Beyond Sleepy Hollow: “Christmas Dinner”

It’s posted a couple of days later than intended, but here’s the latest installment of “Beyond Sleepy Hollow,” which explores further Washington Irving works of ghosts, goblins, and the Gothic.

 

Before Washington Irving fired the autumnal imagination of Americans with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he helped script Christmas celebration into existence in our Macabre Republic. In early January 1820, Irving published a series of Christmas-related pieces in The Sketch-Book that clearly anticipate “The Legend” (which appeared in the next installment of the book three months later). Within the linked Christmas sketches, Irving’s narrating stand-in, Geoffrey Crayon, is invited by an old traveling companion to come spend the holidays at his family’s mansion in the English countryside. Bracebridge Hall is a bastion of old-time custom, located in “a sequestered part of the country” (just as the unmodernized Sleepy Hollow is removed from the metropolitan bustle of Manhattan). Master Simon Bracebridge (as I discuss in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition) is an Ichabod-esque figure, a busybody bachelor exuding self-importance, and who is satirized by Irving in terms strikingly similar to Sleepy Hollow’s hapless schoolmaster.

“Christmas Dinner” constitutes the last of the Bracebridge-centered sketches (Irving would return to the family a few years later in the more expansive collection Bracebridge Hall). After dining on traditional fare (e.g., a boar’s head; peacock pie) and happily imbibing from the circulating Wassail bowl, the gathered celebrants break off into groups. The younger members of the family engage in a game of “blindman’s buff,” while the adults retire to the drawing room. There the village parson begins “dealing out strange accounts of the popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country.” His yarning focuses on the “family hero” of his hosts, a Bracebridge ancestor said to have fought in the Crusades, and whose portrait and purported armor decorate the Hall’s dining room. As Crayon relates:

[The parson] gave us several anecdotes of the fancies of the neighboring peasantry, concerning the effigy of the crusader, which lay on the tomb by the church altar. As it was the only monument of its kind in that part of the country, it had always been regarded with feelings of superstition by the good wives of the village. It was said to get up from the tomb and walk the rounds of the churchyard in stormy nights, particularly when it thundered; and one old woman, whose cottage bordered on the churchyard, had seen it through the windows of the church, when the moon shone, slowly pacing up and down the aisles. It was the belief that some wrong had been left unredressed by the deceased, or some treasure hidden which kept the spirit in a state of trouble and restlessness. Some talked of gold and jewels buried in the tomb, over which the specter kept watch; and there was a story current of a sexton in old times, who endeavored to break his way to the coffin at night, but, just as he reached it, received a violent blow from the marble hand of the effigy, which stretched him senseless on the pavement. These tales were often laughed at by some of the sturdier among the rustics, yet, when night came on, there were many of the stoutest unbelievers that were shy of venturing alone in the footpath that led across the churchyard.

These fireside spook tales shared by the parson, which have quite an unnerving effect on certain listeners, prefigure the events of/following the Van Tassel quilting frolic in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Just as the galloping Hessian forms the “favorite specter” of the credulous inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow, the crusader in “Christmas Dinner” appears “to be the favorite hero of ghost stories throughout the vicinity.” And just as Brom Bones follows old Brouwer’s tale of a run-in with the Headless Horseman with an even more marvelous account, the old porter’s wife in “Christmas Dinner” picks up from the parson and adds to the lore of the crusader: she affirms “that in her young days she had often heard say that on Midsummer Eve, when it was well known all kinds of ghosts, goblins, and fairies become visible and walk abroad, the crusader used to mount his horse, come down from his picture, ride about the house, down the avenue, and so to the church to visit the tomb.”

But no attendee of the Christmas dinner encounters the crusader later that December evening, let alone finds himself spirited away by the supernatural rider. The eerie atmosphere pervading the drawing room of Bracebridge Hall is soon dissipated when Master Simon and other costumed revelers burst in to perform an impromptu “Christmas mummery.” This intriguing “Legend” precursor sketched by Irving ultimately places more emphasis on “wild-eyed frolic and warmhearted hospitality breaking out from among the chills and glooms of winter”; the creation of frisson, though, will prove integral to the more sustained Gothic narrative that conveys “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

 

Altogether Ooky October: The Addams Family and Halloween

Yes, I was really disappointed to learn that Tim Burton’s new Netflix series Wednesday wouldn’t be premiering until after Halloween season (three more grueling weeks to wait!). But that just sent me back to view earlier incarnations of the Addams Family, and it turns out that the creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky household has a rich history of Halloween association.

The Halloween connection traces back to the inception of the Addams Family. Charles Addams’s vintage New Yorker cartoons more commonly skewer the Yuletide holiday, but there is one signature piece in which the Addamses descend en masse on the wilds of Central Park in late October (with Uncle Fester even toting a jack-o’-lantern under his arm).

