The Thin Veil: An All Hallows Eve to Remember
Werewolves, witches, vampires, ghosts, goblins and demons are de rigueur for American Halloween celebrations. The creepier and scarier, the better. Homes are decorated with skeletons, spiders, eerie lights, webs and dark passages. Candles in carved pumpkins reflect grinning smiles and pointed teeth. Dracula, Frankenstein, zombies and orcs guard the doors. In the background wolves howl and the screams of the undead echo through the yard waiting for brave trick or treaters. Small children in their Pixar or super hero costumes approach warily, receive their treat and exit holding even tighter to mom or dad’s hand.
Ridgeway Grandfather Clock built in 1981. St. Michael’s Chime
But not all the world shares our American Halloween traditions. There are cultures that celebrate All Hallows Eve as a night of magic believing at midnight the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead gets thinner.
[Click the images for bigger versions.]
According to the About Entertainment website article: “The Lost Meaning of Halloween”:
All Hallow’s Eve, Hallow E’en, Halloween, Day of the Dead, Samhain. By whatever name it has been called, this special night preceding All Hallows day (November 1st) has been considered for centuries as one of the most magical nights of the year. A night of power when the veil that separates our world from the Otherworld is at its thinnest.
— Christian Hummel
In some countries such as Austria, it is traditional to leave bread, water and a lighted lamp on the table that night to welcome the dead souls back to earth. (see the Pumpkin Patches and More website)
The Thin Veil between worlds is not only a cultural tradition in some areas, it is a popular subject in both folklore and fiction.
Robert E. Howard like many other horror writers used it to great effect and in his fictional worlds, it wasn’t just limited to one night a year. In fact, journeys through these opaque openings to other worlds are a common theme in Howard’s poems. For his characters, it’s possible for both the human and the inhuman to make the journey in either direction for whatever reasons. Some of these journeys, like that of Falume in “The Ride of Falume” are voluntary.
Falume of Spain rode forth amain as twilight’s crimson fell
To drink a toast with Bahram’s ghost in the scarlet land of hell.
His rowels clashed as swift he dashed along the flaming skies;
The sunset rade at his bridle braid and the moon was in his eyes.
The waves were green with an eery sheen over the hills of Thule
And the ripples beat at his horses’ feet, like serpents in a pool.
On vampire wings the shadow things wheeled round and round his head.
Till he came at last to a kingdom vast in the Land of the Restless Dead.
Getting to this “Land of the Restless Dead” is not easy. Howard’s directions are vague: leave at twilight headed East with the moon in your eyes and ride over the hills of Thule and its waters. You’ll know you’re going in the right direction if “shadow things” on “vampire wings” start wheeling round and round your head.
Once Falume gets to this Land he states who he is and why he is there.
They thronged about in a grisly rout, they caught at his silver rein;
“Avaunt, foul host! Tell Bahram’s ghost, Falume has come from Spain!”
Then flame-arrayed rose Bahram’s shade: “What would ye have, Falume?”
“Ho Bahram who on Earth I slew where Tagus’ waters boom,
“Now though I shore your life of yore amid the burning West,
I ride to Hell to bid ye tell where I might ride to rest.
As always, Howard’s characters have a good reason for this journey:
My beard is white and dim my sight and I would fain be gone.
Speak without guile: where lies the isle of mystic Avalon?
For a hell-moored soul, Bahram is very obliging and gives him further directions.
A league behind the western wind, a mile beyond the moon,
Where the dim seas roar on an unknown shore and the drifting stars lie strewn.
In the USA, one linear league is equal to three miles. What may take longer to determine is where the western wind ends. Once this is done though, the other direction given is a mile beyond the moon. At their point of intersection, is an unknown shore. Since you’re beyond the moon, “drifting stars” will probably lie strewn everywhere.
Falume does not specifically state what he expects to find in “mystic Avalon”; but from his reaction to these last words of Bahram, it obviously wasn’t this:
The lotus buds there scent the woods where the quiet rivers gleam,
And king and knight in a mystic light the ages drowse and dream.
Then, in a perfect example of “be careful what you ask for,” Falume sees the whole picture and changes his mind about this mystic place just as his goal is in sight.
With sudden bound Falume wheeled round, he fled through the flying wrack
Till he came again to the land of Spain with the sunset at his back.
“No dreams for me, but living free, red wine and battle’s roar;
I breast the gales and I ride the trails until I ride no more.”
Falume made the journey in both directions. The veil between the worlds lifted twice for him. While his quest took him into hell, it was not his final destination. In fact all thoughts of white hair and dim sight seem to be forgotten when he chose life and “living free, red wine and battle’s roar.”
