The Headless Horseman returns

How I wrote a horror novel called Revolutionary Ghosts

Or…

Can an ordinary teenager defeat the Headless Horseman, and a host of other vengeful spirits from America’s revolutionary past?

The big idea

I love history, and I love supernatural horror tales.  “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was therefore always one of my favorite short stories. This classic tale by Washington Irving describes how a Hessian artillery officer terrorized the young American republic several decades after his death.

The Hessian was decapitated by a Continental Army cannonball at the Battle of White Plains, New York, on October 28, 1776. According to some historical accounts, a Hessian artillery officer really did meet such an end at the Battle of White Plains. I’ve read several books about warfare in the 1700s and through the Age of Napoleon. Armies in those days obviously did not have access to machine guns, flamethrowers, and the like. But those 18th-century cannons could inflict some horrific forms of death, decapitation among them.

I was first exposed to the “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” via the 1949 Disney film of the same name. The Disney adaptation was already close to 30 years old, but still popular, when I saw it as a kid sometime during the 1970s.

Headless Horsemen from around the world

While doing a bit of research for Revolutionary Ghosts, I discovered that the Headless Horseman is a folklore motif that reappears in various cultures throughout the world.

In Irish folklore, the dullahan or dulachán (“dark man”) is a headless, demonic fairy that rides a horse through the countryside at night. The dullahan carries his head under his arm. When the dullahan stops riding, someone dies.

Scottish folklore includes a tale about a headless horseman named Ewen. Ewen was  beheaded when he lost a clan battle at Glen Cainnir on the Isle of Mull. His death prevented him from becoming a chieftain. He roams the hills at night, seeking to reclaim his right to rule.

Finally, in English folklore, there is the 14th century epic poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. After Gawain kills the green knight in living form (by beheading him) the knight lifts his head, rides off, and challenges Gawain to a rematch the following year.

But Revolutionary Ghosts is focused on the Headless Horseman of American lore: the headless horseman who chased Ichabod Crane through the New York countryside in the mid-1790s. 

The Headless Horseman isn’t the only historical spirit to stir up trouble in the novel. John André, the executed British spy, makes an appearance, too. (John André was a real historical figure.)

I also created the character of Marie Trumbull, a Loyalist whom the Continental Army sentenced to death for betraying her country’s secrets to the British. But Marie managed to slit her own throat while still in her cell, thereby cheating the hangman. Marie Trumbull was a dark-haired beauty in life. In death, she appears as a desiccated, reanimated corpse. She carries the blade that she used to take her own life, all those years ago.

Oh, and Revolutionary Ghosts also has an army of spectral Hessian soldiers. I had a lot of fun with them!

The Spirit of ’76

Most of the novel is set in the summer of 1976. An Ohio teenager, Steve Wagner, begins to sense that something strange is going on near his home. There are slime-covered hoofprints in the grass. There are unusual sounds on the road at night. People are disappearing.

Steve gradually comes to an awareness of what is going on….But can he convince anyone else, and stop the Headless Horseman, before it’s too late?

I decided to set the novel in 1976 for a number of reasons. First of all, this was the year of the American Bicentennial. The “Spirit of ’76 was everywhere in 1976. That created an obvious tie-in with the American Revolution.

Nineteen seventy-six was also a year in which Vietnam, Watergate, and the turmoil of the 1960s were all recent memories. The mid-1970s were a time of national anxiety and pessimism (kind of like now). The economy was not good. This was the era of energy crises and stagflation.

Reading the reader reviews of Revolutionary Ghosts, I am flattered to get appreciative remarks from people who were themselves about the same age as the main character in 1976:

“…I am 62 years old now and 1976 being the year I graduated high school, I remember it pretty well. Everything the main character mentions (except the ghostly stuff), I lived through and remember. So that was an added bonus for me.”

“I’m 2 years younger than the main character so I could really relate to almost every thing about him.”

I’m actually a bit younger than the main character. In 1976 I was eight years old. But as regular readers of this blog will know, I’m nostalgic by nature. I haven’t forgotten the 1970s or the 1980s, because I still spend a lot of time in those decades.

If you like the 1970s, you’ll find plenty of nostalgic nuggets in Revolutionary Ghosts, like Bicentennial Quarters, and the McDonald’s Arctic Orange Shakes of 1976.

***

Also, there’s something spooky about the past, just because it is the past. As L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

For me, 1976 is a year I can clearly remember. And yet—it is shrouded in a certain haziness. There wasn’t nearly as much technology. Many aspects of daily life were more “primitive” then.

