Halloween Reads: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Book Cover The Legend of Sleepy Hollow [1820] – ★★★★★

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a short story by American author Washington Irving. Drawing inspiration from folklore that dates back to the Middle Ages and which concerns the sightings of the Headless Horseman, Irving wrote a haunting tale of one strange village, ghostly apparitions and unrequited love. At the centre of this tale is Ichabod Crane, an odd and superstitious young man who teaches at a local school in one Dutch settlement in New York State. When he sets his eyes on a local beauty Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a rich local farmer, he does not even imagine yet the competition he has yet to overcome to claim her hand, the competition that stems especially from Katrina’s suitor Brom Van Brunt. Nor does our young hero imagines the extent of the horror that can be experienced by one who is actually confronting the central figure of many horror stories told by a cosy fireplace. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a very memorable short story, largely because of its haunting atmosphere and the early romanticism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (“The Sorrows of Young Werther” [1774]) that Irving injects into the story to make it more compelling. 

The tale of the Headless Horseman may be known to some through a very mediocre Disney animation The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad [1949] or through Tim Burton’s atmospheric film Sleepy Hollow [1999] (which I highly recommend), but, even before Irving wrote his story, the legend of the Headless Horseman had been the focus of many a folklore story, having its legendary roots in the Middle Ages (see the story here about the beheaded priest, which may date to the 1330s). This figure also appears in the German and Irish folklore stories, and, most of the time, in the role of an avenger who seeks to punish those responsible for his beheading or to find his missing head. Texas also has its own Headless Horseman, nicknamed “El Muerto” (originating circa 1800), which probably gave an inspiration for Thomas Mayne Reid to pen his own story The Headless Horseman [1866], Vladimir Nabokov’s favourite read during his childhood. 

John Quidor The Headless Horseman
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor

In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, we are first introduced to a real village/small town nicknamed “Sleepy Hollow” (originally named (part of) Tarrytown). In the story, this is the kind of a close-knit community in the state of New York that is soon defined in our minds by its misty contours, its superstitions and its connection to witchcraft, scary legends and all things unexplained, giving it a special, haunting quality. “A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere” [1820/1978: 313], writes Irving. The residents of the village can also be strange, as Irving also writes: “the place…holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air” [1820/1978: 313]. However, the main obsession of the inhabitants of the village is the Headless Horseman, “the apparition of a figure on horseback without a head…said to be…a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon ball” [1820/1978: 313].

Ichabod Crane, a teacher at a local school, is then portrayed as having eccentricities that the local community both welcomes and expresses uneasiness about – “He was…an odd mixture of small shrewdness and simple credulity. His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary” [1820/1978: 317]. Everything is going well in Ichabod Crane’s life until “his path…is crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man, than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that [is] – a woman” [1820/1978: 319]. Katrina Van Tassel is a local coquette of stunning beauty and charm that starts to give hope to Ichabod, who, in turn, realises that Brom Van Brunt, another local youth of much admirable physicality and horsemanship, is also after Katrina. At this point, the tale reminds of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and we see the symbolic “fight” between imagination, dreams and academia (Ichabod), and practicality, physical strength and common-sense (Brom). Who will win and carry away the greatest “prize” – the love and devotion of Katrina Van Tassel? A meeting between Ichabod and the Headless Horseman may as well settle the matter prematurely.

There is a reason why Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow became one of the most famous American horror stories. Even though the story itself is simple, it is also very atmospheric and beautifully-written. The tale is capable of getting under your skin, while the vivid image of Ichabod Crane and the haunting image of Sleepy Hollow also leave lasting impressions.

The Lottery Book Cover The Lottery [1948] – ★★★

In this story, Shirley Jackson combines the believable and the ordinary, with the unbelievable and the horrifying, to produce a narrative which is one-of-a-kind and unsettling. The readers of this story will not realise what they are in for until it is too late. In this tale, a local community of people holds an annual “lottery” procedure, whereby, once every year, its residents draw pieces of paper from a black box. This black box contains only one marked or “winning” piece of paper among the blank three hundred or so of them (see also the 1969 short film based on this story). At the beginning of the story, it seems like all the residents are making preparations for this yearly “event” before gathering to have it carried out. One of the most admirable elements of the story is the way Jackson plays with our usual expectations and with our fear of the unknown and the uncertain, before unravelling her final point, making the story unforgettable upon its final revelation.