In “Rebel” the trip is involuntary. It’s Death itself that lifts the Veil between two worlds for the narrator. Hell again is definitely his port of call and boldly he journeys into this Lower Region challenging the devil to a game of cards for the rule of hell with a surprising stake that interests the Devil.
And where the gleaming charcoal sheened
I dared the Devil’s ire,
For man is stronger than the fiend
And fiercer than the fire.
I swaggered through the Flaming Land
‘Mid shadows red and black
And gripped him by his taloned hand
And smote him on the back.
“Damnation’s fire!” I roared, “I trow
“I heard the goblets clink!
“Have ye not courtesy enow
“To bid an old friend drink?
“I served ye long upon the earth
“Whose lands I held in fee
“And if I may not join in your mirth
“No comely host are ye!”
The narrator and the devil drink and dine in hell and after the meal the human offers to “gamble the devil for ruler of Hell.”
His laughter rose in red disdain
Among the sooty flues.
Said he, “Ti naught I have to gain
“And naught ye have to lose.”
“Nay, I’ve a girl that’s worth it all,
“I would not give nor sell,
“All golden-haired and fair and tall.
“I’ll match her ‘gainst your Hell!”
When the devil asks:
“But she is of the living land!
“Then how may this thing be?”
The Rebel responds:
“If I but beckon with my hand
“To Hell she’ll follow me.”
When the devil wins the throw of dice, the narrator goes back through the Veil to the living world to fetch his girl.
I leaped along the old time road,
White in the moonbeam haze,
And to her latticed window strode
As in my boyhood days.
Across her winsome, youthful cheek
The moonlight’s silver fell.
“Rise up, rise up! And do not speak
“But follow me to Hell.”
Swift from her window then she sprung
And never word did say
As lightly o’er my arm I flung
And carried her away.
We whirled like phantoms through the air
And rose a fearful yell
As through the crimson sulphur flare
I bore her into hell.
And Satan smacked his lustful lips
And burning was his stare,
While to her slim and shapely hips
Fell down her golden hair.
Then swift and sudden did I see
That I had been a fool
And that slim girl was more to me
Than all of Hades’ rule.
Again, just when this young man is about to get what he asked for and pay his debt to the Devil, like Falume, he changes his mind.
And as he seized her by the hand
I snatched from out its place
A scarlet, blazing, Hell-fire brand
And dashed it in his face.
They both flee the realm of Hell, “leaving the flaming hordes behind.”
I dare not now the halls of Hell
But roam about the earth
An eery flitting phantom fell,
A wind like unseen mirth.
But in the nighttime oft I whirl
To a bower by the sea
And from the window steals a girl
With golden hair, to me.
She’ll be no other’s love nor wife
And here she does not err
For though for me she’d given life
I gave up Hell for her.
In “Rebel” the journey took him to hell and back twice. In “Moon Mockery” the Thin Veil opens and closes again for a round trip. But the return destination is not a question of where, but when.
I walked in Tara’s Wood one summer night,
And saw, amid the still, star-haunted skies,
A slender moon in silver mist arise,
And hover on the hill as if in fright.
And soon I was aware, as down I came,
That all was strange and new on every side;
Strange people about me to and fro,
And when I spoke with trembling mine own name
They turned away, but one man said: “He died
In Tara Wood, a hundred years ago.”
Quests in Howard’s fictional worlds can pierce the Thin Veil. Falume visited Hell seeking information from Bahram and the Rebel left and returned to bring the Devil his prize. Quests though aren’t the only reason. Hatred and the desire for revenge thins the rift between the two worlds in “Dead Man’s Hate.”
They hanged John Farrel in the dawn amid the market-place;
At dusk came Adam Brand to him and spat upon his face.
“Ho neighbors all.” Spake Adam Brand, “see ye John Farrel’s fate!
“Tis proven here a hempen noose is stronger than man’s hate.”
For heard ye not John Farrel’s vow to be avenged on me
Come life or death? See how he hangs high on the gallows tree.”
Yet never a word the people spake, in fear and wild surprize –
For the grisly corpse raised up its head and stared with sightless eyes.
John Farrel’s corpse chases Adam Brand through the streets “And the dead joints cracked and the stiff legs creaked with their unwonted task./So through the shuddering market-place, the dying fled the dead.” But not for long.
At the riverside fell Adam Brand with a scream that rent the skies;
Across him fell John Farrel’s corpse, nor ever the twain did rise.
There was no wound on Adam Brand but his brow was cold and damp,
For the fear of death had blown out his life as a witch blows out a lamp.
