Yesterday I went on Twitter to ask for some book recommendations because my TBR list is packed with sci-fi. I love sci-fi, but I also want to vary things a bit. (Plus, blog readers will get bored if I review nothing but sci-fi.)

I figured a couple people might reply. Instead, I got a deluge of responses to the tweet, with tons of interesting books. I picked up some of them already, and I’ll probably get more. I encourage readers to check out the replies to my tweet–you may find something you’ll like!

This is a fantasy novel set in a world where elves, goblins and changelings (shape-shifters) are perennially maneuvering against each other. The main source of conflict is the precious gems which are used for all manner of magical purposes. The three factions are not at war, but rather a state of uneasy peace which is frequently threatened, as when elves encroach into goblin territory.

There are three main characters: Alue, an elf, Talin, a changeling who for some time has disguised himself as Alue’s familiar, and Naj’ar, a goblin-changeling halfbreed. The three keep finding themselves drawn together, as often as not due to Alue’s reckless behavior.

The overarching plot of the book is left pretty vague. There are a lot of dubious goings-on among the three factions, as well as problems with something called The Veil. This book is unusually lean on world-building for a fantasy novel, which I can see might be disappointing to some readers. Personally, I actually liked the fast-paced nature of it. I don’t read much fantasy, exactly because so many fantasy books tend to get bogged down in world-building, so this was refreshing.*

Alue was the character who was most interesting to me. At first, I didn’t like her, largely due to the fact she had a tendency to disregard rules, and then whine when punished for it. (I call this “Anakin Skywalker syndrome.”) But as the book went on, I came to like her more–she really does want to do the right thing. Usually.

Talin was a bit tougher to get a handle on; his motives are ambiguous and at times it seems like he’s in denial about his own desires. Na’jar seemed to be the most honest and reliable of the three.

I think fans of fantasy will find a lot to like here. This is the first in a trilogy, and by the end, the shape of the overarching plot is beginning to emerge. It’s an entertaining read for anyone who enjoys a good adventure. If you’re still on the fence about whether to read it or not, check out Audrey Driscoll’s review.

*You’re saying, “But you read Sci-Fi novels that also have lots of world-building!” Yes, this is true. What can I say? Somehow Sci-Fi can hold my attention in a way that Fantasy doesn’t. It’s just a quirk of mine, and can’t be interpreted as a comment on either genre.

Okay, I know most of you couldn’t care less about American football. But hear me out on this.

George Plimpton was a pioneer of participatory journalism—that is, journalism in which the writer actually participates in what he’s writing about, as opposed to simply describing it as a bystander. His many exploits included playing in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, boxing with Archie Moore, and pitching in an MLB game.

But arguably his most famous act of participatory journalism was his time as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. Plimpton joined their camp during the 1963 season, and participated for five plays in an inter-squad scrimmage. Here’s how he introduces the fateful moment:

“The offensive team in their blue jerseys, about ten yards back, on their own twenty yard line, moved and collected in the huddle formation as I came up, and I slowed, and walked toward them, trying to be calm about it, almost lazying up to them to see what could be done.”

After his five plays were run, the Lions had lost 29 yards. Certainly an inauspicious playing career, although as time has gone on, it’s proven to be far from the most embarrassing thing to happen to a Lions quarterback.

How interesting could a book about a man being terrible at football be, you ask? Well, that’s just it. Plimpton may have been a bad quarterback, but he was a magnificent writer. He could make anything sound interesting. Something as boring as lining up under center, he makes memorable:

“I took a few tentative steps toward Bob Whitlow, the center, waiting patiently over the ball. I suddenly blurted out: ‘Well, damn it, coach, I don’t know where to put my… I just don’t know…’

The coaches all crowded around to advise, and together we moved up on Whitlow, who was now peering nervously over his shoulder like a cow about to be milked.”

