Not Sleepy Yet

Working on a doctorate changes the way you think.  Or at least it’s supposed to.  Easy answers have to be examined closely, and sources critically scrutinized.  One of the side-effects of this is that many Ph.D.s tend to think that only others of that status are able to do good research.  An essential piece of research, however, is passion.  This part isn’t always logical and can’t always be explained.  A recovering academic, I first resisted Gary Denis’ Sleepy Hollow: Birth of the Legend because it was self-published.  I’ve had bad experiences with self-published books before but what I discovered here is that Denis is quite a capable researcher, driven with a passion for Washington Irving’s tale.  The execution may be a little rough, but the data-gathering is very good.  He tries to point out where accounts have problems and attempts, where possible, to resolve them.

Denis is driven by the question of what in Irving’s story is factual, if anything?  This is probably not a question an academic would ask, presuming that fiction is fiction.  Still, there is data.  The first four chapters are very good.  Here he lays out the background to the region, Irving, and stories of headless horsemen.  I learned quite a lot from it.  The final three chapters turn to the main characters of the story—Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, and Brom Bones—asking who they might’ve been based on.  The best drawn of these is the first and there’s good reason to suppose Irving based Crane’s situation on that of his friend, Jesse Merwin.  The other two, however, are sketched rather hastily and lots of people have suggestions for who might’ve been behind them.

Clearly aware that authors borrow and make things up, Denis knows that Katrina and Brom may well be pretty much imaginary.  He also knows that Irving did indeed borrow much from previously known stories and legends.  Irving’s real genius was in the way he expressed these stories in colloquial English, making American literature a blend.  Although Irving wrote many books, his fame was largely due to two of his stories published early in his career.  One of those stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” has left quite a paper trail and Denis leaves no rock unturned in his efforts to collect data on it.  I’ve read a fair number of self-published books over the years—they’ve been easy to produce since the internet began—and I’m wary of them.  This book, however, is one that I’m glad I found and it serves as a useful reminder that good research isn’t limited to the privileged few in the academy.


Sleepy Hollow West

You’ve got to admire those who are determined to be writers on their own terms.  As someone who’s tried and tried again to break into even indie presses, I know few established publishers will even consider fiction from someone who’s not already established.  As my regular readers know, I’ve been reading a lot about the Legend of Sleepy Hollow lately.  So I came across Austin Dragon’s Hollow Blood.  Part of a two-volume novel set, the story takes a creative approach while retaining several of the original characters, even having clever nods now and again to the wording in the original.  Although clearly self-published, Dragon is able to let his imagination go on this one.  Julian Crane, Ichabod’s nephew, is out to avenge his uncle’s death.

In Sleepy Hollow he confronts Brom Bones with the crime, but wrongly.  It turns out that the Marshal—there are elements of the old west in this too, with cowboys and showdowns—knows where Crane has settled and offers to take the nephew to him.  So unfolds a story that feels a bit more like a western than a horror story at points.  I don’t want to give away too much since Dragon, like most of those who make their living by writing, needs to move copies to stay solvent.  The thing is, Sleepy Hollow seems to be an evergreen subject.  America keeps coming back to it.  Many writers try to take it on as the basis for more modern reboots.  Of course, I have to read the second volume to find out how it really ends.

I can’t help but think that the internet has made it difficult for writers by allowing anyone to establish him or herself as one.  If you can build a fan base, you can make a living at it.  The publishing industry faces problems of its own, of course.  Paper shortages are a problem.  Not only the pandemic, but the assumption that ebooks were going to spell the death of print led paper mills to cut production.  Funny thing—print has been seeing a resurgence of interest.  Large media seems surprised, scratching its metaphoric head and saying “People like actual books—who knew?”  But I digress.  The simple tale of a love triangle in the 1790s with a ghost on the loose has spawned a great number of offspring.  Some published the traditional way, and others on a writer’s own terms.  It’s a story worth the retelling.


