Horseman Book Review: Christina Henry’s Sleepy Hollow Tale
I’m sure we all have fond memories of our teachers wheeling in a TV cart. No matter the purpose, it meant a break from the usual school day. And of course, I’m no different. I also loved movie days. However, one day stands out in particularly sharp relief–the day we watched The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I’m sure I only vaguely knew about its literary origins, but that didn’t matter. What mattered is that it hit all the Salome buttons: spooky as heck, mysterious German villain, pumpkins?, and a nighttime setting. That feeling hasn’t faded, so I jumped at the chance to review the book Horseman, by Christina Henry.
Another Tale of Sleepy Hollow
That’s actually a reference to the full title of the book, by the way. It’s Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow. And if you’re unfamiliar with the original Legend of Sleepy Hollow, then here’s the basic story. In the village of Sleepy Hollow, New York, the local schoolmaster is a string bean named Ichabod Crane. Originally from Connecticut, he’s a bit of an outsider.
He’s popular with the local women, because he’s a bit of a gossip, but not popular enough. He wants to marry Katrina Van Tassel, in large part because she’s rich as heck. His only obstacles are tough guy Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt and oh, the fact that Katrina isn’t that interested.
One night, at a harvest party at the Van Tassels, Crane plans to make his move. He intends to propose to Katrina, but it apparently doesn’t go well. Seemingly rejected, Crane rides away on Gunpowder, a fairly average horse. However, they’re not the only ones on the road that night.
image via Disney
There is a local legend of the Headless Horseman, purportedly the ghost of a fallen Hessian from the Revolutionary War. (Oh yeah, this story takes place in 1790.) And that’s whom Crane meets on a dark country road. He rides desperately to the bridge where the Horseman is supposed to vanish. Crane makes it across, but then the Horseman hurls his own head at Ichabod, causing him to tumble from Gunpowder.
The next day, nothing is left on the bridge but Gunpowder’s saddle, a smashed pumpkin, and Ichabod’s hat. Rumors run rampant, including stories about how it was all a joke that Brom Bones orchestrated. They also tell tales about Crane having left town to marry a rich lady somewhere else. But no one in Sleepy Hollow ever sees him again.
Is The Horseman Back?
In the original Washington Irving story, Brom Bones and Katrina get married. By the time we meet them in Horseman, it’s been a long time since the days of the Hessian. The Van Brunts are now grandparents to 14-year-old Bente Van Brunt, who, as a trans boy, now goes by Ben. The elder Van Brunts are now raising him on their own since their son and daughter-in-law have died.
Ben is a spirited young man, who loves nothing more than roaming the local woods, playing “Sleepy Hollow Boys” with his best friend, Sander. Ben always plays his grandpa, much to his Sander’s consternation. But they have a fun time–who doesn’t like playing spooky games in the woods?
Welp, that kind of thing gets a little more serious when a group of local men, including Brom Bones, discover the body of another young teen in those woods. The body is in a frightful state, and they don’t know who could be responsible. Or what could be responsible. But all those old stories were just stories, right?
That’s what everyone tries to tell themselves, even as other bodies turn up. That would be bad enough, but now young Ben is hearing voices. Well, he’s hearing a voice, whom Ben understands to be the Horseman himself. He’s also seen a creature, separate from the Horseman, feeding on one of the victims. His Opa and Oma are doing their best to protect him, but what exactly is the danger?
Horseman Book Review
Like Henry’s Near the Bone, which I mentioned in my Pop Culture Free Time for February 2021, Horseman is essentially a scary woods monster chronicle. That is both my jam and my origin story, so I was very here for it. Add in the fact that it’s a take on one of my favorite childhood spooky yarns, as I said, and I was champing at the bit. Horse humor.
image via Berkley
Anyway, for the most part, I quite liked the book. It’s atmospheric and often conjures up the feeling of being in a dark wood. However, it wasn’t completely satisfying for me. Perhaps that’s because it functions more as a coming-of-age tale than of a riff on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
I know that’s the billing–I’ve already told you. But it felt like the new story was bolted on to the old one, and not wholly successfully. I would have liked a little more terror. I would have also liked a little more showing and less telling. There is a lot of talking in this book.
Speaking of talking, I’ve read some reviews that have raised some concerns over the handling of the transgender storyline. Personally, I also found it to be one of the weaker aspects of the book as a whole. However, it is very much not my lane, so I shouldn’t be the final word.
As for my actual final word, the bottom line of my Horseman book review is that I’m generally positive on it. I wish it had been a little less repetitive and a lot scarier, but overall, the emotional component was enough.
Horseman is now available.
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featured image via Berkley
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at [email protected]