Today’s Essential October Reads include one old classic, and one fairly new one. Enjoy!
October is here, and with it comes Ten Essential October Reads. With the countdown to Halloween ticking away, there’s no better time to look at some books that really capture the spirit of the holiday, whether it’s the childhood traditions of trick-or-treating and playing pranks, the essence of a cool autumn day, or the dark things that scurry through the shadows. Throughout the month, I’ll be spotlighting ten books or stories that I think capture the magic of the season.
7. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
The story is, by now, familiar to most: Ichabod Crane is the schoolmaster of the tiny Hudson river village called Tarry Town. Despite a physique that matches his name, Ichabod is a hit with the ladies thanks to his good taste and intelligence. He is working to parlay his attributes into some quality time with young Katrina Van Tassel, who is also being pursued by local brute Brom Von Brunt, a/k/a Brom Bones. Brom is everything Ichabod is not: strong, handsome, and mean-spirited. Their rivalry comes to a head during a party at the Van Tassel residence, at which Ichabod’s peculiar, loose-limbed dancing makes him the center of attention, while Brom sits alone, sulking in the corner. Ichabod’s luck doesn’t hold out, though; after a round of ghost stories with the men, Ichabod has a less-than-successful conversation with Katrina, and is last seen wandering home with defeated and deflated.
One of the stories told is that of the Headless Horseman, a nocturnal rider believed to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier beheaded by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War. It is this apparation that last sees Ichabod Crane alive in Tarry Town, as the two engage in a nightmarish horse race down an overgrown path through the forest.
Irving never reveals whether the Horseman is real or if, as some suspect, he was really Brom Bones in disguise, out to rid himself of his chief rival once and for all. What he does do, however, is spin a great Halloween tale, one that captures the spirit of the season. Look at how Irving describes the day of Ichabod’s last party:
It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day, the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple and scarlet.
There’s also this line, one of my favorites, as Ichabod leaves the party and begins the long, dark ride home:
It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crest-fallen, pursued his travel homewards, along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon.
Irving’s tale is about more than the Horseman and poor, unfortunate Ichabod: it’s about the power of legend, the power of storytelling. Who among us hasn’t heard, read or watched a good ghost story or scary movie and found ourselves replaying it later – usually when we are alone, and the house is dark and quiet, except for those noises that may be the wind…or not. In those times, the power of the story grows, and it becomes harder to dismiss as fiction. That night, it became impossible for Ichabod to dismiss. Hopefully, we’ll all fare a little better as we surround ourselves with ghosts this season.
6. “October in the Chair” by Neil Gaiman
In Neil Gaiman’s imagination, everything – ideas, concepts, the months of the year – has a life of its own. In his beloved DC Comics series Sandman, we saw Dream, Destruction, Death, Destiny and others as gods – gods who looked like people, but who were immortals nonetheless – who had their own dreams, their own destinies, and even the possibility of their own deaths to contend with. In his books American Gods and Anansi Boys, Gaiman drew on all sorts of mythological gods and brought them down to Earth. And in “October in the Chair” (from his collection Fragile Things) he gives us the months of the year, realized once again with human characteristics, gathering ’round a campfire for that most human of activities: storytelling.
The months gather, well, monthly, meeting formally to share stories with one another. As the title would indicate, this time around it’s October’s turn, and Gaiman masterfully sets the scene with one short sentence:
October was in the chair, so it was chilly that evening, and the leaves were red and orange and tumbled from the trees that circled the grove.
Yeah. If that’s not October, I don’t know what is.
The first half of the story is taken up with the typical chatter that anyone who’s been to a meeting will relate to – there is discussion of minutes of the last meeting, and protocol, and even a little political maneuvering among the participants. Finally, things settle down to the real reason they (and we) are there – to hear stories. As it is October in the chair, his is the closer (the “main event” as February describes it). Appropriately enough, October tells a ghost story.
I won’t tell October’s story – that’s his job. I will only say that I detect the seeds in this story that may have blossomed into Gaiman’s award-winning The Graveyard Book. And that it’s a good story, perfect for telling around a fire on a chilly Autumn night. It’s got the classic elements: loneliness, longing, adventure, and Things That Are Not What They Seem.
Entirely appropriate is the dedication at the end: “For Ray Bradbury.” With “October in the Chair,” Gaiman does what Bradbury managed so well throughout his career – to capture in words the spirit , the tone, the feel and the reality of October.