BOOK (1820)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 October, 2010, 12:00am

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon
by Washington Irving

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is as much a part of Halloween in the US as It's a Wonderful Life is a staple of Christmas. Both works encapsulate their respective holiday via whimsy and comedy. But perhaps their true power derives from a tussle with the dark side of the season.

The reason Halloween embraced Washington Irving's classic short story is easily explained. Here is the finale, the disappearance of our hero, Ichabod Crane: '... on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.'

First published in 1820 (in Irving's collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon), the gothic tale about the gaunt Ichabod, and his attempt to woo the buxom Katrina Van Tassel, has a suitably atmospheric location. One of several villages lining the Hudson River in New York State, Sleepy Hollow was made for a spine-tingler: 'The immediate cause ... of supernatural stories in these parts, was doubtless owing to the vicinity of Sleepy Hollow. There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region.'

The story, set in the late 18th century, takes place at the right time of year. 'It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day [when] nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance.' This abundance is celebrated with a feast which includes 'tales of ghosts and apparitions'. The 'favourite spectre of Sleepy Hollow' is the Headless Horseman, whose spirit 'had been heard several times of late'.

Ichabod, by contrast, couldn't be less terrifying. An odd, somewhat pompous schoolteacher, he was defined by his physical features: tall, thin and lank, with a small head, huge ears and a long nose. Ichabod's intelligence, status and furious dancing make him an attractive member of Sleepy Hollow, much to the annoyance of Brom Van Brunt, better known as Brom Bones. Bones is Ichabod's rival for the 'blooming Katrina'. And it is Brom who tells the most terrifying account of the Headless Horseman.

Is it mere chance, then, that on that very same night Ichabod sees 'something huge, misshapen, black and towering', and is pursued by this 'goblin' that rises in his stirrups 'in the very act of hurling his head at him'? And is it a mere twist of fate that shortly after Ichabod vanishes, Brom 'conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar'?

Irving isn't saying. Except that when anyone mentioned Ichabod's story, Brom looked 'exceeding knowing' and 'burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell'. Happy Halloween. Watch out for those flying pumpkins.