The story starts innocently – there is an open “lottery” to be held in one ordinary American village. Three hundred or so people gather to draw their pieces of paper and find out the outcome. Jackson is clever in her story in that the purpose of the lottery remains unclear to us, thereby boosting the suspense, uncertainty and apprehension. Another clever element is that a lottery is something that is almost always associated in our minds with something voluntarily-done, pleasant, exciting and even festive (there is a promise, after all, of some unexpected winnings). However, in The Lottery by Jackson, we soon pick up signs of anxiety among the participants, leading to us feeling certain apprehension about the whole procedure. Another sign of fear may come from the fact that this particular lottery in the story is not really a voluntary procedure: “there’s always been a lottery”, says one character in the story. What must we, as readers, then think of all this? And, should we all be so worried? After all, we have been taught that orderly proceedings agreed by all and performed since the time immemorial cannot possibly lead to something chaotic and frightening…or can they?

rip14 imageIn this short tale, Jackson first presents the very definition of the order and the ordinariness in the form of a procedure which is generally–accepted by all and is to be carried out as a compulsory measure, only to then slowly introduce uncertainty and apprehension. The upshot is that this initially unassuming little story hides one shocking and unforgettable punch.

These reviews were written as part of the 14th Readers Imbibing Peril Reading Challenge.


25 thoughts on “Halloween Reads: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

  1. I love the Tim Burton movie based on Sleepy Hollow! Also, Alyssa Palombo’s debut novel, The Spellbook of Katrina van Tassel was a lovely retelling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from Katrina’s perspective. It was eerie at turns and atmospheric, and it had a lovely friendship between two young women.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tim Burton’s movie is a great, spooky entertainment! I was not aware of The Spellbook; I will have to check it out as soon as possible, many thanks! It must be very interesting to read the story from Katrina’s point of view.


      1. Fun fact: there’s a study that actually shows people enjoy stories MORE when they already know how they end, and this applies even to mysteries and stories that have twist endings! Here’s a link to one article on the phenomenon; it has links to the actual studies as well, if you want to check those out. While they didn’t use The Lottery as one of theirs, they used other similar short stories like “Lamb to the Slaughter.”


        Liked by 2 people

        1. Thanks very much for sharing! That is a very interesting point for discussion.

          I don’t think I agree with the study’s methodology, and, therefore, with its results completely. They rated the “satisfaction” that comes from knowing the key points in a story, and “enjoyment” is difficult to rate. There is a distinction between enjoying something more and enjoying something differently. The more information you give to people, the more they would enjoy the movie because they see the broader picture or purpose, as they call it in the study. I would certainly be satisfied with the story more if I knew the twists (because I can see the broader picture), BUT I will be ROBBED of that invaluable experience of discovering the twists as the director intended them to be discovered in the course of a film. That experience may be less or more enjoyable, but it is still precious. I am a frequent re-reader of stories and re-watcher of films – and I noticed that I like certain books and films more the more I re-watch/re-read them, BUT I know I would never enjoy them IN ONE PRECIOUS MANNER anymore – seeing them as though for the first time, and that is a loss of one particular enjoyment in itself.

          This article provides an example of film “The Usual Suspects”. I enjoy “The Usual Suspects” now more knowing who Keyser Soze is (as the study predicts), BUT I WANTED to have that invaluable and equally enjoyable experience seeing it WITHOUT FIRST knowing who is Soze. I still remember how I found out who he was when watching it for the first time without spoilers, and that was THE most unforgettable cinematic experience I have ever had; and only to think that someone could have robbed me of it? I still remember my family member spoiling for me Christie’s “And Then There Were None”. For me, it was a traumatic experience, which I will now remember forever, because I wanted to discover the spoiler on my own. I personally cannot imagine people being told who the murderer is in an Agatha Christie’s mystery, and then they would report they enjoyed that story immensely. It does not make sense.

          Sorry for this essay, but my point is that enjoying something without spoilers for the first time maybe enjoying something to a lesser extent, but it is an enjoyment which is incomparable and invaluable because it is so different from anything else.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. Beautiful reviews! I have watched the film adaptation of Sleepy Hollow and the more recent TV adaptation which is loosely based on Irving’s work. But somehow I haven’t read the actual story. I need to remedy that soon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great reviews! I read The Lottery for the first time earlier this year and really enjoyed it, but I’ve never read Sleepy Hollow! I have seen a film version though, so I’m familiar with the plot, and prefer to wait until I forget the film to read it. (I have a poor memory for plot specifics, which is frustrating in many cases but very helpful at times like this!)

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