First, a confession: I’m not the biggest fan of Washington Irving. I studied his work in college, and I found most of it to be pretty tedious. But, it’s my goal to read more classic horror this year. It felt wrong to ignore “the father of American literature.”
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle are two novelette-length works that are set in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The stories were both published in 1819 and quickly became popular around the world.
In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a superstitious schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane attends a party where he hopes to catch the attention of the party host’s pretty daughter. Instead, he ends up listening to the other party guests telling ghost stories. On his way home from the party, he is stalked by a headless horseman. Ichabod isn’t sure if the horseman is a real ghost or a party-goer pulling a prank, but he ends up running for his life.
This story starts out very, very slowly. The majority of the story is actually descriptions of the landscape and Ichabod’s personality. I was tempted to skim because nothing really happens. The end of the story is much better. Once the headless horseman shows up, things get tense. I think the end is supposed to be a mystery, but I wish it had been a little more mysterious. The truth about the headless horseman is very obvious. I guess the moral of this story is not to get so carried away with your imagination that you can’t think critically.
Rip Van Winkle is about a lazy man who goes hunting to escape from his demanding wife. While in the woods, he comes across a group of ghostly men playing ninepins. Rip gets drunk with the ghost men and falls asleep. When he wakes up, his beard is a foot long, his gun is rusted, and his dog is gone. He makes his way back to town and finds that everything has changed. Rip discovers that he has been asleep for 20 years. He’s slept through the American Revolution. He went into the woods as a loyal servant to England’s king and came out as an American citizen in a baffling new country. After he learns that he’s slept through a war, he goes to his daughter’s house and resumes his lazy ways.
I’m not sure what the moral of this story is. Don’t take alcohol from ghosts? Maybe it’s a form of wish-fulfillment? Americans wish they could have slept through the horrors of the Revolutionary War? I don’t know.
I actually like Rip Van Winkle more than Sleepy Hollow. The pacing is faster, there is less description, and there isn’t a long lead-in to the action.
I can’t say that I love either of these novelettes, but I’m glad that I read them. I’m a fan of modern speculative fiction, and these stories had a big impact on the early days of the genre.