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Literary Essays on Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

— from Mary Shelley to M. R. James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Washington Irving's Wistfully Anxious, Lonesome Ghost Stories

He was the greatest American writer of his time: he was a mentor to Poe, Longfellow, and Hawthorne, his country’s first professional author, and had met almost every president from Washington to Pierce. He transformed copyright laws to give writers and artists more representation, and cultivated a previously non-existent literary culture throughout the United States. He was idolized internationally, and adored by great authors of the day, including Byron, Walter Scott, and his greatest supporter, Charles Dickens. His idioms – “the almighty dollar,” “Gotham City,” “Knickerbocker,” “emotional constipation” – and traditions – the celebration of Christmas, anticipation of Santa Claus, and the popularization of Dutch-American customs – have left their mark on American and even global culture.

Largely misunderstood due to his moderate politics, courtly personality, and literary sentimentalism, Irving – once America’s most popular author – underwent a reversal of fortunes in the 1930s when Stanley T. Williams released a scathing biography accusing him of being indecisive and uninspired. It took seventy years for academics to shake Williams’ criticism and reevaluate Irving’s role in American history and literature. Modern biographers have begun to sort through the Irving mythology, unearthing the complex personality of an existentially anxious, emotionally complex man disturbed by his fame and haunted by loneliness. These themes course through his Gothic tales – tales haunted by spectres of anxiety.


Although he was once most famous for his social satires and ironic humor, Irving’s fiction is primarily devoted to the Gothic: ghost stories, weird tales, fantasies, and horror. In fact, of the sixty-one short stories he penned, nearly forty of them (65%) involve the supernatural. 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.

Although most of these stories do have an admittedly wry, sly-smiling nature to them, some (“Guests from Gibbet Island,” “Adv. of the German Student,” “The Prior of Minorca,” “Adv. of My Uncle,” “The Eve of St. Mark,” “The Engulfed Convent”) can be downright dreary – even depressing. Irving – long written off as a merely “genteel” writer with no real substance – was nearly as gloomy as Hawthorne, in the privacy of his letters and journals, as cynical as Lovecraft, in his darkest moments, and as obsessed with death, mortality, and the fleeting nature of love as Poe – especially after he reached international fame (finding himself none the happier nor less the lonely).

Truly a lonely, introspective man, much of what has been said about his fiction by 20th century critics (that it is vapid and without message) has been based on a misreading of his nearly mythic biography. For decades we have been told that Irving lived a tidy bachelor life after losing his first and only love, the willowy Mathilda Hoffman, in 1809. Considering himself married in spirit, he never pursued another lover and lived a life of content celibacy. It is no wonder that Irving fell out of favor as a boring bard in the shadow of such stormy writers as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, London, and Vonnegut. By comparison the wistful hermit of Sunnyside struck postmodern critics as bland and fluffy. Since the 21st century, however, multiple biographers (Brian Jay Jones, Andrew Burstein) and critics (Michael Bronski, David Greven, Rebecca Knapper) have cracked through the carefully curated veneer of Irving’s personal life and seen an emotionally frustrated, sexually conflicted soul in torment. It is perhaps oversimplifying it to say that Irving was gay, but he can no longer be accurately depicted as a contented virgin, and what seems most likely is that Irving’s sexuality is complicated to say the least.

Probably bisexual, he seems to have fallen in love with several men – all of whom abandoned him (one to lead a conventional family life, one who followed his artistic career ahead of personal relationships, and one, a roommate, who died unexpectedly). He was also attracted to women, but only – as most biographers agree – to distant, unavailable women (not unlike his tepid admirer, Poe). Irving seemed to have a horror of sex and intimacy, and was drawn to inexperienced girls whom he viewed as unspoiled and (momentarily) preserved from the cynicism that weighed him down. As soon as they seemed to understand the ways of the world, he would politely detach himself. Sex genuinely seemed to frighten him, and his descriptions of French prostitutes during his early travels express skittish revulsion. He wasn’t morally prudish (he backed off his pursuit of his greatest love, Emily Foster, when he noted that she was becoming religiously zealous), but appeared to find tremendous anxiety in the unavoidable dependency that sexual intimacy would require.

On one hand he loved company dearly (he could be accused of being a clingy friend and uncle), but on the other, he loved being able to go to bed alone, rise when he wanted, do work when it suited him, and leave from place to place without responsibility. Much like British ghost writers M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and William Hope Hodgson, bachelorhood suited his independent disposition, but unquestionably fed his imagination with the horrors of loneliness. James explored spiritual isolation in nearly all of his ghost stories (just as Hodgson found inspiration in the heartless sea and Blackwood in the homeless wilderness) and Irving was no exception. His ghost stories are haunted by spectres of anxiety: headless horsemen who taunt their victims with anonymity, loitering ghosts who intoxicate their guests with the alienating liquor of idleness, mocking ghost pirates who taunt treasure hunters.


