HORSEMAN by Christina Henry — 🎃

horseman by christina henryOutside the house that should not be there, there is pandemonium. A vortex of vexations engulfs it, utterly. In furious desperation, Unspeakable Things try to get in and quickly find that they cannot. The Keeper’s wards hold. The darkness remains, for the moment, without.

Inside the house, in the eye of this peculiar storm, there is relative calm. The librarian, the man, and the crow are in the study. They form a lazy triangle: Osseous on the armchair, holding a cup to their skull; the man on the carpeted floor, resting against a bookcase, paging through a book; Calcifer on the windowsill, looking at the chaos outside.

Keeper. Reader. Seeker. 

Calcifer is thinking of the conversation they had earlier in the night. Between Osseous talking in their esoteric, poetic style and the man just prattling on about how everything is a story and they were all just characters with roles to play, it turned out to be a rather vague and muddy affair.

“Roles in the Ritual are often nebulous, mercurial things,” Osseous had said. “By which I mean they are neither rigid nor rigorous rigid. Take mine, for instance. I am Keeper. As a librarian, I keep books. As householder, I keep this house. As caretaker, I keep my companions safe.” 

“It’s wordplay, more than anything,” the man had  said. “You are Seeker.  It’s what you’ve been doing all along. Exploring the house. Asking questions. You want to know. You seek answers. Specifically, considering our persuasion, you seek out stories.”

A confusing, cryptic clutter. But it was that last thing the man said that made the crow reflect. Because, in a weird way it was true. Calcifer had left his murder behind because, while perfectly nurturing and comfortable, he wanted more out of his life than to sleep and eat and mess around with his many relatives. He wanted to light out into the unknown. He wanted some semblance of adventure. And what were adventures if not stories?

Calcifer fluffs up his feathers, shaking himself out of reverie.  He had been around books and bookish people for too long now. He was also finding out that he did not mind that much. 

“It’s best not to think about these things too deeply,” the man had also said. “Otherwise it will just seem like someone is making it up as they go along.”

So Calcifer doesn’t dwell on it for much longer. He figures, you figure out life as you live it. He figures, you figure out the story as you write it. He figures he is getting rather hungry.

Outside, headless horsemen charge into the night. Hooded executioners garbed in black sit on stumps and sharpen their axes. Fearsome flattened figures ooze out from behind the trees. Cruel clowns swing chainsaws through the mist. They can feel it, the waning of the month, the withering of the Veil. They can feel their dark, cruel masters reaching out from the Vicious Void. The house shall fall, they tell them. The walls will crumble. We will come out of the Dark and it will all be over.

Christina Henry’s Horseman turned out to be the epitome of the three star read for me. I didn’t hate it. It didn’t blow me away. It was fine. 

I do think it’s a little long, and would have benefitted from some more editing. Particularly, there’s a weird repetition thing going on that actually starts with the very first chapter, which is essentially an ode to Brom Bones, the bombastic “baddie” of Washington Irving’s original short story. Brom, the protagonist’s grandfather, is big and strong and imposing, you see. Not only that, but he’s also imposing, big, and strong, as well as, it is known, strong, imposing, and big. The tautological tendency was more conspicuous in the paragraphs that would literally say the same thing as the ones preceding it, only with slightly different wording. It’s an odd quirk that feels less like a motif than it does an oversight, and the fact that it runs throughout the length of the book is baffling.

Aside from that, I enjoyed most of Henry’s writing. The story is very atmospheric, which I am always into. It’s full of deliciously creepy imagery, and it even gets surprisingly gory at times. I also thought the characters were great. Brom Bones is a blast, being such a larger-than-life figure (further augmented by his grandson’s unbridled adoration and idolization). But Ben is the real standout, making for a layered and dynamic protagonist. Curiously, the Horseman gets the short shrift here, relegated mostly to the background. But then again, this is more Ben’s tale than it is the famed goblin’s. 

I do want to focus on one of this story’s most interesting aspects, which is that a fair bit of it revolves around Ben’s identity as a transgender man. Folks from the trans community can, of course, better speak as to how well Henry portrays Ben’s journey, but, narratively speaking at least, it seems slightly superficial here. At the beginning, his identity is mostly incidental: Ben considers himself a boy and that is that — the opinion of others be damned. And I really dug that. People from underrepresented communities can and should appear in more stories that don’t solely revolve around their marginalization. But then the book tries, especially towards the end, to tie Ben’s identity to the story’s larger theme of belonging. It makes narrative sense: What better way to illustrate that theme than by having a character figure out and accept who they truly are? Only that’s not really Ben’s story for much of the novel. He starts knowing fully well who he is and is in fact comfortable in his identity. And although the story at times tries to sell us this notion that Ben is somewhat shunned by the people of Sleepy Hollow, the text only ever shows support and acceptance from most people around him. For the most part, the other characters don’t react to Ben’s identity much at all, other than maybe thinking the child a little odd (tame, considering the time period). The rare moments of true ire and disdain against him are ultimately blamed on the supernatural influence of the antagonist. And in fact the only real pushback Ben gets comes from his grandmother, who wants her grandson to fit into a more traditional, socially acceptable mold — but even then that conflict is resolved not even halfway through the novel. 

Which is fine! Again, stories about marginalized folk don’t have to be only about their strife and struggle. I just thought it was peculiar that Horseman tries, at the literal homestretch, to restructure itself into this story of a trans man’s search for acceptance and identity featuring a protagonist who had already found these things. It would have made for a more dramatic story, to be sure, but that particular journey was seemingly already over and done with before the first chapter even began. It ends up making that particular angle of the story ring a little, well, hollow.

What’s left is still a fun, supernatural romp, though. Spooky and strange enough to make for a decent Hallowe’en read.

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