The Banshee of Sleepy Hollow?

In a previous post this week, I covered various written works that were inspired by Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Such narratives are unabashed in admitting their primary literary influence, but there’s another story that can be added to the list, one whose connection to “The Legend” is less overt but still discernible. I am talking about Herminie Templeton Kavanagh’s 1903 novella “The Banshee’s Comb” (one of her Darby O’Gill tales).

Anticipating the classic Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Darby in “The Banshee’s Comb” has an encounter with the Costa Bower, a great “black coach that comes in the night to carry down to Croagmah the dead people the banshee keened for.” Significantly, said coach features a driver whose “head is cut off.” To be fair, the figure of the decapitated dullahan is a staple of Celtic lore, and many scholars would argue that Irving himself had the coach driver in mind when creating the Headless Horseman. The truth of such claim is debatable, but my interest here lies with Kavanagh’s apparent drawing on Irving when presenting the frightful driver in her tale. Darby actually refers to the figure as “the headless coachman,” a clear echo of the Headless Horseman. In the climax of “The Banshee’s Comb,” Darby sees the Costa Bower and what he mistakes for a dead passenger in its carriage (but who turns out to be Darby’s friend, Brian Connors, the king of the fairies, come to assist him). Similar to Irving’s playful tone in “The Legend,” Kavanagh’s scene puts the premium on comedic effect. The severed head of the coachman, who is given the prosaic name Shaun, starts weeping because of Darby’s resemblance to an old flame, Margit Ellen O’Gill: “If it wasn’t for yer bunchy red hair,” Shaun tells him, “an’ for the big brown wen that was on her forehead, ye’d be as like as two [peas].”

Other textual details in “The Banshee’s Comb” furnish further testament to its indebtedness to Irving’s tale. Despite his intimacy with the Good People, Darby maintains a deep dread “of all other kinds of ghosts,” and his trepidation (stemming from an overactive imagination) when sent out on a lonely errand by his wife on Halloween night recalls Ichabod Crane and his fearful trek through Sleepy Hollow after leaving the Van Tassel’s party. Approaching “the bridge in the hollow just below the berryin’-ground,” Darby spots “a slow, grey, formless thing without a head” and believes it to be “a powerful, unhowly monsther tower[ing] over him,” but it turns out to be only a neighbor’s wayward donkey. Darby’s ensuing hijinks with the beast are reminiscent of Ichabod’s experiences with the devilishly difficult horse Gunpowder. “The Banshee’s Comb” even makes mention of a “wild chase” of a wandering beggar woman by the phantom coach, “an’ if she’d been a second later raichin’ the chapel steps an’ laying her hand on the church-door it would have had her sure.”

In my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), I discuss how the alleged “spiriting away” of Ichabod Crane by the Galloping Hessian connects back to fairy lore (that Irving likely learned from his literary idol, Walter Scott). It seems somewhat apropos, then, that Kavanagh recurs to Irving’s story and characters when scripting her humorous supernatural tale filled with elements of Celtic mythology. The Headless Horseman–legendary for his nightly beelining back and forth between churchyard and battlefield– has now come full circle.

 

[Citations of “The Banshee’s Comb” taken from its publication in Marvin Kaye’s anthology, The Ultimate Halloween]

 

“Gunpowder Plots”

From my 2014 collection Autumn Lauds, here’s a poem that takes a different perspective onto “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

 

Gunpowder Plots

He’s shagged and gaunt, has one eye ghosted over,
Hasn’t pulled a plow or done more than plod in years.
Yet every lazy day his mind races back to that midnight dash,
To the horrid goblin that gave such determined pursuit.
His own panic at the time rendered his course erratic;
He’d defied direction from his whip-happy, rib-kicking rider.
Unsaddled, the lanky man had struggled to remain mounted
But was shortly knocked headlong by braining gourd.

That hapless horseman has been long lost,
But his equine hope for a second endeavor never so.
If somehow he could escape the confines of this farm,
He would search every last stretch of the Hollow for
The black steed and its head-lacking commander,
And draw them back into chase toward the church bridge.
This time he wouldn’t let up until the other beast was
Completely outdistanced, left choking the dust of utter defeat.