Accused of being “a man with no message,” this mischaracterization continues to be an overreliance on Williams’ reactionary biography, missing the deep themes of community, fellowship, and contentment that mark his tales and sketches. Politically, Irving was an unshakable centrist: an open-minded man who sought the common good over partisanship, and despised fanatic radicals on either side of the aisle. At various points in his life he could have been called a Federalist, Republican, Democrat, or Whig. But, other than a youthful support of Federalism, he spurned party loyalties. Unlike the firmly Democratic Hawthorne or the roundly Republican Emerson, Irving disappoints critics who demand partisan commitment, and accuse him of apathetic conservatism. While Irving was certainly more conservative than, say, Emerson, he was hardly a conformist.

He repeatedly criticized Americans’ treatment of Native Americans (in both his letters and his books), was revolted by slavery (damning it as an “accursed” national embarrassment), and preferred open borders and globalism to protectionist nationalism. Brian Jay Jones called Irving a “progressive conservative” – a fiscal libertarian with a cosmopolitan appreciation for a multicultural society. He had little patience for politicians who didn’t share his laissez-faire values, and had no tolerance for tribal politics. This has left conservatives annoyed by his lack of American nationalism, while liberals are disgusted by his lack of political activism. So what was Irving’s message? He regularly warned against political extremism, intellectual hubris, and religious fundamentalism; he favored the sort of cautious moderation that infuriates conservatives and progressives alike. Throughout his career he lampooned traditionalists as hopelessly out of touch, and radicals as arrogant elitists blind to their own hypocrisies.

Irving feared purges and purity tests like those used in the French Revolution (and today on Facebook), which strive to ensure intellectual homogeny. The political elitism of the Jacobin fanatics in “The German Student” is in direct contrast with Baltus Van Tassel’s warm-hearted, welcoming ethos of tolerance. Irving loathed intellectual fundamentalism and political extremism of all sorts, and saw the French Revolution as a warning against being overly confident in one’s opinions (far better, he felt, to be like Baltus: liberal-minded, open-hearted, easy-going, back-slapping, and generous to a fault).

The French Revolution, like its American predecessor, was born from the intellectual idealism of the Enlightenment, which proclaimed Reason as its new deity, and pronounced Truth to be scientifically certifiable. Any such extremism was a threat to American multiculturalism, Irving felt: the sort which accepted Quakers, Native Americans, free blacks, pirate captains, Dutch burghers, English soldiers, German alchemists, and lazy loiterers alike. Irving was prone to the cultural racism of his time, and was hardly a liberal icon, but he openly reviled the hubris of highborn elitists and bigoted nationalists alike, and his fiction consistently pleads for tolerance, cosmopolitan sensibilities, easy-going manners, and genteel fellowship between people of different backgrounds. “We’re all in the same boat,” he seems to cry, “so don’t take life – or your opinions – to seriously.”

Irving’s horror almost exclusively derives from taking oneself too seriously, from intellectual extremism, or from selfish behavior at the expense of the community. The manipulative Ichabod is chased out of town by the spectre of his own unimportance. The lazy, irresponsible Rip is horrified by realizing his uselessness in a Republic whose construction he missed. Nearly all the “Money Diggers” are hounded by the imps and goblins of their unquenchable greed. Vanderscamp is horrified by the ghosts of the pirate brethren he abandoned to the gallows. The German Student – a political radical himself – wakes up in bed with the remains of a woman who was guillotined for not being radical enough.

The bachelors at “The Hunting Dinner” laugh at the idea of ghosts, but seem secretly disturbed by the specters of lives wasted in pursuit of selfish indulgence – the ghosts of marriages missed and families unbegotten. Irving didn’t mind political action or warn against long-held traditions or social progress (both of which he admired), but he did fear any exclusive purity test that divided people from one another. If your politics meant that you couldn’t put opinions aside to eat a meal with the opposition, then you had work to do, or else prepare to be haunted: either by the spirits of what you were missing out on (like the hyper-libertarian Rip) or by the phantoms of the delusions you cling to (like the too-radical German Student), or the ghosts of realities you try to ignore (like the hyper-capitalistic Ichabod).