What makes Paper Lion great isn’t Plimpton’s scrimmage performance by itself. That just serves to give the book a structure and a dramatic climax. But the real meat of the book is in Plimpton’s descriptions of what goes on behind the scenes of an NFL team, like the annual revue they put on after the final roster cutdowns, in which the rookies mock coaches, veterans and league officials. Plimpton describes himself performing in the role of then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle:

“I wore a Napoleon hat, a cloak, a wooden sword, three cap pistols and a rubber dirk; and I carried a pair of handcuffs, a tack hammer, and a frying pan. These artifacts… were supposed to suggest the inquisitorial aspects of Rozelle’s office.

…and when I clanked toward the footlights, and said ‘Howdy, I’m Petesy Rozelle,’ the audience delivered a stiff barrage of invective.”

Or, during a hazing session where rookies are made to sing their college fight songs before the entire team, Plimpton struggles to recall his alma mater:

Crimson in triumph flashing

‘Til that last white line is past.

er… We’ll fight for the name of Harvard

‘Til… that last white line is past….

There are his depictions of all the Lions players, like Earl Morrall, the journeyman quarterback who would later go on to join the legendary 1972 Miami Dolphins, and of George Wilson, the Lions’ firm but good-natured coach. Dick “Night Train” Lane, whose record for interceptions in a season still stands to this day. Dick LeBeau, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career as a defensive coach, was a member of the team, whom Plimpton recalls the players likening to a pop star.

Above all, there are the antics of lineman Alex Karras. Karras was suspended for the 1963 season for gambling, but he still makes his presence felt as Plimpton recounts stories of him. Karras was a hambone, a performer by nature, always improvising skits and stories to amuse his teammates waiting in the hotel before a game, as in his recollections of an imagined “former life” in World War II:

“I knew all those cats, Runstedt, Goering–Bavaria Fats we called him–and Rommel. He had a terrible weak stomach, Rommel did. He used to get sick all the time. I’d come rushing up to him in the morning to fling the salute at him, and say, ‘Hello, hello, heil, heil, good mornin’ gener’l,’ and he’d get sick.”

It’s no surprise Karras went on to a career in acting after his football days ended. He had a natural gift for entertaining—but then, as Plimpton describes, as game time drew near, he would grow serious, and sick to his stomach. Karras’ queasiness and unpredictable temper actually reassured his teammates: “Alex is ready,” they murmur when his mood turns sour, “In five minutes he’ll be out there on the field making the poor fellow from Philadelphia opposite him pay for it.” Plimpton concludes the chapter, “We crowded into the elevator. No one said anything going down. Karras would sit alone on the bus.”

Plimpton had an incredible talent for knowing just how to end a chapter. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anyone else who could do it as well as he could. Here’s his conclusion of the chapter about his ill-fated scrimmage, when he hears a woman in the stands call out to him:

“She was wearing a mohair Italian sweater, the color of spun pink sugar, and tight pants, and she was holding a thick folding wallet in one hand along with a pair of dark glasses, and in the other a Lions banner, which she waved, her face alive with excitement, very pretty in a perishable, childlike way, and she was calling, “Beautiful; it was beautiful.”

The fireworks lit her, and she looked up, her face chalk white in the swift aluminum glare.

I looked at her out of my helmet. Then I lifted a hand, just tentatively.”

Plimpton’s time with the Lions occurred in the shadow of departed star quarterback Bobby Layne, who had led the team to multiple NFL championships in the ’50s. Legend has it, Layne cursed the team when they traded him, saying they would not win another title for 50 years. And as of this writing, they still have not, being one of the worst franchises in the NFL over the last half-century.

I wonder if the book would have been the same if Plimpton had chosen some other team for his experiment. He had tried to go to the New York Giants, the New York Titans (now Jets) and the Baltimore Colts. But somehow, it seems right that it was the Lions who had this awkward, lanky quarterback who wore number 0 and who stumbled on his first play from scrimmage. There is a poetic quality to it—someone who knows he hasn’t got a chance, but is trying anyway, because, well, how else to know what it’s like? 

