Gothic Horsemanship in Washington Irving & Edgar Allan Poe: New Chapter Published
I’m very excited to share the newly released collection of essays entitled Gothic Animals: Uncanny Otherness and the Animal With-Out, edited by Ruth Heholt and Melissa Edmundson, and published by Palgrave MacMillan (with gorgeous design and quality production work). Brimming with excellent new scholarship on the creepiest manifestations of animals in gothic fiction, from rats and cats to spiders and snails, this volume charts new territory in bringing together the fields of gothic and animal studies. My own chapter, entitled “Hellish Horses and Monstrous Men: Gothic Horsemanship in Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe,” shares some of my recent research into the ways that gothic fiction uses horses and their relationship to their riders to signal changing cultural boundaries around desirable and undesirable masculinity.
Focusing primarily on Washington Irving’s tale ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ which features the infamous Headless Horseman, and Edgar Allan Poe’s earliest tale ‘Metzengerstein’, I trace the way that the horse and rider cross the boundary from natural to supernatural, and in so doing, transition from a symbol of gentlemanly control over the virile, natural passions to an image of demonic, terrorizing male violence. While Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman is probably the most famous of these equine gothic monsters, he actually owes a significant debt to earlier British and German gothic ballads such as Gottfried August Bürger’s ‘Lenore’, in which a ghostly rider returns from the dead to carry his bride home with him, only to arrive, after a terrifying midnight gallop, at his open grave. These tales and ballads, of which there are several, also draw on a wide range of British and European folklore about horse-shaped demons that carry their prey into the water to drown, or headless ghosts on headless horses accosting people on their midnight wanderings homeward. There are so many intriguing, fascinating aspects to the ways gothic fiction evolves around this figure of the demonic horse and rider, and it was immensely satisfying to bring together some of my research into this area for this chapter (more to come in later publications!).
“Mills offers the first study of the horse and horsemanship in Gothic fiction, focusing on Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Metzengerstein’. Horses were a popular symbol of masculinity in Romantic-period Europe and America, where the rider’s appropriation of the horse’s body as an extension of his own signalled his masculine dominance over the natural world. This chapter examines the ways that Irving and Poe engage with this equine symbol in order to expose the Gothic potential for terror, brutality, and loss of the human within such close pairing of man and animal. It focuses particularly on their construction and development of the Demonic Horse as a Gothic monster that posits human and animal as uncanny doubles, drawing on equine folklore and the ballads of Gottfried August Bürger and Sir Walter Scott to critique the limits of, and reveal the animal potential within, nineteenth-century masculinity.”
Why I started researching this:
This research into the Gothic Horse is what feels like a serendipitous merging of my two great childhood obsessions: horses and the supernatural/gothic. I can’t believe I’ve never thought to combine them before, but of course there are so many deliciously interesting avenues to explore within the gothic, and I do tend to enjoy getting lost down rabbit holes…
I never owned my own horse, but I grew up in the countryside next to a field that contained three of them (a huge ex-racehorse, a medium pinto draft-horse and a tiny miniature pony all in the one paddock). Many childhood afternoons and weekends were spent squeezing through the fences to pat these horses, who were always grateful for a juicy carrot or a lump of sugar. Naturally, I voraciously read everything there was to know about horses, horse-riding, and horse-care (along, of course, with my books on ghosts, fairies, witches, werewolves and other supernatural delights). At last I was allowed to take horse-riding lessons, and I am so glad that I did. These rudimentary skills, though only formally practiced in childhood, have never left me, and most recently allowed me the exhilarating experience of galloping headlong down a near-deserted Moroccan beach as the sun set in a hazy, purple sky (pictured below). This is a moment that I will never forget.
My research journey has been one of steadily incorporating more and more aspects of things that I love and am passionate about (my early research on dreams and fantastic literature gave way more completely to the gothic; I extended the gothic studies path out to texts that I grew up with and loved, I looked at the ways the gothic overlapped with more and more wonderful fields of my nineteenth-century studies). When I heard whisperings of a planned edited collection on Gothic Animals, I knew that this was my moment to bring things full circle and close the gap between my two greatest childhood loves: horses and the supernatural. While there have been a few studies into the horse as a literary and cultural figure in the nineteenth century, there was yet no examination of its appearance in gothic fiction. Armed with my dual loves, I knew this was something I wanted to remedy, but little did I know then what I was in for. Like Lenore, I mounted on this journey, unaware that, bespelled by its fascinating and exciting allure, it would entirely run away with me…
‘Hellish Horses and Monstrous Men: Gothic Horsemanship in Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe.’ Gothic Animals: Uncanny Otherness and the Animal With-Out. Ed. Ruth Heholt and Melissa Edmundson. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp. 223-240. [Preview & Buy on Publisher’s Website] [Link to Chapter]
Find the entire book and chapter previews at: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030345396
Have you come across any demonic, ghostly horses in gothic literature or art? Let me know in the comments below, or send me an email. I’d love to hear from you!