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.

 

Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “The Devil and Tom Walker”

“The Devil and Tom Walker” is next up in the table of contents of American Gothic Short Stories, but rather than include it in my most recent “A.G. Exemplary?” post, I have made it the next installment of a newer feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” (a blogging follow-up to my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition) explores further Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic.

Included in Part IV (“The Money Diggers”) of Irving’s 1824 volume Tales of a Traveller, “The Devil and Tom Walker” is listed–much like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”–as having been “Found Among the Papers of the Late Diedrich Knickerbocker.” Also like “The Legend,” the tale has multiply frames: it’s presented as a yarn told by a Cape Cod whaler (who learned it from a neighbor) to Knickerbocker while they were out fishing off the Eastern shore of Manhattan one morning. Despite such narratorial displacement, “The Devil and Tom Walker” is marked by the typical humor of Knickerbocker himself. Irving’s Dutch scribe familiarly blurs the historical and the fictional, the factual and fantastic, with references to “the most authentic old story” and “the authentic old legend,” and comments such as “It is one of those facts which have become confounded by a variety of historians.”

Tom Walker’s journey home through a “thickly wooded swamp” outside Boston recalls Ichabod Crane’s travel through Sleepy Hollow after leaving the Van Tassel quilting frolic. Just as Ichabod is unnerved by natural sounds such as bullfrog croaks and the rubbing of tree boughs, Tom is “startled now and then by the sudden screaming of the bittern, or the quacking of a wild duck, rising on the wing from some solitary pool.” Sleepy Hollow is steeped in superstition by local villagers, and the wooded area Tom traverses likewise proves rich in lore: “the common people had a bad opinion of [the lonely melancholy place] from the stories handed down from the time of the Indian wars; when it was asserted that the savages held incantations here and made sacrifices to the evil spirit.” Sure enough, Tom soon encounters the axe-carrying “Black Woodsman” (a.k.a. “Old Scratch”), but his reaction to the sinister figure is the opposite of the cravenly Ichabod’s to the Headless Horseman. Evoking the comic misogyny of “Rip Van Winkle,” Knickerbocker records that “Tom was a hard minded fellow, not easily daunted, and he had lived so long with a termagant wife, that he did not even fear the devil.”

As is his wont, the devil tries to strike a deal with Tom, who will be shown the location of the pirate Captain Kidd’s buried treasure in exchange for his forfeited soul. Tom balks at the offer, but his miserly wife, upon learning of the diabolical dialogue when Tom gets home, is determined to strike the deal with the Black Woodsman herself. Laden with household valuables, she ventures out into the swamp, and is “never heard of more.” Her absence might be due to a devilish dispatch: some locals “assert that the tempter had decoyed her into a dismal quagmire on top of which her hat was found lying.” A mysterious disappearance, a hat left behind as evidence of foul play–Mrs. Walker’s fate appears to match Ichabod’s at the end of “The Legend.”

Searching for his wife (or more accurately, for the “household booty” she stole off with), Tom makes a grisly discovery of a “heart and liver” tied up in the woman’s check apron. Tom is hardly distraught, though, over the implied slaughter of Mrs. Walker; he feels “something like gratitude toward the black woodsman, who he considered had done him a kindness.” Looking more favorably upon the devil, Tom agrees to the original bargain. He is instantly rewarded and leads a wealthy life, but when death approaches begins to regret his decision and dread damnation. Desperate, he sets “his wits to work to cheat [the devil] out of the conditions. He became, therefore, all of a sudden, a violent church goer.” Tom is also said to have “had his horse new shod, saddled and bridled, and buried with his feet uppermost; because he supposed that at the last day the world would be turned upside down; in which case he should find his horse standing ready for mounting; and he was determined at the worst to give his old friend a run for it.” This envisioned equine escapade suggests the racing with the ghostly Hessian in “The Legend”–a parallel that grows even clearer after Tom unwittingly dooms himself. Responding to a borrower’s grouse (“You have made so much money off me”), Tom (who turned usurer as part of the infernal pact) impatiently blurts, “The devil take me if I have made a farthing!” Tom’s denial serves as an immediate summons, as the devil shows up at the door holding a black horse by the rein: “The black man whisked [Tom] like a child into a saddle, gave the horse a lash, and away he galloped with Tom on his back, in the midst of a thunderstorm.” This abduction and mad gallop off into the swamp is reminiscent of old Brouwer’s story of meeting the mischievous Horseman in “The Legend.” And just as Ichabod Crane becomes a ghostly legend after allegedly having been spirited away from Sleepy Hollow, Tom Walker achieves spook status at tale’s end: “the neighboring swamp and old Indian fort are often haunted in stormy nights by a figure on horseback, in a morning gown and white cap, which is doubtless the troubled spirit of the usurer.”