With memory and reverie blinkering his mind’s eye,
He fails to note the approach of his owner, Van Ripper,
Who has rue in his look, and a pistol in his fist.
Old Gunpowder is blindsided by the fired shot;
The eponymous explosive scorches his wounded hide.
Still, he is unwilling to abandon his equestrian quest.
Destroyed but not dispirited, he’s off and running
Even as his sorry carcass keels to the ground.

 

Lore Report: “Skin Deep” (Episode 155); “Bottled Up” (Episode 156)

 

“Skin Deep” (Episode 155)

 

There are stories and legends we’ve told ourselves for centuries, from tribal campfires to Hollywood blockbusters. But many of the details have been worn away or buried beneath the waves of time. They were once part of the larger picture, but now they are all but forgotten. So today I want to take you on a journey into the past, to explore one of our favorite corners of folklore, and see what the shadows might be hiding. But be warned, because while the core of this legend might be familiar to most of you, there’s a darkness just beneath the surface, waiting to break free. And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, there are few creatures of folklore more terrifying than the werewolf.

Aaoooooo! Episode 155 of the Lore podcast goes heavy on the lycanthropy. Host Aaron Mahnke delves well beneath the surface here, delivering all the information the listener likely never knew before about werewolves. Mahnke unpacks the various ancient beliefs as to what a werewolf actually was (which included a connection to witches). He also covers the alleged causes of the hirsute condition, the various triggers of transformation, the personal traits of a werewolf when in human form, and the proposed (and often savage) “cures” for the afflicted. If such things as wound legends, backriders, werewolf trials, and the “Hounds of God” (a pack of benevolent werewolves) are unfamiliar to you, you will have a howling good time listening to “Skin Deep.”

 

“Bottled Up” (Episode 156)

Sometimes our guesswork prevents us from seeing the truth. We think we know something, but if we are given the chance to explore the true details, we can find ourselves surprised by what we discover. The lens through which we view the world is far from clear, so let’s spend some time trying to clean it up a bit. But be warned, because sometimes what lies within is entirely unexpected.

Episode 156 of the Lore podcast presents another subject quite germane to the Halloween season: witchcraft. Host Aaron Mahnke has dealt with witches in several previous episodes, but here he aims to surprise anyone who believes that he or she has heard the whole story already. Transporting listeners to the Essex County village of Canewdon in England (whose church tower–pictured above–sports an intriguing witch legend), Mahnke focuses on the objects and measures of “countermagic.” Prime among these is the fascinating, if disgusting, concoction known as a witch bottle–containing a hardly-potable brew (e.g., pins, nails, alcohol, human hair, fingernail clippings, urine) used to lure, trap, and even destroy witches. Mahnke momentarily invokes the notorious figure of Matthew Hopkins (portrayed by Vincent Price in the folk horror classic, Witchfinder General), but devotes more attention to the white witchery of “cunning folk” such as James Murrell. For those willing to cast aside their assumptions about the subject of witchcraft, “Bottled Up” serves as a terrific listen.

 

 

The Literature of Sleepy Hollow

(painting by William Wilgus)

 

While doing the research for my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), I encountered countless written works inspired by Washington Irving’s 1820 tale. Plenty of these qualified as glorified fan fiction and were downright painful to read, but thankfully there were also many entertaining texts. Here’s a list of eight great reads that hearken back to Sleepy Hollow:

 

1. “Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving

Not many readers realize nowadays that “The Legend” doesn’t constitute the only time Irving wrote about Sleepy Hollow. In this 1839 work creative nonfiction (presented as an essay by Irving’s pseudonymous narrator, Geoffrey Crayon), Sleepy Hollow is revisited in resplendent fashion. Crayon relates his connection to Diedrich Knickerbocker, fills in the backstory of how the latter learned of “The Legend,” and details the modern innovations that have now intruded upon the quaint village–doing all in a comedic tone that makes the essay a fine companion piece to the original story.

