclosed by a wall.  This wall was made of large rocks stacked in such a way as to form a barrier that extended from the tips of both arms of the “U” and met in the middle in two pillars of stacked rock that formed an entrance, or doorway into the lagoon.  In the very middle of the isle grew gigantic Cypress trees that towered over the lagoon.  These large Cypress trees cloaked the lagoon in an ominous darkness and prevented the eyes from penetrating that which the lagoon contained.  The most mysterious and strangest aspect of the isle was the queer doorways in the cliff walls at infrequent intervals.  No two doorways were at the same height and there appeared to be no steps or ladders with which to access these openings.  Each one looked as if it were designed with a different architecture from a different epoch of time.  One appeared to be in the Greek fashion with large, ornate columns flanking the arched aperture while another was little more than a hole in the cliff face.  Simon could not determine the purpose of these openings, but he knew that the isle was the gateway into the Underworld.

A noise of rattling chains aroused Simon from his hypnotic inspection of the isle.  Turning to determine the source of this sound his eyes found Charon reaching the boat mooring.  Simon thought that the sound was coming from Charon and the small boat, but this was not the case.  The sound was coming from further up the shore.  The squeaking, jangling sound was coming from the crest of the hill.  It was a wagon.  The wagon was black and square.  Simon had seen a similar looking wagon one time when a huckster had come through his town selling some kind of magical elixir.  But this wagon looked far more disturbing than the huckster’s flashy wagon.  Two thunderous black steeds with long flowing manes hauled this wagon; and the driver of the wagon was none other than Thanatos, Prince of the Dead.

Charon reached the boat mooring before the wagon of Thanatos but did not exit the boat.  The figure of Charon began to prepare a large burial shroud upon a platform inside the boat.  Meanwhile, the ebony wagon of Thanatos continued its rattling descent from the hill until it halted before the ancient pier.  The horses shook their massive heads and snorted steam into the clammy dawn.  Thanatos sprung off the wagon surprisingly quick – his black cloak swirling about but not revealing his form beneath.  He went around the back of the wagon and just as he was about to be lost from Simon’s point of view he stopped and turned.  Simon’s heart twisted in his chest as he froze in fear.  His breathing halted and his skin crawled with a million chemical needles of terror.  The eyes of Thanatos could clearly be seen beneath the cloak cowl, red and searching.  The moment lasted for only a brief second but to Simon it was the end of all perceived time – an eternity of doubts and fears in one agonizing second.  Then Thanatos disappeared behind the wagon to retrieve his cargo.

A large, amorphous mass of undulating souls was herded from the wagon.  Distinct body parts could occasionally be seen emerging from the main body of the mass as Thanatos, the Reaper of Souls, nipped around them as sprightly as a dog about sheep.  They were driven onto the pier and then aboard the ship.  Once onboard the boat they were wrapped in the shroud that Charon had prepared, at which point they became as still as the bodies which they had so recently vacated.  Upon completing the placement of the shroud the souls took on the form of one, single dead body lying on the platform in the boat – still and lifeless.  Thus they were set for their final journey into the Underworld.

Thanatos, having delivered his cargo, bounded back across the mooring, swung into the driver’s seat, and set his steeds in motion.  The wagon lurched and began to climb the hill.  Charon, having settled the souls, untied the boat, picked up a long pole, and pushed away from the pier.  Simon watched the wagon receding, his heart thundering in his chest as he waited for the right moment to emerge from his concealment.  The boat was drifting further out into the bay, and it seemed as if the wagon would never disappear.  Simon feared that his window of opportunity would be lost and that he would never have this chance again.  The moments were tense, and his gaze kept flitting back and forth between the wagon and the boat, trying to determine the right moment.  Finally, he could not endure another second, so he cautiously rose and began a low run towards the boat mooring.  The wagon was just cresting the hill.  He reached the mooring and ran to the edge.  He looked back to see the wagon disappear, and then he turned, raised his hands to his mouth and began to call out, “Wilhelm!  Wait!  Wilhelm Fruehling, come back!”

He kept calling, not knowing if his cries were reaching the vessel when finally, the figure turned and looked back.  He heard!  Charon heard his real name!  The boat began to slowly turn under the guidance of the mysterious figure.  Simon tried with all of the ocular intensity he could muster to penetrate the darkness of Charon’s cowl, but to no avail.  Slowly the boat made its way back to the pier and Simon grew more and more uncomfortable.  The morning fog had now completely lifted but the sky remained overcast and gloomy.  The sunlight only served to provide a sickly, yellow glow giving a surreal aura to the day.

The boat reached the mooring for the second time with a soft thump.  Simon still could not see the face of Charon.  An awkward moment passed as the two figures stood in silence and then Simon began to speak.

“My name is Simon Bancroft, and I am an acquaintance of the Earl McDermott.  He told me how to get here and that you could take me to the Underworld.  He said that I should call your real name and wear this cloak and that I…”

Simon trailed off into silence as Charon lifted one skeletal hand in a gesture of silence.  Then Charon extended his hand and motioned for Simon to board the vessel.  This was it!  Simon’s mind was flooded with conflicting impressions. Excitement, trepidation, and bewilderment all fought for superiority of Simon’s emotions.  He went to lift one foot towards the boat and was suddenly struck as if he were embedded in a thick viscous fluid.  His foot was sluggish and felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds.  This physical feeling was accompanied by a similar psychological feeling of weightiness.  It was as if this decision to climb aboard carried with it great ramifications and a strong will to continue was required.  There was no doubt for Simon though.  His mind resolved long ago to attend this journey.

