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!

A Laird and a King (Who Goes By Hill)

Just finished watching the livestream for this month’s edition of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series (hosted by Matthew Kressel and Ellen Datlow). Tonight’s event featured two of my favorite writers (and two absolute giants of genre fiction): Laird Barron and Joe Hill. They each gave a spirited reading of their work: Barron of a creepy story in progress called “Lorn”, and Hill of an excerpt from his mind-blowing novella Faun. The readings are bracketed by an opening chat with the hosts and a concluding Q&A segment (the authors address such topics as their favorite read of the year, their favorite villain, their recommended horror film for Halloween-time viewing). Barron and Hill definitely have different personalities (the former being more laid back, and the latter an unabashed cut-up), but made for a great pairing; both shared wonderful insights about the horror genre. Two hours of pure entertainment that seemed way too short. I could listen to these guys talk 24/7.

Don’t fret if you missed the live event; here’s the video (which has already been posted to YouTube):

Grand Entrance

Today is the launch date of the new, limited-run podcast, Aaron Mahnke’s 13 Days of Halloween. After listening to the premiere episode, “The Entrance,” I am already firmly hooked.

The podcast might be best described as a combination of old-time radio drama and anthology series. It is set in the fictional Hawthorne Manor–an “architectural anomaly” designed by a madman, and a quintessential Gothic abode featuring (as “The Entrance” teases) a legendary hidden doorway. The place now stands as a remote hotel populated by strange guests, one of whom is introduced each night by the creepy, narrative-framing Caretaker (affectedly voiced by Keegan-Michael Key). The episodes are recorded in 3-D binaural audio, so the listener (cast as a new arrival at the manor) enjoys an immersive experience, complete with hissing rain and howling wind in the background. When the Caretaker introduces you to the storyteller, who recounts his dark tale (in dramatic monologue style) with you supposedly sitting in the same room, the proceedings take on the air of dreadful confessional. Today’s guest/speaker, Soren, shares a narrative of paranoid doomsday-prepping and family dysfunction, one that has a sinister twist.

So many of the traditional Halloween rituals are likely to be spoiled this year by the COVID-19 pandemic, but this clever podcast promises to make the holiday season enjoyable nonetheless. For the rest of October, listeners can relish staying home, as they put on a pair of headphones, dim the lights, and soak up some wonderful autumn atmosphere.

 

Fright Favorites (Book Review)

In his introductory essay to his latest book, Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond, David J. Skal notes the concurrent emergence of both Hollywood and Halloween “as significant cultural fixtures” in the early 20th Century. Skal asserts: “Americans have always believed that a malleable identity is our birthright, that we all have the prerogative and power to become anyone or anything of our individual choice. Like Halloween, Hollywood is about dressing up and acting out all the possibilities of our mercurial national personality.”  From here, Skal sketches a brief cinematic history of Halloween, a terrific account that I only wish had gone on at greater length.

Skal devotes a chapter to each of the 31 films heralded by the book title. Since the book is produced in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies, there is an emphasis on older films, but Skal does show good historical range, starting with Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and concluding with Get Out. Along the way, he covers holiday-centered films such as Halloween and Hocus Pocus. It should be pointed out that much more than a mere plot summary is offered in each chapter. Skal demonstrates his excellence as a film scholar, furnishing fine insight as well as a wealth of behind-the-scenes information. Anyone who has ever read Skal’s amazing study The Monster Show knows of the author’s knack for situating horror in its cultural context, and he does the same for the films considered here. Another fun feature of each chapter is the “If you enjoyed…you might also like…” sidebar sections, presenting quick accounts of related films (so really, readers are treated to the discussion of 62 films overall).

Admittedly, I bought this book mainly because of the byline on the cover, since I am a huge fan of Skal’s work (e.g., Halloween: The History of America’s Darkest Holiday, Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula). I fully expected another volume filled with enjoyable prose, but what I was not prepared for is what a gorgeously illustrated book this is. It brims with screen shots, publicity stills, and reproductions of movie posters, the various photos appearing in both black and white and vibrant color. Fright Favorites proves the quintessential coffee-table book for horror lovers, one they will want to proudly display not just in October but all year round.

Lore Report: “Hold On” (Episode 153)

 

There are some things we’d all like to forget, yet they manage to hold on, like unwanted houseguests. And few places in American history have been more defined by the past than one east coast city. Whether serving as a stage for violent conflict or a deep well of creative expression, its legacy casts more than a few shadows along the way, and I want to take you there. But be warned, because in Baltimore that dark past has stayed remarkably close to the present.