His lips were writhed in a horrid grin like a fiend’s on Satan’s coals,
And the men that looked on his face that day, his stare still haunts their souls.
Such was the doom of Adam Brand, a strange, unearthly fate;
For stronger than death or hempen noose are the fires of a dead man’s hate.
Not only hate and revenge can rift the Thin Veil, so can love. In “The Queen of the Black Coast” Bêlit declared her love for Conan.
The shadows were black around him,
The dripping jaws gaped wide,
Thicker than rain the red drops fell;
But my love was fiercer than Death’s black spell,
Nor all the iron walls of hell
Could keep me from his side.
—The Song of Bêlit.
And she proves this after her death by distracting The Winged One long enough for Conan to reach his sword and slay it. For Bêlit and the Rebel, they entered the Gates of Hell when they died. Falume found it by riding East over the hills of Thule. In “Dweller in Dark Valley” the entrance has a physical location.
The nightwinds tossed the tangled trees, the stars were cold with scorn
Midnight lay over Dark Valley the hour I was born.
The mid-wife dozed beside the hearth, a hand the window tried—
She woke and stared and screamed and swooned at what she saw outside.
Her hair was white as a leper’s hand; she never spoke again.
But laughed and wove the wild flowers into an endless chain;
But when my childish tongue could speak, and my infant feet could stray,
I found her dying in the hills as the haunted dusk of day.
And her darkening eyes at last were sane; she passed with a fearsome word:
“You who were born in Dark Valley; beware of the Valley’s lord!”
As I came down through Dark Valley, the grim hills gulped the light;
I heard the ponderous trampling of a monster in the night.
The great trees leaned together, the vines ensnared my feet;
I heard across the darkness my own heart’s thundering beat.
Damned be the dark ends of the earth where old horrors live again,
And monsters of lost ages lurk to eat the souls of men!
I climbed the ridge into the moon and trembling there I turned—
Down in the blasted shadows two eyes like hellfire burned.
Under the black malignant trees a shapeless Shadow fell—
I go no more to Dark Valley which is the Gate of Hell.
Not all the portals in Howard’s poetry lead to “the Land of the Restless Dead.” Some offer access to this world for such as the ancient foul beings and Shapes in the “The Black Stone.”
They say foul beings of Old Times still lurk
In dark forgotten corners of the world,
And gates still gape to loose, on certain nights,
Shapes pent in Hell.
Even Time and Space are not a barrier for the Shapes in “The House in the Oaks” or the horrors they bring with them.
Behind the Veil what gulfs of Time and Space?
What blinking mowing Shapes to blast the night?
I shrink before a vague colossal Face
Born in the mad immensities of Night.
Once they come through an entrance, swamps, moors and fens seem to be popular settlements for creatures from the other side. However, these are not the only places they lurk. The monster in “The Thing on the Roof” comes much closer.
They lumber through the night
With their elephantine tread;
I shudder in affright
As I cower in my bed.
They lift colossal wings
On the high gable roofs
Which tremble to the trample
Of their mastodonic hoofs.
But, in folklore these portals are not just entrances for hellish creatures. In most cultures, these doorways may be used by departed family members and Halloween is a time when special preparations are made to receive them. On All Hallows Eve when the Veil is the thinnest, it is possible for anyone from the other side to come forth into this world.
Anyone? Historic faces flashed across my mind until I remembered according to tradition, it is a time for departed family to visit the living.
As I mulled over questions about family history, my eyes fell on The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard. It is opened to a favorite poem. True, he is not a family member, but if strong emotions such as hate, revenge and love can transcend worlds, what about gratitude for the enjoyment his stories and poems have given me?
Could that work? Logic quickly dismisses all this as fantasy.
Yet… many people believe legends and folklore have some basis in fact.
Can the fabric of logic be rent? Will it or fantasy prevail on this magical night? It’s too early to tell but either way I have nothing to lose. I’ll be prepared. I discard the idea of greeting him with bread and water (how is that enticing?) His preferred food and drink?
In “A Pledge” he mentions both:
You fed me on rolls and hot roast beef
Till I was ready to burst,
And poured out gallons of foaming ale
To quench my horrible thirst.
In the untitled “And palm-trees are waving in the gulf breeze”, I found something else:
I went across the Rio Grande
And viewed the great Tequila land.
When my grandfather clock strikes Midnight on All Hallows Eve, along with a candle, there will be bottles of tequila, craft beer and ale on the table to welcome him. Oh, and lots of hot roast beef sandwiches in case he brings any friends.
A Magical, Happy Halloween to all…
This article was originally published at The Cimmerian.
Barbara Barrett’s last article for us was The Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava, October 25, 1854.