Novelization

It must be both difficult and easy writing the novelization of a movie.  I suppose it depends on the movie as well.  Sleepy Hollow is a film based on a story already, but Washington Irving’s tale isn’t a novel and the movie was a collaboration between Irving’s original, re-envisioned by Kevin Yagher, Andrew Kevin Walker, and Tim Burton.  The novelization was done by Peter Lerangis and it, naturally enough, follows the movie.  As a novelizer, however, you need to try to make sense of some scenes where a film only implies what’s going on.  Now, in this case I’ve seen the movie many times and any deviations come across as “that’s not the way it goes” moments.  Still, it’s competently done.  It  even helped me make sense out of some things that had me puzzled since the start of the millennium.

In the “book or movie” debate I tend to think a book should be read first.  Sometimes it should go the other way around.  Novelizations are, of course, intended to increase the profits for a film.  You’ve got the box office take, and if there are advertising tie-ins or other merch, you can add to the haul.  A novelization can also help.  In this case, the movie has a somewhat complex plot with revenge and double-crossing, and so a novel helps to make all that clear.  However, when the novelist asks you to accept what a character is thinking you may have already come up with your own ideas on that point and any postmodernist would tell you that your opinion is just as valid as that of the writer.

Movie scripts tend to be a bit short for novels—if the movie isn’t based on a novel, of course—and sometimes extra material is needed.  This novelization includes the public domain story by Irving as well, even though the movie completely recasts all the characters into unfamiliar roles.  Brom, for example, is a minor part, whereas Katrina is a witch and Ichabod a constable from New York City.  All of that having been said, there really aren’t many surprises here.  I read this because I’m interested in the life of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Its many retelling and re-envisionings.  The original story was published less than fifty years after American independence and has memories closer to the time.  It tells us something of what it was like in those early days.  And this novel both retells and redacts a movie already a couple decades old itself.


Aging Writers

The fact that V. C. Andrews didn’t have any success as a novelist until her late fifties (a benchmark that has already slipped for me), gives me hope.  Another thing I didn’t realize about Cleo Virginia Andrews is that she was confined to a wheelchair.  She didn’t want that fact advertised and she didn’t want peoples’ pity.  She wanted to write.  Many of the books published under her name were ideas she had but that were only brought to fruition by others after her death.  She became a legacy.  Writers are fascinating people.  I only recently learned that Anne Rice was transgender.  I had assumed from her public persona something that I had taken for granted.  Gender is a complex thing, no matter how loudly religions shout.  The sheer number of people born intersex should make that obvious.

Writers express the human experience.  Some perspectives aren’t really considered worth pursuing, as I know from personal experience.  But learning about writers’ lives always gives me hope.  There are those whose lives will always contain mystery—was Washington Irving homosexual or just inept with women?  What really happened to Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore?  Who was Homer, really?  No matter how much those of us inclined to write do so, there are still huge swaths of life that are left off the page.  (Much of it boring, spent at work, or mowing the lawn.  I try to imagine Herman Melville on a riding mower, but I just can’t do it.)  Writing successfully involves a publisher or agent willing to take a chance on you.  But if you’re old enough to be a one-hit wonder (sorry John Kennedy Toole), they don’t see dollar signs down the road, so move on down to the next door, please.

I had a novel under contract a decade and a half ago.  It never materialized, so don’t look for it.  My nepenthe consists of learning about writers, whether one-hit wonders or not.  I can still look to the Frank McCourts, Laura Ingalls Wilders, and Harriet Doerrs of the literary world.  For most writers it’s the story of what happened before success that is the most compelling part.  Especially those who were older and just kept on trying.  Some had to die, ironically, before the world realized they had something important to say.  You can’t blame the world.  The world’s busy.  But the fact is nobody would remember what it was like if somebody hadn’t bothered to write it down.  So we continue to chronicle the human experience.


Sacred Hudson

As scientific as we may wish to be, there’s no denying that there is a sense of place.  We know that some animals, at least, also feel it.  Whether theirs is a more pragmatic desire to return to where conditions were favorable to be born, or whether something deeper draws them there, we have no way of knowing.  People feel it too, this sense of place.  We know where we’re from, and if we don’t we often want to find out.  The space is somehow part of us.  There’s a compelling exploration of this in Judith Richardson’s Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley.  While not America’s first haunted location, the Hudson Valley was singled out for this treatment by Washington Irving.  He, however, didn’t invent it.