It isn’t at all difficult to believe that during that long-ago summer, the Headless Horseman might have come back from the dead to terrorize the American heartland…

View REVOLUTIONARY GHOSTS on Amazon

Merry Christmas 2022

Wherever you are, dear reader, I hope you’re having a Merry Christmas 2022. Enjoy this special day with family and/or friends. Or at least Netflix, a good book, and a well-stocked refrigerator.

Like much of the continental United States, my part of the world is still emerging from the aftermath of Winter Storm Elliott. But a substantial warm-up is forecast for the second half of the week. 

I might also point out that today begins the last full week of 2022. Use the remainder of 2022 safely—and wisely.

The VCR revolution: December 24, 1984

Though I certainly do remember Christmas, 1984, I can’t claim to remember the above cover of Time magazine. But as the magazine cover proclaims, VCRs were a big deal back then. 

My parents had purchased a VCR a few years earlier…probably in 1982. It was my favorite device in our household, and my parents loved it, too.

If you’re too young to remember the world before the VCR, then you don’t remember the days of fitting your schedule around your favorite TV programs. Continue reading “The VCR revolution: December 24, 1984”

WKRP turkey drop

Today is Black Friday, and I suspect that many of you spent the wee hours waiting in line for stores to open. The Best Buy near my house opened today at 5 a.m. 

Not me…there is nothing in the stores that I want that badly, even at a steep discount. 

To close out Thanksgiving here at the blog, I present you with this Cincinnati favorite, the infamous “turkey drop” episode from WKRP in Cincinnati, a sitcom that aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982. 

Cincinnati, Ohio has never gotten much attention from Hollywood, even though several movies (Rain Man, Fresh Horses) were filmed here in the late 1980s. So to have a primetime sitcom named after Cincinnati, and set in Cincinnati, was kind of a big deal. (Keep in mind: this was before the Internet or cable TV, and folks were more easily amused.)

The above ‘Thanksgiving turkey drop’ episode, which originally aired in 1978, has long been a cult favorite. This is one of those television memes that just never goes away.

Rewatching the pivotal scene above, I found it “mildly amusing”, worthy of a chuckle.

But worthy of four decades of persistence in the collective memory? I’m not so sure, my predilection for nostalgia notwithstanding. 

I’ll let you be the judge, upon watching the video clip above.

Handheld football, 80s-style

In honor of Thanksgiving, when many people like to watch football.

Back in the day, I had one of these handheld football game units from Mattel Electronics. As I recall, the players of each team were represented by little red dots of light on the screen.

This was probably an overly ambitious game for the technology of that time (late 1970s/early 1980s). I found it somewhat confusing to operate, and I never did learn what the difference between “Pro 1” and “Pro 2” was.

There’s also the fact that I am not–and never have been–much of a football fan. So maybe I’m not the best 80s kid to ask about this one. 

 

El Dia de los Muertos

Today is el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) in Mexico. Though it roughly coincides with Halloween and has similar themes, el Dia de los Muertos is something quite different.

Think of it as a national (Mexican) acknowledgement of the inevitability of death, with a fusion of Christian and Aztec symbols and traditions.

That’s a simplistic and incomplete explanation, but it’s a start.

I was in Mexico in 1995 during the annual observance. It is something to see, especially to gringo eyes. 

The above video is in Spanish. But even if your Spanish isn’t so good, you’ll get a feel for what the holiday is all about.

Halloween costumes of the 1970s and 1980s

Door-to-door Halloween festivities in the 1970s and 1980s (otherwise known as “trick-or-treat) could be fun. My last trick-or-treating Halloween was in 1979. 

But there is no denying that costume technology of that era left much to be desired.

If you were very, very lucky, you had a stay-at-home mom with arts and crafts expertise, and lots of time on her hands. If this was you, your mom would make you a comfortable, individually tailored costume.

That wasn’t me, and it wasn’t most of my friends, either. Such kids were in the minority in those days. This was the time of the working mother and the latchkey kid. My mom, wonderful as she was, worked a full-time job. She had a Singer sewing machine, but rarely turned it on after about 1976 or so.

That meant going to Woolworth, Kmart, or Ben Franklin (there were few Walmarts then) to pick out a mass-produced costume in a box, probably made in Taiwan. 

As the above meme suggests, the masks that came with those boxed costumes were usually thin but rigid. The holes for breathing and seeing were seldom adequate. For a four-eyes like me (I’ve worn glasses since my tenth year), proper alignment of the eye holes was next to impossible. 

Another thing about the masks, which is not readily apparent in the above meme: the thin rubber bands that slipped behind your ears (to keep the mask in place) inevitably threatened to cut off the circulation in those portions of your head.

