The Sopranos of Sleepy Hollow

From dark dream sequences to Christopher’s comatose glimpse of hell and Paulie’s eerie vision of the Virgin Mary on the Bada Bing stage, The Sopranos repeatedly invoked the uncanny and the supernatural. So it’s no surprise that show also featured two prominent references to one of the greatest spook tales of all time, Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

The first occurs in “Cold Cuts” (Season 5, Episode 10). On the drive upstate to Uncle Pat’s farm in Kinderhook (to exhume some murder victims from their graves), Tony Blundetto randomly admits to Christopher that “some very sorry people” (presumably kids who suffered for insulting him) used to call him Ichabod Crane. The line then gets a callback in a later scene in the episode. Tony Soprano joins his cousin Tony in ribbing Christopher and mocking his beak nose as they all eat dinner together, until the aggravated Christopher finally snaps at the relentlessly joking Blundetto, “You know I could have called you Ichabod Crane, but I didn’t!” A petulant retort, for sure, but also a pretty funny one, because if ever there was someone who could be cast as Ichabod, it’s Steve Buscemi’s Blundetto.

The second reference is in “Luxury Lounge” (Season 6, Episode 7). Phil Leotardo passes along to Tony Soprano Johnny Sack’s appreciation for his taking out Rusty Millio, but Tony acts coy and claims to have had nothing to do with the hit. Phil laughs off Tony’s cautiousness, and says, “Anyway, Rusty’s gone, and we’ll chalk it up to the Headless Horseman.” A strange name drop, although it does make geographic sense that a New York crime boss would reference Sleepy Hollow’s favorite specter. Phil’s line also has some sinister resonance, considering that Rusty was dispatched by a shot to the head (an assault of brain-scrambling impact, akin to a Horseman gourd toss).

More than just another mob story, The Sopranos was a pop cultural phenomenon. How apropos, then, that the series referenced a pair of legendary Irving characters that have been imprinted on American consciousness for over two centuries now.

 

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.

 

Bronze Macabre

Photo Credit: Peter D. Kramer/USA Today Network New York State Team

I came across an online item this afternoon, and thought it makes a fine companion piece to my “Beyond Sleepy Hollow” post yesterday. Peter D. Kramer’s USA Today article “Sleepy Hollow’s Lesser Known Ghost Story: The Curse of the Bronze Lady in New York” proves that Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman isn’t the sole source of spookiness associated with Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The Bronze Lady is a purportedly cursed sculpture, a funereal memorial that has captured the imagination of locals and graveyard visitors. Various superstitions have been attached to her, a collection of unsettling narratives that would render the Bronze Lady the perfect subject of a Lore podcast episode. Kramer’s article is an informative and enjoyable read, and well-suited to the late-October mood.

 

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.

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]