Among the many things to appreciate about October is the fact that during this month, the Lore podcast shifts to a weekly schedule of releases. In this week’s episode, “Hold On,” our host and tour guide Aaron Mahnke leads us through the haunted history of the city of Baltimore. He starts with Fort McHenry, which is notable for more than the role it played in the composition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As a military prison during the Civil War, and a hospital during World War I and the subsequent influenza epidemic, Fort McHenry has seen more than its share of death, so it should be of no surprise that later visitors to the site have reported encounters with the paranormal. Mahnke shares a wealth of ghost stories about the fort, as well as about Hampton Manor, a country estate north of the city. In the final segment of the episode, Mahnke turns his attention to one of Baltimore’s favorite and most famous sons. None other than Edgar Allan Poe is spotlighted–his lifelong trials, his untimely demise on October 7, 1849 (a mystery that persists to this day), and his honoring by a strange visitor to his gravesite, the Poe Toaster.

October is the perfect time for ghost stories, as well as to invoke one of America’s founding fathers of macabre fiction and poetry.  For anyone with interests in such subjects, “Hold On” is an episode to cherish this Halloween season.

 

Anatomy of a Weird Tale: “The Book of Blood”

Happy 68th birthday to dark imaginer extraordinaire Clive Barker. In honor of the occasion, and this Wednesday’s premiere of the Books of Blood anthology film on Hulu, here’s an essay analyzing the seminal Barker short story…

“The dead have highways” (1), the omniscient narrator bluntly asserts in the single-sentence opening paragraph of “The Book of Blood.” These “unerring lines of ghost trains, of dream-carriages,” though, are no mere metaphor, as the narrative quickly establishes via elaboration: “Their thrum and throb can be heard in the broken places of the world, through cracks made by acts of cruelty, violence, and depravity. Their freight, the wandering dead, can be glimpsed when the heart is close to bursting, and sights that should be hidden come plainly into view.” Besides setting up the rules for this horror story, these lines also highlight a pair of themes that are central to Barker’s work: love, and the revelation of the forbidden.

This “forbidden highway” has heavily-trafficked “intersections” that also merge closely with “our world”: “Here the barriers that separate one reality from the next are worn thin with the passage of innumerable feet.” The idea of the barrier, or veil, between the world of the dead and the world living growing thin is a familiar one in Halloween mythology. Perhaps not coincidentally, Barker’s tale is set in October. It also features a character who is a “little trickster” (8), who plays a “fine game” (4) for the “sheer mischief” of it. The influence of Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” on Barker’s story has been long noted, but one might also link “The Book of Blood” with “The October Game,” a Bradbury tale that blurs the line between Halloween illusion and grotesque reality.

Barker does not hesitate to acknowledge his predecessors in “The Book of Blood.” The story’s setting, Number 65, Tollington Place (an abandoned/shunned house that was the site of some past atrocity, and that now bears an “oppressive atmosphere” [2]), clearly has a foundation in Gothic tradition. A “crack in the front of the house that ran from doorstep to eaves” forms an allusion to Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Similarly, the line that “Number 65, Tollington Place was a haunted house, and no one could possess it for long without insanity setting in” echoes the famous opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. There’s even a hint of Suspiria when the ceiling of the place appears “maggoty with life–pulsing, dancing” (7).

Having depicted the ominous locale, Barker next presents the figure doomed to become the title character. Simon McNeil is a 20-year-old medium brought to Tollington Place by “the Essex University Parapsychology Unit.” Simon seems to have been a fortuitous choice, as he records “all but incontrovertible evidence of life after death.” In the throes of contact with the otherworldly, he signs the names of the dead (along with their birth and death dates) on the wall of the attic room he occupies. He doesn’t stop there, though; the wall grows as crowded as one of Barker’s own artistic canvases: “There were obscene drawings and half-finished jokes alongside lines of romantic poetry. A badly drawn rose. A game of noughts and crosses. A shopping list” (3). Containing the names of the famous and the anonymous alike, this “wailing wall” is “a roll-call of the dead, and it was growing day by day, as though word of mouth was spreading amongst the lost tribes, and seducing them out of silence to sign this barren room with their sacred presence. Although Simon’s “ghost-writings” (4) will be exposed as fakery a page later, Barker’s own reverence for the numinous is incontrovertible here. The “lost tribes” phrase even anticipates his fondly depicted monsters in Cabal/Nightbreed.