The feeling passed as quickly as it arrived, and Simon’s foot reached its destination in the boat.  Once aboard, Simon stood just a few short feet from Charon – the body of the dead souls lying between them.  Charon leaned forward as if studying Simon’s face then he raised his hands to his hood and pulled it back to reveal his skull.  Simon stared transfixed into the dark orbits of Charon’s eyes – so vacant yet, so full of life.  The two regarded each other for several moments.  Simon couldn’t help but feel a sense of the macabre as he gazed upon the grinning visage of the Ferryman to the Underworld.  But, strangely, he felt in no danger from this deathly form.

Charon straightened back up and offered Simon one of his skeletal hands.  Simon looked at the hand.  Did Charon intend to shake his hand in greeting?  Simon found this normal gesture so out-of-place in this fantastic setting that he hesitated in confusion for a second.  Then he lifted his hand and wrapped it gently around the frail hand of Charon and said, “Nice to meet you Wilhelm.”  But the hand of Charon was not as frail at it appeared.  The bones of the hand locked around Simon’s hand in a grip that was inescapable.  Simon at first winced and then he tried to pull away, but it was useless.  What was happening?  Simon’s eyes darted back and forth between Charon’s face and their locked hands.

“What is the meaning of this?  Let go!  Let go of me you beast!”  Simon shouted and pleaded trying to free himself desperately from the clutch of Charon.  His struggle was met only with the demonic grin on the skull of Charon.  Simon continued to scream and fight until something altogether unexpected occurred.

Simon fell into a shocked silence as the transformation began.  The tissue of Charon began to reform around the bones.  Tendons, ligaments, vessels, and muscles all weaving and knitting together at an incredibly fast rate.  Simon was so transfixed by the regenerating man in front of him that he didn’t notice the opposite happening to himself.  By the time he realized, his hand was nothing more than exposed muscle and veins.  The air was filled with the wet, sticky sound of tissue and blood churning and roiling along the two men’s bodies.  The horror of the situation struck Simon as he realized what was happening.  But now he was helpless to do anything.  He couldn’t even speak now that his mouth was no more than a bony smile.

The transformation ended and Wilhelm stood before Simon as he looked before he became Charon.

“Vell Mr. Bancroft,” Wilhelm said with a thick German accent, “I bet you are regretting coming to zis place now.  No?”  Simon looked at his skeletal hands, turning them back and forth.  “It vas a long time ago that I vas in your place and your Earl McDermott vas here vhere I am now,” Wilhelm continued massaging his newly formed face.  “Don’t vorry zough, one day I shall find you a suitable replacement and send zem here.  But, until zen, enjoy your living hell in ze Undervorld.”

With this he began to laugh uproariously as he climbed out of the boat.  Simon tried to follow him, but he was overcome with the same feeling of extreme heaviness that gripped him before.  This time, however, he didn’t possess the strength to fight it.  Wilhelm saw him struggle and turned to say, “Don’t bozer trying to get out Mr. Bancroft.  It is a fruitless effort.  Believe me I tried for years; and now I must be gone but not before I have zanked you for freeing me from zat God forsaken damnation.”

He danced down the pier and began to jog up the hill.  Simon watched him go, helpless to do anything about it.  All Simon could think about was the brewing hatred he felt for the Earl McDermott.  When he got out of this accursed state, he would murder that deceitful bastard!  That was a promise he intended to carry out and all of the legions of Hell could not stop him!

Wilhelm halted part-way up the hill and called back, “In case you are vondering how long I vas in your current state I must tell you I lost count after about twenty years!  But, if I vas to guess, I vould say fifty years is about right!  Oh, and don’t vurry about Earl McDermott!  After I find him and kill him myself, you vill get your revenge vhen Thanatos brings him back here!  Goodbye Mr. Bancroft!”

Simon watched him until he crested the hill and was lost from sight.  How would he recognize the Earl in that amorphous conglomeration of souls?  Simon looked at the sheet covering the communal body in the boat and wondered.  He reached down and slowly raised the corner to peer at what was underneath.  The sight he beheld would come to be a common sight for him over the years that followed.  But the first time a person beholds a sight so disturbing there can be no words to describe the torment and disgust.  Simon recoiled from the body in shock.  It was a writhing mass of contorted faces groaning and pleading for mercy.  Some were gaping open, and others were twisted in grief and pain.  It was their eyes!  The utter hopelessness of their damnation was reflected in their eyes!  But every day in the years that followed Simon would force himself to take inventory of everyone, looking each one in the face until he found the man who had sentenced him to this demented prison.

When Wilhelm got out of sight of Simon, he began to talk to himself.  After all, it had been quite a long time since he had exercised his vocal cords – or had any for that matter.

“Poor Mr. Bancroft.  His hell is only just beginning.  I haven’t the heart to tell him that Earl McDermott rode the boat vith me yesterday.”


The artwork that inspired this story was originally done by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. He did several versions of the same image with slight variations. The following are three of his versions:

Several artists have creation their own versions of the picture. Here is a version done by H.R. Giger (of Alien artistry fame).

The artist Guang Yang did this variation that incorporates Cthulhu in it.

Finally, this next image is a panel from the graphic novel Dune done by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. The illustrators of this are Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín. Notice what picture is hanging on the wall.

The Russian artist Ksenia Svincova, who goes by the name Iren Horrors, created this image of the ferryman Charon.

These next images are results from the AI Artist program Wonder with prompts “The Isle of the Dead” and “Charon”.

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