Is it madness or is it real? You might question your reaction upon reading Guy de Maupassant's The Horla. The unnamed narrator does make an interesting and maybe even somewhat convincing case as he describes the almost supernatural haunting that torments him, driving him to the edge of madness, taking the reader along with him. But always there is some slight uncertainty whether what happens to him is real or only in his imagination.
Guy de Maupassant wrote over 300 short stories. About 39 of them are horror stories and I read that they have much in common with Edgar Allen Poe's work--both authors deal in the themes of madness and the supernatural. Maupassant was a protege of Gustave Flaubert, and was part of a literary circle that included Emile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and Henry James. His writing career, however, was short lived as he eventually was driven insane from the effects of syphilis that he had contracted as a young man. He attempted suicide, but would die a couple of years later just a few months shy of his 43rd birthday.
"If other beings besides us exist on Earth, why didn't we meet them a long time ago? Why haven't you yourself seen them? Why haven't I seen them myself?" Those are the questions that the narrator asks in The Horla. There is the known, but so too, there is the unknown of which we cannot even dream of. The answer he receives: "Do we seen the hundred-thousandth part of what exists?"
The story is written as a series of journal entries between May and September. When the story begins the narrator is happy. He is living in the home of his childhood close to Rouen. He can see the blue roofs and the Gothic belfries of the city from his garden. The weather is glorious, and he watches the ships pass close by on the Seine. He is deeply moved by the sight of a Brazilian vessel and he raises his hand to it in a salute. Several days pass and he remarks in his journal that he has had a slight fever and that he feels rather sad. This goes on for weeks. He is sick and distressed and has nightmares. He is plagued with an "incessant feeling of ominous danger and imminent misfortune". Nothing seems to help, and in the end he decides to go away for a while.
He goes to Mont Saint-Michel where he has a splendid time. It is here that he has a conversation with a monk about the existence of creatures that he's never seen. Is it possible, how is it possible--that there exist other beings on earth that no one knows about? But like the wind we do not see, so are there things out there as well we do not see. Perhaps the man is a fool or a sage, but in the end the narrator feels cured. This conversation, however, will come back to haunt him. Unfortunately upon returning home, those feelings of illness and anguish come back. He comes to the conclusion that there is something in his house with him. It drinks the water and milk he leaves by his bedside at night. He feels it hovering over and near him even pressing in on him. When he leaves again these feelings disappear.
Each time he returns, it is harder for him to leave until he feels almost imprisoned in his home. The presence lurks about him and won't allow him to leave. It seems to sense his intentions. The narrator fits the various pieces of the puzzle together through his own observations, his experiences with hypnosis and his readings in scientific journals to understand the phenomena that is occurring. I think I'm going to leave off describing the story here. There's not really a shocking final twist at the end--the outcome is masterfully revealed throughout the careful telling of the story, however. Maupassant deftly shows how the Horla, perhaps beckoned unknowingly at the beginning of the story by the narrator when he waves at the Brazilian ship, whittles away at the man's sanity.
This is such a brilliant story (a reread for me but I couldn't pass it up since I have a lovely new Art of the Novella edition), and a reminder that I really must read more of Maupassant's work. In the blurb on the cover he is likened to Chekhov (another writer who hovers in the back of my mind as someone whose work I really do want to read all of--maybe had better step up my short story reading) as "the father of the short story" who "was at the peak of his powers in this precursor of first-person psychological fiction."
The Melville House edition also contains his first draft of the story as "Letter from a Madman" as well as a story told from the viewpoint of the man's doctor. Of course the best is the final version of the story, which builds wonderfully in suspense until the devastating ending. And still it leaves you wondering. Was there something there? Or was the man simply mad? I think this (along with Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener) is my favorite novella yet.
Next up and waiting for me on my night stand is The Alienist by Machado de Assis, which should make a perfect companion read. I think it is going to be this weekend's leisure reading. By the way, I do love these wonderful Art of the Novella editions and am so glad I decided to opt for the subscription. My next pair should be arriving soon and I'm looking forward to seeing what's up next!