Irving’s Gothic universe is very different from his descendents: it is not entirely bleak like Lovecraft’s, mirthless like Hawthorne’s, or matter-of-fact like Bierce’s. Of all his contemporaries, he shares the most with two very different men: Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe. Strange as the relationship between the authors of “Rip Van Winkle,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “Oliver Twist” may seem at first, the three men regularly cross pollinated each others’ works – consciously or unconsciously. For instance, Poe actually lifted much of the plot for “The Tell-Tale Heart” from a Dickens ghost story called “The Mother’s Eyes,” while Irving derived much of his “Don Juan” from Poe’s “William Wilson,” and Poe borrowed the concept behind “The Gold Bug” from Irving’s “Golden Dreams.”

The relationships between the three men were predictably mixed: Dickens adored Irving heart and soul, blessing him in copious fan letters and claiming to “write to” him through his novels, while Irving – touched as he was – was disappointed in Dickens the man (a rather pathetic Cockney fan-boy, he thought), while admiring his literary acumen. Poe, on the other hand, seemed to view Irving as a sort of intellectual father figure, to be simultaneously probed for validation and rebelled against petulantly: his reviews of Irving were frequently bipolar, praising his skill while maintain him to be overrated and uninspired. Towards Poe – as towards all struggling American writers – Irving felt a kindly responsibility, praising “The House of Usher” (per Poe’s request), and choosing to ignore his young admirer’s fits of ingratitude.

Dickens’ first take on the “Christmas Carol” concept, “The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” was largely cribbed from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”: a cantankerous gravedigger disappears one Christmas night (leaving behind only his hat) and returns twenty years later, entirely changed. He reports that he had been chased through the graveyard by goblins who dragged him to their subterranean world where – through a series of visions of the suffering poor – they convince him to repent from his stinginess. Likewise, his “The Baron of Grogzwig” – about a raucous bachelor’s depression after marrying a shrew – combines bits of “Rip” with “The Spectre Bridegroom.” But it was his holiday masterpiece, “A Christmas Carol,” which was largely inspired by the “Old Christmas” section of “The Sketch Book,” and his colorful ghosts bear a similarity to those in “Rip Van Winkle,” “Dolph Heyliger,” and “Strange Stories by a Nervous Gentleman.” Before Irving, Christmas was an old fashioned religious observance largely unnoticed. After his romantic depiction of a rural Yuletide in “The Sketch Book” (and his depiction of the Dutch tradition of anticipating Santa Claus in “Knickerbocker’s History), Christmas returned to vogue in America and England, and Dickens’ Irvingian “Christmas Carol” solidified its reclamation.

Like Poe, Irving beds emotional power and aesthetic romanticism in the disarming comfort of realistic landscapes. Both men would feature fantastical treasure hunts (both for Kidd’s treasure) in familiar worlds (Long Island and North Carolina, respectively). Both men would write stories about men suffering through the political turmoil of the historical French Revolution, and both would use the real city of Paris as a backdrop for high strangeness. Both would use familiar mountain ranges as the setting for supernatural wonders (the Ragged Mountains and the Kaatskills, respectively). Both would combine flawed, realistic antiheros in dramatic acts of horror, and both would explore the misery of poverty and the monomania of the artistic temperament in the minds of otherwise unremarkable, otherwise inglorious characters.

Despite Poe’s occaisional barbs at Irving (pleading to him for a favorable review in one moment, and complaining about his writing style in the next), the two men shared a sense of existential anxiety that made them literary bedfellows. While this may surprise some modern readers (especially those warned away from Irving the Sentimentalist by postmodernist professors), a quick read through Irving’s best tales will easily conjure the spirit of Poe. Read “Guests from Gibbet Island,” “The Prior of Minorca,” “Golden Dreams,” or “The German Student” and see if you are not reminded of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “William Wilson,” “The Gold Bug,” or “Berenice/Morella/Ligeia,” respectively. Both men – one a master of the gruesome, the other a subtle crafter of subtext – deeply dreaded the erosion of youth and the banality of an intellectual life. Both men found solace in writing, and both men crafted stories which scream out in terror as the imps and hobgoblins of mortality charge them down.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain also owe debts to Irving. Stevenson wrote in his introduction to “Treasure Island” that much of his inspiration came from Irving, one of his favorite writers. The plots of “Dolph Heyliger” (a fatherless boy befriends a sketchy outsider and leaves his widowed mother for a voyage, during which he is marooned, rescued by a waggish father figure, and goes on to rescue his family fortunes by discovering a buried treasure) and “Golden Dreams” (a violent, retired pirate takes up at a seaside inn where he terrifies the locals, nervously watches passing ships, runs off with his mysterious seachest, and inspires a doctor and lazy burgher to go on a treasure hunt) are clearly responsible.