Besides reflecting back upon “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” this Knickerbocker tale anticipates a long literary tradition of deals/duels with the devil (cf. Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster”; Robert Bloch’s “That Hellbound Train”). In its detailing of an infernal encounter in a sylvan Massachusetts setting, “The Devil and Tom Walker” also points toward Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Irving’s Black Woodsman (who identifies himself as “the grand master of the Salem witches”) sounds a note of religious hypocrisy that Hawthorne would later echo. Responding to Tom’s insistence that the grounds belonged to Deacon Peabody, Old Scratch seethes: “Deacon Peabody be d—–d, as I fancy he will be, if he does not look more to his own sins and less to those of his neighbors.” The devil directs Tom’s attention to a great tree, “fair and flourishing without, but rotten at the core”: “On the bark of the tree was scored the name of Deacon Peabody, an eminent man, who had waxed wealthy by driving shrewd bargains with the Indians. [Tom] now looked around and found most of the tall trees marked with the name of some great man of the colony, and all more or less scored by the [Black Woodsman’s] axe.” Exposing secret sin in a cutting woodland scene, “The Devil and Tom Walker” establishes itself as a quintessential American Gothic short story.

 

Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “The Adventure of the German Student”

The second installment of a new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic (a blogging 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.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is not the only Washington Irving story that deals in decapitation. There is another, much more horrific tale in which a beheaded revenant plays a central role: “The Adventure of the German Student” (from Irving’s 1824 book Tales of a Traveller).

The piece is one of the interlocking “Strange Stories by a Nervous Gentleman” that comprise the book’s first part. Laid up by a winter storm at the family mansion of their host (an old bachelor Baronet named Sir John), the members of a hunting party pass the evening by trading ghost stories. “The Adventure of the German Student” is the fourth story shared, by “an old gentleman one side of whose face was no match for the other. The eyelid drooped and hung down like an unhinged window shutter. Indeed, the whole side of his head was dilapidated, and seemed like the wing of a house shut up and haunted. I’ll warrant [says the nervous gentleman] that side was well stuffed with ghost stories.” The old gentleman with the “haunted head” points out that the previous tales (which included one of his own, “The Adventure of My Uncle”) that evening “had rather a burlesque tendency,” but promises that this next offering “is of a very grave and singular nature.” And then proceeds to deliver one harrowing narrative.

His tale is steeped in Gothic themes and atmosphere. The title character, an intellectual over-reacher who “had wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students,” brings to mind Victor Frankenstein (just as Shelley’s modern Prometheus descends into graverobbing to procure the materials for his workshop of filthy creation, Irving’s German student haunts “the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their hoards of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy appetite. He was, in a manner,  a g[h]oul, feeding in the charnel house of decayed literature.”). He also anticipates Poe: similar to Roderick Usher, the German student suffers from a “mental malady” and is convinced “that there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition.”

Walking the streets of Paris one terribly tempestuous night during “the height of the reign of terror,” the German student spots the “horrible engine”–the guillotine–and a female figure slumped at the foot of the scaffold. She is soaking wet, drenched in woe, and dressed in all black (the “broad, black band around her neck, clasped by diamonds” suggests a person of wealth/station deposed by the Revolution). The German student immediately takes pity on her, and is astonished to discover that her face is an exact match of the “transcendent beauty” that has been appearing in his dreams. He takes the woman back to his apartment, where he is “so fascinated by her charms, there seemed to be such a spell upon his thoughts and senses, that he could not tear himself from her presence.” Defying convention and common sense, he promptly proposes an informal betrothal: “I pledge myself to you for ever.” But the next morning, the German student finds his bride “lying with her head hanging over the bed, and one arm thrown over it.” Attempting to rouse her, he realizes she is a “pallid and ghastly” corpse. Frantic, the German student “alarm[s] the house,” and when the summoned police officer arrives on the scene, he wants to know what this woman’s body is doing there, because “she was guillotined yesterday!”  He proves his claim by undoing the figure’s black collar, which causes her head to fall away from her body and roll onto the floor.

