The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions, stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.
–“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
Washington Irving’s classic ghost story brought a certain “galloping Hessian” lasting fame (I track the cropped figure’s long legacy in my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture”), but this equestrian terror doesn’t represent the first or last of his kind. Here are nine more “dark horse” candidates who take readers on a wild and wicked ride. I’ve eschewed the obvious and excluded the apocalyptic quartet in The Book of Revelation; nevertheless the prize literary specimens presented below all succeed in putting the “eek!” in equine:
1. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
Dante populates the 7th Circle, 1st Ring of Hell with the hybrid creatures of classical myth, the Centaurs. These literal horse-men patrol the banks of Phlegethon (the boiling river of blood in which the Violent Against Their Neighbors are immersed) by the thousands. Renowned hunters while haunting the world above, these “agile beasts” now work to ensure that the agony and indignity of damnation extend eternally, as they aim their bow-and-arrows “at any soul that thrusts / above the blood more than its guilt allots.” With their fiendish reputation (cf. Ovid’s account in Metamorphoses of the orgy of violence they instigate at the wedding feast of Pirithous and Hippodamia), the merciless centaurs make for fitting enforcers in the Dantean underworld of organized punishment.
Burly, hirsute, vested in verdure colors, and mounted on a steed of strange emerald shade, the title knight cuts a sublimely striking figure as he trots into King Arthur’s court and tempts Sir Gawain into a beheading game. The giant reaches the apex of dreadfulness when–following his axing by Gawain–he casually gathers up his own decapitated head, holds it aloft, and continues to address his stunned audience. The pumpkin-chucker of Sleepy Hollow has nothing on this headless horseman when it comes to constituting a terrifying rider.
3. “The Wild Huntsman” by Sir Walter Scott
This 1796 translation/adaptation of the 1778 Gottfried August Bürger poem traces the grim fate of a foolish earl who is spurred on his Sabbath-scorning pursuit of a white stag by a sinister rider atop a steed with “the swarthy hue of hell.” The earl callously tramples man, animal, and nature alike, until he is divinely cursed to be himself chased by a pack of hellhounds and a “ghastly huntsman” with “eyes like midnight lightning.” This “dreadful chase” is decreed to last until the end of days, and the human quarry receives not a moment’s respite from the infernal predators in the meantime: “By day they scoured earth’s caverned space, / At midnight’s witching hour ascend.” The Wild Huntsman’s determinedly tormenting sport makes him one of the most frightening figures in all of legend and literature.
4. “Metzengerstein” by Edgar Allan Poe
Poe’s first published tale (1832) centers on a “fiery-colored” steed that appears to have leapt supernaturally into the world from a Gothic tapestry and perhaps contains the transmigrated soul of Baron Frederick Metzengerstein’s enemy, Count von Berflitzling (who perished while trying to rescue his favorite mount from a Metzengerstein-set stable fire). Metzengerstein develops a “perverse attachment” to this volatile creature, but his midnight rides have a cursed, compulsory quality: Poe’s story climaxes with this absolutely horrified horseman (“no sound, save a solitary shriek, escaped form his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through, in the intensity of terror”) destroyed by a mad dash up into his own towering inferno of a palace.
5. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
The straits get dire straightaway when Frodo and friends venture beyond the bucolic sanctuary of their Shire. The hobbits are relentlessly menaced by mysterious Black Riders, cloaked/hooded man-shaped figures whose faces are veiled in shadow. These nine horsemen haunt their prey “like phantoms of the woods”; when on foot, they move “like shades of night creeping across the ground.” They are eventually revealed to be supernatural Ringwraiths, eldritch trackers who can “smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it.” These ghostly huntsmen (riding actual black horses bred in Mordor) also wield dark-charmed blades that deliver worse-than-mortal wounds. Sauron’s shock troops form staunch antagonists throughout The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but nowhere do the Nazgul prove more ghoulish than in Book One of The Fellowship of the Ring.
6. Firestarter by Stephen King
The explosive climax of King’s 1980 novel begins with a burning stable, from which a group of fear-crazed horses flee in trampling stampede. But the most horrifying horses in Firestarter are of the mental and imagistic variety. Human lab rat Andy McGee uses his uncanny telepathic powers to set a “weird merry-go-round” spinning in the addled mind of his captor, Cap Hollister. The price for exerting such mental domination is an agonizing headache, the onset of which is described as “inexorable as a riderless black horse in a funeral cortege”: “Thud, thud, thud, riderless black horse with red eyes coming down the halls of his mind, ironshod hooves digging up soft gray clods of brain tissue, leaving hoofprints to fill up with mystic crescents of blood.” That is one nightmare of a migraine.
7. The Pet by Charles L. Grant
Christine meets “Metzengerstein” in this 1986 novel by the king of atmospheric horror. Don Boyd is a bullied, beleaguered high schooler who is avenged not by a haunted car but rather an imposing black horse that has impossibly come to life from Don’s bedroom poster. Massive and darkly majestic, this unruly “pet” billows “smoke, maybe steam” from its flared nostrils; its thundering hooves spark “greenfire” of the same colorful blaze as its baleful gaze. Like a four-legged slasher figure (Jason Voorhees spliced with Irving’s Horseman), the stalking stallion dishes out bloody justice to the ostensibly deserving, and the kill scenes are thrillingly scripted by Grant. Even the avowed animal lover Don comes to fear the exacting actions of his shadowy protector, “an ebony ghost flying through the boiling fog.”
8. “Dark Carousel” by Joe Hill
Something wicked comes pummeling in Hill’s 2018 tale, which gives an even more harrowing spin to the Bradburian carnival ride. Stationed on a seedy seaside pier, the infernally-glowing, dirge-sounding Wild Wheel features “a uniquely disquieting collection of grotesques” as mounts for riders. Perhaps most striking is the team of white horses (reportedly salvaged from “Cooger’s Carousel of Ten Thousand Lights” following a devastating theme-park fire). Frozen in mid-lunge, the horses display mouths that “gaped as if to shriek,” and eyes that “seemed to stare blindly at us with terror or rage or madness.” As if not daunting enough in stasis, the strange steeds come to life, vacating the carousel to hunt down the story’s protagonists following certain acts of transgression against the ride and its creepy operator. Wild horses can’t be broken, but human bodies certainly can, and Hill’s narrator recounts the subsequent assault in savage, brain-branding detail.
9. “White Mare” by Thana Niveau
“Halloween ain’t some kiddie fun fair” in the Somerset village of Thorpe Morag, where a pair of outsider Americans (who have inherited an English farmhouse from a distant relative) come face-to-mask with unnerving “old customs.” On Halloween night, the locals dress up and act out the “terrible ritual” of the titular spirit horse (figured by a white sheet topped by a grinning animal skull): “The community went from house to house, the Wight Mare and her demon entourage, where offerings would be made to ensure that the door between worlds would close at dawn.” When Dave Barton and his daughter Heather fail to appease the Wight Mare by welcoming in the guisers and offering them food and drink, they lose Heather’s beloved pet Callisto to a Godfather-style bit of mischief. This grisly sacrifice, though, only precipitates some awful payback, since Heather had formed quite an unusual bond with her horse.
Any glaring omissions above? Feel free to take the reins and steer another entrant into this macabre derby in the Comments section below.