I’m not from the Hudson Valley.  I could never afford to live there.  That doesn’t mean the area can’t speak to me.  Richardson’s approach is academic yet readable and she considers how hauntings fill needs and how they play a role in that ever-contentious enterprise of land claims.  Ranging through literary treatments, whether the fiction of Irving or tour books of the next generation, or indeed, more recent literary efforts, Richardson deftly guides the reader through American Indian and Dutch and other inhabitants’ stories of themselves.  Race inevitably plays a part, and her tracing of the origins of some traditional tales is really remarkable.  Who owns the land?  Who truly owns anything?   

Similar treatments (I can’t help but feel somehow lesser) must exist of other haunted locations.  Richardson doesn’t engage in arguments over whether ghosts are factual since ghosts serve so many other functions.  Our lives are the stories we tell about ourselves.  Many of those tales involve the place we are or places we’ve been.  In our highly mobile society, few of us, it seems, can make a living where we’re from.  Those of us born in small towns range far and wide to find employment.  In many cases we may not want to go live where the drama of our childhoods unfolded.  Yes, there are pleasant memories there, but there are also ghosts.  Richardson explores how this plays out in one small stretch of the country.  Indeed, it’s a small stretch of New York state.  Stories of hauntings continue in that particular valley.  Uncanny, perhaps, but there are places in this world like that, and this book is a sure road post on this particular overgrown trail.


The Horseman

Washington Irving’s tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” perhaps due to its being the earliest literary American ghost story, has been retold time and again.  When I saw that Christina Henry had a take on it that came out last autumn, I knew I’d be reading it.  I’d read her The Girl in Red late last year, but I couldn’t wait until fall to read this one.  Henry has a way of taking traditional stories and making them relevant.  Horseman is set two generations after Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel, but they all appear in it.  According to Irving’s story—and this is often changed in cinematographic treatments—Brom and Katrina wed.  The narrator of this tale is Ben, who in today’s terms would be considered transgender.  He (his preferred pronoun) is the grandchild of Brom and Katrina.

Henry is a master of magic realism.  There really is something in the woods of Sleepy Hollow and it’s taking children’s heads.  Some influence from Tim Burton’s film version is found here, but the story has its own trajectory and inner logic.  Ben actually sees the monster, but nobody will believe him.  Not until it’s too late.  The one person who does believe is Katrina, Ben’s grandmother.  She, however, wants Ben to act like a girl because he was born female.  She wants him to stay home and learn sewing and cooking.  Ben’s hero, however, is Brom.  He’s a good man, if rowdy.  He married Katrina for love, not wealth.  Ichabod Crane does appear, later in the story, but since how he appears is a spoiler I’ll need to let you read for yourself.

Americans are often raised with the wrong-headed notion of canon as the one way a story goes.  Retelling is as ancient as writing itself.  Homer, Apollodorus, and Ovid were retelling stories.  So were many Bible writers.  People tell one another tall tales.  Washington Irving didn’t invent the Headless Horseman out of whole cloth.  Neither did the people of Tarrytown.  How the story goes is a matter for discussion.  Bet yet, it’s also a matter for retelling.  Henry’s version could be made to fit with Irving’s, but with a bit of prior assumption, some posthumous collaboration.  Hers, however, is a tale for our times.  Just like in Red, the protagonist isn’t conventional, according to conservative sexual standards.  Both are, however, authentic.  And although both may be flawed in various ways, there’s no denying that they’re heroes.


Keeping Your Head

Horror is a gift that keeps on giving.  Not many horror fans are among my regular readers, but I like to keep a finger in the pie nevertheless.  Just earlier this month it was announced that Paramount has hired Lindsey Beers to direct a new big screen Sleepy Hollow.  It’s early days, of course, and the movie hasn’t been titled, let alone filmed.  Beers is just wrapping up a prequel for Pet Sematary (not yet titled) that I’ll be eager to see.  Women horror directors tend to bring refreshing angles to the genre—and why shouldn’t they?  Women writers were crucial in developing the Gothic genre that evolved into horror as we know it.  No matter what the Supreme Court says, they are just as important—probably more—than males.

I’ve been reading quite a lot about Sleepy Hollow over the past several months, which is how I came across the intelligence about this new movie.  It’s nice to know that the Hudson Valley is evergreen.  My visits there have offered brushes with the uncanny, but nothing explicit.  A weekend near the ice caves of Sam’s Point, geocaching in the woods outside Poughkeepsie, a visit to Sleepy Hollow itself to visit Irving’s grave and tip my hat to the Old Dutch Church.  With deep family roots in upstate New York, I’ve always thought it would be a great place to live.  Alas, not on an editor’s salary.  It’s been too long since I’ve given the area a visit.

