Last week, I watched the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow. As I watched it, I realized that I had never read the original Washington Irving short story, or if I had, I couldn’t remember it, so I decided to rectify that.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is arguably one of the great dark American fairy tales. It tells the story of a gawky teacher named Ichabod Crane who travels to a small village on the Hudson in upstate New York where he hears tales of a decapitated Hessian soldier who rides through the woods looking for a new head. Despite that, Ichabod sets his sights on courting the lovely Katrina Van Tassel, who stands to inherit her father’s farm. The night Ichabod makes his intentions known to Katrina, he rides home and is pursued by the legendary horseman.
The version that Walt Disney produced in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is actually a pretty straight-ahead and accurate presentation of the story. That’s perhaps the first time I’ve ever said that about a Disney cartoon. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney cartoons, but they often stray from the source material.
In many ways, the 1820 short story seems a foreshadowing of tales by such New England horror masters as H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. Irving spends a lot of time introducing us to the characters and getting to know them as people. He only drops in a few hints that things are amiss, until he’s ready to turn the world upside down and send the reader on a thrilling ride.
There were three things about the short story I found less than satisfying. First, Irving gives us no dialogue. Instead, he simply provides us with lavish descriptions. It’s good enough you almost don’t miss it, but it does seem a little strange to me as a twenty-first century reader. Also, and I’ll avoid spoilers if like me you haven’t actually read the original, but I felt the ending was a bit of a let down. Tim Burton did a wonderful job with enhancing the magic of the tale and creating a story that felt, for the most part, like an expanded version of the original. Finally, Irving does indulge in the racism of his period giving us a couple of unfortunate caricatures of African Americans.
My primary problem with Burton’s adaptation was his choice to change Icabod Crane’s vocation from teacher to constable. I could see Burton’s story being told equally well, or perhaps even better, if Icabod were a teacher interested in science who had an interest in the bizarre and decided to turn science to the mystery. I think Icabod’s peculiarities would have played better in that case.
Although I only just read Washington Irving’s story, I have delved into the world of headless specters in my own writing. My story “Experiment in Survival” which appears in the anthology Healing Waves takes a Japanese headless vampire legend and folds it into my Scarlet Order vampire world. Sales benefit the victims of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. You can find copies at Smashwords and Amazon.