Stevenson’s fearful “The Merry Men,” “Markheim,” and “Thrawn Janet” (about demonic black shipwreck survivors, confrontational Doppelgängers, and female zombies with mangled necks) also share much with tales like “Tom Walker,” “Guests from Gibbet Island,” “The German Student,” “Don Juan,” and “Prior of Minorca.” Hawthorne – far more cynical and politically conservative – may seem an improbable heir of the playful Irving, but “Tom Walker and the Devil” had an unquestionable influence on “Young Goodman Brown,” and many of his New England-based tales have the unmistakable flavor of Knickerbocker’s stories of Old New York (albeit a far more bitter, mirthless Knickerbocker). Even Mark Twain, who strongly disliked Irving’s style, cannot hope to deny the influence of Dolph Heyliger’s river adventures, treasure hunt, boyish romance, befriending of rogues, and waggish rambles on his selfsame urchins, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.



Irving’s career as a writer of Gothic and supernatural fiction began with his first major literary accomplishment: “Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” A brilliant political satire, it rocked the United States’ burgeoning literary world with its hilarious parody of high-brow history by telling the story of Manhattan’s settlement by the Dutch. Even to the modern reader, the story of the lazy, self-important, delusional caricatures is legitimately funny and endearing. The first example of speculative fiction, however, comes from one of the most poignant episodes in the book – and one which will surprise readers who have been told that Irving is light, sentimental reading. In describing the marginalization of the Native Americans – their mistreatment, abuse, and manipulation by European settlers – Irving bitterly compares it to being invaded by “Men from the Moon” and illustrates a parable meant to chastise early American policies towards the Indians. Indeed, Irving was a regular advocate of Indian rights, and while he may not have used his fame to the best of his ability (nor was he immune to overusing the “noble savage” trope), he was one of the very few white, American males on the right side of history on this issue (views he would voice again in “The Sketch Book” and his “Western Journals”).

His first complete foray into supernatural fiction would be in his greatest work, and include his greatest short stories. Written over the winter of 1819 and 1820, “The Sketch Book” was penned while Irving was in England, commiserating with his brother Peter, a failed businessman. Inspired by German and Scottish folklore read during his European travels, and American legends remembered from his childhood, the collection was an immediate hit. It transformed the provincial satirist into an international literary icon – the first such American since Ben Franklin, and the first ever to make his fortune solely by his pen.

“The Sketch Book” is a potpourri of genres (today it would have been called “The Scrapbook”) told by Irving’s alter-ego, Geoffrey Crayon (a lonely, sentimental American touring Britain). Alongside its essays, reports, observations, histories, philosophy, humor, and tragedies are three of Irving’s most famous ghost stories: “Rip Van Winkle,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and “The Spectre Bridegroom.” All three were based on German folktales (“Peter Klaus,” “The Wild Huntsman,” and “Lenore,” respectively), and all three are haunted by Irvingian specters of anxiety: a spell that makes a man’s life, memories, and sense belonging obsolete; a faceless goblin that forces his victims to confront their fears, insecurities, and failures; and a sexually charged demon who threatens to seduce and kidnap curious virgins beyond their family’s recovery.

All three use humor, farce, and hyperbole to digest existential angsts in a way that is comically folksy yet deceptively poignant. “Rip Van Winkle” strikes at Irving’s own restless, roving heart: pondering what the place of lazy, roving nonconformists is in the American community. After a great deal of anxiety – including the threat of lynching – Rip learns that he has a seat at the table as an icon of rebellious self-reliance.

An icon of American literature since its appearance, the story seems to celebrate the uniquely New World ideals of self-invention, disobedience of authority (Dame Van Winkle), and unapologetic uniqueness. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” on the other hand, asks “how far is too far”? Ichabod Crane – an enterprising carpetbagger – plans to marry the local beauty, liquidate her father’s wealth (ruining the local economy), and use it to make his fortune in the American West. Should America be a libertarian shooting gallery, or should communities reserve the right to defend their culture and stability from outside threats? The answer happens to be an easy one for the Sleepy Hollow Boys: they have a habit of dealing roughly with invaders and meddlers (capturing and hanging the British spy Andre, and decapitating the opportunist Hessian trooper – transforming both into ghosts who serve as warnings to outsiders and local trophies).

Ichabod violates the local hospitality with his venture capitalism, and is promptly chased out of town by the existential spectre of anonymity and unimportance. “The Spectre Bridegroom,” a gloaming, romantic tale of love and fear speaks – rather like “Sleepy Hollow” – about sexual anxiety: specifically the fear that a “good girl” can be turned “bad” by the interference of an outsider. Her meddlesome aunts and stubborn father are punished for their prudishness by seeing what puritanism can drive an imaginative woman to – and promptly reverse their stances when she returns safely, to t