The Lions play on national TV every Thanksgiving. Generally, they lose. Even if they don’t, the game is usually meaningless, as they have almost always been eliminated from playoff contention by that time. But I love this tradition, because there’s a kind of melancholic beauty to it, just as there was to Plimpton’s venture. Sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner on a dreary day—as midwestern November days always are, somehow even when they are sunny—and watching the Honolulu blue and silver appear on the screen as the Lions go into another ill-starred competition makes me think of old Plimpton and his wonderfully nerdy courage. 

It’s said that the owners of baseball’s Chicago Cubs believed that fans didn’t care about winning as much as they did entertainment. They were probably wrong, but I still see where they got that idea. Anyone can cheer for a winner; but it takes something special to cheer on a perennial loser, year after year. Don’t we teach kids it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game?

And in a way, Plimpton did win. He wrote one of the greatest sports books ever—a book that captures both the details of the game and the poetry of it. Football is a late autumn sport, and is tightly connected with the mood of the season. As John Facenda said in the intro to an NFL films production I once saw, there is “something somber in the eyes of the men, something of winter in their faces…” Paper Lion depicts football’s essence, in all its violent, weird, funny, fading autumnal glory.

I’ve loved football since I was a kid—I first read Paper Lion when I was 13 years old—so I’m probably biased. But I do believe it’s possible to enjoy the book even without being a football fan, because Plimpton was such a fantastic writer. In the introduction to the 1993 edition, Plimpton described an encounter with a rustic fellow who came up to him and said that he had only ever read one book—Paper Lion. Flattered but nonplused, Plimpton asked if he’d ever considered reading another one. The man replied with the greatest compliment a writer can receive: “Have you written another one?”

Indeed, he had, and this is why I think even a non-football fan may enjoy Paper Lion. I’ve read lots of other things he wrote, on subjects which normally hold no interest for me, but which I enjoyed anyway because of his masterful storytelling and wit.

In 2003, less than a week before he died, Plimpton went to Detroit for a ceremony at halftime of a Lions’ game to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the book and reunite with some old Lions’ stars. I remember watching the game on TV, and thinking how weird it was to see number 0 on a football jersey.

Of course, the Lions lost the game, 23-13.

GossamerThis is the sequel to The Gossamer Globe, which I reviewed here. It’s a fantastic book, and I’ll keep the plot synopsis to a minimum because I would not want to spoil the first book. Gossamer Power follows Lucia, Kailani, Ms. Battenbox, Jevan and other characters from Globe, as well as introducing some terrific new ones, including the handsome Sebastian, who is irresistibly fascinating to almost everyone, and a character known simply as “Glorious Leader” or to use his full name, “Oh Great Glorious Leader.”

All the things I loved about the first book are present here as well: the humor, the sword-fighting, the political intrigue. I was worried this installment wouldn’t live up to the high bar set by the first, but I enjoyed this one almost as much. I say “almost” because this one ends on a cliffhanger, so it doesn’t have a totally satisfying ending. Tonally, it’s definitely The Empire Strikes Back to Gossamer Globe’s A New Hope. 

So much of what makes these books wonderful are the little things, as in when, on having traveled by airship to his native land, the Glorious Leader shows Jevan and Lucia the flying carriages of his home, commenting that the people who clamored for them had no “regard for the fact that an airship is, essentially, a flying carriage. They already existed.” And indeed, how many times have you heard people talk about not having flying cars when in fact that’s basically what an airplane is?

The book is full of little moments like this. Ms. Battenbox isn’t in it much, which is kind of a pity, since she was one of my favorites from the first book, but her keen mind for strategy and her biting wit are still in evidence during her few scenes. At one point, she remarks, “There are many state secrets this sham government will never know about… How stupid are you commoners to think you could imprison me in it?”

In addition to being a bawdy, swashbuckling adventure, Gossamer Power, like its predecessor is also a clever satire, touching on many everything from the “Internet of Things” to the modern surveillance state. Like any good fantasy, for all its outlandish elements, there are some things that really ring true.

