He was the greatest American writer of his time: mentor to Poe, Dickens, and Hawthorne, his country’s first professional author, and a writer of uniqely American ghost stories about growth, change, and identity. His was the complex personality of an existentially anxious, emotionally complex man disturbed by his fame and haunted by loneliness. These disquieting themes course through his Gothic tales – “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “Rip Van Winkle,” “The Devil and Tom Walker,” and more – tales haunted by spectres of anxiety.
Though he was once more famous for his social satires and ironic humor, Irving’s fictional oeuvre is primarily devoted to speculative fiction: ghost stories, weird tales, fantasies, and horror. And there’s far more than the Headless Horseman to frighten readers: ghost pirates, vengeful Doppelgangers, guillotined women, haunted treasure chests, hanged men’s ghosts, rural superstitions, dancing furniture, portraits with moving eyes, hellhounds, goblin horses, enchanted princesses, supernatural caves of wonder, haunted paintings, ghostly nuns, spectral crusaders, and possessed bedchambers are among his many bogeys.
His universe is among the sunniest in horror fiction – brighter certainly than Le Fanu’s, Hodgson’s, or Stoker’s – but its sunnyside hides a dark posterior, engulfed in shadow and swallowed up in night. Here, for your pleasure, are ten of his best stories of mystery and the macabre.
10. A CHRONICLE OF WOLFERT’S ROOST
If you enjoyed “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” don’t miss out on this nonfiction sequel of sorts: in “A Chronicle of Wolfert’s Roost,” Irving tells a series of legends, ghost stories, and superstitions surrounding the Van Tassel farmhouse. Irving himself bought the property when he returned from Europe, renamed it Sunnyside, and lived there for years. He relates genuine local superstitions about his house, including how Sleepy Hollow was bewitched by an Indian wizard, how it was cursed by witches (including one who lived in his home), some of the wartime adventures of the historical Van Tassel family, and a series of ghosts whom he saw himself: a weeping female in his orchard, and a haggard skeleton doomed to row past his house on the Hudson. These are the true legends of Sleepy Hollow.
9. THE TWO DISCREET STATUES
Most of Irving’s Spanish supernatural tales are closer to fantasy and fairy tales than horror, but a few of them have some truly Gothic moments. In this story a poor girl finds a magic charm which allows her to visit a ghostly party on St. John's Eve – Spanish Halloween – where the souls of gloomy Moorish aristocrats, wizards, and ladies are commiserating their loss of Granada. Here the girl helps to free the soul of a Spanish prisoner, and the woman rewards her with the location of the buried Moorish treasure. Things look good for her family, until her mother tells her confessor – a lecherous snake with a brood of pudgy offspring – who coyly blackmails them into “gifting” his church huge amounts. The family decide to flee in the night, and when the priest hears of their plan, he prepares an ambush – but as Ichabod Crane found out, he who seeks to ruin the hopes of decent, hardworking people may end up racing goblin horsemen – or riding a goblin steed!
8. THE GRAND PRIOR OF SAN MINORCA
Like much of his later work (after he retired to Tarrytown and began reviewing his life), this ghost story reads more like Edgar Allan Poe than the writer of “Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” Mirthless, wild, and gloomy, it tells the story of two Army officers who run afoul of one another over the attentions of a pretty girl. The younger, petulant officer demands to duel his older, graver colleague on Good Friday, despite the sacriligeous undertones. In a brieft struggle, the older man is mortally wounded. Horrified that he will die before the Easter holiday (and without last rites), he begs his killer to return his sword to his ancestral hall in France so that his soul might at least have some rest. Hounded by nightmares of the blood-stained man pleading with him, the hotheaded victor finally agrees and journeys to the gloomy mansion – but the ghost in his nightmares is not the only one he must face: the oil paintings in the dusty hall decide that the murder of their descendent calls for a family reunion – one to which his murderer is forced to attend.
