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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Of Dreams that Wave Before the Half-Shut Eye: A Sleepy Hollow Ghost Story for Hallowe'en

Raw from her parents’ recent deaths and a crushing divorce, an anthropology professor is now faced with losing her chance at tenure and decides to spend her fall break in Sleepy Hollow, New York in a desperate final bid to publish a groundbreaking paper: locating the disputed site of the original Headless Horseman Bridge. But Sleepy Hollow is not new to her; as a child she was hounded by dreams of the valley's ghosts: a rotting, headless trooper, a gaunt, gliding man in black, and a terrifying Woman in White. When she discovers a horseshoe in the riverbank of the dark, Pocantico River, however, the dreams come rushing back, and she is forced to question the difference between dreams and reality, and the boundaries of space and time...


B E F O R E T H E H A L F - S H U T E Y E

Full in the passage of the vale, above a sable, silent, solemn forest stood;

Where nought but shadowy forms was seen to move as Idless fancied in her dreaming mood:

And up the hills, on either side, a wood of blackening pines, aye waving to and fro,

Sent forth a sleepy horror through the blood…

The Castle of Indolence

IN THE BOSOM of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, under the solemn, iron shadow of the Tappan Zee Bridge, there lies a small New York suburb, or rural port called Tarrytown -- a Manhattan sleeper community which peers lazily at the boats steaming up and down the river from the retired comfort of the Hudson's woody heights. The town is bisected from north to south by Route 9, one of the oldest roads in the country, which climbs up the rising hill country for a half mile before descending into the dells of the Pocantico River Valley.

The Pocantico is a dark, sluggish creek which winds its way from the Hudson into the Westchester hinterland, broadening and narrowing in turns as it snakes around cyclopean boulders and fallen trees before fading into the heavy darkness of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve. About a mile upriver from the village which borrows its name is a silent, shadowy glen which the Dutch settlers called Sleepy Hollow.

Unlike the crowded streets of its suburban namesake, the Sleepy Hollow Valley has retained something of its mystic reputation: the sun is blotted out by tall pines and craggy hills matted with cloaks of moss. A strange whim of the atmosphere smothers the soft sounds of hooning birds and purring cicadas, but – through some trick of ventriloquism – amplifies the disembodied rustlings of unseen creatures from the farthest sides of the valley as if they were stirring just behind you.

Although some hikers flock to it as a sublime or even romantic spot, many find it oddly gloomy; to others it is entirely off-putting and alien. Centuries after the local legends of the Headless Horseman or the Wailing Woman in White were first murmured around a snapping fire, Sleepy Hollow is still something of a twilight territory plagued by unsettling sights: odd lights flame in its night skies, hulking shades prowl its woods, and slimy serpents churn in its rivers and lakes. It also has the uncanny power to reunite a lonely hiker with some long-lost region his soul in the sudden span of a moment, repairing broken souls like a kindly handyman who runs his hands through his beard as he discerns the way to set things right. Of course, not everyone wants broken bones to be set back, and some people resent the handyman's meddling. For this reason some people return there frequently as if they had found the key to a forgotten garden where dying men can refresh their spirits. Many others enter it laughing and carefree but leave it with clenched eyebrows and a stony resolution never to go there again – chased out by whatever they heard rustling in the bushes of their subconscious.

Of course most people were introduced to Sleepy Hollow by the story of the hapless carpetbagger Ichabod Crane – a Connecticut schoolmaster who was spirited away by the ghost of a German trooper who roamed the Hollow in desperate search of his severed head. It was a story patched together from its author's life experiences, European legends, and local history. But at its core were uncomfortable truths and unsettling realities: stories of the Woman in White whose ghost wails just before snowstorms; the rumor that a soldier buried in an unmarked grave was scouring the roads at night; and the narcotic influence that the perfect place can have on an imagination at the perfect time – the magnetic allure that can drag a vulnerable spirit from interest into obsession, and from obsession into a new reality that transcends our present understanding of physics and time.

Throughout the last century this story has been reinterpreted by films and picture books and musicals – adaptations which have led many back to the source material – and some back to its hibernating inspirations. That’s how one woman was introduced to this quiet, close-knit kingdom of Nature, a castle of clouds watched over by supernatural agents. Somehow she felt that they had traveled home with her after her first visit to that quiet cove, and she thought she knew what they needed: they needed to make sure that she and all other travelers who tarried there for a time would honor the graves they had trampled. Were they willing to let go of the waking world and be swallowed up in eternal dreams? Were they able to accept the sacrifices needed to pass on into something wider than imagination and deeper than time? The answer to these questions would determine whether their lives would end like a fairy tale or a horror story, and her story began on October 26th at noon.


“The immediate cause, however, of the prevalence of supernatural stories in those parts, was doubtless owing to the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow. There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land… Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major André was taken, and which stood in the neighborhood. Some mention was made also of the Woman in White that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow…”

“The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind… the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.”

—Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

“So where is it, again, that you’re planning on travelling to during Fall Break?” said a person not in the story to the Professor of Early American Studies, soon after they had sat down next to each other in the faculty lounge of a big, public university in a big, West Coast city.

The Professor was young, neat, and careful in her choice of words.

She was almost thirty years old, but already had the air of a much older person – an atmosphere which was partially the defensive fabrication of a closely-guarded loner and partially the natural result of an unexpected divorce, a distaste for grading anthropology undergraduate papers, and the worn sobriety that comes from burying both of your parents in the same year. She had a somber gravity about her like an old, locked closet which could be hiding musty antiques just as easily as a horrible family crime. In some ways she was unremarkably average: she had medium-length, medium-brown hair, was of medium height and medium weight. But her eyes were striking – a smoldering dark brown that burned like a tree scorched black by lightning.

“New York – just north of the city. I’m working on a little project that’s a carry-over from my dissertation, and I have some research to do there.”