Author: Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893)
Translators: (not clear but possibly Albert M. C. McMaster, A. E. Henderson, Mme Quesada et al)
Guy de Maupassant, full name Henri-Jean-Albert-Guy de Maupassant, was born near the town of Dieppe on the northern shores of France. At the age of 20, he enlisted in the army during the Franco–Prussian War (19 July 1870–10 May 1871). After the war, he went to work in Paris where he came under the wings of Gustave Flaubert, a childhood friend of his mother. The author of Madame Bovary introduced him to the leading writers of the day including Emile Zola, Henry James and Ivan Tugenev. Flaubert lived long enough to witness his protégé achieve national acclaim with Boule de Suif, a short story set in the Franco–Prussian War: Flaubert proclaimed it as “a masterpiece that will endure”. It remains Maupassant’s most famous work and its success launched a productive decade for Maupassant. In all, he wrote about 300 short stories and six novels.
Maupassant has suffered from syphilis since his 20s and it may have driven him insane. After he attempted suicide in 1892, he was committed to a private asylum in Paris where he died the following year.
Today, Maupassant is considered as a master of the modern short story, along with his contemporaries Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) and O. Henry (1862–1910).
What is the story about?
This volume includes The Horla, or Modern Ghosts, (1887), a chilling story about the physical and mental deterioration of the unnamed narrator. We do not know a lot about him except that he appears to be a man of means. As we only read his diary entries, we cannot even know for sure if he was suffering from some form of paranoid delusion or if he was indeed haunted by an invisible succubus which came to France on a three-masted vessel from Brazil, fed on him while he slept, and which drank water and milk without appearing to touch any other nourishment.
The late 19th century was a time of great scientific (and pseudo-scientific) developments. Maupassant referred specifically to Franz Mesmer (1734–1815) a German physician whose work (now largely discredited) led to the modern conception of hypnosis. Maupassant depicted the struggle between the narrator and the Horla in language that reflects the idea of survival of the fittest used by Charles Darwin in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species (1869): “Ah! the vulture has eaten the pigeon, the wolf has eaten the lamb; the lion has devoured the buffalo with sharp horns; man has killed the lion with an arrow, with a sword, with gunpowder; but the Horla will make of man what we have made of the horse and of the ox: his chattel, his slave and his food, by the mere of his will. Woe to us … A new being! Why not? It was assuredly bound to come! Why should we be the last? We do not distinguish it, like all the others created before us? The reason is, that its nature is more perfect, its body finer and more finished than ours, that ours is so weak, so awkwardly conceived, encumbered with organs that are always tired, always on the strain like locks that are too complicated, which lives like a plant and like a beast, nourishing itself with difficulty on air, herbs and flesh, an animal machine, which is a prey to maladies, to malformations, to decay; broken-winded, badly regulated, simple and eccentric, ingeniously badly made, a coarse and a delicate work, the outline of a being which might become intelligent and grand. We are only a few, so few in this world, from the oyster up to man. Why should there not be one more, when once that period is accomplished which separates the successive apparitions from all the different species?” And later, in a passage that foreshadows H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897), Maupassant wrote: “There was no moon, but the stars darted out their rays in the dark heavens. Who inhabits those worlds? What forms, what living beings, what animals are there yonder? What do those who are thinkers in those distant worlds, know more than we do? What can they do more than we can? What do they see which we do not know? Will not one of them, some day or other, traversing space, appear on our earth to conquer it, just as the Norsemen formerly crossed the sea in order to subjugate nations more feeble than themselves?”
This short story and Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (1898) are two of the most influential short horror stories of all times.