7. THE ADVENTURE OF MY GRANDFATHER
A fairly bawdy, sexy tale of desire and deception, “The Adventure of My Grandfather” is probably a ghost story in the same way that “Sleepy Hollow” is: it isn’t. But its strangely woven story of dancing furniture and low-boil eroticism have kept it one of Irving’s most popular ghost stories. A dashing Irish dragoon decides to spend the night in a Flemish inn where he flirts with and arouses the attentions of every female in sight (he has a favorite habit of slapping his buckskin-clad thigh when making a point that seems to melt the women’s hearts). In the middle of the night the inn is aroused by a horrible cacophony coming from the dragoon’s room: his cabinet has fallen over and some chairs are strewn about. Shocked himself, he tells how he awoke to the raucous only to see an old man playing a bellows (a symbol of deception: blowing hot air) like a bagpipe (a traditional symbol of lust) which caused the furniture in his room to spring to life and dance. The goblin bagpiper is explained by one of the women who claims that a mad juggler died in that room. Satisfied the sleepy men and perky women go back to bed, and the reader is left wondering which woman (or women) might know the truth about the nighttime rumble.
6. DOLPH HEYLIGER
A huge inspiration to both “Tom Sawyer” and “Treasure Island,” “Dolph Heyliger” is a sorely underrated American saga about a fatherless boy who goes on an ill-fated river voyage, befriends a group of ruffians, and searches for buried treasure. Part adventure, part romance, part ghost story, and part treasure hunt, it follows young Dolph, a miscreant living with his mother in Old New York, where he becomes an apprentice to a mysterious German alchemist (the “High German doctor” who Irving says “bewitched” Sleepy Hollow) and is put in charge of exploring a haunted house which the greedy wizard hopes to rent out. Easy-going in a way that would make Rip Van Winkle proud, Dolph encounters a ghostly figure in the ruined home, and continues to dream of the apparition leading him to a crock of gold. Drawn by supernatural forces, the breakneck scamp stowsaway on a ship sailing up the Hudson, is washed overboard in a storm, is saved by hunters, falls in love with their leader’s daughter, and learns the secret of the haunted house, the ghostly man, the buried treasure, and his own family history.
5. WOLFERT WEBBER, OR GOLDEN DREAMS
Robert Louis Stevenson openly cited Irving’s piracy tales (Dolph Heyliger, Gibbet Island, Tom Walker and the Devil, and this story) for influencing “Treasure Island.” Edgar Allan Poe also owed “Wolfert Webber” a debt for inspiring “The Gold Bug,” Irving can be credited with creating the modern concept of pirates as dashing, romantic figures of mystery and intrigue rather than slouchy cutthroats. As a young man, Irving was on a ship that was captured by French pirates (he served as translator between the buccaneers and the captain) and suffered nightmares of the experience. In “Wolfert Webber,” he replays that horror by telling of a man’s obsession with finding pirate gold. The title character is engrossed by the bloody tales of a mysterious guest at his local inn: a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, violent sailor with a scarred face and a sea chest, he seems to know too much about pirate culture and stories. Webber also relishes the stories of local buried treasure, ghost pirates, bodies that refuse to sink, and hobgoblins in sailor garb. Together with the alchemist from “Dolph Heyliger” and a freed slave who witnessed murderers burying a chest, he embarks on a ghostly treasure hunt with very surprising results.
4. TOM WALKER AND THE DEVIL
Unlike Wolfert Webber who has a degree of Rip Van Winkle’s lovable panache, Tom Walker is a treasure hunter whom we would rather not get to know. As hateful and bitter as Scrooge, and just as cheap, Tom Walker would sell his soul to the devil for money. And he does. Stumbling upon Old Scratch in the ruins of an Indian fortress (hidden in the tangles of the Hockomock Swamp which is even today considered haunted, and is part of the Bridgewater Triangle, and area plagued with disappearances, murders, ghosts, devil worshippers, UFOs, and cryptids), Walker finds himself surrounded with trees inscribed with the names of powerful men. Satan is chopping one down, claiming that its representative – who sold his soul for power – will soon die. Old Scratch claims responsibility for most of the community’s vices: the slaughter of the Indians, the human trafficking of African slaves, and the sale of mortgages with criminally high interest. Enamored with the prospect of wealth (but not evil enough to turn slave-trader, so he says), Walker becomes a loan shark (again, like Scrooge), and lives a miserly existence raking in wealth while the rest of his community is rocked by a brutal recession. As he ages, he hopes to back out of his bargain, but when Satan pounds on his door with an axe on his shoulder and a demon horse at his side, it seems like the loan shark is about to have his debt called.
