Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant, more popularly known as Guy de Maupassant (1850 –1893), is remembered as the “father of modern short story”. Born in France to a bourgeois family, Maupassant remained under the tutelage of his uncle Le Poittevin and the writer Gustav Flaubert, writing short stories, poems, and novels, the popular ones including The Necklace, The Horla, The Piece of String, Boule de Suif, Suicides, A Family Affair, and Bel-Ami. In his short-lived forty years, he composed over three hundred short stories while struggling with syphilis, depression, and suicidal ideations. Maupassant died in an asylum in 1893; the epitaph that he himself wrote reads, “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing.”
In That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Written selected by David Miller published by Head of Zeus Ltd. in 2014, Maupassant’s The Horla (hors: outside; là: there; one who is out there, the outsider) finds a place as one of his best works. Published in 1887, The Horla is a short horror story influenced by Alfred Le Poittevin’s Une Promenade de Bélial and H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. The story is written in the form of a series of journal entries by an anonymous author (the protagonist) who experiences a paranormal being’s presence that has taken possession of him. Between the months of May and September, the anonymous author becomes aggravated and frenetic eventually concluding, “I suppose I must kill myself!” (92)
In their paper, The Horlas: Maupassant’s Mirror of Self-Reflection (2003), authors Edward J. Lusk and Marion Roeske posit that Maupassant’s The Horla is part of a trilogy that includes Lettre d’un fou (Letter of a Madman) (1885), Le Horla (1886), and Le Horle (1887). The trilogy runs parallel to Maupassant’s struggles with syphilis, his paternal lineage, and that of his role, acting as a medium of self-reflection and solution-seeking. The authors, acting as biographical critics, look at Maupassant’s childhood, his tender relationship with Gustav Flaubert, and his later struggle with his illnesses as having created the storylines of the trilogy. Similarities exist in each of the stories in the trilogy; each one has an unnamed protagonist, each dealing with an invisible paranormal being, and each remarkable in their description of nature and events. The anonymous author in Maupassant’s The Horla (1887) writes,
“August 14. I am lost! Somebody possesses my soul and governs it! Somebody orders all my acts, all my movements, all my thoughts. I am no longer master of myself, nothing except an enslaved and terrified spectator of the things which I do. I wish to go out; I cannot. He [The Horla] does not wish to; and so I remain, trembling and distracted in the armchair in which he keeps me sitting. I merely wish to get up and to rouse myself, so as to think that I am still master of myself; I cannot! I am riveted to my chair, and my chair adheres to the floor in such a manner that no force of mine can move us.”
The Horla (1887) has repeated references to the master/slave relationship and has numerous use of the mirror and mirror analogues. In his paper, The Use of Mirrors and Mirror Analogues in Maupassant’s Le Horla (1972), Brewster E. Fitz highlights the four contradictory readings that could be made of the story: 1) the anonymous author is sane even as he is taken into possession of the invisible being 2) the author is recording his suffering, events that he is witnessing, but which are, in fact, his hallucinations 3) taking into account the similarities between Maupassant and his protagonist (a biographical criticism reading similar to that of Lusk and Roeske’s) 4) a structural reading that highlights the reflective nature of the chief persons and elements in the story.
There arise multiple ambiguities, references to the act of introspection often with the use of mirrors and mirror analogues, and the doubling upon of common dichotomies including real/imaginary, good/bad, master/slave, and rationality/irrationality. Such is the ambiguity and the superimposition of dichotomies that Maupassant creates in The Horla that the reader can easily lose the trail of the story. For instance, when the protagonist descends into his garden to eat some strawberries, he lets out a heart-wrenching cry, “Oh! My God! my God! Is there a God? If there by one, delivery me! save me! succor me! Pardon! Pity! Mercy! Save me! Oh! what sufferings! what torture! what horror!” the master/slave dichotomy doubles itself, causing the reader to question the real identity of the person eating the strawberries.
Maupassant has skilfully chosen the first-person narrative telling the story in the form of a journal, a trick that he shares with writers such as Poe, Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker. The journal, a medium of self-reflection, holds an estranged version of the person making the entry, even when the entry is made by the person of herself. In the scene where the protagonist cannot see his reflection in the mirror, “its reflective nature seems to have been altered,” there is an indication of the failure of the author to find redemption in the process of journaling (960). Fitz is of the view that this overlap of the mirror and journal (both a medium of reflection) indicates the eventual intertwining of the protagonist and the Horla, “It is not only a story of insanity or of the arrival of the Horla in the world, but a journal about writing a journal, a meta-linguistic metaphor: It becomes impossible to distinguish the ‘I’ written by the author from the ‘I’ of the Horla about which the author is writing” (962).
Maupassant’s The Horla fulfils the essentialities of a short horror story: an impactful ending, the experience of horror shared by humanity, the balance between Nature and Evil (bête/ange), and the potential biographical inspiration of the story. The success of The Horla lies in not just delivering that horror is universal but in affirming that the response to the experience of horror is also universal. Maupassant’s skill in detailing and descriptive writing, the use of contemporary developments in hypnotism, mesmerism, and science in general account for adding ‘factual’ validity to the story despite its dealing in themes of supernaturalism and evolved beings.
If the trilogy approach is to be followed, Maupassant has documented his course of life and his decline as reflective questioning in the stories. The Horla (1887) ends with the protagonist deciding to destroy the Horla, becoming cognizant of its fear and its supremacy, “its nature is more delicate, its body finer and more finished than ours. Our makeup is so weak, so awkwardly conceived; our body is encumbered with organs that are always tired, always being strained like locks that are too complicated…” (90). In this attempt, the protagonist lights his house on fire believing it would cause the Horla to be reduced to ashes until he realizes that “the transparent, unrecognizable body” of the Horla cannot be destroyed. Desperate and seeking freedom, the protagonist decides to kill himself, a course of action that Maupassant chose for himself when he attempted slitting his throat.
But if Fitz’s approach is to be taken, the last scene synthesizes the role-reversal of the Horla and the protagonist wherein, the protagonist is now the destroyer. By this time, the protagonist should have come to terms with the similarities between the Horla and himself, i.e. “The ‘I’ writing the journal has become the ‘I’ written, and one cannot be separated from the other, nor can the Horla be distinguished from the author, nor the ‘I’ thinking from the ‘I’ thought, not the signigié from the signifiant.” (963) In denying this co-existence, the horror of the Horla continues relentlessly, which makes Maupassant’s The Horla a lesson in acceptance of the self and the non-self, a theme that would later be taken by many writers.
Supplement this with The Use of Mirrors and Mirror Analogues in Maupassant’s Le Horla by Brewster E. Fitz and The Horlas: Maupassant’s Mirror of Self-Reflection by Edward J. Lusk and Marion Roeske.