Following the presentation of Simon, the narrative then introduces the professor in charge of the psychic research project, Doctor Mary Florescu. Simultaneously mourning the loss of her husband and mooning over the young, handsome Simon (to recall the terms of the story’s opening: her heart is “close to bursting”), Mary renders herself susceptible to an incredible vision:

The world was opening up: throwing her senses into an ecstasy, coaxing them into a wild confusion of functions. She was capable, suddenly, of knowing the world as a system, not of politics or religions, but as a system of senses, a system that spread out from the living flesh to the inert wood of her desk, to the stale gold of her wedding ring. [6]

Barker is a quintessentially sensual writer, and there is no better testament to that fact than this scene. Mary is flush with synesthesia; when her assistant, Fuller, grabs her arm, his hands on her skin “tasted of vinegar” (9). He asks her is she is all right, “his breath like iron.” Mary’s heightened senses also allow her to see right through the ceiling into the attic level of the house, where the masturbating Simon is marked as the “boy-liar” (7). Barker’s penchant for intermixing the ecstatic, the erotic, and the graphic is also evident as Mary glimpses (when the crack between worlds widens) the highway of the dead populated by gory-looking ghosts, “the victims and perpetrators of violence” (8). These disgruntled figures seek redress of Simon’s naked lies: “The ghosts had despaired on the highway a grieving age, bearing the wounds they had died with, and the insanities they had slaughtered with. They had endured [Simon’s] levity and insolence, his idiocies, the fabrications that had made a game of their ordeals. They wanted to speak the truth” (9).

Mary doesn’t falter in the presence of the paranormal, but the same cannot be said of her ironically named assistant. Fuller is devoid of the capacity for the sublime; his inability to behold the marvelous leaves him in the grip of mundane physicality: “The sight killed Fuller in a moment. His mind had no strength to take the panorama in–it could not control the overload that ran through his every nerve. His heart stopped; a revolution overturned the order of his system; his bladder failed, his bowels failed, his limbs shook and collapsed” (10). Fuller drops dead and crosses over to the highway even as the ghosts spill over into Number 65, Tollington Place.

A scene of almost sexual violence, “a kind of rape” (12) is subsequently witnessed by Mary as the ghosts make their vengeful assault on Simon. Scoring and scarring “the hieroglyphics of agony” (13) onto every inch of his skin with “the torturing needles of broken jug-glass” (11), the ghosts’ efforts anticipate the sinister ministrations of the Cenobites in The Hellbound Heart. The deep (some might deem perverted) bonds of love forged between Mary and Simon likewise prefigure the relationship of Julia and Frank in the novella/film adaptation, brooking no supernatural obstacle. At the same time, Barker hearkens back to Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man,” as Simon’s grueling transformation reminds Mary of “the tattooes she’d seen: freak show exhibits, some of them, others just shirtless laborers in the street with a message to their mothers pricked across their backs. It was not unknown, to write a book of blood” (11).

Simon’s forced embodiment of a collection of (true) ghost stories vindicates Mary’s research interests, but at painful cost. Here is “proof beyond any doubt, and she wished, oh god how she wished, that she had not come by it. And yet, after a lifetime of waiting, here it was: the revelation of life beyond flesh, written in flesh itself” (15). Undaunted by Simon’s monumental damaging, Mary vows to protect him, knowing that henceforth “he would be an object of curiosity at best, and at worst of repugnance and horror.” She also commits herself to this Book of Blood as “his sole translator” for the world at large” (16). Accordingly, at story’s end, Mary leads him, “naked, into the balmy night.”

The closing segment steps back to position “The Book of Blood” as general prologue to the various narratives that follow: “Here then are the stories written on the Book of Blood. Read, if it pleases you, and learn.” The contents of the collection will draw “a map of that dark highway that leads out of life towards unknown destinations.” Most people fortunately will end up dying peacefully, but “for a few, a chosen few, the horrors will come, skipping to fetch them off to the highway of the damned.” The narrator insists: “So read. Read and learn.” But such commandment is not given in the interest of stern moralizing. The lessons to be learned throughout the Books of Blood are not the traditionally conservative ones of the horror genre, where transgression is simply punished and the taboo abjected. Instead, readers will learn to interact with the fantastic, to embrace the forbidden. Finally, Barker hardly seems to have reader safety foremost in mind when he concludes by observing: “It’s best to be prepared for the worst after all, and to learn to walk before breath runs out.” This exercise in macabre wit makes for a perfect pair with the wonderfully graphic epigraph to the volume: “Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red.”

“The Book of Blood” forms a strong frame for Barker’s six-volume series (arguably the greatest story/novella collection in the history of the horror genre). It is also an immensely effective narrative in and of itself, one that puts Barker’s visionary gifts–and exquisite prose–on full display.

 

Work Cited

Barker, Clive. “The Book of Blood.” Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Vol. 1. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 1984. 1-16.