The Zombie Handkerchief

Listening to Kansas Celtic singer Connie Dover (I highly recommend her work) and her take on the Holland Handkerchief, a few things strike me.

This ballad is, “considered to be one of the ‘big ballads,’ from the great singer, Cathal McConnell, of County Fermanagh, Ireland, and like many ballads, it tells a story. It’s a spooky tale about a young woman of a noble family who falls in love with a lower class man, much to the chagrin of the young woman’s father. Hoping to stop the impending marriage, the father sends her away “over fifty miles” (clearly this song is set well before the time of automobiles, trains and expressways), where I guess she leads a rather solitary existence.

But wait: late one night, her lover finds her, and takes her home on horseback. They ride desperately through the night, and the man seems rather the worse for wear. To try and comfort him, she ties a “Holland handkerchief” around his head and kisses him (and, gosh, he seems awfully cold!) When they get home, he tells her to go see her father, making up an excuse that he’ll take care of the horses. She goes inside, finds her dad, says ‘hey, you called for me? You sent my lover; told him you wanted to see me?’ at which point, and here’s the spooky bit, her father replies, ‘but that’s impossible! Your love died nine months ago! We buried him!” Of course, she quickly exhumes the body and, there he is: moldering as you would expect, but with her Holland handkerchief tied around his head.

You can read the full lyrics here or, if you’re an American, buy the MP3 off of Amazon here. This is the sort of classic ghost story that gets told around a campfire late at night by a bunch of teens (albeit a bunch of romantically-inclined, literary-aware teens, but you know the sort), and it does add a bit of a delicious chill to the haunting vocals of Ms. Dover. But some of the elements just seem a bit dated in this day and age. For instance: “Over fifty miles he sent her away” (if she was living in Toronto, she was basically sent to Brantford. As if she can’t walk back from that!). Then there is the case that she stays in solitude for at least nine months, and possibly a year. She has no contact with her father; no message from anyone to say “oh, hey, your lover passed away from heartache”. I realize that this is a song from before the time of phones or e-mails, but were there no foot messengers? And, remember, I’m commenting more on how odd this song sounds in a modern context. What on earth could cause such a complete breakdown of communications?

And that’s where the mind of a geeky fantasy author gets rolling. Why, there is only one thing that could explain the complete breakdown of communications here, and that is this:


Which, you have to admit, fits very well with the fact that her lover has come back from the dead. I can see it now: father and daughter, separated during a spat, are cruelly kept apart by the ravening, unthinking hordes of the undead stalking the roads.

But even more intriguing is what the woman’s zombie lover does when he finds her. He doesn’t eat her brains. He doesn’t try to marry her or do anything beyond a kiss that she initiates. No. He takes her home, to where her father was waiting (presumably lonely and heartbroken, or else zombie lover is just being cruel). Which would be an interesting twist. With the population in terror over the unthinking ravening horde, for which there is nothing to do except decapitate them, to end the story with “how the heck did you get here?” / “My lover brought me!” / “But he’s an unthinking zombie!”

Unthinking, eh?

Might be worth a short story. Though it would probably be a very simple tale with a very obvious punchline. And I certainly don’t have the pipes to do it justice as a song. But maybe somebody else can take this idea and run with it. You’re welcome to it.

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