The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving, 1820)

Ichabod Crane meets the headless horseman

Ichabod Crane meets the headless horseman

I was jotting a list of ghost stories to read in October — or revisit, if a favorite — and for that purpose I also found a short history of the genre. It seems that Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a landmark in the early development of the ghost story. (That’s not to say that supernatural stories haven’t been around for a much longer time, of course.) I’m not going to worry about definitions yet, and I’m perfectly happy to start with such a famous and favored tale.

This is a leisurely story that takes its time at the outset to establish a vividly drawn setting — Tarrytown and nearby Sleepy Hollow, a farming community on the banks of the Hudson, its population descended from the original Dutch settlers:

Some say that the place was bewitched by a high German doctor, during the early days of the settlement; others, that an old Indian chief, the prophet or wizard of his tribe, held his pow-wows there… Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power… The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions… including the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head.

Ichabod Crane is not a native of the area, but came there from Connecticut to serve as schoolmaster. I delight so in the picture that is drawn of him that I’ll quote that, too:

He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose , so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

We get to know him in his professional aspect as the schoolmaster who doesn’t spare the rod on young scholars who displease him (the “little, tough, wrong-headed, broad-skirted Dutch urchin, who sulked and swelled and grew dogged and sullen beneath the birch”); who befriends those students¬† with mothers or sisters who are good cooks and generous with food; and who is an enthusiastic consumer of ghost stories during long winter evenings, and a firm believer in witchcraft, the supernatural, omens, and awful portents.

By the difficulty I have in refraining from quoting from nearly every paragraph, I hope it is apparent that there is much pleasure to be derived from the story in the way it is told, in its witty language and vigorous images.

Ichabod falls in love with the farmhouse and wealth of a prosperous farmer, Mynheer Van Tassel — er, with Van Tassel’s lovely daughter Katrina, “plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy cheeked as one of her father’s peaches.” And in his courting he is edging out his nearest rival, the roystering Brom Bones, athletic, skilled in horsemanship, and mischievous. Likable as Ichabod is, as an entertaining character, his designs on Katrina are not an outcome to be hoped for: he fantasizes about selling this beautiful, bountiful farm for a good sum after Katrina inherits it, and striking out west.

On an autumn day, Ichabod receives an invitation from Van Tassel to come that evening to a party, a “quilting frolic” with lots of food and merrymaking. Needless to say, he attends, and along with the food Ichabod gets a full helping of hair-raising ghost stories among the men. And then… he has to go home in the dark. LOL.

OK, most of us have an idea of what happens in the climax, because the story is just part of the season. And yet few people have actually read it. The story is readily available — go take it off the shelf or check it out from the library or download it onto your reader. Like “Betsy Murphy,” the story that I remember my father telling me when I was young, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” will only scare the very young, and that scare will be pleasurable. Adults will find a sophisticated and funny story, in entertainment value well worth the reading.

Season of Mists and Hauntings

When the days are getting chilly and the nights long, I start turning to ghost stories. The time has to be right: it must be dark outside, and fairly late, and I in bed, with one bedside light. And then, in the quiet, I open an M. R. James volume, or Le Fanu, or Blackwood…

The earliest story I can remember being told as a young child was a ghost story. My father would sit down on the bed and I’d request the story by name: “Tell me ‘Betsy Murphy’!” My father told it in first person, as something that had happened to him, and as I remember it went like this:

“Well, I had to walk home in the dark one night, and as I was coming across a field I came to a fence and there were some turkeys sitting on top of the fence. They were so tame that none of them flew away when I came up; they just sat there and looked at me. And I thought one of them would make a good dinner and I took the largest one and tucked it under my arm and went on toward home. And just as I was getting close to the house, that turkey looked up at me and said, ‘You’ve carried old Betsy far enough, haven’t you?'”

Usually, that was the end, although sometimes my father added that he dropped the turkey and ran. But he loved to deliver that final question with menace, although there was always a hint of a smile, too, and he plainly thought that was the proper conclusion.

The story fascinated me, I guess, because I was never quite sure of my own attitude toward it. Betsy Murphy was not a cheery Disney-style talking animal; she made me uneasy, and yet she hadn’t done anything terrible, exactly — she had just talked. Every time I heard the story, I considered again the scene: the dark, lonely field and the preternaturally tame bird sitting on the fence, looking back at my father.

From my adult standpoint now, the story seems to be about witchcraft, and I would guess the story is very old, certainly not original to my father. It seems allied to those European tales of witches who could transform themselves into animal shapes to work harm on their neighbors or consort with other demonic beings.

“Betsy Murphy” still has that uneasy mix of understated fear and humor that I found in it as a child, when it gave me chills but not nightmares. Sometimes I laughed at the end; sometimes not. For a story that took only a minute or two to tell, it nevertheless had an element of ambiguity that made it more than a tale quickly told and forgotten.

I’ll be revisiting some favorite ghost stories and looking for some new ones during October, to keep me entertained in the late hour before sleep.