"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is a novella written by Washington Irving and first published in 1820, making it perhaps the earliest piece of American fiction to persist in popularity. In fact, the story told in the book, the story of the "Headless Horseman" has been told and adapted in so many different mediums that the original work is almost covered up. Since the work is short enough to read in an hour, I decided to rectify this.
The book was somewhat of a surprise. I, like everyone else, "knew" what the book was about, the nighttime pursuit of one Ichabod Crane by a "Headless Horseman" that was believed to be the ghost of a Hessian mercenary whose head was removed by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War. But in my edition, which is sixty eight pages, this chase, which is the climax of the story, takes all of five or six pages. The first fifty pages of the story introduce us to Ichabod Crane, country schoolteacher, choral tutor, and gentleman-around-town living in a prosperous Dutch farming community in the Hudson River Valley. Ichabod Crane wishes to improve his lot of genteel poverty by courting Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of a rich farmer. The early 19th century seemed to have its version of our modern "nice guy", because Ichabod Crane feels disadvantaged in his courtship by the rivalry of one Brom Bones, a swaggering and mischievous young man that lacks Crane's education, but makes up for it by being lively and interesting. The romantic rivalry between the three, as well as the upkeep of the Van Tassel farm and the habits of Crane as a schoolteacher, as well as the temperaments of Crane and Bones' horses and other sundry reports of early 19th century life in the Hudson River Valley, make up most of the book, until at the end, Crane is chased by the ghost, and disappears, and Brom and Katrina marry.
The story is thus disjointed: a somewhat comedic story of courtship and rivalry disrupted by a supernatural chase, with no clear resolution as to the outcome of the story. It is suggested that Bones was responsible for chasing Crane away, but this is never confirmed.
What to make of this? Why is this story still popular? Is the story even popular, or is just a memetic fragment, the chase scene, what has persisted? I don't know what Irving intended: he could have been writing a shaggy dog story. He wrote many stories, and that this one became popular might have been an accident. There could also be all sorts of nigh-Freudian readings to the story: Crane's romantic rejection is mirrored in the pursuit by a symbolically castrated figure, although I think those readings are a bit of a stretch. Perhaps the story crystallized some of the cultural interests of the developing American literature. It is a good enough story, although burdened by the somewhat archaic and circuitous storytelling habits of the early 19th century. Yet there is nothing in the story that really accounts for how the chase scene became so deeply embedded in American culture. And yet there it is: the story that is the cornerstone of the entire genre of horror in the United States.
13 O'Clock: The 2013 Halloween Horrorquest