It’s a worthy sequel, and I can’t wait for the next one!

tales-from-the-annexeThis is a collection of short stories by Audrey Driscoll, author of the Herbert West series, a brilliant re-imagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s brilliant but amoral scientist. The first seven stories in the collection all tie in with the series. It’s probably not necessary to have read all the books to enjoy them, but I’d say at least The Friendship of Mortals is required reading for sufficient grounding.

“The Nexus” is told in a classic Lovecraftian fashion, in that it is a document contained in a letter. The letter’s author is Professor Quarrington of Miskatonic University. Quarrington reveals his ties to the Starry Wisdom cult, which features in one of my favorite Lovecraft tales, “The Haunter of the Dark.” He goes on to explain how, through his own peculiar skill for predicting the future, he sees great potential for good or evil in his student, Herbert West.

“Fox and Glove” is a mystery story, wherein West’s friend, librarian Charles Milburn, seeks to locate a specific book in the home of a recently-deceased bibliophilic professor to win a bet. Milburn enlists West’s aid in helping him acquire some clues, as only West can, and then sets about uncovering the mystery using his own knowledge of cataloging. One of my favorites from this collection.

“From the Annexe” is an exploration of the homoerotic elements of West and Milburn’s relationship. This story is probably the one that adds the least new information for those who have already read the series, but it’s still a fine character sketch.

“A Visit to Luxor” is a prelude to Driscoll’s novel, She Who Comes Forth. West–now traveling under the name Francis Dexter–and his servant Andre encounter a mysterious man in Egypt.

“One of the Fourteen”–West, again as Dexter, is forced to confront someone from his past at a pub. This story has more outright fantasy elements than the others, and demonstrates how far the protagonist has moved from the ultra-rationalism he displayed in his earlier career.

“The Night Journey of Francis Dexter” is similar to the one before, as Dexter is once again confronting something from his past. He intends to atone, but finds altogether more than he bargained for, and is again caught up in fantastic supernatural horrors.

“The Final Deadline of A.G. Halsey” is the most intriguing of all seven of these stories, because it is the prologue to an as-yet unwritten sequel to She Who Comes Forth. Even as she is dying, Alma Halsey is compiling information on the strange behavior of her grand-daughter since her return from Egypt.

In addition to these seven stories of the Herbert West series, the collection contains seven more standalone stories, and in my opinion, while the West stories are all good, this part is where it really starts to shine.

“Welcome to the Witch House” is a reimagining of Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House. Just as she did for Herbert West, Driscoll reinvents Lovecraft’s setting, populating it with real, human characters instead of the paper-thin ones HPL wrote. Driscoll’s retelling only gets as far as setting the stage for the action that takes place in Lovecraft’s story. As she notes in the afterword, she felt she had nothing to add to the rest of it, and abandoned the effort. I beg to differ. Witch House is one of Lovecraft’s most fascinating works to me–not because it’s good, but because it’s so weirdly flawed and yet so inexplicably compelling. To me, it contains both the best and worst aspects of his writing all at once. Driscoll’s touch would be most welcome.

The Ice Cream Truck From Hell” was originally posted in serial form on Driscoll’s blog. I read it when it was originally published, and I read it again when I bought this collection. It holds up beautifully on re-reading. The atmosphere is marvelous, and the characters–from young Will, the protagonist, to his troubled friend Harold “Doof” Duffy, to Will’s pompous father–are all expertly drawn. Both times I’ve read it, it’s made me think of Bradbury; specifically Something Wicked This Way Comes. The atmosphere of two kids wandering around in an October evening is wonderful, and the sinister ice cream truck and its crew aren’t even the most unsettling elements. Make no mistake; this collection is worth buying for this story alone. 