 

2. Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Tellingly, the first ghost story interpolated in Straub’s 1979 novel (which revolves around the frightful fireside tales passed among the haunted members of the Chowder Society) is a variation on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (ultimately mashed up with The Turn of the Screw). The narrator recounts his experience decades earlier as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in a rural New York village, and his encounter with the malevolent revenant of a man that perished from a grievous head injury. How thematically appropriate that Straub’s complex narrative of spook tales come to terrifying life draws upon Irving’s tale of a schoolmaster harassed by a seemingly all-too-real local legend.

 

3. Sleepy Hollow by Peter Lerangis

This 1999 novelization is a must-have for fans who just can’t get enough of the Tim Burton film adaptation. Lerangis follows the cinematic narrative faithfully, capturing Burton’s Hammer-Horror-style revision of Irving in vivid prose. A special treat is the scene at novel’s end involving the retreat of the no-longer-Headless Horseman with Lady Van Tassel into the Tree of the Dead–a scene presented here from the Horseman’s very own point of view.

 

4. Sleepy Hollow High by Christopher Golden and Ford Lytle Gilmore

This quartet of linked novels (Horseman [2005], Drowned [2005], Mischief, [2006], Enemies [2006]) is marketed as young adult fiction, but can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Sleepy Hollow is besieged by a series of terrifying monsters, all linked in some fashion to the legendary Headless Horseman. The Horseman himself proves plenty frightening, but his character arc over the course of the four novels allows him to range beyond mere decapitating menace.

 

5. Rise Headless and RideBridge of Bones, and General of the Dead by Richard Gleaves

The first three volumes (2013/2014/2015) of the Jason Crane series (which also includes 2018’s Salem: Blood to Drink) are set square in a modern-day Sleepy Hollow that is haunted by its early history. These novels draw lovingly on the original “Legend” and transform its materials into an epic narrative centered on the Headless Horseman (whose mythos is thoroughly developed, and whose imagining here is unrivaled for inventiveness). Featuring a diverse cast enmeshed in supernatural intrigue, Gleaves’s books read like True Blood by way of Washington Irving, and are positively begging to be developed into a Netflix series (shot on location in Sleepy Hollow!).

 

6. Grimm Fairy Tales Presents: Sleepy Hollow by Dan Wickline

This modern retelling actually reimagines the Headless Horseman as an avenging hero–which isn’t to say that the figure (who looks from the neck stump down like Gene Simmons on steroids) has been stripped of menacing aura. Grue is splashed across the page in this graphically violent graphic novel, in which the Horseman stalks his prey with all the relentlessness and killer creativity of a classic cinematic slasher.

 

7. The Devil’s Patch by Austin Dragon

Irving’s story is reworked as a weird western in this 2015 novel (a sequel to Hollow Blood), in which a gunslinging posse travels far north of Sleepy Hollow in an attempt to kill the infernal Horseman in his new lair. I include this one on the list for its thrilling climax, blood-soaked and action-packed, and featuring one incredibly surreal image of the Horseman that will not be soon forgotten by the reader.

 

8. The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel by Alyssa Palombo

Ichabod in a bodice-ripper? Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Palombo pulls it off in this atmospheric and historically-accurate gothic romance. The novel also works as a “feminist retelling” (as Palombo terms it in her author’s note) of Irving’s story, as Katrina is situated here as narrator, central character, and ultimate recorder of the Horseman’s legend. Various female writers have offered their take on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in recent years, but this spellbinding book is head and shoulders above the rest.

 

Come Climb Up into the Treehouse of Trivia

The baseball playoffs have pushed this year’s Treehouse of Horror episode until November 1st, but that doesn’t mean that The Simpsons has been bumped from the Halloween season. In honor of the upcoming Treehouse of Horror XXXI, I will be posting a Treehouse of Trivia quiz here to this blog on Saturday, October 31st. The quiz will contain 31 questions, and cover material from the first 30 Halloween specials. I hope to challenge even the most devoted of Treehouse fans. Here are the types of question you can expect:

*True or False? Kang, Kodos, and the Leprechaun have made cameo appearances on every single Treehouse of Horror episode to date.