 

As a 1960’s sitcom, The Addams Family featured two separate Halloween episodes. In episode 1.7, “Halloween with the Addams Family,” a pair of robbers on the run (Don Rickles and Skip Homeier) attempt to hide out at the Addams home and get caught up in the family’s crazy celebration of its “favorite holiday” (the festivities include “bobbing for the crab”). And long before The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Addamses gather for a recitation of a special holiday-splicing poem: “It was Halloween evening, and through the abode / Not a creature was stirring, not even a toad. / Jack-o’-lanterns are hung on the gallows with care / To guide sister witch as she flies through the air…”

 

“Halloween–Addams Style” (2.7) means bite-size salamander sandwiches prepared via guillotine, and porcupine taffy crafted by Grandmama. After an insensitive neighbor spoils the trick-or-treating Wednesday’s holiday joy by claiming that witches don’t exist, a séance is conducted to contact the Addams ancestor Aunt Singe (who was burnt at the stake in Salem). Comedic confusion ensues when a witch-costumed neighbor out on a Halloween scavenger hunt shows up at the Addams mansion.

 

The sitcom’s original cast returned in living color for the 1977 TV movie Halloween with the New Addams Family (a film that features extensive scenes of an Addams-hosted costume party at which various bits of hilarity occur). Halloween is clearly Christmas for the Addams Family, as is evident from the legend of Cousin Shy, a jolly spirit who “carves a smile on a specially hidden pumpkin, and leaves beautiful gifts at the feet of the Halloween scarecrow.” As if all this wasn’t festive enough, the closing scene presents the Addamses in candlelit procession, singing a macabre carol: “Scarecrows and blackbirds are always together. Spiders spin cobwebs in overcast weather. Cauldrons are brewing and banshees are doing a weird and ghastly routine, to wish you a merry, creepy Halloween.”

 

The 1991 cinematic adaptation The Addams Family concludes–you guessed it–on Halloween night. Gomez carves a cyclopean jack-o’-lantern; Pugsley dresses as his Uncle Fester, and Wednesday (in her everyday clothes) as a “homicidal maniac.” Then the Addamses head outside for a rousing game of Wake the Dead, which involves digging up departed relatives from the family graveyard.

 

For Halloween 1992, The Addams Family animated series served up “Puttergeist.” While the title references a certain Steven Spielberg horrorfest, the episode itself riffs on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Granny regales the family with a Halloween tale: four decades ago, a golfer hit the links on Halloween night, only to lose his head to a lightning strike. Thereafter he haunts the town as a specter with a giant golf ball for a head–quite a swerving from the pumpkin originally employed by Washington Irving.

 

In 1998 came the Canadian reboot The New Addams Family, whose series premiere “Halloween with the Addams Family” is a redux of the same-titled episode from the 60’s sitcom. Old gags are updated: Fester goes bobbing for hand grenades; Gomez wipes the smile off a jack-o’-lantern, carving a scarier expression with his fencing sword. Pugsley and Wednesday (dressed as Siskel and Ebert) wreak havoc on the neighborhood when they go trick-or-treating (one candy-stingy couple who foolishly demand a trick before handing out treats end up in a homemade electric chair rigged to their doorbell).

 

This survey of Halloween legacy should also make mention of the influence of the Addams Family on Ray Bradbury’s Elliott Family (a positively monstrous clan who, in the author’s classic story “Homecoming,” gather in an Illinois manse for a Halloween night reunion). In his afterword to his 2001 Elliott Family chronicle From the Dust Returned, Bradbury details his relationship with Charles Addams. Their plans for a book collaboration never came to fruition, but Addams did create an elaborate illustration of “Homecoming” when the story was first published in Mademoiselle.

 

For an outré crew like the Addams Family, every day is Halloween. But this First Family of Gothic comedy has also treated fans to plenty of October-31st-specific content over the years. I am eager to see if the forthcoming Wednesday follows this fine tradition.

 

 

 

Horseman Courses

The recent passing of nonagenarian Angela Lansbury left me in a nostalgic mood, and sent me back to a childhood favorite–the hit mystery series Murder, She Wrote. And what better episode to start a re-watch with than the series’ most Halloween-centric installment: season 3’s “Night of the Headless Horseman.” As signaled by the title, the episode riffs on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” A love triangle is drawn at a Vermont private school, as the nerdy schoolteacher Dorian Beecher and the bullying riding instructor Nate Findley compete for the affections of Sarah Dupont, the headmaster’s daughter. Walking toward a covered bridge at night, Dorian is twice menaced by the eponymous goblin (whom Dorian believes to be Nate in disguise), once having a jack-o’-lantern hurled at him. On the morning after the second run-in, the body of the dispatched Nate is found (in surely the series’ most grisly turn) with his decapitated head missing from the crime scene. As always, Jessica Fletcher solves the murder and exonerates her friend Dorian in this witty, Irving-evoking episode.

While getting ready to write this post, I came across a strangely related item in my Facebook feed. It was an ad for the Headless Horseman Equestrian Event on October 30th in Montague, New Jersey. According to the Halloween attraction’s Eventbrite page, this is an “Interactive Archery/Swordplay and Horseback Riding Event,” in which participants (“Costumes Encouraged!”) can “Fight the Horseman!” Sounds like there won’t be any cravenly flights by Ichabod Crane-types in this neck of the woods…

 

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).