“The Colour of Magic” is about a young man named Marc, who is forced to share his home with a peculiar tenant while his mother is away. The strange lodger does nothing overtly threatening, and seems to be just a dreamy lover of incense and yoga, until she asks Marc to help her paint her room, at which point it becomes clear she is acquainted with far more esoteric forms of mysticism. It reminded me a little of Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann–the mysterious older person who is clearly in touch with something far beyond the everyday. Beautifully written, of course, and leaves the reader with just enough information.

“A Howling in the Woods” is about a young boy abandoned in the woods by his father when he hears a mysterious noise. Eventually, he is found again, but not after some strange transformation has taken place. There’s a bit of an environmentalist message to it, although everything is left very ambiguous. But the atmosphere is once again first-rate.

“The Glamour” is about a middle-class teenaged girl who becomes convinced she was switched at birth with the daughter of a posh family. Her obsession with confirming this notion leads her to an even more surprising discovery. This was really well done–at first, it felt like it could just be a YA story about a girl whose imagination had run away with her. But, as is so often the way in Driscoll’s stories, there’s more to it than meets the eye…

“The Blue Rose” is set in a society that seems to have been created after some dimly-remembered cataclysm. Deon is an artist who wishes to create a blue rose for an important ceremony, and he ventures outside the protective city limits and into the dangerous “blasted lands” to do it. The world of this story is first rate, and I’d be delighted to read more set in this place. Like “The Ice Cream Truck From Hell,” I’d read this before in another collection, but happily re-read it. It struck me on second reading that it really is about art, and the risks artists must take to make it. Creating art involves a kind of danger, if not generally the physical kind depicted here. To make something great is to run a risk, and often involves sacrificing a bit of oneself.

“The Deliverer of Delusions” is not actually the last story in the collection. It comes between “Witch House” and “Ice Cream Truck.” I presented all the others in the order the author arranged, but I had to save this one for last, because it’s a sequel to “The Repairer of Reputations,” by Robert W. Chambers.

Longtime readers probably know that I consider “Repairer of Reputations” to be the greatest work of weird fiction I’ve ever read. It’s simply perfect–spare, yet layered with fascinating ambiguities. It doesn’t overwhelm you with weirdness, it doesn’t announce its weirdness ahead of time, nor does it play it out too long and let it become mundane or tiresome. It gradually sinks its claws into you, and by the time you even notice something strange is going on, you’re in too deep to get out. It’s just a masterpiece.

I won’t say any more about it. If you like weird fiction–and you’re reading this blog, so you probably do–you should read it. Try not to read anything more about it before you read it, if you can. It’s important to go in with as few pre-conceived notions as possible.

So! That’s my take on “Repairer of Reputations.” Naturally, the idea of a sequel by a different author, even one as supremely gifted as Audrey Driscoll, filled me with trepidation. Can anyone write a sequel to another author’s work? A good story is like a distillation of a writer’s vision. Properly done, it conveys a whole mental image built up gradually in the synapses of an author’s brain. Can another author presume to match the resulting gestalt so perfectly? Should they? 

I have to be very careful what I say here, because I’m trying not to spoil either story. So, I’ll just say that “Deliverer of Delusions” is a worthy sequel to “Repairer of Reputations.” In fact, it adds on another layer to the original tale that I had never considered. Is it as good of a story? In my opinion, not quite. (It’s much shorter, for one thing.) But it follows the ancient principle “first, do no harm,” and detracts in no way from its legendary predecessor, and will be an enjoyable treat for fans of Chambers’ original story. But do read the original before you read this one! I must insist upon this; to do otherwise is simply a disservice to both stories.

Those are my reviews of all the stories in this collection. And yet, I feel my work is not done here. I’ve spoken of the trees, but not the forest. A proper collection of stories is more than the sum of its parts. I have compared Driscoll to Lovecraft, Bradbury, and Chambers–and she is certainly worthy of being mentioned alongside them. 