The costumes that came with the masks were made of plastic or vinyl, and didn’t breathe. Even if it was cold on Halloween night, you were sweating after two hours of trick-or-treating.

And yet…the whole affair was almost always lots of fun.

Kids in the late 1970s and early 1980s didn’t have as much as kids have now. I was a middle-class white kid, growing up in the Midwestern suburbs in an intact, two-parent household. I was therefore what we would now call “privileged”. 

Nevertheless, few kids, circa 1980, had much material abundance lavished on them. To begin with, many of the toys and gizmos bestowed on children today didn’t yet exist. 

But such distinctions have always been relative. My grandfather, who was a kid in the 1930s, was never without a story about the Great Depression, and how tough they had it then. For that matter, my dad grew up in the 1950s, in a house without central air conditioning. 

Fair enough. While I recognize that kids today have access to luxuries that were beyond the technology and economics of my childhood years, I’m quite grateful for the childhood—and the Halloweens—that I was given. 

Early 1980s video game meme

This meme showed up in my Facebook feed, posted by another child of the 1980s. 

This is, more or less, what a home gaming system looked like for the average suburban kid, circa 1980-1982.  As the meme suggests, we considered this to be cutting-edge and high tech, which it was, given that this was 40 years ago.

Around that time (I was in junior high) I had an Atari 2600, hooked up to the television in the living room.

The only difference in my setup was that the TV was slightly larger. My Atari was connected to a wood-paneled Zenith. (It was the family TV. My parents consented to putting the Atari there because my dad also enjoyed the games from time to time.)

I had a handful of games, mostly with military or science-fiction themes: Asteroids, Space Invaders, Missile Command, and a few others. 

July skies

Yesterday was the first day of July, and the first day of the second half of the year.

For those of you who are into annual planning, July 1st is a time for taking stock: of what you’ve accomplished in the year thus far, and how you plan to continue—or correct your course.

July 1st also means the beginning of the dog days of summer. That’s definitely true here in southern Ohio, a region of the country that gets the worst of all possible weather. Yesterday I went running in the 92-degree heat. I was definitely feeling every one of my fifty-three years. There is simply no escaping the heat this time of year, not even inside, in the air conditioning.

Note, in the above photo, the lawn dried to the condition of a straw doormat. Also note the overcast morning sky, threatening rain. 

We’ve had no significant rainfall for over a week. A thunderstorm would be great now, to break this midsummer heat wave.

I can’t wait to see ‘The Black Phone’

The Black Phone stars Ethan Hawke, whom you’ve seen in many other films over the years. Based on the trailer and what I’ve read online, this seems to be a supernatural serial killer film set in 1978.

I was 10 years old in 1978. That was an age before cell phones and helicopter parenting. An era of suburban kids disappearing for hours at a time on their bikes. Much of the time, nobody knew exactly where you were. Your parents certainly couldn’t track your whereabouts on an “app”.

This wasn’t parental negligence. It was just the way things were then.

The 1970s was also the heyday of the serial killer. Growing up in that era, we were taught to be on the constant lookout for “stranger danger”. Especially male strangers driving vans. 

This movie seems to tap into a lot of generational fears for people of a certain age (my age).

If the movie is as good as the trailer, I expect it to be a big hit with horror fans over the age of 40…or anyone interested in the fears of that increasingly receding time, the late 1970s.

The Black Phone will hit the movie theaters in June. Count me in!

College textbook memories: 1986 “Introduction to Poetry” text

I’m a packrat by nature. You should therefore not be surprised to learn that although I graduated from college in 1990, I still have many of my college textbooks. 

I purchased the above text in 1986 for an English class (obviously).

The above textbook cost $25 when I bought it. If that sounds cheap to you, I’ll point out that this would be $65.58 in 2022 dollars. So perhaps college textbooks have always been overpriced. Also, minimum wage was $3.35 per hour in 1986, and $4 to $5 was considered a “typical” hourly wage for a student-level job.

I haven’t written or read much poetry since I took that class. 

Why? While I’m more than willing to tilt at windmills, even I have my limits. The market for poetry in the English-speaking has never been great…at least in modern times. The editor of the above text, X.J. Alexander, points this out in an essay near the end of the book. He describes a “poetry glut”. And keep in mind: the above textbook was published a decade before the Internet or Windows 95, back when people who wanted to write had to actually use typewriters or pens. Now we can write entire books on our cellphones.

Like most overly introspective teenagers through the ages, I wrote my share of bad poetry between the ages of 15 and 17, or 1983 and 1985. Teenage crushes, feelings of being misunderstood, and generalized adolescent angst all tend to produce bad poetry, like May weather produces dandelions.

