The fiery jack-o-lantern hurled toward me through the covered bridge. It’s light illuminated the interior of the bridge section by section as it came nearer. It was a thrilling image. The Headless Horseman threw the jack-o-lantern at the unfortunate Ichabod Crane in this Disney version. That scene stuck with me through childhood and into adulthood. I learned that what I always thought of as “The Headless Horseman” as a kid was actually a short story called “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving who wrote it in 1819. As a lover of books I thought to give Irving’s short story a try. I now read Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” every year around October and November. It is the best book to read around the autumn season as it has all things that we associate with autumn in it: scary ghost stories, brilliant autumn scenery, and an abundance of good food.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a great ghost story. Irving sets the story in superstitious Sleepy Hollow whose residents pass the time by telling stories about the ghosts they’ve seen first hand. The Headless Horseman, or the Hessian of the Hollow, is the favorite among the locals but there are others. A Woman in White shrieks on winter nights before a storm because she perished in the snow and the unfortunate Major Andre who met his demise at the wrong end of a rope in a large gnarled tree. “Local tales and superstitions thrive best in these sheltered, long settled retreats; but are trampled underfoot by the shifting throng that forms the population of most of our country population” (Irving 1078).
Ichabod Crane, the community’s school master, was very receptive to the Sleepy Hollow ghost stories. He enjoyed adding to them from his copy of Cotton Mather’s History of Witchcraft in which “He most firmly and potently believed” (Irving 1063). Ichabod’s willingness to believe in the ghost stories makes him a prime candidate to meet with the Headless Horseman.
It’s thanks to Ichabod that we have such a wonderful description in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” of a farm community in the autumn. He notices the brilliant autumn leaves and the bountiful harvest. Ichabod takes pleasure in the table and he notes all the farm animals and crops that will make excellent future dining. It is through his appreciative eyes that we observe the tables laden with pies and cakes. The tables groan with their burdens of ham slices, beef, and broiled chicken. The spread of food would out do any of our Thanksgiving tables. It is going home from this last gathering that the school master, Ichabod Crane, meets the Headless Horseman.
I won’t go into what happens next as an incentive for you to get the book from the library and read it for yourself. Don’t cheat and watch a movie or see the Disney cartoon because Washington Irving’s story is much richer. It’s the difference between fast food and a five-star restaurant. Reading Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” will transport you from your comfortable armchair and into a small farming community with the abundance of the autumn season and ghosts for company.
Irving, W. Irving: Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent., Salmagundi, A History of New York, The Sketchbook, New York, Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1983.