But it is unfair to her to merely say she writes admirably “in the manner of…” Driscoll’s style is uniquely hers. Reading this collection made me appreciate this more than ever. As I said above, stories are distillations of a vision, and a collection of stories is a window into an author’s mind; the creative world they inhabit that enables them to turn the everyday–an overheard distortion of Brahms’ “Lullaby,” for instance–into a whole world, complete with people and stories and history and mystery. 

It’s become a cliché to say that all of <some group of fictional works> take place in the same shared universe. But that’s true for authors. In some sense, all of an author’s works take place in a universe that exists within their head.

And the greats, like Driscoll, can take us to that universe and introduce us to the people, show us the color of the sky and let us smell the air. We come back again and again, and feel like we carry some part of the place around with us even when we leave. Tales from the Annexe transports you to a world of horror and mystery, magic and wonder. It’s a must-read.

AngelThis short story is a modern tale of un-dead horror. I won’t spoil exactly what type of monster is involved, but readers will probably be able to guess. There’s a clever twist on some classic mythology that enables three high school kids to do battle with an ancient evil.

There are elements of dark comedy as well as horror. And despite its brevity, Abbott gives us more than enough info to care about the characters, and even weaves in a sort of redemptive arc for one of them. 

The text is supplemented with excellent illustrations by Kate Whitmore that provide a face to go with the name for several characters.

This is darker and gorier than Abbott’s other short story, Harvest, but both of them are very good in their own ways. There are plenty of references to classic horror stories and films in this one that fans of the genre will surely appreciate. All in all, a great short story for the Halloween season.

Thousand YesteryearsA Thousand Yesteryears is a crime thriller, set in 1982. A young woman named Eve Parrish returns to her hometown of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Eve, and everyone in the town, are still haunted by the tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge 15 years before. Eve’s father and her best friend Maggie Flynn were among the victims of the collapse.

Eve is in town to deal with the estate of her recently-deceased Aunt Rosie, which includes selling the family hotel. She reunites with Caden Flynn, her girlhood crush and Maggie’s older brother, who is still haunted by survivor’s guilt that he lived through the bridge collapse when his sister did not.

Eve begins settling in town and reconnecting with old acquaintances, including Katie Lynch, a friend and confidant of her late aunt. Katie is also haunted by a lost sibling–her sister Wendy, who disappeared shortly before the bridge disaster.

Soon, strange things begin happening to Eve. Her late aunt’s home is vandalized, and soon she is plagued by threatening notes and mysterious phone calls. Caden and his brother Ryan grow fearful for Eve’s safety.

As the disturbing events escalate, the four begin to uncover strands of the past that all lead back to that horrific night in 1967 when their lives–and the whole town of Point Pleasant–were changed irrevocably.

It’s a fascinating blend of literary novel, romance, and thriller. Gradually, the thriller aspect takes over as they put the pieces together, but there are also plenty of atmospheric interludes that tell us about the characters and the strange mood that hangs over Point Pleasant. I especially enjoyed the relationship between Katie and Eve. It starts off sort of on the wrong foot, but then Eve gradually realizes that a lot of what she assumed about Katie from when they were in school isn’t true, and once she accepts that, they start working together. I really liked that.

As I mentioned, this is at least partially a crime novel, and the crimes in question are truly horrific ones. Readers should go in expecting to deal with dark subject matter. It’s actually much grimmer than the sort of story I normally like to read, but it was so well-written I just had to know where it was going, and it certainly reaches a very satisfying conclusion. I don’t often read gritty crime novels, but this is one I’ll definitely recommend for its well-paced plot, its relatable characters, and most of all its memorable, haunting setting.

Ah, okay… and there’s another reason, too. I wasn’t totally up front with you in describing this book, but most readers probably already guessed from the time and the place that there’s another element to this besides crime and romance. Because if we’re doing word association, I’m betting that for 99 out of 100 people, the words “Point Pleasant” instantly call to mind the word “Mothman.”

The legend of the Mothman is one of the most fascinating stories of modern folklore, in my opinion. For those who don’t know, the story is that, beginning in 1966, a strange winged creature was sighted repeatedly throughout Point Pleasant. Eyewitnesses describe a monstrous thing with red eyes making horrible screeching nosies.