3. THE ADVENTURE OF MY UNCLE
Tremendously misunderstood and largely unappreciated, this strange and haunting story is one of my favorites. Sometimes written off for what certain critics have called a cliff-hanger ending, “The Adventure of My Uncle” tells the story of an English tourist who spends the night at the mansion of a little French marquis who is deeply proud of his family history. The story is telescopic: we hear it from Irving’s Crayon, who heard it from the Nervous Gentleman, who heard it from a friend, who heard it from his uncle (who hears the backstory from the marquis), and there is a sense of gradual sinking into the cesspools of forgotten history. The uncle is awoken in the night by the sight of a sad, pale woman – beautiful if weary-looking – who bends hopelessly over the fire before disappearing with a glance at the Englishman. In the morning the marquis (who, we are told, will be impaled on a peasant’s pike during the Revolution) nervously confesses that the ghost was probably that of the historical Princess Anne-Genevieve de Bourbon. An intellectual beauty who was one of the leaders of the pro-democratic Fronde Rebellion, she sought to divide power between the King of France and the people. The rebellion failed and the princess fled for safety, taking refuge in the marquis’ castle. But something horrible happened that night: the marquis becomes uncomfortable and explains that when noble blood goes “bad,” terrible things can happen. Suddenly uneasy with the family history he couldn't help gushing the day before, he begs the uncle not to question him further: the ghost of the princess (who historically did stay at a Norman chateau during her flight, and lived the rest of her life in studious exile) remains on his property because of something horrible that his ancestors did to her. In my notes to the story, I expand my theory about this strange and haunting tale, but none of Irving’s stories have ever left me this uncomfortable or given me a keener sense of quiet, hidden evil.
2. THE ADVENTURE OF THE GERMAN STUDENT
None of Irving’s ghost stories are as popular or haunting as “The Adventure of the German Student.” It is so well-known and catchy that it became an urban legend, and has been updated several times. While “The Adventure of My Uncle” is a criticism of the conservative world view (lionizing the powerful and elite without recognizing the violations and excesses of the past) using French history as its background, “The German Student” attacks the radical world view (demanding sudden, rapid, and unflinching change in the name of unwavering idealism) with the French Revolution as its stage. A German philosophy student – an atheist and a political radical – is enjoying the Revolution’s radical change, although the endless guillotinings of people who don’t pass the liberal purity tests seem a little zealous. Consumed with thought and passion, he roams the streets of Paris during a storm where he meets a sobbing woman at the foot of the guillotine. Beautiful, forlorn, and marked by the black velvet choker she wears around her neck, he is drawn to her side. Amidst the lightning, she explains that she has lost all of her friends to the purges. Touched, the German invites her to be his wife, and the two return to his apartment where they consummate their secular marriage. You probably know the rest – what he sees when he wakes up and what happens when he undoes the choker and who the authorities tell him she was – but Irving tosses a beautifully Poe-esque cloud of mystery around it all by telling us that the German student all of this to the storyteller from his cell in a madhouse.
GUESTS ON GIBBET ISLAND
This one is just fun. Unlike the proceeding two – philosophical and intellectually demanding – or the two before that – adventuresome and white-knuckled – this story is nothing more or less than a good old fashioned ghost tale. A ne’er-do-well named Vanderscamp leaves his colonial New York town with a mysterious shipwreck survivor (a black man who speaks a foreign tongue, implied to be either a survivor from a slave ship, or the demonic personification of the evils of the slave trade) named Pluto, and returns with suspicious amounts of wealth and disagreeably vulgar friends in tow. At the time piracy was common, and many pirates lived comfortable lives on shore when not at sea, and Vanderscamp certainly raised his neighbors’ eyebrows. Along with the Mephistophelean Pluto, he takes over the local inn and it becomes overrun with buccaneers. Over time the British crack down on piracy, and most of Vanderscamp’s friends are killed: three are hanged in chains from a gallows near the inn. After years away, Vanderscamp and Pluto come back home. While rowing beneath the gallows, Vanderscamp at first seems horrified, then stifles his fear and sarcastically invites his rotting friends to dine with him that evening. Pluto’s eyes seem to glint and when the two arrive back at the inn, there is a surprise waiting for Vanderscamp upstairs…