While I am not the biggest Halloween fan, I’ve elected this year to do my best to embrace the festive spirit if not the spookier side of things. My dislike of Halloween is so firmly rooted and a childhood full of the overwhelming chaos of rooms filled with children who had consumed far too much sugar and the stress of obtaining a costume that, given my family’s low income, meant inevitable failure, that I don’t think I will ever enjoy this holiday. While I’m not one who is particularly fond of horror movies or books in general, I am quite a big fan of Gothic horror. As such, I am endeavoring to fill my book reviews this month with classic monsters in the stories that I have come to love so fondly. I’ll get to the ones I’ve read before and already know I love but for this week we’re going to be focusing on one I have only read recently. It was… not exactly what I was expecting.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a short story of speculative fiction by American author Washington Irving. The story is set in 1790 in the countryside around the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town (historical Tarrytown, New York), in a secluded glen called Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow is renowned for its ghosts and the haunting atmosphere that pervades the imaginations of its inhabitants and visitors. The “Legend” relates the tale of Ichabod Crane, a lean, lanky and extremely superstitious schoolmaster from Connecticut, who competes with Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, the town rowdy, for the hand of 18-year-old Katrina Van Tassel. Ichabod has mysteriously disappeared from town.
Mostly I was surprised that this wasn’t a novel that was particularly scary. I was expecting a spooky story about a ghastly horseman without a head and instead I’m suddenly following a weird love triangle at a party. It wasn’t even as if this was a poorly written story–it just wasn’t what all of the more contemporary adaptations would have had me believe the story would be like. While The Horseman is mentioned throughout the narrative, it doesn’t entirely make an appearance until the end.
We find ourselves in a very superstitious town that likes to tell its share of ghost stories. Particularly ghost stories in which people disappear. These disappearances are attributed to this notorious horseman but at the same time they’re presented as just stories.
When we do finally have our ghostly encounter it’s not exactly frightening. I do need to consider the time in which it was written to reading it now. Our conceptions of what is Horror and scary have drastically changed. But this ghost story almost seems tacked on to the end of an otherwise domestic narrative. This is not a story about ghosts–it’s about trying to win the hand of the beautiful woman from a rival. The fact that a ghost pops up to conclude the story feels like a weird transition. Sure, there was talk of ghosts but even while it was being talked about the reader’s focus was still being pulled towards the woman that the protagonist wanted to win the hand of. I almost feel like this is the potential beginning of a ghost story where someone disappears suddenly and then the rest of the story is trying to figure out what happened to them instead of a whole story in-and-of itself.
They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions; and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air.
Overall, I found the story more of a disappointment than a jump-scare and I think this is part of the reason so many adaptations have been made about it that go in a different direction. Other people have recognized that this feels more like the start of a narrative than the end and have chosen to take the foundation Irving created and push it farther into the horror genre. New adaptations bring the story more into our modern conception of what horror is. Irving is presenting an idea and people have decided to take that idea and run with it.
Some people might moan and complain about people making adaptations that aren’t exactly accurate to the source material but in a lot of ways they can take the foundation of the story and create something different, pushing the story into a place that the original author never would have come up with, and it can be infinitely more intriguing. It’s only when people adapt something with the intention of making a faithful adaptation that things fall out of place. But if they’re only taking the foundation of the story and building their own on top of it then I think a lot of really interesting things can happen, especially when you take older novels and stories and breathe new life into them.