Some people believe it was a monster, wreaking havoc. Others believe it was trying to warn people of impending disaster–specifically, the Silver Bridge disaster. John Keel’s book The Mothman Prophecies links the creature to all sorts of strange phenomena, including UFOs, “Men in Black,” and so on. The story was further popularized by the 2002 film inspired by Keel’s book.

Like the headless Hessian of the Hudson or the witches of New England, the Mothman is intimately tied to the landscape. Anyone who has been to Appalachia recognizes the mysterious and slightly otherworldly quality of the region’s hills and forests. Traveling the Ohio/West Virginia border, you can’t help but feel a sense of eerie wonder. My own opinion is, if the Mothman did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Clair clearly did her research on the legend, as the book is filled with references to all the classic concepts of Mothman lore, from the eerie voices on the phone to the eternally ambiguous motivations of the creature. Because, oh yes; to be quite clear–the Mothman is very much a character in this book, portrayed carefully and thoroughly, yet preserving the proper degree of mystery.

If you love the Mothman legend as I do, you have to check this book out. It’s a dark, unsettling visit to that legend-shadowed river town, and the enigmatic being that reputedly haunts its lonely roads at night.

John_Quidor_-_The_Headless_Horseman_Pursuing_Ichabod_Crane_-_Google_Art_Project
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, by John Quidor (1858)

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a short story, originally published in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. “Geoffrey Crayon” being a pseudonym of Washington Iriving.

It tells the story of Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher in a region of New York known as Tarrytown in the early 19th-century. He is—if I may cut through the florid 19th-century lingo—kind of a jerk. He’s mean to his students, unless he sees an opportunity of mooching free meals off their mothers or flirting with their older sisters. 

Eventually, Ichabod’s fancy is caught by Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of the wealthy Baltus Van Tassel. One thing  that’s interesting is that Ichabod seems to be interested in her largely for a wealth—whether he has affection or even mere lust for her seems beside the point.

But another of Katrina’s suitors, the large, vigorous, Brom Bones (actually Brom Van Brunt, but his nickname is Brom Bones) does not take kindly to the girl he’d been wooing spending all her time with the awkward schoolmaster. 

These are the three main characters, and they’re all kind of humorously unlikable. Ichabod is a selfish moocher, Katrina is a vapid tease, and Brom is what we would today call a jock frat boy. The main body of the story is more like a sit-com than a ghost story.

The ghost aspect comes from the setting—Tarrytown, a sleepy, dreamy village in the Hudson valley where, Irving tells us:

“…population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current.”

In other words, it’s a place that seems removed from modernity—modernity, in this case, being 1820. Even when Irving wrote the story, “Sleepy Hollow” was hearkening back to an earlier era. No doubt he was targeting those 1790s kids who felt nostalgic for their childhood.

Anyway, things culminate with Ichabod going to a large harvest party at the sprawling Van Tassel farm, where folks swap ghost stories, such as the one about “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.” And finally, of course, the region’s most popular legend: the story of a ghostly Hessian soldier who, having lost his head to a cannonball in the war, rides forth each night in search of a replacement. 

Ichabod, who is a devoted reader of Cotton Mather, is much troubled by such tales. He leaves the party in a state of agitation, and our narrator suggests that perhaps Katrina has dumped him, although this is ambiguous. At any rate, Ichabod is riding home alone, feeling rather miserable when he encounters a huge, headless rider mounted upon a black horse.

Furiously, Ichabod urges his own horse towards the old church bridge, which, according to a story of the horseman related by Brom Bones, the horseman will not cross. Ichabod successfully manages to cross the bridge and turns just in time to see the horseman hurling his head at him. 

Yes, that’s right—his head. The horseman carries his severed head with him on his saddle. And this is where the story becomes a bit ambiguous because the next day, as the townsfolk investigate Ichabod’s sudden disappearance, they do not find a head at the old church bridge, but do find the shattered remains of a pumpkin. 

