Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow by Christina Henry (Berkeley, 2021)
This engrossing novel (Henry has a knack for crafting chapter endings that leave the reader helpless but to turn the page) returns to the enchanted region of Sleepy Hollow and presents the village and surrounding woods in all their rural, autumnal, and dark magical splendor. Set three decades after the events of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Horseman offers a convincing extrapolation of what life has been like for the Van Brunt family in the time since Brom and Katrina wed. It also fills in some of Irving’s longstanding blanks along the way, most notably in the case of what happened to Ichabod Crane the night he was pumpkin-thumped on that fateful ride home from the Van Tassel quilting frolic.
The book is narrated by fourteen-year-old Ben Van Brunt (whose grandparents are Brom and Katrina): a rambunctious adventurer in rebellion against the roles mapped out by family upbringing and village life. Such narrative perspective gives Horseman a certain young-adult feel, but make no mistake, this is an unflinching horror novel. Its plot feels like Irving’s “Legend” by way of Stephen King’s The Outsider: a fiendish creature is preying on young boys, savagely devouring their heads and hands (and leaving behind corpses that decompose in gruesomely advanced manner). With its scheming-warlock and evil-seducer character types, its woodland forays, and its thematic concern with haunting family legacy, the book also conveys a strong American Gothic atmosphere.
By the end of the first chapter, Henry reveals an interesting twist: Ben (short for Bente) is actually a female who isn’t just going through some tomboy phase; the character insistently identifies as male. At first, this might seem a jarring choice by the author, a retroactive importing of modern issues into the early-19th Century. But Ben’s desires prove easily understandable within the world of the novel, considering his idolizing of his grandfather Brom (who in turn treats Ben like the son he tragically lost). Ben’s liminal status is also integral to the plot: the character’s unusual appearance (dresses have been ditched for breeches) causes him to be deemed “unnatural” in the eyes of the provincial villagers, and he faces suspicion and persecution as the body count from the bizarre murders rises. Ben experiences moments of terrible peril and suffers some serious harm during the novel, but is also aided by a curious connection with the notorious Horseman of local lore.
A word of warning: this is not the ghostly, galloping Hessian created by Irving. The salient characteristic–headlessness–is even lacking here. Henry’s version of the Horseman (who remains in the background for much of the narrative) is more guardian spirit than harrying goblin. This could prove disappointing to readers expecting the majestic headhunter popularized by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Nevertheless, Henry deserves credit for her fresh take, her refusal to follow the same old chase-to-the-churchyard path. Casting its own captivating spell, Horseman is a welcome addition to the ever-growing body of literature that has developed from Irving’s classic story.