As if such macabre development weren’t horrid enough, the German student quickly grasps its dark implication: “The fiend! The fiend has gained possession of me!” he shrieks. “I am lost for ever!” He is inconsolable, “possessed with the frightful belief that an evil spirit had reanimated the dead body to ensnare him. He went distracted,” the narrative abruptly concludes, “and died in a madhouse.” A grim and sinister tale to be sure, yet one that then attempts to rebound from its recounted horrors. Asked about the veracity of his story, the old gentleman with the haunted head replies, “A fact not to be doubted. I had it from the best authority. The student told it to me himself. I saw him in a madhouse at Paris.” In one stroke, the gentleman with the haunted head comically undercuts his own reliability as a narrator at tale’s end (what was he doing at the madhouse–just visiting, or sharing a room?). Still, this frame (which rarely appears when “The Adventure of the German Student” is anthologized) does not mitigate the unnerving quality of the preceding tale, the most shocking (and seriously Gothic) one Irving ever wrote.

 

Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “Rip Van Winkle”

This new feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic forms a blogging follow-up to my eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition. “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” will explore other Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic. In today’s inaugural post, I cover Irving’s second-most-popular tale, “Rip Van Winkle.”

Published (June 1819) nine months before “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “Rip Van Winkle” prefigures the latter piece in many ways. Both works are framed as found texts of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, and take the same satirical approach to Dutch customs and characteristics. They are both set in the Hudson region of New York (“Rip” is centered north of the Valley, in the Catskills), and their principal event transpires on “a fine autumnal day.” “Rip Van Winkle” even references an absentee schoolmaster (Dutch rather than Connecticut Yankee) said to be serving now “in congress”–anticipating the missing Ichabod Crane at the end of “The Legend,” rumored to be a justice in the Ten Pound Court.

At the start of “Rip Van Winkle,” Knickerbocker depicts the Catskills as “faery mountains” with “magical hues and shapes.” He might not just be waxing poetic here, though, as the area appears to be the haunt of otherworldly beings. While on a squirrel-hunting (and shrew-wife-avoiding) foray into the mountain wilds, Rip encounters a mysterious group of “grave roysters” playing at ninepins (later in the story, a village elder well-versed in local lore claims the figures were the spirits of Hendrick Hudson and the crew of the Half-Moon). When Rip unwisely partakes of the crew’s strange brew, he ends up as spellbound as any human visitor who samples the fare of the faery realm. Rip falls so deeply comatose, he loses two decades of his life during a seemingly single night’s sleep.

However weird this supernatural forwarding of Rip in time might be, it really serves as little more than a plot device. The true eeriness of the tale develops after Rip awakens from his long slumber. Unable to identify his home, family, or familiar haunts, Rip is struck by an awful sense of the uncanny: “Strange names were over the doors–strange faces at the windows–everything was strange. His mind now misgave him; he began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched.” Rip also suffers an identity crisis when he spies a doppelganger of his younger self (actually his loafing, chip-off-the-old-block son): “I’m not myself–I’m somebody else–that’s me yonder–no–that’s somebody else got into my shoes–I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they’ve changed my gun, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name or who I am!” But Rip’s terrors are gradually assuaged, and the story’s more unsettling notes give way to a comic misogyny: Rip draws comfort from the discovery that he has outlived his henpecking wife, who “broke a blood vessel in a fit of passion at a New England peddler.” While the shadow of ambiguity hangs over the conclusion of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (did the frightened Ichabod run off, or was he “spirited away” by the Headless Horseman?), Rip’s liberated fate clearly makes for a light-hearted ending.

Yet, interestingly, Knickerbocker’s Postscript to the tale swings the pendulum back towards supernatural atmosphere, as the Catskills are posited as a perennial “region full of fable” and “the abode of spirits.” Native American superstition is explicitly invoked:

In old times, say the Indian traditions, there was a kind of Manitou or Spirit who kept about the wildest recesses of the Catskill Mountains, and took a mischievous pleasure in wreaking all kinds of evils and vexations upon the red men. Sometimes he would assume the form of a bear, a panther, or a deer, lead the bewildered hunter a weary chase through tangled forests and among ragged rocks, and then spring off with a loud ho! ho! leaving him aghast on the brink of a beetling precipice or raging torrent.

Such mischievous, animal-associated racing calls to mind the equine hijinks of a certain Galloping Hessian (cf. the Headless Horseman’s legendary pranking of old Brouwer: “they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge, when the horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the treetops with a clap of thunder.”). The connection grows even more tantalizing in the final paragraph of the Postscript, which recounts the washing away of a hunter following a mishap involving a gourd(!) in the Manitou’s “favorite abode.”

A look back at “Rip Van Winkle” reminds the reader of the aptness of the tale’s pairing (in subsequent book publications and TV adaptations) with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” over the past two centuries. These are not just Irving’s two most famous stories, but fantastically similar as well.