Some say that Maupassant was himself half insane at the time of its writing. He did have syphilis for some time prior and did make a suicide attempt about five years after writing it, but are those the only details we should judge the story by? Paranoia seems to drip from the pages of this short story; is that due merely to the author’s delusions or to his skill at his craft? One must separate the artist from his creation in order to be wholly enveloped in the art.
Le Horla is one of Maupassant’s finest short stories. It is written as the diary of a man slowly slipping into either insanity or the grip of an invisible being living in his house. It all begins with “a beautiful three-master” ship sailing down the river near his house. Afterwards, he begins having unexplained feverish attacks over the next week. Then the unnamed narrator awakens one night during some type of vampiric encounter, which leaves him feeling even more apathetic and fatigued. These encounters continue, and eventually he notices that his water is vanishing from his glass during the night. He later finds that whatever is drinking the water also has a penchant for milk.
The narrator becomes more and more convinced of the existence of this invisible entity. He can sense it sitting in the chair across the room, feels its eyes on him when going about his life. It even begins to draw him home when he tries to leave. That is when he comes to believe that it is controlling him and that he must get free of it.
After consulting Dr. Herrmann Herestauss’s “treatise on the unknown inhabitants of the ancient and modern world,” he comes to the conclusion that the entity is a superior being, come to subjugate mankind.
The narrator finally resolves that if he can’t kill the being, then he will have no choice but to commit suicide. But how can he kill an invisible being that only lives on water and milk? The story concludes with him making a last, desperate attempt to defeat the Horla.
The story leaves you wondering if the being existed or if the narrator was simply insane. The narrator himself wonders the same thing, only to conclude that he must be sane because he is aware of his “states” whereas a lunatic would not be (his own twisted version of Descartes’ cogito.) Maupassant drops clues throughout that strange things were happening in the house, such as the servants quarreling over broken glasses in the cupboard, etc. The coachman complained of sleep disturbances also. However, there is no hard evidence either way.
The influence Le Horla had on H.P. Lovecraft is apparent as it has many of the same elements Lovecraft would later incorporate into his own writing. A reclusive, bourgeois protagonist; an unseen monster lurking on the threshold of our world; the possibility that the whole thing may be just a delusion of the mentally ill narrator--all of these staples of a Lovecraftian tale are to be found in Le Horla.
Guy de Maupassant’s short story is sure to make one uneasy the next time you find yourself alone at night. After all, haven’t we all thought that we have felt a foreign presence in the room at some time or another?
Le Horla is included in my anthology of Maupassant's work, The Tomb and Other Macabre Tales of Guy de Maupassant. Available at Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble for $0.99!