Maupassant’s Le Horla

So shall we risk this once again, bloggers? You, me, the occasional post? I’ve been resting, but I’m getting bored and blogging just has to be good for you, I’m convinced. It’s typical that while I’ve been away the blog world has been full of interesting events, not least the 24-hour readathon (how did you people manage?) and Rilke week, which I’m very sorry to have missed. Also, just about the day I went away my blog was featured in the Washington Post. At the time, being preoccupied, I was a bit ‘whatever’ about it, but now of course there’s a certain amount of teeth gnashing going on that I met the event with a ‘gone away indefinitely’ sign. Ah well. Still, I think I’m still in time to join in on the short story discussion, and the literate kitten’s horror story challenge by writing a few thoughts on Guy de Maupassant’s classic tale of the fantastic, Le Horla. I just adore this story and could go on at length about it, but let’s begin with a quick plot outline.

Written in diary form this tale charts the descent into paranoia and madness of its aristocratic narrator. When it opens, he’s in fine fettle, returned to the family seat and enjoying the comforts of home, but it isn’t long before a nervous illness and a lengthy period of claustrophobic seclusion turn into the harbingers of something more serious and menacing. Fascinated by the latest turns of science towards the invisible and the microscopic (this being the age of Louis Pasteur and Frantz Mesmer, both at that time well-known scientists), seduced by the idea of alien worlds, other universes, and the thought of unknown creatures from distant lands, our narrator lives in an age when the old supernatural, ghosts and demons and the like, is finding a rational counterpart within new forms of scientific and anthropological discovery. At a dinner party he attends one of the guests, a doctor, performs an impressive act of hypnotism that deeply unsettles him. Everywhere he turns he’s confronted by another image of the way the world is full of the unknown and the inexplicable, the invisible and the impossible. In this frame of mind, he begins to think that he is being haunted by an invisible creature. He wakes up in the night, convinced he’s being attacked; his water bottle has been drunk from, although he has no recollection of doing such a thing himself, and it isn’t long before he’s in full blown battle with this nightmareish predator. Lost to the struggle against the dark side, he’ll stop at nothing to try to free himself from this intolerable presence.

For me, Le Horla ranks alongside Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as one of the great tales of the fantastic; it’s practically a textbook definition of the genre. The fantastic refers to stories in which strange events are introduced with no internal explanation for their strangeness. The protagonist usually cannot understand what is going on and this confusion and fear spreads out to contaminate the reader. Neither can come to terms with the unfamiliar events described, but nor can they be simply dismissed as supernatural phenomena. The fantastic in stories undermines the certainty we usually attribute to the narrator’s vision (trust in the seeing eye) and language (trust in the recording, speaking ‘I’) and is part and parcel of an ongoing historical questioning of knowledge and reason at the end of the nineteenth century, hence the fascination in tales of the fantastic with madness, hallucinations, dreams and split personalities. The relation of the individual to the world, to others, to objects ceases to be known or safe as problems of apprehending (how we take the world in by our senses) become problems of apprehension – fear and anxiety. But the real question at stake is whether the dark otherness is truly external or whether it is self-generated. In Le Horla we never know whether this strange malignant creature really exists or whether the narrator is a victim of his own fears and delusions and the role of the reader is to be as horrified as the narrator, and to share his descent into madness.

What this story performs so well is the loss of control it posits as one of the great fundamental fears of mankind. Our narrator finds the possibility of other races so convincing because he thinks of humanity as so weak, vulnerable and flawed. It would not take very much to create a race of beings superior to us, who would not be so limited or so powerless. It’s not much more than the thought of this that transforms our narrator, over the course of thirty pages or so, from a wealthy, advantaged young man to a gibbering wreck, half out of his mind with terror. The imagination – the power to invent this story, as well as the power to envisage new possibilities for mankind – is the internal instrument of our own disintegration as well as one of the greatest features of the human race. And whilst Maupassant was writing this story, not so far away in Vienna, the young Sigmund Freud would be synthesizing all these doubts about individual self-mastery into his theory of the unconscious. Freud always claimed that the great writers had all the answers long before he did.

So I tend to think of this story as a potent concentration of literary and cultural history, of the anxious pessimism of its age and the disturbing march of scientific progress, of questions about the unknown that both horrified and fascinated, and of the end of an era in which man had been the center of his own universe, crowned by rationality. But you can also read it just as a great short story, rich and disturbing and vibrant with dark, hidden life.

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23 thoughts on “Maupassant’s Le Horla

  1. Dear Charlotte – I’m getting there, if slowly! Blogging can only help… Steve – I couldn’t make the link work and I’d very much like to read what you wrote. Will you try posting it again, please? Natalia – you are so right, it IS infectious, and it is one scary story. It sent chills down my spine rereading it again in broad daylight today!

