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!

Lore Report: “Follow the Leader” (Episode 152)

But the woods are more than just a place to visit. They’re home to challenges, risks, and even dangers. Wild animals, difficult terrain, and the dark side of all that peace and quiet–the lack of human assistance–can all conspire to turn a pleasant afternoon into an unexpected tragedy. And it’s been that way for as long as humans have been around. But if the tales are true, the forest might also be home to something else, something that we mere mortals are woefully unprepared to deal with: dangers from another realm.

In Episode 152 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads listeners deep into the woods. The dark forest, lying beyond civilization, is a locus classicus of American Gothic narrative, but Mahnke adopts a much more global approach here. He delves into the folklore of the Wild Hunt, tracing the origins of such mythic tales in Germany and their subsequent spread to other countries such as Great Britain, where “the tales changed to incorporate local legends and key historical figures.” Mahnke takes the time to ponder the significance of the Wild Hunt, which was popularly held as an omen of impending demise for hapless witnesses. Some fascinating details related to the Wild Hunt are shared along the way, such as the British positing of King Arthur as the doomed leader of the procession, and the historical instances of accusing people–by those wont to cry witch–as willing participants in the unworldly endeavor.

A critique I seem to rehearse on almost a biweekly basis is that Lore podcast fails to connect its subject matter to the realm of literature. Happily, that is not the case here, as Mahnke (when discussing the ghostly figure of Herne the Hunter) invokes William Shakespeare, William Harrison Ainsworth, and Jacob Grimm. And imagine my complete and utter delight when the narrative devotes several minutes to linking the Wild Hunt to one of the most famous stories in all of American Literature: Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Mahnke remains on native soil in the episode’s concluding segment, which concerns a piece of lore involving an uncanny horse-drawn carriage in antebellum East Texas.

“Follow the Leader” need not assume a subordinate position to any precursor. In my estimation, it ranks as the preeminent episode that Mahnke has recorded in the five-year-plus history of the podcast.

 

Three Critiques

In my last post, I waxed ecstatic about Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. Admittedly, it is one of my all-time favorite films, and I consider it a modern classic of the horror genre. Still, I am capable of viewing this beloved movie without wearing Burton-tinted glasses. Not every note that the film struck was a perfect one. Here are three moments I wish had been done differently–or edited out completely:

1.The jump scare where the Witch of the Western Woods pops her eyes right out of her head was jarringly cartoonish, and would have worked just fine without this CGI-type special effect. Every time I see it, I think Beetlejuice has somehow smuggled his way into Sleepy Hollow.

 

2.In the climactic scene, Ichabod tosses the Horseman’s skull back to him, but the latter’s palming catch of it is totally unrealistic (it appears to pop right into his hand). There’s also a somewhat laughable gaff, because it’s clear that the teeth in the skull aren’t filed, yet get decidedly pointier once the Horseman grows his head back.

 

3.The snowy closing of the film–which has Ichabod return to fin de siècle New York City with Katrina and young Masbeth–felt tacked on to the plot, in a strained attempt at an optimistic ending. This unnecessarily Dickensian conclusion formed a complete contrast with the autumnal atmosphere prevalent throughout the film.

 

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective

On this date back in 1999, Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, a feature-length adaptation of Washington Irving’s legendary story, premiered in theaters. The film has aged finely in the two decades since its release, and has become (not just in my household, I’m sure) an autumnal classic that calls for annual viewing. Here on the twentieth anniversary of its first beaming onto movie screens, I would like to offer my thoughts on the dark brilliance and lasting greatness of Sleepy Hollow.

Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a multi-genre piece (combining elements of mock-heroic comedy, local-color sketching, romantic-triangle drama, and ghost-story telling), and Burton’s film clearly follows the tale’s venerable lead. The key distinction, though, is that the genres woven into the 1999 movie are not an exact match of those in the source text. In the film, the Headless Horseman is a tangible threat and not just a bit of frisson-seeking fireside lore, and thus pushes the action squarely into the realm of horror. There’s also an element of the police procedural here, as Ichabod Crane is recast as a a New York City constable rather than a Connecticut pedagogue. Even a whiff of steampunk can be detected, in the strange gadgets the investigating Ichabod carries in his supped-up satchel. Finally, while Irving’s story employs some ambiguity concerning the climactic events (supernatural chase or native prank?), Burton’s effort offers a full-blown murder mystery.

Perhaps one of the most appreciable aspects of Sleepy Hollow is its ability to pay homage to a beloved narrative while simultaneously taking it in a new direction; Burton does not just rehash, but reshapes “The Legend” into something strikingly original. For example, the iconic climax of Irving’s tale (Brom/The Horseman’s pursuit of, and pumpkin-tossing at, Ichabod) is transferred to a much earlier scene (in which Brom is explicitly identified as the antagonist). Burton returns, though, to Sleepy Hollow’s famous covered bridge in a subsequent scene that has both Brom and Ichabod teaming up to battle the actual Horseman. In the source text, crossing the bridge is supposed to deliver Ichabod to a safe remove that proves anything but once the Horseman launches his gourd. This dynamic is reflected in the terrific scene in the film where the frightened villagers seek sanctuary within the hallowed grounds of the church, yet the fiendishly clever Horseman manages to draw out and decapitate Baltus.