The story is deliberately vague after that—while Ichabod is never seen again in Tarrytown, some say he simply moved, and is alive and well in another part of the country. Brom Bones—who, we are told, marries Katrina, looks “exceedingly knowing” whenever anyone brings up the subject of Ichabod, suggesting that perhaps the notorious prankster had simply disguised himself as a headless horsemen, seeking to frighten off his rival.

Of course, the more superstitious residents of the town believe that Crane became a victim of the ghostly Hessian. And after all, since we already have strong reason to think Ichabod was spurned by Katrina at the party, why would Brom have even needed to pull such an elaborate stunt? (Unless he was just adding injury to insult, which would be exactly the kind of move we might expect from Brom.)

This brings me back to what I think is the most curious thing about this story: it plays out like a romantic comedy—or more accurately, one of those anti-romantic comedies where all the characters seem self-absorbed, and the comedy results from the interplay of their attempts to get what they want. In fact, if you take away all the supernatural elements and think of it in modern terms, it’s basically a mean-spirited high-school comedy, where the rich cheerleader and the superstar quarterback screw over the know-it-all nerd.

Which seems like the sort of thing that might actually happen, and indeed almost makes me wonder if the eponymous “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” isn’t the thing about the headless ghost at all, but rather the legend of a love triangle that ended in a bizarre prank. In other words, it seems almost like the sort of thing that could have actually happened. Apparently, Irving did know people named “Ichabod Crane” and “Katrina Van Tassel.” Real-life Ichabod Crane was a captain in the army, not a schoolteacher, but real-life Katrina seems to have been more or less like the character in the story, which again makes me wonder how much of this was based on real events or gossip Irving picked up. 

But obviously, it’s the ghost aspect that has made this story famous. And is it ever famous! It’s one of the first and most iconic pieces of post-revolution American literature, and has been adapted many, many times. (More about that later this month.) There are places all over the country named “Sleepy Hollow.” Ichabod and the ghostly Hessian are commemorated on postage stamps and in statuary. Most people know the story even though they never read the original. It’s the quintessential American ghost story.

October is my favorite month, and Halloween is my favorite holiday. If you’re like me, you probably want some good books to read for the season. Here are a few recommendations.

Harvest: A Short Story from the Pumpkin Patch by Jason H. Abbott. This is a fun short story, a little bit spooky and a little bit sweet, about a couple of characters who find they have a lot in common. Here’s my full review.  

The Witch Under the Mountain, by Audrey N. Allison. A father tells his young daughters a bedtime story about an evil witch that proves to be more than just a legend. Fun for all ages, and great artwork too. My full review is here.

The Bone Curse, by Carrie Rubin. The first in Rubin’s Benjamin Oris series, this book is a supernatural medical thriller that forces its protagonist to question whether the horrors he encounters have a rational explanation, or stem from a centuries-old Vodou curse. Serious horror–Stephen King fans will love it. Full review here.

The Almost-Apocalypse of Apple Valley, by Phillip McCollum. Another one for Stephen King fans, this book combines ’80s nostalgia with supernatural horror, as four kids must confront a horrible evil plaguing their town. I’ve not done a full review of this book, but here’s my mini-review: It’s very good.

Jersey Ghost Stories by Erren Michaels and Noah Goats. A collection of ghost legends from the island of Jersey. Some are creepy, some are gruesome, some are poignant, and all are haunting. My full review.

The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll. Book 1 in Driscoll’s splendid reimagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West character, this book tells the story of a scientist obsessed with revivifying the dead, as told by his less gifted, but more moral friend. My full review.

The Raven and Other Tales by Joy V. Spicer. A collection of short stories, some of which are re-imaginings of classic tales and poems. Haunting and evocative–perfect for Autumn. My full review is here and Lydia Schoch’s is here.

If you have other suggestions, please let me know. Happy October! Keep the home jack-o’-lanterns burning.