John Quidor, The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, via Wikimedia Commons

There have been many takes on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Even in the silent era movies were made of it.  In retrospect, it seems odd that it took so long for Tim Burton to bring it back to the big screen.  There were some television movies, usually with plodding plots to draw the story out to commercial length.  Disney had early on devoted half a feature to it, as if the story couldn’t support its own weight.  For better or worse, that film was probably the first introduction to the tale that many people had—the story itself was written for adults.  Of course, many written kids’ versions have come out since then.  The satirical original was meant for a somewhat sophisticated readership with a sense of humor.  The story lends itself to horror treatments, however, if they’re done well.  It may have been an early viewing of the Disney tale that set me moving in this direction.  I like to think I’ve kept my head over it, however.


Dutch Treat

It was back when I was researching my first religion and horror paper that I learned it.  Since the paper was about Sleepy Hollow, I’d been reading about Washington Irving.  I knew little about him beyond that he’d written this story and also “Rip Van Winkle.”  I had no idea that he was the one responsible for the nickname Knickerbocker for all things New York.  Since then I’ve been quite curious about Irving and his world.  A glance at the books noted on this blog over the last few months will demonstrate this.  I found out about Elizabeth L. Bradley from an interview about Sleepy Hollow during the heart of the pandemic.  Irving was first sent to Sleepy Hollow because of a yellow fever outbreak in New York.  It led to his introduction to the lore and folk of the region.

Bradley’s book isn’t about that, however.  She’s writing about how Knickerbocker went from Irving’s nom de guerre to essentially a trademark for Manhattan, and New York City more broadly.  Knickerbocker graces hotels, sports teams, and once upon a time, a brand of beer.  And much more.  All of this is because of a volume I’ve never read, A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker.  Irving was a satirical writer and this history is an extended satire.  He wasn’t Dutch, but he was born in Manhattan and cut his writing teeth there.  An older sibling to America’s other fledgling writers, he gained fame enough to be able to retire near Sleepy Hollow.  That particular story, along with Rip, made him a household name.  Of course, he wrote much else but it’s not talked about so much.

This book is a brief tour of the city and its love affair with Irving’s pseudonym.  Even having commuted to New York for about seven years of my life, I feel I only know very little about Irving’s hometown of Manhattan.  I do know that on my walks across midtown hurrying either to the office or to the bus, I found a quirky little view of the city emerging.  Little sites of significance only to myself—plaques on a seldom-used street, a church nestled between towers for capitalism, a quiet restaurant that made you forget the millions of others just outside.  It gives me hope that a writer can make such an impact on an ever-evolving entity like New York.  And this quick introduction contains much to help one reflect on the enormity of it all.


Updating Irving

Movie quality is measured by many standards.  It’s pretty clear that budgets can make a difference—Hollywood movies generally outshine television movies.  Streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, have been gaining ground here, but they still lack some of the qualia that come from long-term players in the industry.  Often this was measured, pre-pandemic, by box office success.  I’m not sure how it’s all quantified now, but I’m sure it still comes down to money.  To me, the deciding factor about the quality of a movie is often the writing.  Even with a modest budget excellent writing can make up a lot of ground.  Headless Horseman originally aired on the SciFi channel (now Syfy) in 2007, and I wrote a tiny bit about it in a former post.  I recently rewatched it with an eye toward how religion is integrated in it.

Headless Horseman is not a great movie.  Its writing doesn’t inspire and it leaves too many gaps in the narrative to carry the viewer along easily.  Still, religion plays an important role in the story.  This one resets Washington Irving’s tale in the south—from the license plates, Missouri.  The horseman is a serial killer who offered his victim’s heads to the hydra, the serpent that guards the entrance to Hell.  When the killer is stopped and his body sent through the gateway, he comes back every seven years to chop heads.  The town where all this takes place has the biblical name of Wormwood, and everyone in it is literally family.  So every seven years they have to trap seven outsiders to make their offering.  The person who originally stopped the killer was the local priest.

