Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow (Book Review)

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.

 

The Horseman Goes Hog Wild

As I discuss in my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (included in my 2020 eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), “headless biker” has been a recurrent figure in post-Washington-Irving depictions of the Horseman. To my delight, this character update also appeared on last night’s episode of Outrageous Pumpkins. Carver extraordinaire Kristina Patenaude created this amazing display, of ol’ Headless on a Halloween Harley. I’ll admit I’m biased, but I thought this pumpkin sculpt rode roughshod over the competition!

For more on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition, check out the book’s dedicated page here on my website, and then head on over to Amazon to get your copy (I’ve expanded the Look Inside percentage, so browsers can now preview thirteen [and there are still over a hundred more to follow] of my detailed annotations of Irving’s classic story).

Gothic Topic

Came across this interesting post on Screen Rant: “10 Gothic Horror Movies That Should Be at the Top of Everyone’s List.” The survey strikes a nice balance between classic and modern examples, and I love that it included Tim Burton’s Hammer-evoking Sleepy Hollow. The piece does contain errors factual (Horace Walpole’s seminal Gothic text is titled The Castle of Otranto, not A Gothic Story), orthographic (some guy named Edgar “Allen” Poe is cited), and syntactic (I’m still trying to grasp the logic of this sentence: “Creating a dream world based in the small town of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane, a New York City policeman faces romance and fantasy in this eerily gothic moving picture.”), but these can be overlooked, given the fine choice of topic.

 

The Legend of Creepy Psycho

In my recent essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (included in my e-book The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), I traced various post-“Legend” career moments of Washington Irving’s galloping Hessian. Here’s one more (surprising) example of a text that I would argue falls under the shadow of Sleepy Hollow: Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho.

The surname that Bloch gives to his (seeming) female lead, Mary Crane, echoes that of Irving’s famous character Ichabod Crane. Such connection might seem facile at first, but grows more intriguing when one considers Mary’s death at the hands of Norman Bates (in a scene that plays out quite differently from Hitchcock’s film adaptation):

Then she did see it there–just a face, peering through the curtains, hanging in midair like a mask. A head-scarf concealed the hair, and the glassy eyes stared inhumanly, but it wasn’t a mask, it couldn’t be. The skin had been powdered dead-white and two hectic spots of rouge centered on the cheekbones. It wasn’t a mask. It was the face of a crazy old woman.

Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher’s knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream.

And her head.

Just as Ichabod is primed for Brom Bones’s ostensible prank by the dark tales told earlier that evening at the Van Tassel party, Mary Crane’s mistaken perception of her murderer as a crazy old woman is influenced by her previous discussion with Norman of his mentally ill mother. The apparently floating head in the shower steam recalls the Hessian’s disembodied noggin that Ichabod spies. Mary’s sudden beheading (vs. the multiple stab wounds to the torso suffered by her filmic counterpart Marion) forms a more graphic version of the hapless fate of the brained Ichabod in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The felling of the schoolteacher comes at a great surprise to Ichabod (and the reader), since he believes he has survived the Horseman’s midnight chase by crossing the church bridge. In Bloch’s novel, Mary ironically believes that she has Norman to thank for her “safety” and “future security” (her conversation with him convinces her to return the money she has stolen). Her path for moral redemption mapped out, Mary promptly decides to “take a nice, long hot shower. Get the dirt off her hide, just as she was going to get the dirt cleaned out of her insides.” Alas, Mary never gets the chance to “come clean”: before she can shampoo with some Head & Shoulders (as it were), the cross-dressing Norman removes her head from her shoulders.

So by employing the surname Crane, Bloch embeds a clue that in hindsight foreshadows a climactic act of terrible head trauma. I imagine that Irving’s masterful melding of the comic and the macabre in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” naturally appealed to Bloch, perhaps the genre’s most notable figure when it comes to the mixing of humor and horror. A hint of Bloch’s wicked wit can be detected, for example, earlier in this chapter that concludes with Mary’s beheading. When first shown her motel room, Mary notices “the shower stall in the bathroom beyond. Actually, she would have preferred a tub, but this would do.” And it does just fine, at least in terms of the blood bath it soon encompasses.

 

The Legend of SNL

My essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition) attempts to provide a definitive account of the Irving character’s post-Legend appearances, but acknowledges that there will still be further instances following the essay’s publication. And pop culture didn’t take long to validate this point.

Showing once again that there’s no better proof of popularity than being spoofed, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was targeted during last weekend’s Halloween edition of Saturday Night Live. The five-minute skit–in which a wandering Ichabod Crane encounters the Headless Horseman (carrying his animate head)–is riotous with impropriety, as Crane and lascivious company end up tormenting the poor Horseman. Definitely not suitable for younger viewers, but a video of the skit can be found here.