  2. It’s lovely to have you back, but do take care and make sure you don’t overdo things. I’m reading your post just after listening to a discussion on science fiction on Radio 4’s Open Book and after posting myself on William Nicholson’s children’s fantasy trilogy, ‘The Noble Warriors’ and what strikes me most forcibly is how those genres which are often derided as ‘non-truthful’ , ‘non-realistic’ and, in some instances, ‘non-literary’ are actually those which give us the greatest insight into the human condition. I haven’t read the Maupassant, but will now look it out. By the way, in your absence I’ve moved my blog over to another server and while I will cross post on Patternings until Christmas I can now be found more permanently at http://web.mac.com/ann163125/Table_Talk/Welcome.html

  3. As interested as I am in Guy de Maupassant, I am more curious about your blog being in the Post. What was the context? Is the article available online?

    So glad to see you back! I’ve missed you.

  4. Welcome back, dear Litlove. Stay well, please. Congratulations on the Washington Post mention and thank you for this tale. I have read little of de Maupassant but I do love tales of the fantastic and the unexplained so I will be looking for a copy of this one.

  5. Thanks for introducing Maupassant to everybody. By the way, Litlove’s readers, Maupassant’s work (not only le Horla) is an absolute must-read. It’s the perfect time of the year for his scary short stories, but he’s written scores of other ones, especially social / human (often unhappy) stories, which are all little revelations (I’d recommend Boule-de-suif).
    This makes me want to record some Maupassant for Librivox. Not sure I’d be up to it. Unless you, Litlove, would like to be read in bed to heal more rapidly…

  6. Glad you’re back, Litlove. I read Maupassant’s “La Petite Roque” many years ago, when I could read French. Sadly, it’s gone from my mind now! Only the other day though I read (in English) his short story “The Hostelry”. So I read your post with interest. Do you know if there is an English translation of “Le Horla “?

  7. Dear Ann – my email’s been down this weekend, or you would have heard from me. You are spot on with your comment about non-realistic genres having a direct link to some of the deepest issues. I’ll have to think about that and how it works. And thank you for the redirection. I’ll come and check out your new blog home! Dew – missed you too! It was just a mention in their ‘what’s on in the blogs’ spot, a simple link to the post I wrote on nature vs. nurture. I looked in my wordpress stats but it’s too long ago now to have the link still. Not a big deal, and made even smaller by my sudden departure… never mind! Dear Archie – I will certainly do my best! And do try Maupassant – I think you might like him. Becky – that’s a very good comparison! Do give him and try, and thank you so very much for the kind wishes. Mandarine – oh you should read Maupassant for Librivox! That would be wonderful! I agree with everything you say; Maupassant is a real treat and worth a moment of anyone’s reading time. Funnily enough I’m reading a book onto tape for my son at present – not sure my French accent would be up to par for Librivox although it’s a lovely idea! Booksplease – there is an Oxford World Classics collection of Maupassant short stories that contains Le Horla. It’s called ‘A Day in the country and other short stories’. As Mandarine was saying, Maupassant is a wonderful writer and well worth your time. I liked the sound of the ghost story collection you were reviewing, too! Balibee – oh thank you so very much. You are so kind!

  8. So glad you are feeling better! Congrats on the Washington Post mention!

    I love the kinds of horror stories where you don’t know if it’s all in the person’s head or if it’s real. Somehow makes it just that much more scary.

  9. Stefanie – that’s especially true of this one; it drags you in so that your reading thoughts merge with the narrator’s, forcing you to share the experience of encroaching madness. Very alarming! LK – I will, I promise. I would very much value some good health for a while now! Shameless – I don’t have a link any more. Really, it was just a link to the nature vs. nurture post under the heading of what was going on in the blogs. But I was very honoured to have it! Nancy – Maupassant is a wonderful writer and much undervalued these days. I’m delighted to think your father was a fan.

  10. So glad to see you back Litlove! I hope you are feeling better. I was hoping you would post on this story eventually. It was my first exposure to Maupassant. I loved the feelings of uncertainty in the story–he built up the “terror” of the narrator so nicely. And it is interesting the various layers of science and the fantastic–although the narrator seems convinced it is some being, I’m not sure what I think. I do plan on reading more of his stories.

  11. In my French Decadent period I read some of Maupassant, but not Le Horla. So I go now to do so. My question is, how can my book The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant not contain Le Horla (and not The Trip to Le Horla either)? I am forced for the moment to read some other of his stories, which is not a bad thing at all.

  12. Danielle – it’s left so cleverly open, isn’t it, as to what that ‘thing’ might be? I’m so glad you liked Maupassant and I do hope you’ll post on any more of his stories that you read. And thank you so much for your kind wishes – it’s lovely to be back! Quillhill – I know, I noticed when I was looking that several collections didn’t contain it! I wonder whether it’s because it’s on the long-ish end of the scale for a short story? But then again, who knows. Still, Maupassant is always worth reading and I’m very glad if you’re enjoying his work, in whatever form it comes.

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