Even this brief synopsis reveals how deeply religion is engrained in this retelling.  Irving’s classic story is set in an overtly religious period (particularly Protestant, of the Reformed variety), and wears this lightly.  Everyone can be assumed to go to church and the Headless Horseman is a Hessian mercenary decapitated by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War.  Over time, with many retellings, the horror becomes more and more involved with religion.  To the point that the religion itself is the real engine of fear.  A town protecting a Hell-guarding hellion doesn’t exactly make them Satanists, but it does mean they’re not far from it.  The in-breeding is, however, a bit insensitive.  My recent rewatching wasn’t with an eye toward the Bible, as my last viewing was.  When retelling the story, however, it seems religion will surface where once it was only in the background.


Annotating Irving

Really concentrating on a short story is sometimes difficult to do.  I don’t have a degree in literature (I took a few courses, but my specialization was religion).  I’ve been on a bit of a Sleepy Hollow kick lately and I wanted to move beyond just the short story by Washington Irving.  Although I’m sure working through the entire Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., the book in which “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was published, would probably be rewarding, it would also be time consuming.  Irving was trying to find his way as a writer and this particular story has been his lasting contribution.  So I turned to local historian Henry John Steiner’s annotated edition.  It has a useful introduction, but still wouldn’t be “book length” without several pages of photos and a large font size.

Sleepy Hollow may lay claim to several signs of historical importance.  It featured in the Revolutionary War.  Washington Irving did eventually settle there.  As a getaway it attracted the wealthy and powerful from New York City because it’s not that far from Manhattan.  Several movie and television renditions have been made of Irving’s story.  This book generally provides local place connections in the annotations.  A visitor to Sleepy Hollow might wonder where this or that event in the story was set.  This book will help with that.  Still, it left me looking for a bit more substantial treatment.  Not necessarily a literary-theory kind.  Let’s face it, academic writers tend to write for other academics. No, a bit more of the folklore, I suppose.

It did allow me to slow down and really concentrate on the story.  Books have an endpoint that really helps in that regard.  This little book (as was the one I recently read on the Old Dutch Church) was published when the Fox series Sleepy Hollow was taking off.  That all-important media tie-in helps to sell books.  Interestingly, the details of a closer reading are revealing.  This isn’t, in origin, a Halloween story.  It’s a tall tale told American style.  Steiner indicates it was based on an older legend—this is something I’d be interested in hearing more about.  Writers are great recyclers.  I suppose a book on the folklore of the lower Hudson Valley might have more of what I’m seeking.  Nevertheless I came away from this edition feeling as if I’d gotten to know the story better.  Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” also appears in his Sketch Book, but perhaps it’s asking too much to have both analyzed together.


Old Churches

I doubled its authenticity, but it was revered in a way similar to the Shroud of Turin.  The old guide, a priest if I recall, showed us an actual lantern hung for Paul Revere’s ride.  This was the Old North Church in Boston, of course.  Its history is so storied that children across the country learned about it in school.  A similar feeling comes from reading The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow by Janie Couch Allen and Elinor Griffith.  Subtitled Legends and Lore: The Oldest Church in New York, it is clearly a celebratory work, printed in full color and with pictures on every page.  This church’s claim to fame isn’t as much historical as it’s the result of the imagination of Washington Irving.  It features in his short story “The Legend of Sleep Hollow.”

Built in 1685, it was already an old building by the time Irving had settled in North Tarrytown.  Being early enough, Irving had immense influence on the culture of a young country.  Although born in New York City, and although he lived for many years overseas, he came to represent the voice of the emerging American literary tradition.  America has been home to many writers since then, some successful, many not.  But this book is about the church, not Irving.  Irving does play a big part in its story, although he was never a member.  I kept thinking as I read how influential a single story can become.  And even a small Dutch Reformed Church can benefit from it.  This book gives a high-level overview of the history of the area and some of its colorful characters.  It turns a few times to the Headless Horseman, but it also explains the trials and triumphs of a small church.

Although most towns can’t claim such a storied structure, American churches have had an outsized influence on who we are as a people.  I’ve sat through meetings lamenting the lack of funds for the operating budget as money grows tighter even as the worldview of ancient Palestine effaces.  As an historian of religion I tend to look back.  I don’t believe our future will be entirely electronic or virtual.  If it is, I think I’d rather find myself on a chill, uncomfortable pew in the Old Dutch Church lit by candles on a Christmas Eve, shivering but still alive.  No matter what a person believes—and with the varieties of churches we can’t all be right—we know that it’s part of what makes us human.