For an analysis of countless other examples (both spoofs and serious uses), be sure to check out my “Eerie Rider” essay.

 

The Banshee of Sleepy Hollow?

In a previous post this week, I covered various written works that were inspired by Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Such narratives are unabashed in admitting their primary literary influence, but there’s another story that can be added to the list, one whose connection to “The Legend” is less overt but still discernible. I am talking about Herminie Templeton Kavanagh’s 1903 novella “The Banshee’s Comb” (one of her Darby O’Gill tales).

Anticipating the classic Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Darby in “The Banshee’s Comb” has an encounter with the Costa Bower, a great “black coach that comes in the night to carry down to Croagmah the dead people the banshee keened for.” Significantly, said coach features a driver whose “head is cut off.” To be fair, the figure of the decapitated dullahan is a staple of Celtic lore, and many scholars would argue that Irving himself had the coach driver in mind when creating the Headless Horseman. The truth of such claim is debatable, but my interest here lies with Kavanagh’s apparent drawing on Irving when presenting the frightful driver in her tale. Darby actually refers to the figure as “the headless coachman,” a clear echo of the Headless Horseman. In the climax of “The Banshee’s Comb,” Darby sees the Costa Bower and what he mistakes for a dead passenger in its carriage (but who turns out to be Darby’s friend, Brian Connors, the king of the fairies, come to assist him). Similar to Irving’s playful tone in “The Legend,” Kavanagh’s scene puts the premium on comedic effect. The severed head of the coachman, who is given the prosaic name Shaun, starts weeping because of Darby’s resemblance to an old flame, Margit Ellen O’Gill: “If it wasn’t for yer bunchy red hair,” Shaun tells him, “an’ for the big brown wen that was on her forehead, ye’d be as like as two [peas].”

Other textual details in “The Banshee’s Comb” furnish further testament to its indebtedness to Irving’s tale. Despite his intimacy with the Good People, Darby maintains a deep dread “of all other kinds of ghosts,” and his trepidation (stemming from an overactive imagination) when sent out on a lonely errand by his wife on Halloween night recalls Ichabod Crane and his fearful trek through Sleepy Hollow after leaving the Van Tassel’s party. Approaching “the bridge in the hollow just below the berryin’-ground,” Darby spots “a slow, grey, formless thing without a head” and believes it to be “a powerful, unhowly monsther tower[ing] over him,” but it turns out to be only a neighbor’s wayward donkey. Darby’s ensuing hijinks with the beast are reminiscent of Ichabod’s experiences with the devilishly difficult horse Gunpowder. “The Banshee’s Comb” even makes mention of a “wild chase” of a wandering beggar woman by the phantom coach, “an’ if she’d been a second later raichin’ the chapel steps an’ laying her hand on the church-door it would have had her sure.”

In my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), I discuss how the alleged “spiriting away” of Ichabod Crane by the Galloping Hessian connects back to fairy lore (that Irving likely learned from his literary idol, Walter Scott). It seems somewhat apropos, then, that Kavanagh recurs to Irving’s story and characters when scripting her humorous supernatural tale filled with elements of Celtic mythology. The Headless Horseman–legendary for his nightly beelining back and forth between churchyard and battlefield– has now come full circle.

 

[Citations of “The Banshee’s Comb” taken from its publication in Marvin Kaye’s anthology, The Ultimate Halloween]

 

“Gunpowder Plots”

From my 2014 collection Autumn Lauds, here’s a poem that takes a different perspective onto “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

 

Gunpowder Plots

He’s shagged and gaunt, has one eye ghosted over,
Hasn’t pulled a plow or done more than plod in years.
Yet every lazy day his mind races back to that midnight dash,
To the horrid goblin that gave such determined pursuit.
His own panic at the time rendered his course erratic;
He’d defied direction from his whip-happy, rib-kicking rider.
Unsaddled, the lanky man had struggled to remain mounted
But was shortly knocked headlong by braining gourd.

That hapless horseman has been long lost,
But his equine hope for a second endeavor never so.
If somehow he could escape the confines of this farm,
He would search every last stretch of the Hollow for
The black steed and its head-lacking commander,
And draw them back into chase toward the church bridge.
This time he wouldn’t let up until the other beast was
Completely outdistanced, left choking the dust of utter defeat.

