Reviewing: The Unhallowed Horseman by Jude S. Walko
As any of you who have followed my blog for long are surely aware, I have a special affection for all things Washington Irving and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I first encountered the story when I was three years old and the 1949 Bing Crosby cartoon was played at my daycare (traumatizingly dark cartoons were de rigueur in the 90s when I was growing up, even for toddlers; at least it wasn’t The Secret of NIMH or Watership Down), and have been obsessed with the story ever since – collecting dozens of books, records, art, and memorabilia on the topic, and making the pilgrimage to Sleepy Hollow, NY twice (so far).
This idée fixe took on a more practical expression in the last three years when I published two works on the matter: Oldstyle Tales’ own annotated and illustrated edition of Irving’s best ghost stories (currently the definitive, critical anthology of his supernatural fiction and the second best resource, specifically, on “Sleepy Hollow,” other thank Jonathan Kruk's Legends and Lore), and Of Dreams that Wave Before the Half-Shut Eye, my own fictional treatment of the “Legend,” (a modern-day story about a struggling young academic who is drawn to research the history behind the Headless Horseman, only to find herself getting too close to her own forgotten role in the Legend, which has been published and recorded here).
So when I received a request to review a novel called The Unhallowed Horseman, I was delighted to dive into another writer’s treatment of a story that we share a love for. Fictional re-imaginings of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” – those that are either a pastiche, a prequel, or a sequel to the original – usually fall into one of four categories: Gothic Romance, Savage Horror, Mystical Mystery, or Heavy-Metal Adventure. Sometimes they blur the lines between two or more of these, but they usually tend to stick to one area. The Unhallowed Horseman, to my utter delight, delves equally into all four.
Blending elements of gruesome horror, Hitchcockian thrillers, angsty teenage social critiques, and rip-roaring, high-drama action, it follows the story of a tormented high schooler named Vincent (an open homage to the immortal Mr. Price) who suffers through a cycle of mental, emotional, and social instability in the seemingly bucolic village of Sleepy Hollow.
But something is wrong here, deeply wrong, and as Vincent carves his way into the town’s secrets – while barely holding onto his sanity and desperately seeking salvation through uncovering the truth – he begins to unearth a generations-old trauma in the form of a monster on horseback, who returns time and time again to Sleepy Hollow to punish the children for the sins of the father.
Along the way, he falls in love with the daughter of one of the town’s deputy’s – a man who distrusts him deeply – and must do battle with a host of adversaries, including a depraved sheriff, a pedophilic video rental owner, a slew of relentless bullies, a malpracticing school psychiatrist who doles out addictive psychotropics, and to his own negligent, nymphomaniac, hard-partying mother.
Trust me, if – unlike Vincent – you haven’t been in need of deep, profound therapy, after reading this novel you will certainly gain a deeper appreciation for our culture’s need for a mental health renaissance: if any town is one tenth as depraved as Sleepy Hollow, or if any person is one tenth as traumatized and neglected as Vincent, then we surely need a battalion of therapists for every zip code (…and we do…)
This novel renders a world of chaos, misrule, and disorder, in a universe without a rudder or a guiding light, and while we expect these things from or noir fiction, it is truly a jolting portrait of human depravity, corruption, and irredeemable sin. Instead of Irving’s sarcastic, farcical, well-intended, self-preserving rural community, be prepared to land in a morally leprous suburb where the supernatural terrors are truly equal to the moral decay lurking in its fetid heart.
It has a wide cast of characters and a great deal of cathartic violence, all of which give it a heavily operatic vibe which continually justified my initial impression: that the story shares much of its ethos with the catalogue of the late, great Meat Loaf – from its cynical distrust of authority, to its star-crossed teen lovers, and from its hard-charging themes of drugs, sex, rage, and rebellion, to its blending of Wagnerian high-drama with a grungy, Gen-X’er, latch-key-kid tone (cf. such world-weary films as The Lost Boys, Stand By Me, and Basketball Diaries)
The novel is exciting, engaging, and – above all – fun to read. In this day in age we need far more escapist adventure novels like this – especially ones that make you think and have the ability to surprise you. It pulls no punches and is immediately a gritty, sardonic horror novel heavily influenced by the noir aesthetic, but holding onto a gentle flame of un-snuffed idealism (as represented by our hardscrabble protagonist – a survivor who refuses to give up or be trampled). If you are a stickler for fidelity to Irving’s tale, you would likely find it too far afield, but if you are able to relax, open you imagination, and unwind in a fascinating world of terror, trauma, and intrigue, you will be more than satisfied.
Overall, this is a wildly exciting story which blends elements of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Stephen King’s It, Catcher in the Rye, and The Outsiders. Again – as a massive fan of Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and all of its derivations – this is more in line with the “Heavy Metal Adventure” and “Savage Horror” pastiches (I am reminded of the novel The Fifth Horseman and the movies The Hollow and Sleepy Hollow), with plenty of mystery, corruption, teen angst, and social problems infused into it, adding heft to what could otherwise be a slasher thriller.
In summary, this is one of the most fun, exciting, and cathartic Headless Horseman adaptations that I have ever read, one which weds an unmistakable Gen-X ethos with very current and prescient social themes of mental health, drugs, addiction, corruption, bullying, hypocrisy, and our society’s neglect and outright abuse of vulnerable populations (primarily children). White-knuckled, operatic, and thrilling, it will be a great read for anyone who enjoys both the horror genre and in-your-face social critiques.