Updated on August 5, 2015
25. ‘The Horla’ by Guy de Maupassant
The last thing I expected this book to remind me of was the Insane Clown Posse, and yet that’s exactly what happened when I read the line, “Can you see electricity? And yet it exists!”
Now, I’m no Juggalo but I have been known to listen to ‘Miracles‘ now and again, in which the Posse explain how the things we take for granted in the world – mountains, music, pelicans that don’t eat your mobile phone – are all miracles of creation. The line that ‘The Horla’ brought back to me was this little gem: “Fucking magnets, how do they work?” I love the idea that, just because you can’t explain something, it must be a miracle. But what takes place in this genuinely frightening novella does indeed defy explanation.
Several versions of the same story are packed into this short book: there’s an narrative account from the main character’s point of view, the same story in the form of a letter, and yet another account given by the man in the presence of doctors. The general framework remains the same though: a man starts to realise strange things going on around him and comes to attribute them to a mysterious invisible being he calls the ‘Horla’.
The first version is by far the scariest because we are not removed from the character in any way – we are right there with him as he starts to realise that somebody is drinking his water in the night, and as he gradually spirals into all out terror. His fear is palpable and, because I mainly read this in the dark on my own, the whole thing was truly creepy. In particular, the scene that really sent chills down my spine was the one in which the main character ‘sees’ the Horla in the mirror. He stands up and looks directly at the mirror, but he can’t see anybody because the Horla is standing in front of him, invisible, yet blocking his own reflection.
The main character’s explanations don’t always stand up to scrutiny, though. He begins to doubt his own senses because of the things he is seeing (or, more pertinently, isn’t seeing), but this only serves to send him deeper into fear and incomprehension. Of course, the idea that anybody might argue electricity doesn’t exist just because you can’t see it, is quite ridiculous.
Overall the story has a well constructed, sinister atmosphere, but the occasional moments of philosophical silliness do let it down.
“Solitude is indeed dangerous for a working intelligence … when we are alone for a long time, we people the void with phantoms.”
Another one from Melville House and another first for me.