Washington Irving’s ghost stories are just my type of ghost story: they’re tricky and creepy, but full of twists. Irving’s twists are rather predictable, but I found that Irving’s long-winded, wordy, early-1800s prose made his stories delightful to read.
In the introduction to my 1960’s book, Washington Irving is called the “Father of American Literature” and the “First American Man of Letters.” While I don’t know enough about his contemporaries to know if that’s accurate, I do know that many of his stories have a distinct American feel to them, as the setting is clearly the “new world.” The rustic and spacious American setting feels refreshing when I approach Irving’s writing; it’s as if that rural Connecticut community still exists. It also seems Irving’s world has seeped down into our modern culture: how many American communities today have a Sleepy Hollow street, neighborhood, or town somewhere near?
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” probably Irving’s most well-known story, illustrates a quaint, rural, new American community. Sleepy Hollow is “sleepy,” but it does have one claim to fame: the local haunt, the headless horseman. In the story, scrawny Ichabod Crane and burly Brom Bones vie for the attentions of the local beauty, and the headless horseman visits Ichabod Crane late one night. As I said, Irving’s story is predictable, but I still enjoyed it.
“Rip Van Winkle” occurs in a similar community. Rip Van Winkle is a good-for-nothing married to a nagging woman. One night, he meets some gnomes in the wood, who offer him alcoholic refreshment. When he wakes up the next morning, something isn’t quite right. Again, this is a somewhat predictable story, but I still enjoyed it, odd as it was.
“The Specter Bridegroom,” on the other hand, takes place in a castle in Germany, where a bride is awaiting her groom for their wedding. Though he arrives in time, he insists on leaving before the wedding, for he has a date with the grave. I was annoyed with Irving for giving up the ending a few pages too soon; I suspect it would never have been published that way today, and I thought it could have used some reorganization. That said, I still enjoyed the amusing story.
“The Adventure of the German Student” also occured in Europe, this time in creepy Revolutionary Paris, a place with ghosts, apparently.
“The Devil and Tom Walker” returns to the New England setting. This time, another good-for-nothing man married to another nagging wife (seems to be a theme in Irving) happens upon the Devil in the wood and strikes a bargain with him. Lest you might be thinking of doing the same thing, you should read this warning-story! Tom’s ultimate end is quite amusing.
I did read a few other stories, but these were the most entertaining. Irving’s style is not for everyone: as I said before, he is very wordy and tends to detail everything. I liked that, but you might not.
These stories happened to be Irving’s most “gothic.” I don’t normally like ghost stories, but these were just to my liking: a somewhat real feel to them, and yet also a somewhat “fantastic” story behind them.