Not Sleepy Yet

Over a recent weekend I watched four versions of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  (I have two excuses.  One is that it’s October, and the second is that I have an article on Sleepy Hollow coming out on Horror Homeroom.  For the second, read on.)  The story is one that made an impact on me as a child, probably because of Disney’s Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  The cartoon version, which was one of the four I watched, is silly and scary both.  It leaves it to the imagination whether the headless horseman is real or not.  Before that I watched the silent 1922 Headless Horseman staring Will Rogers.  Clearly in that film the headless horseman is what we’d now call a liberal hoax.  It was Brom Bones scaring Ichabod Crane away from Katrina Van Tassel.

The canon of characters grows with Tim Burton’s 1999 film Sleepy Hollow.  Although Burton is hit or miss for me, this strikes me as one of the best October movies I’ve seen.  The headless horseman is quite real and the spiritual world intersects with the rational, crime and punishment world in the haunted western wood.  I didn’t have time for the 1980 television movie this time around, but I decided to watch the 2007 television movie Headless Horseman.  A rather puerile splatter film set in Missouri, it posits that this is the real headless horseman behind Washington Irving’s story.  It has a lot of religious imagery, which is often what I’m looking for in horror.  The writing is poor and the characters shallow, but it isn’t a total waste of time.

What all of these films demonstrate is that Washington Irving’s story, as simple as it is, really resonated with Americans.  How can you reason or plead mercy from a headless man?  Look closely, for there is a parable here.  The headless are merciless and they have the ability to frighten.  The story is generally set in the harvest season.  The 2007 movie makes the horseman’s appearance as a crucified scarecrow.  Although the original story had no such religious elements, they’ve become a standard part of its accrued cultural heritage.  The headless horseman has gone from secular to religious, for it is an American story.  Originally set in the period after the Revolutionary War, it was part of an unsettled nation’s frustrated attempt at normalcy.  This, I believe, remains.  When we can’t make sense of our surroundings, we look back to those stories that seem to have some insight into who we are.  Headless horsemen are quite useful in that regard.


Sleepy and Hollow

Call it nostalgia.  (“It’s nostalgia!”)  What with major expenses rolling in like the longer nights—a major plumbing job followed by the roofers back again to fix another leak—I try to accept my joys in inexpensive doses.  I’ve written before about how “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” caught my childhood imagination.  My brothers and I, growing up in quite humble circumstances, were collectors.  Not having much money, the collecting tended to be of free stuff, much of which drove our mother crazy.  Bottle caps, believe it or not, could be had for free from the openers on vending machines that dispensed genuine glass bottles.  We had bags full and the aroma was wonderful.  We had baseball cards—which were cheap and would now be worth something had they been kept—by the boxful.  And we collected stamps because they came free in the mail.

Yes, even bills used to have stamps.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow stamp was released for Halloween in 1974.  I don’t recall how I heard about it, because there was no internet in those days.  I knew, however, that I fervently hoped one would come so that I could add it to my collection.  It never did.  In fact, I never actually saw the stamp itself.  When we moved house my childhood philatelic ambitions met an abrupt end as those endless childhood collections (which included metal slugs dropped from trucks rumbling out of the local steel mill and fossils found by the river under the bridge where those slugs pinged) were simply thrown out.  I would never see the coveted stamp, and now we use email.

It took many years—decades now—to occur to me that the stamp might be available online.  I guess I had pictures of the price tag of that upside-down airplane stamp in mind as I navigated to a vendor who was asking less than a dollar for a mint copy of a ten-cent Sleepy Hollow stamp.  Gritting my teeth between plumbing and roofing bills, I finally clicked “check out.”  With postage ironically costing more than the contents, still I felt giddy.  This was a piece of childhood on a simple slip of sticky paper.  I am not a stamp collector.  I will likely never be.  I do have vivid memories of bags full of aromatic bottle caps, and shoeboxes groaning with baseball cards, and cheap albums with common stamps.  They’re long gone.  But on my desk I now have a small piece of memory from many years ago, and  I have to wonder if I’m the pedagogue or his headless haunter.


