Thursday, October 22, 2020

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1819)

Washington Irving's chestnut came out the year after Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was first published. That's some bona fides. It's old and it prefigures many things. I was exposed to it somewhere along the line—maybe I read it in junior high or saw TV productions or heard readings. Something. Whatever, I feel like I've always known it even if I don't always remember the details. This American brand of horror—Nathaniel Hawthorne provides more examples, though Edgar Allan Poe does not entirely fit the profile—is rooted in Puritanism, of course. In 1819, Puritanism might have been two centuries old, but it was still callow in comparison to the millennium-plus age of Europe's Roman Catholic Church, whose ancient corruption alone is a much better underpinning for ghosts, blasted spiritual lives, violence, and/or remorse. Let's not forget the druids and barbarian tribes and such either. Horror is one case where I generally favor the Europeans. Maybe because I was raised on it, or in it, American horror stories like this one too often feel close to yippee ki-yay tall tales folklore and myth, campfire ghost stories that rely too much on some cheap shock gimmick like the teller whispering and then standing up suddenly and howling. Who wouldn't get a jolt of adrenaline? But that's not really the point, is it? Here the one thing, the only thing, is headlessness (as opposed to heedlessness, though that is arguably part of the point too). "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" manages a few effective paragraphs near the end, with the Headless Horseman seemingly in hot pursuit of the hapless Ichabod Crane. But otherwise it is mostly endless setup and description at deadly plodding pace. The ending is terrible, and distinctly American as well. In fact, Irving often looks forward to Mark Twain here in the gentle notes of deadpan skepticism. But "Sleepy Hollow"—it was all a practical joke? Everything of weird interest is drained by that. Plus you hate to see a bully win (reminding me once again, as compulsive aside, that Donald Trump is a very old American story). Irving's language is antiquated too, as long as I'm complaining—I object to the frequency of "peradventure." Is this story really beloved by children? Is it beloved by anyone? It's not particularly beloved by me. I know it's a certain icon of American Halloween imagery and ritual but what does that mean? Irving's "Tom Walker and the Devil" is much better in every way, as I recall, though it is also dogged by problems of American horror. "Sleepy Hollow" is less overtly Puritan, set in the times following the American Revolutionary War, when the general project at hand was to build out the structures of a democratic society, in which case superstition necessarily needs to be treated skeptically. But the story often seems to have something less than moral clarity, with its implicit suggestion that bullies gain favor and power and then, in the natural order of things, banish intellectuals and teachers. Or maybe just, in my contrarian way, I don't like the story because everyone else seems to, especially at this time of year.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

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