No—you will never see any of those old poems of mine here. All of those old pages disappeared in the chaos of a move in 1988. This was no great loss, neither to me, nor to the American literary canon. 

Another nice thing about the pre-Internet era: the potentially embarrassing things we wrote, said, or did tended to disappear with the passage of time. As they should.

Springtime in Ohio, grass mowing, and writing updates

This is what springtime typically looks like in Southern Ohio: coolish and overcast, with rain, or the threat of rain.

Today I plan to finish editing the last few chapters of Book 5 (the final book) of The Cairo Deception series. Book 5 is available for preorder now, and you should see it on Amazon in early May.

I also hope to mow both my lawn and my dad’s lawn. Because the grass is growing like gangbusters here, even though the weather is still less than summerlike. In April in this part of the country, a suburban lawn has to be cut every five to six days.

It takes me about three hours to cut and trim both lawns. I don’t mind, though. As I’ve noted before, I usually listen to audiobooks while I mow.

Today I’ll be listening to Purple Cane Road, a crime novel by James Lee Burke, and Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan.

The latter title, of course, is a nonfiction book about postwar Japan. I have long had an interest in Japan, its language, and its history.

Also, this is partly research. I’m planning a historical series set in postwar Japan, beginning in the year 1945. (I’ll provide more information about that in the future.)

Anyway, I hope you have a happy and productive day, dear reader, wherever you are, and whatever you are doing. 

Memories of Waldenbooks

Before there was Amazon, before there was Borders or Barnes & Noble, there was Waldenbooks.  The all-American mall bookstore. 

There was one of these in both of the malls near my house. As I’ve noted before, I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s, and I grew up in the Golden Age of the American Mall.

I bought a lot of books at Waldenbooks in those days. (I was a lucky kid, and my mom bought me books when I was too young to buy them myself.) 

In those days, my favorite authors were John Jakes, James Clavell, and Stephen King. I also liked the nonfiction of Carl Sagan. (That was the heyday of Cosmos, too.)

The selection in the most well-stocked Waldenbooks was but a fraction of what is available on Amazon. And there were few discounts; most titles sold at full price. Because there was no online competition.

I’m not claiming that it was more economically efficient, or even better for reading. But those mall bookstores…they became sources of great memories for those of us who came of age at a certain time in the American suburbs.

State of the lawn: late April 2022

I despise the very concept of the suburban lawn. Perfectly manicured, astroturf-green lawns are wasteful. They harm the environment, too. If it were up to me, I would let my lawn be overrun with dandelions and wildflowers. Good for the bees! I might also plant a vegetable garden.

But I live in a neighborhood with an HOA that is only slightly more tolerant than the former East German Stasi. I therefore go to considerable lengths each year to make sure my lawn is green, and relatively weed-free.

I used to use TruGreen…until the company started performing services without my permission and then billing me. (I am currently in a dispute with TruGreen over two applications they performed after I cancelled their service; but that’s more detail than you need.)

This year, I’ve been treating both mine and my dad’s lawn with Scott’s Turf Builder Weed and Feed, and a spreader made by the same company.

The lawn looks good—if I say so myself—and I don’t have to deal with TruGreen. A win all the way around. 

Childhood memories, and writing about World War II

My grandfather in the Atlantic Ocean, 1943

World War II has been on my mind and in my fiction a lot of late. 

I’m presently finishing up the last book in The Cairo Deception, my WWII-era suspense/drama series. The most recent installment in The Rockland Horror, my historical horror series, takes place in 1945. The plot of The Rockland Horror 4 is intimately bound to the events of World War II.

To be clear about the title of this post: no, I do not have firsthand childhood memories of World War II. I was born in 1968, twenty-three years after the war ended. By the time I became aware of names like Pearl Harbor, Hitler, and Hirohito, the war was at least thirty years in the past.

My grandfather, however (pictured above) was a WWII combat veteran. He served in the Atlantic in the US Navy. His experiences were roughly similar to those depicted in the 2020 Tom Hanks movie, Greyhound.

From a very young age, I was captivated by history. And what better way to learn about history, than by listening to the stories of a relative who actually took part in it?

My grandfather regaled me with his accounts of Egypt, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Syria. He also told me stories about fighting the German U-boats and Messerschmidts. 

My grandfather was, in many ways, my first “action hero”. His experiences, though, were very common among men of that generation, who have been called (for good reason) the Greatest Generation.

I don’t remember a thing about World War II. But some of my fondest childhood memories involve listening, with rapt attention, while my grandfather told me about it. He has been gone for decades now, but I still miss him, and I miss his stories. He gave me an enduring interest in World War II, and it isn’t surprising that the war should show up in some of my stories.