Not so Hollow

It is difficult to say how an idea might grab you.  I really have no idea why Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” took my childhood imagination prisoner and has kept it stoutly locked up over all these years.  Perhaps it was the Disney version seen as a child that left me with shivers of wonder akin to a species of joy.  The autumnal setting, the implied ghost, the ambiguity of the final scene.  I used to be as avid a philatelist as one can be in a small town, and the Sleepy Hollow stamp of 1974 held me transfixed long before I ever encountered Tim Burton’s vision of the legend.  After having watched the silent Headless Horseman a couple of times, I went back to The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and read the original again.  This time I followed it up with the appendix in my edition, written a decade or two after the story by an older Irving.

The 1922 movie runs fairly close to the literary original (for the most part), especially when you add the appendix.  The appendix (in the edition I have—The Modern Library, 2001) is an essay titled “Sleepy Hollow.”  It reflects on Irving’s recollections of what Sleepy Hollow was like in his youth (he returned to the area to settle later in life).  The village church, which features in “The Legend,” provides a source of much of his reverie and this is incorporated into the early cinematic version as well, in the Sunday morning scene.  I also noticed how frequently psalmody enters the original story.  The tale does not mention the Bible, but psalmody was an early form of church music, and “The Legend” has Ichabod use it when he’s afraid as well as for teaching students to sing, for a few shiny shillings.

Washington Irving is sometimes credited with the invention of the short story as a literary form.    His younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe worked in that format, and the two of them contended with making a living (the former more successfully) purely as literary writers.  Irving’s spooky tales, however, often have something of the comic about them.  His story-telling style uses folksy, folkloric exaggeration and humor to prevent it from becoming too dark.  Poe would snuff the candle and let the fear be unhindered.  I knew of Sleepy Hollow before I discovered Poe, and this recent resurgence is perhaps a way of exploring my own literary roots.  It’s nearly half-way through September already, and Tarrytown beckons. 


Horseman Horror

Yesterday was distinctly autumnal around here.  Cloudy and cool, the overcast was definitely moody although the equinox is still a couple weeks away.  Still, the mood was right for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The earliest full cinematic adaptation of Washington Irving’s story is the 1922 silent feature The Headless Horseman, starring none other than Will Rogers.  Now, Irving’s story is fairly brief, and to get nearly a full seventy-five minutes out of it, the tale lends itself to some padding.  The film makes a great deal of Ichabod Crane knowing Cotton Mather’s A History of Witch-Craft, and even being accused of being in league with the Devil that leads to a  disturbing scene where he’s nearly tarred and feathered.  In reality Mather’s book was Wonders of the Invisible World, but the point of the film is better made with the fictional title.

Having watched Tim Burton’s 1999 version—Sleepy Hollow—many times, I was taken by the introduction of the Bible into the story.  The groundwork, however, was laid by Edward D. Venturini’s version.  True to the story, Ichabod teaches Psalmody in his role as schoolmaster.  Venturini’s film has a contrived scene in the church on Sunday that includes a lengthy sermon with everyone—even the usher—falling asleep.  The episode, which is lacking in Irving’s original rendition, introduces the Bible into the narrative.  The connection is thin, but nevertheless present.  Burton picked up on the religious element and built it firmly into the plot as Ichabod Crane’s backstory as a skeptic, raised by “a Bible-black tyrant.”

As someone interested in the integration of religion and horror, early examples, despite the comic aspect of Venturini’s version, are often instructive.  The comedic spirit is actually in the original; Irving’s tale gives a caricature description of Crane that gives the lie to the handsome protagonists beginning with Jeff Goldblum on through Johnny Depp and Tim Mison.  Will Rogers plays the homely image to its hilt, and although lighthearted, the movie has some classic horror elements.  To arouse his dozing parishioners, the minister yells “Fire!” When they awake asking where, he states “In Hell,” which sleeping churchgoers can expect.  Although the eponymous headless horseman is shown to be Brom Bones, a remarkably effective early scene presents a skeletal, ghostly rider that haunts at least the imagination.  The sun is out this morning, and the brooding skies of yesterday have passed.  They will be back, however, as the season for ghost tales is only just beginning.