With memory and reverie blinkering his mind’s eye,
He fails to note the approach of his owner, Van Ripper,
Who has rue in his look, and a pistol in his fist.
Old Gunpowder is blindsided by the fired shot;
The eponymous explosive scorches his wounded hide.
Still, he is unwilling to abandon his equestrian quest.
Destroyed but not dispirited, he’s off and running
Even as his sorry carcass keels to the ground.

 

The Literature of Sleepy Hollow

(painting by William Wilgus)

 

While doing the research for my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), I encountered countless written works inspired by Washington Irving’s 1820 tale. Plenty of these qualified as glorified fan fiction and were downright painful to read, but thankfully there were also many entertaining texts. Here’s a list of eight great reads that hearken back to Sleepy Hollow:

 

1. “Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving

Not many readers realize nowadays that “The Legend” doesn’t constitute the only time Irving wrote about Sleepy Hollow. In this 1839 work creative nonfiction (presented as an essay by Irving’s pseudonymous narrator, Geoffrey Crayon), Sleepy Hollow is revisited in resplendent fashion. Crayon relates his connection to Diedrich Knickerbocker, fills in the backstory of how the latter learned of “The Legend,” and details the modern innovations that have now intruded upon the quaint village–doing all in a comedic tone that makes the essay a fine companion piece to the original story.

 

2. Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Tellingly, the first ghost story interpolated in Straub’s 1979 novel (which revolves around the frightful fireside tales passed among the haunted members of the Chowder Society) is a variation on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (ultimately mashed up with The Turn of the Screw). The narrator recounts his experience decades earlier as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in a rural New York village, and his encounter with the malevolent revenant of a man that perished from a grievous head injury. How thematically appropriate that Straub’s complex narrative of spook tales come to terrifying life draws upon Irving’s tale of a schoolmaster harassed by a seemingly all-too-real local legend.

 

3. Sleepy Hollow by Peter Lerangis

This 1999 novelization is a must-have for fans who just can’t get enough of the Tim Burton film adaptation. Lerangis follows the cinematic narrative faithfully, capturing Burton’s Hammer-Horror-style revision of Irving in vivid prose. A special treat is the scene at novel’s end involving the retreat of the no-longer-Headless Horseman with Lady Van Tassel into the Tree of the Dead–a scene presented here from the Horseman’s very own point of view.

 

4. Sleepy Hollow High by Christopher Golden and Ford Lytle Gilmore

This quartet of linked novels (Horseman [2005], Drowned [2005], Mischief, [2006], Enemies [2006]) is marketed as young adult fiction, but can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Sleepy Hollow is besieged by a series of terrifying monsters, all linked in some fashion to the legendary Headless Horseman. The Horseman himself proves plenty frightening, but his character arc over the course of the four novels allows him to range beyond mere decapitating menace.

 

5. Rise Headless and RideBridge of Bones, and General of the Dead by Richard Gleaves

The first three volumes (2013/2014/2015) of the Jason Crane series (which also includes 2018’s Salem: Blood to Drink) are set square in a modern-day Sleepy Hollow that is haunted by its early history. These novels draw lovingly on the original “Legend” and transform its materials into an epic narrative centered on the Headless Horseman (whose mythos is thoroughly developed, and whose imagining here is unrivaled for inventiveness). Featuring a diverse cast enmeshed in supernatural intrigue, Gleaves’s books read like True Blood by way of Washington Irving, and are positively begging to be developed into a Netflix series (shot on location in Sleepy Hollow!).

 

6. Grimm Fairy Tales Presents: Sleepy Hollow by Dan Wickline

This modern retelling actually reimagines the Headless Horseman as an avenging hero–which isn’t to say that the figure (who looks from the neck stump down like Gene Simmons on steroids) has been stripped of menacing aura. Grue is splashed across the page in this graphically violent graphic novel, in which the Horseman stalks his prey with all the relentlessness and killer creativity of a classic cinematic slasher.

 

7. The Devil’s Patch by Austin Dragon

Irving’s story is reworked as a weird western in this 2015 novel (a sequel to Hollow Blood), in which a gunslinging posse travels far north of Sleepy Hollow in an attempt to kill the infernal Horseman in his new lair. I include this one on the list for its thrilling climax, blood-soaked and action-packed, and featuring one incredibly surreal image of the Horseman that will not be soon forgotten by the reader.

 

8. The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel by Alyssa Palombo

Ichabod in a bodice-ripper? Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Palombo pulls it off in this atmospheric and historically-accurate gothic romance. The novel also works as a “feminist retelling” (as Palombo terms it in her author’s note) of Irving’s story, as Katrina is situated here as narrator, central character, and ultimate recorder of the Horseman’s legend. Various female writers have offered their take on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in recent years, but this spellbinding book is head and shoulders above the rest.

 

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!