*Complete the quote (from the ToH III segment “Clown Without Pity”): When Homer runs naked through the kitchen (after being chased from the bathtub by the evil Krusty doll), Patty announces to her sisters, “There goes the last __________________.”

*For the Halloween specials, the Gracie Films logo at the end of Simpsons episodes is changed to feature ominous organ music and a shrill scream. Name at least one other change made to the logo presentation over the course of the Treehouse series.

*Which of the following is NOT one of the alterations to the future caused by Homer’s time traveling in the ToH V segment “Time and Punishment”?
A) Ned Flanders becomes unquestioned lord and master of the world
B) Bart and Lisa appear giant-sized and try to crush Homer
C) Marge is married to Artie Ziff instead of Homer
D) No one knows what donuts are
E) The Simpsons have reptilian tongues

 

Stumped by these? A perfect reason to do some Treehouse of Horror bingeing on Disney+ this week. Have fun boning up, and good luck with the Treehouse of Trivia quiz this Halloween!

History Lessons: “Body Horror” (Episode 2.3)

Some juicy nuggets from last night’s body-horror-themed episode of the docuseries Eli Roth’s History of Horror

 

Joe Hill: So in Hellraiser, who’s the monster, what is the menace? I think the menace is really obsession, you know, much more than the demons. You go with the demons when you can’t rise above your obsessions, your own fixation with the puzzle box. When you’ve turned away from your wife and into that unhealthy fixation.

 

Mick Garris: [David Cronenberg] had lost his mother to cancer and was experienced with seeing the decline of the human body from within, a revolt from within. And so much of his work is about a body in revolt, and changing, and turning septic and almost evil.

 

Dana Gould: Body horror is a meditation on the transitory nature of the human form. We all get old, we all decay. That’s true horror to people.

 

Katherine Isabelle: Walking around in a female body is terrifying. You’re a target, you’re an object, and I think that part of the reason why we have all these walls, is obviously to protect us.

 

Eli Roth: And that’s what the disease becomes in Cabin Fever. You’re with your best friends, but you’ve got to isolate them, or you’ve got to kill them, because whatever is inside them could get inside you. And suddenly you’re not seen as a human anymore. And I think there’s something very real about that. You know, when lepers have leprosy, what do we do, we isolate them. When SARS happened, when this disease you don’t understand–tent them off. People want to get out–too bad: epidemic, population control, can’t let them get out. There’s something really, really scary about that.

 

Eliza Skinner [on Society]: Obviously, it’s like all a metaphor about propriety and fitting in, and also capitalism, and having the upper class act as though they’ve got access to much finer things, when really, they have access to much more upsetting and debased things.

 

Eli Roth [closing commentary]: Sometimes disgusting, often disturbing, but always powerful, body horror films make us question our prejudices about physical difference, our attitudes about sex and gender, our fear of disease and contamination, and how much our appearance determines who we are. They confront us with the beauty and horror of being human.

Horseman Hymns

While doing research for my new book, I was really surprised at the number of songs that the Headless Horseman has inspired (in an host of musical genres, but especially heavy metal). Here’s a Sleepy Hollow Playlist of some of the standouts:

🎃 Bing Crosby: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Joe Satriani: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Marcel Bontempi: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 The Polecats: “Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 They Might Be Giants: “Headless”

 

🎃 Pigmy Love Circus: “Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Attic: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Last Pharaoh: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Pegazus: “The Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 Deathless Legacy: “Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 William Allen Jones: “Here in the Hollow”

 

🎃 William Allen Jones: “Headless Horseman”

 

🎃 William Allen Jones: “The Galloping Hessian Rides”

 

New Book Release for the Halloween Season

I am thrilled to announce the publication of my new book, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition (available now as a Kindle eBook). This one has been years in the making, and I did massive amounts of reading and research for it, so it is a great feeling to see the project finally completed.

Amazon is still in the process of activating the “Look Inside” feature for my book, but in the meantime you can read the book’s description on the product page. You can also check out the Preface and an excerpt from the Bonus Essay (“Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture”) on the dedicated page here on my website.

Hope you all enjoy the new book. Happy Halloween Season!