The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Horla" (1885)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Horla” (original: “Le Horla”) was written by Guy de Maupassant and first appeared as “Lettre d’un Fou” (Le Gil Blas, February 17, 1885). Henri-René-Albert-Guy De Maupassant (1850-1893) was one of the great short story writers of France or any other country, and two of his novels, Une Vie (1883) and Pierre et Jean (1888), are counted among the best of the nineteenth century. De Maupassant wrote with an almost brutal realism and an insightful grasp of human psychology; he was sympathetic only to the poor and the outcasts of society. "The Horla" is a superb horror story which should be on anyone’s list of Ten Best Horror Stories of the nineteenth century.
“The Horla” is about a nameless Frenchman whose lovely life near Rouen is disrupted by the appearance of an invisible creature. The disruption begins slowly, with the narrator simply feeling slightly ill and of low spirits. As time passes he feels increasingly feverish. But the narrator is bothered far more by the feeling that he is not alone, that there is a someone or something in his presence which he cannot see. At night, the narrator dreams that there is something on his neck, strangling him, but he is always alone when he wakes up. The narrator goes on a trip and returns, “quite cured,” though during the trip he had a disturbing conversation with a monk who pointed out that other creatures on the earth besides men are not impossible, as we do not see the hundred-thousandth part of what exists. But once back in his house the narrator feels badly again, and his coachman feels poorly, as well, and tells him that “since monsieur went away, it’s been like a spell.”1 The bad feelings intensify, and at night the narrator feels “some one lying on me, and drinking my life from my lips, with his mouth to mine."2 The narrator sees physical evidence for the invisible creature’s existence: water-bottles which are mysteriously emptied overnight, food which when set out at night is eaten by the morning, and so on. The narrator leaves for Paris and recovers his health quickly, deciding that he has been “the plaything of my diseased imagination, unless I am really a somnambulist.”3
On returning again to his home he finds matters worse. Glasses are broken during the night, the narrator sees a rose picked by an invisible hand, and an external mental pressure stops him from venturing too far from his home. The narrator begins to wonder if he has gone mad. The external mental pressure becomes full mind control, so that “some one orders my every act, my every motion, my every thought!”4 The narrator momentarily breaks free, but he is mentally seized near the railway station and forced to return. And then, most frighteningly, the narrator begins to hear the invisible being’s thoughts and to think them–not always, but often enough so that the narrator knows that he is thinking another’s thoughts, an alien being which calls itself “the Horla.” The narrator reads a newspaper article about an “epidemic of madness” in Rio de Janeiro, where “the terrified inhabitants are leaving their homes, deserting their villages and crops, declaring that they are persecuted, possessed, driven like human cattle by invisible but tangible creatures resembling vampires, who feed on their life during their sleep.”5 The narrator concludes that “the reign of man is at an end”6 and another race, “he whom the earliest people dreaded in their artless terror; he whom anxious priests exorcised; whom sorcerers evoked on dark nights,”7 has come to replace humanity. The narrator thinks about killing the creature, and manages to trap it in his house and then set the house on fire, but he is not sure that the Horla is dead. “Then–then–it will soon be necessary for me to kill myself!...”8
“The Horla” is superior horror entertainment. One of the reasons the story is rated so highly by critics is that de Maupassant leaves enough ambiguity in the story so that it cannot be said with complete certainty whether the Horla actually exists or whether the narrator is simply going insane. When de Maupassant wrote “The Horla” he had had syphilis for over a decade. In his later years the syphilis caused increasing mental disorder, which critics see reflected in his stories. De Maupassant was not too insane to write, and write well, when he wrote “The Horla,” but the effects of his syphilis dementia can be seen in the lunatic intensity of “The Horla.” An argument can be made that the narrator of the story is mad, not haunted, and that “The Horla” is told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator, similar to what Henry James did in “The Turn of the Screw.” An unreliable narrator can be frustrating, but, as happens in “The Horla,” it can add a frisson of creepiness and fear to a story. Most interpretations of the story see the Horla as an actual vampire, but de Maupassant leaves open the possibility of the narrator’s insanity, and this ambiguity adds to the story’s pleasures.
What makes “The Horla” such a classic is the way in which de Maupassant, through the first-person narration and the intense descriptions, creates impressions in the mind of the reader. These impressions are of a splintering mind, of a malign presence which rarely leaves the narrator and which invades his consciousness, and of a creeping threat. Few stories are better than “The Horla” at creating a nightmarish atmosphere of both danger and insanity, and few stories do better at chilling those who are not ordinarily frightened by horror fiction.
There is a superficial similarity between “The Horla” and Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?,” but O’Brien’s story is far more traditional. O’Brien took the plot device of the invisible monster and wrote a conventional (if still excellent) horror story. Maupassant used the plot device to create a narrative whose horror springs as much from the disintegrating perspective of its narrator as from the monster itself.
Print: Guy de Maupassant, Guy de Maupassant’s Selected Works. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016.
1 Guy de Maupassant, “The Horla,” Guy de Maupassant’s Short Stories (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1909), 15.
2 De Maupassant, “The Horla,” 16.
3 De Maupassant, “The Horla,” 20.
4 De Maupassant, “The Horla,” 39.
5 De Maupassant, “The Horla,” 45.
6 De Maupassant, “The Horla,” 46.
7 De Maupassant, “The Horla,” 46.
8 De Maupassant, “The Horla,” 59.