Ever since Washington Irving immortalized Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane, and Brom Bones - goblins, pumpkins, ghosts, and a headless horseman have seemed a part of Sleepy Hollow, the beautiful Hudson River valley settled by the Dutch in the 1600s.
''The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions,'' wrote Irving, America's first internationally acclaimed man of letters. The 200th anniversary of his birth was celebrated in 1983.
The area is less than an hour's drive from New York City and today abounds in Victorian mansions, museums, historic Revolutionary War sites - and the same misty woods that long ago cast chilling shadows across the path of Ichabod Crane , the hapless schoolmaster doomed forever in ''The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'' to flee the ghostly rider.
Though best known for his fanciful Hudson River characters, Irving was an essayist and historian rather than fiction writer. He was born in New York City as the Revolutionary War was ending and was named after the young nation's hero, Gen. George Washington. His last work was a five-volume biography of his namesake, the country's first President.
Autumn is the perfect time to visit Sleepy Hollow country, which cast its spell not only on Irving but also on Dutch traders as early as 1598.
You can stop at the cemetery of Old Dutch Church off Route 9 in Tarrytown, N.Y., where Irving is buried and the Headless Horseman is said to have tethered his horse.
Then head for Sunnyside, the charming cuckoo clock of a home where Irving spent the last one-third of his life. Easily recognized from Currier and Ives lithographs, Irving's ''elegant little snuggery'' was a small two-room 17 th-century Dutch farmhouse overlooking the Hudson when he bought it in 1835.
Inspired by his travels in England, Germany, and Spain, Irving began to transform the stone cottage according to his fancy until at last he had a 20 -room dream house ''as full of angles and corners as an old cocked hat.''
There are Dutch stepped gables and ancient weathervanes; Tudor chimneys; Gothic and Romanesque architectural features; a spired icehouse; and even a separate three-story pagoda with rooms for servants and guests. Restored to the period and furnished with Irving's belongings and outstanding antiques, the house stands today much as it did when Longfellow, Emerson, Louis Napoleon, and Thackeray visited.
Ivy and wisteria planted in 1849 by Irving himself still curl about the entryway. Memorabilia from his literary and diplomatic careers spill over from room to room. Costumed guides lead the way from the study where he wrote the ''Life of Washington'' into the parlor where early 19th-century tunes are played on the rosewood piano. Tempting aromas waft from the kitchen where woodstove cooking is demonstrated.
Visitors learn of Irving's early life as a lawyer and about his trip to England in 1815 to save his father's faltering import business. What it was like in Spain from 1842-46 when he wrote about the Moors in ''The Alhambra''; why Irving is credited with popularizing English Christmas customs in America and creating the nicknames of Gotham and Knickerbocker for Manhattan. The first came from an English nursery rhyme. The second was taken from his own Knickerbocker tales.
Diedrich Knickerbocker was one of Irving's pen names. It was ''A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty,'' written under this name in 1809, that won him widespread popularity. Out of the meager and dull records of New Amsterdam, Irving wrought a comic masterpiece and he relished the $3,000 profit from the book - a first for any American writer.
International fame followed about 10 years later with publication of ''The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.'' Containing within it tales like ''Rip,'' ''The Legend,'' and ''The Christmas Dinner,'' it became an instant best seller, netting the author a $9,000 profit, which no one in America, and only Sir Walter Scott in England, could come close to.
In the ''Sketch Book,'' he reworked the basic stuff of folklore, such as buried-treasure stories and tales of ''little people'' or wandering spirits. He transplanted the henpecked Rip Van Winkle, who slept away 20 years of his life and the ''Legend,'' from their native Germany to the Hudson Valley. He mixed observations of English customs and Dutch superstitions to give the classless new republic a brief respite from dawn-to-dusk farming, the Puritan ethic, and relentless industry.
By the time he died in November 1859 Irving had been hailed by Thackeray as ''America's first ambassador from the New World of letters to the Old,'' and Sunnyside, his crenelated cottage in Tarrytown, became almost a national shrine.
Special events planned for Sunnyside through December include films, puppet shows, a Knickerbocker Thanksgiving featuring preparation of a mid-19th-century holiday dinner, and Candlelight Christmas celebrations in the English tradition. Highlighting the Halloween events Oct. 27-28 is ''Storytelling at Sunnyside,'' with live storytellers recounting many of Irving's most famous tales - especially the spooky ''Legend.''
Practical information: Sunnyside is open to the public daily except holidays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $4 for adults; $2.50 for senior citizens and children 6-14, under 6, free. More information is available from Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 150 White Plains Road, Tarrytown, N.Y. 10591. (914) 631-8200.