Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “Guests From Gibbet-Island”

A long overdue dispatch from the Macabre Republic, and return to this particular blog feature (a follow-up to my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition). “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” explores further Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic.

In “Guests From Gibbet-Island: A Legend of Communipaw” (first published in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1839 and collected in Wolfert’s Roost and Other Miscellanies in 1855), Washington Irving returns to the Dutch American material that established his literary reputation. The tale–framed as a manuscript submission to the editor of the Knickerbocker by Barent Van Shaick–is set not in a sleepy region of the Hudson Valley but a few miles southwest in “the ancient and renowned village of Communipaw” (modern-day Jersey City). Shaick’s narrative opens, in venerable spook-story tradition, with the description of a desolate building “of most ruinous and sinister appearance.” The place was once a village tavern of “primeval tranquility” (despite being the stronghold of Nederlander patriots hoping to take back control of Manhattan from British invaders and American Yankees alike) before being turned into a private residence when inherited by the tavern owner’s nephew, Yan Yost Vanderscamp. A “real scamp by nature,” Vanderscamp recalls the “rough waggery” of Brom Bones in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” As a youngster, Vanderscamp was notorious throughout Communipaw for

[…] playing tricks upon the frequenters of the Wild Goose; putting gunpowder in their pipes, or squibs in their pockets, and astonishing them with an explosion, while they sat nodding around the fire-place in the bar-room; and if perchance some worthy burgher from some distant part of Pavonia had lingered until dark over his potation, it was odds but that the young Vanderscamp would slip a briar under his horse’s tail, as he mounted, and send him clattering along the road, in neck-or-nothing style, to his infinite astonishment or discomfiture.

This “propensity for mischief” displayed from an early age only develops when Vanderscamp falls in with an impish black figure named Pluto, who is viewed with “superstitious awe” by the locals. Together the two engage in a spree of neighborhood thievery. They later disappear from the area for a time, and some inhabitants of Communipaw maintain (in terms echoing the seeming fate of Ichabod Crane) “that old Pluto, being none other than his namesake in disguise, had spirited away the boy to the nether regions.”

Eventually, Vanderscamp and Pluto do return, along with a crew of rough-looking roisterers. The whole jolly gang hunkers down at the Wild Goose and proceeds to stir up the quiet community with its “orgies”: “Such drinking, singing, whooping, swearing; with an occasional interlude of quarreling and fighting.” It soon grows obvious to all around the Vanderscamp and company are pirates using the site as a hideaway. The scandalous upheaval continues, until governmental crackdown on the pirate lifestyle (which includes the execution of a trio of Vanderscamp’s comrades on nearby Gibbet-Island) leads the captain to settle down into marriage and resort to more covert smuggling activities. During one such operation on a stormy night, Vanderscamp is rowed by Pluto close past Gibbet-Island and beholds “the bodies of his three pot companions and brothers in iniquity dangling in the moonlight, their rags fluttering, and their chains creaking, as they were slowly swung backward and forward by the rising breeze.” Vanderscamp is visibly unnerved by the grim scene, but responds to Pluto’s taunting with a show of bravado: “Here’s fair weather to you in the other world,” he calls out to his late lads, “and if you should be walking the rounds to-night, odds fish! but I’ll be happy if you will drop in to supper.”

According to Shaick’s narrative, “old Pluto chuckled to himself” upon hearing Vanderscamp’s invitation to the dead pirates–a reaction that suggests he knows more about the situation than he lets on. When the drunken Vanderscamp returns home, he is greeted by a sobering sight: his three former friends are already sitting there “with halters around their necks, and bobbing their cups together, as if they were hob-or-nobbing.” The frightful image of the revenant revelers causes Vanderscamp to fall down the staircase to his death; his demise leads to the place being pronounced “a haunted house.” Its uncanny reputation only grows with reports of further hellraising by supernatural guests invited there by Pluto. Then, following an especially tempestuous night filled with “sounds of diabolical merriment,” a disturbing scene is discovered: “The house [cf. the description of Ichabod Crane’s schoolhouse following the mischief of the Sleepy Hollow Boys] had indeed the air of having been possessed by devils. Every thing was topsy-turvy.” Worse, the widow Vanderscamp is found lying “with the marks of a deadly gripe on her wind-pipe.” She might simply have been murdered and her house robbed by some actual buccaneers let in by Pluto. But the more superstitious members of the Communipaw populace “surmised that the negro was nothing more or less than a devil incarnate, who had now accomplished his ends, and made off with his dues.” The ambiguity–so typical of Irving’s Gothic fictions–remains unresolved, even after Pluto’s body washes up on the rocks of Gibbet-Island following a skiff wreck.

“Guests From Gibbet-Island: A Legend of Communipaw” has aged poorly in its resort to racial caricature, its extensive demonizing/dehumanizing of the black character Pluto. Readers willing to overlook this facet, though, are rewarded with a thrilling experience. The tale goes lighter on the satirical humor that marks a Knickerbocker-framed work like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” but offers plenty of dark atmosphere and sinister resonance.


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