The plot of Sleepy Hollow is no doubt complex, and grows increasingly intricate as the film unfolds. It’s gruesomely obvious that the Horseman is doing the killings, but a greater question–at whose bidding is this undead mercenary strategically picking people off?–persists. Ichabod’s investigation uncovers a conspiracy involving a cadre of town fathers, as well as the occult machinations of a scorned woman hellbent on revenge against those who dispossessed her family. By the very nature of its mystery trappings, the film invites repeated screenings: what at first appeared to be passing, insignificant details in retrospect form key pieces of the puzzle picture. The viewer caught up in the whodunit aspect the first time around can later revel in the “howdunit,” the filmmaker’s masterful techniques for seeding clues into the narrative. Furthermore, Sleepy Hollow forms a rewarding rewatch because of the subtlety of Burton’s visual artistry. I must have seen this movie umpteen times before I caught glimpse of the ghost faces that briefly, almost subliminally, manifest in the flaring fireplace flames just prior to the Horseman’s invasion of the ill-fated Killians’ home.

Beyond its rich plot, Sleepy Hollow succeeds because it is firmly grounded in an immersive setting. When making the film, an entire town–along with the leaf-carpeted woods on its outskirts–was constructed on set. This commitment to physical, structural detail creates a strong sense of place, giving viewers the impression that they are witnessing a slice of life in an actual late-18th Century village. Anyone who has ever walked the sloping landscape of the real-life Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (where Irving himself is buried), will further appreciate the verisimilitude of the film’s scene of Masbeth’s funeral, which takes place out on a hillside graveyard.

Sleepy Hollow also prospers from uniformly superlative performances, starting with Johnny Depp in the starring role. Depp is doubtless a more dashing and endearing figure than Irving’s Ichabod, yet retains the schoolteacher’s laughable skittishness. The actor manages to combine and convey multiple facets of the character–a squeamish detective, a childish coward (in the director’s commentary on the DVD, Burton repeatedly likens Ichabod to an adolescent girl), yet ultimately an adventurous and heroic leading man. Depp’s counterpart, the doe-eyed Christina Ricci, is positively spellbinding as Katrina, a beauty with wiccan proclivities. A performance by a young American actress affecting a pseudo-British accent could easily have come off as jarring and grating, but Ricci’s Katrina is both a convincing and sympathetic character. Miranda Richardson’s portrayal of the tigerish Lady Van Tassel is blackly comedic yet never devolves into campy quips and theatrics. As the slain Hessian turned Headless Horseman, the shock-haired, sharp-fanged Christopher Walken (who kills here in an unbilled cameo) effuses menace with nary a word of dialogue.

The Headless Horseman here makes for an unforgettable movie monster. His portentous arrivals are staged in appropriately dramatic fashion, presaged by rolling fog, strobing lightning, and fleeing, panic-stricken animals. Armed and mounted, the Horseman cuts a figure of macabre majesty. He’s a headless badass, a German Terminator impervious to wounding by ordinary weapons. Arguably the greatest legacy of Sleepy Hollow is its utter transformation of the Headless Horseman mythos. Not just some restless churchyard spook, he’s envisioned by Burton as a netherworld resident who emerges topside from a twisted, eldritch monument dubbed the Tree of the Dead. In countless books, films, and TV episodes thereafter, the character is more than a former soldier engaged in nightly search for his cannon-blasted noggin; necromantically controlled by his recovered skull, the Horseman’s sent to hunt others’ heads.

As it transforms Irving’s genteel ghost story into a latter-day Hammer horror film, Sleepy Hollow certainly earns a hard-R rating. It features a slew of graphic beheadings of humans (and a witch-abused bat), not to mention one nasty bisection of Brom by the doubly-armed Horseman. Still, the film balances savagery with sublimity–beautiful atmospheric shots, such as of the looming Van Tassel manse and the no-less-Gothic locale comprised by the Western Woods. This period film rooted in a specific time and place nonetheless conveys the timeless feeling of a fairy tale. For all these reasons, Sleepy Hollow stands heads above all other adaptations of “The Legend” before and since, and in my estimation represents the crowning achievement of director Tim Burton’s distinguished career.

 

Ichabod Inane

I try not to post strictly negative reviews here on the Dispatches from the Macabre Republic blog, because there’s not a lot of joy in writing them. Sometimes, though, it is a necessity. Consider this my public service announcement.

Ichabod! The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an hour-long film (dated as 2019, but according to IMDB, first released in 2004) available on Amazon Prime Video. It bills itself as a musical, which I must admit caught my interest. But after a song at the outset, the film runs for another thirty minutes before offering another tune (I think I counted four total). We might have been better off not getting any songs at all, because the lyrics approach the height of ridiculousness (they lost me at “What an Ichabod-a-bing!”).

This film has all the production value of a high school musical. I swear I saw the “stone” well shake as characters ran by it. The limited set design also seems to lend a nonsensical quality to the proceedings: a masked ball is actually held outdoors in the village courtyard.

The putative plot centers on the Ichabod-Katrina-Brom love triangle, but grossly distorts the Washington Irving source text. Here Katrina’s parents are hellbent on marrying their daughter off to the dubiously debonair Crane, and Katrina is torn between her sense of familial duty and her true love for Brom. Nothing terribly compelling about any of this romantic drama. I also find it laughable that the actor portraying Ichabod (Peter O’Meara) is a bit portly, and bigger in stature than the actor playing the supposedly-physically-superior Brom (Nathan Anderson).

Perhaps worst of all, the Headless Horseman hardly figures into the film. Quick glimpses of the legendary specter early on don’t make a lot of narrative sense. And while there is a climactic confrontation with Ichabod, there is neither a thrilling chase on horseback nor an iconic pumpkin-chucking scene. Instead the film settles for moribund ambiguity and a lame, heavily-moralizing conclusion.

When first selecting the film on Amazon, I debated between renting and purchasing. Thankfully I chose the former, because one viewing is one too many. Decapitation would be a preferable option to having to sit through this bastardizing dreck ever again.