Christina Henry’s Horseman is an atmospheric and haunting reimagining of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” perfect for both fans of classic horror and those new to the tale of the Headless Horseman. Henry’s retelling centers on 14-year-old Bente “Ben” Van Brunt, the grandson of Katrina Van Tassel and Brom Bones, whose tale-as-old-as-time romance once sparked rumors of the ghostly Horseman and ran a gangly, awkward schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane out of town. When a child is killed, supposedly by the shadowy folkloric monster the Kludde, the usually sleepy little town of Dutch descendants erupts into chaos as more murders ensue and people point fingers at the Horseman and each other.
The orphan Ben has lived his entire life in this small town with his Oma Katrina and Opa Brom. Ben, who is transgender, experiences much frustration with fellow townsfolk who insist on repeatedly misgendering him and accusing him of witchcraft, a traditionally feminine stereotype. Henry’s depiction of Ben’s experience as a trans boy feels a little forced, bordering on stereotypical. There are several descriptions of him being a “boy soul in a girl’s body,” as well as an assumption that he will not be able to have a family or children.
But there is even more that sets him apart from the other folks in the Hollow. Ben can hear whispers in the woods at the end of a forbidden path, and he has visions of the Horseman, who says he is there to protect him. And perhaps worst of all, he’s the only person who actually wants to leave the tightknit community marked by old wives’ tales and superstitious secrets.
With visceral visions of nightmares, creepy prose and a pace as fast as the rush of horses’ hooves, Henry’s take on Irving’s classic story is a one-sitting read, a chilling romp into the forest that will remind readers that sometimes the scariest monster in the room is human nature (not even pumpkin-headed horsemen or the author’s horrifying twist on Ichabod Crane’s fate). While there are some truly shiver-inducing, gruesome scenes in which victims of the Kludde are discovered decapitated and handless, Henry depicts the evil that resides inside the human inhabitants of the Hollow as the most terrifying form, from racism and bigotry to transphobia and the sexualization of children.
Ben has staunch allies in his best friend, Sander; his Opa Brom; and eventually his Oma Katrina—not to mention in his guardian Horseman—but the closed-mindedness of the Hollow, and the nefarious intentions of some of its inhabitants, create a stifling atmosphere, one ready to erupt into flames from the strike of a single match. Readers should also be aware that Henry frequently includes dialogue that reflects the transphobic and sexist beliefs many people held during the Colonial era, while also depicting customs that reflect such beliefs. As Ben unravels the energetically paced mystery and makes connections between the death of his parents and the recent murders, he will inspire readers who love their families but long to forge their own paths.