Horseman by Christina Henry
(Titan Books, 2021)
Reviewed by Dave M. Roberts
Washington Irving’s story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow makes a point of the ambiguity in relating the local legend of the headless horseman. When Ichabod Crane had his encounter with the horseman, there was question after the event as to whether he had had a genuinely supernatural experience, or if he’d been the subject of a rather brutal practical joke, most likely at the hand of Abraham van Brunt, his rival for the hand of Katrina van Tassel. As Crane disappeared that night, the townsfolk never knew the actual truth, although after rereading the story it seems fairly clear to me it was the latter.
In Horseman, Christina Henry takes up the story twenty years later with Ben, the 14-year-old grandchild of Katrina and Brom (Abraham). Both of Ben’s parents had died some years earlier and so she was being brought up by Brom and Katrina. Whilst playing with a friend, Ben comes across a group of the townsmen who have found the body of one of the local boys. Brutally killed, the body has also had the hands and head removed. It gets stranger as the remains of the body seem to be slowly melting away. Unlike Irving, Henry leaves the reader in no doubt that something supernatural is taking place.
Ben, or Bente to use her full name, has an increasingly strained relationship with Katrina, on account that Bente wants to be Ben and be like her grandfather, and not to be forced into the expected role for young women. In the uptight religious community Katrina’s instinct is to push Ben into a more feminine role with dresses, music lessons and so on. Her grandfather Brom, at least superficially, treats like her more like a boy and is considerably more relaxed about her tomboyish behaviour than Katrina. It is almost like he is glad to have someone to play the role of his son after the death of Ben’s father. The emotions underpinning the relationships between Ben and her grandparents are not always clear, or indeed acknowledged.
Whatever happened to Ichabod Crane on the night when the Horseman rode him out of town, and what happened to Ben’s father when he was killed ten years earlier are the key events, both shaped by the nature of whatever is haunting Sleepy Hollow, that in turn have shaped the lives of the whole van Brunt family. Ben’s understanding of these events is central to who she is, especially given her developing conviction that the Horseman is not only real, but that there is also some sort of presence that is protecting her from it.
This may well be a response to the isolation surrounding Ben in spite of her loving family. She cannot be the girl she’s expected to be, but nor can she be the boy that she wants to be. In addition to this, the whole van Brunt family is isolated from the rest of the community. This is in large part because of their wealth, and because Abraham van Brunt is an angry man. Powerful both financially and physically and quick to anger, his very nature puts a wedge between him and the community, however much a part of it the family may appear.
Over the course of the book, Ben slowly discovers who she is, both in her identity as a person and also who she is descended from. She has never really considered the parentage of her mother. Having grown up with her paternal grandparents since she was only four, she has come to treat her grandparents as her parents, and who her mother and her family were is of little consequence until she starts to learn the truth. That she had suppressed and ignored such a significant part of her being for so long is really quite shocking. For her, the process of slowly finding her true self is a long and difficult one. Fortunately, it is also an engrossing one.