HUDSON VALLEY TALES AND TRAILS

By Patricia Edwards Clyne

Overlook Press. 319 pp. $18.95

It's possible that there's a place in the United States richer in beauty, history and legend than the Hudson Valley of New York State: possible, but not likely. Over the years other American rivers have assumed greater importance as avenues of commerce and transportation, but none can match the Hudson's combination of breathtaking natural splendor (Storm King Mountain), historical importance (Benedict Arnold and John Andre) and bloodcurdling local legend (the Headless Horseman).

It is in this last that the Hudson is especially abundant. As Patricia Edwards Clyne writes, "Most major waterways are awash with colorful tales of the past, but no river -- not even the mighty Mississippi -- surpasses the legend-laden Hudson, whose Highlands section is literally flooded with folklore dating from the dawn of time right down to the present day."

The tales of Rip van Winkle and the Headless Horseman have been familiar to American readers, young ones in particular, for generations; like innumerable others, I thrilled as a child to Washington Irving's famous stories. But even if based loosely in fact, these tales are fictions; others, as retold by Clyne in "Hudson Valley Tales and Trails," are anything but invention.

There is for example the story of the Leatherman, who "from about 1860 until his death in 1899" regularly "made a clockwise circuit of approximately 365 miles every 34 days, walking every step of the way, from Westchester County to Putnam, then crossing over into Connecticut at Ball's Pond." He was clad entirely in self-made leather clothing and spoke to hardly a soul, though he did no one any harm; he was believed to have come to the Hudson Valley from France, where, legend has it, he had been unlucky in love.

A rather more chilling story is that of Tom Quick, who as a 20-year-old was forced to listen to his father's death agonies as "Indians scalped and mutilated him." Thereafter he devoted his life to vengeance, vowing to kill 100 Indians and lamenting on his deathbed that he had dispatched only 99. On one occasion, Clyne writes:

"Tom was hunting along the banks of the Delaware at Butler's Rift when he spotted a canoe containing an Indian family of five. Recognizing the man paddling as someone who used to visit his father's home, Tom ordered the Indian to come ashore. Then Tom shot the man, tomahawked the squaw and two children, but hesitated when he saw the Indian baby smiling up at him. It was a brief hiatus; hefting the innocent infant by the heels, Tom dashed out its brains on a nearby rock."

The Hudson was, in these early years, a bloody place; one especially juicy tale involves cannibalism and a mutilated corpse, "its charred skull inside a wood stove, bits of its liver cooked in a frying pan, and other parts apparently prepared for pickling in a brine barrel." All of which makes the Headless Horseman seem positively benign and gives Clyne ample opportunity for telling tales, tall and otherwise.

These are the best parts of the book. Unfortunately the rest of it will be of little interest save to residents of the valley or to tourists planning to visit it. The first half of "Hudson Valley Tales and Trails" consists of doggedly chipper histories of and guides to obscure parks and other sites that doubtless are every bit as lovely as Clyne suggests but that somehow manage to lose much of their charm in the telling.

Whether this is the Hudson's fault or Clyne's is for each reader to decide, though it does not argue in the author's favor that, having written a number of books for children, she now writes for adults as though they were children; most readers over the age of 12 are likely to find that her chatty style palls all too soon.

Say it for Clyne, though, that hers is a chattiness born of genuine enthusiasm. Clyne loves the Hudson Valley and probably knows as much about it as anyone alive. This wealth of knowledge permits her to pass along many bits and pieces that any reader with even a scintilla of curiosity is likely to find irresistible. I didn't know, for example, that the town of Tuckahoe was named for the Indian word for jack-in-the-pulpit root, or that the artist's retreat at Yaddo got its name from a child who saw the long shadows of its evergreens and said, "Call it Yaddo, for it makes poetry. Yaddo, shadow -- shadow, Yaddo! It sounds like shadow, but it's not going to be shadow."

As Hudson Valley legends go, that one is small but charming -- and it doesn't drip an ounce of blood.