“The Horla” is the term for the invisible ghost-like creature that haunts the unnamed narrator in Guy de Maupassant’s short story of the same name (written 1887). Maupassant’s story is a journal of this man’s decent into madness. Maupassant captures panic in a real way, and the ending is simply wonderful. When I first read it, I called it “wonderfully weird” and it’s held up to that description.
I first read “The Horla” a few years ago when I read a great number of Maupassant stories. Because I’m not (really) a fan of ghost stories, as I read them, I find myself trying to assign other meanings to the man’s journalized experiences other than that a ghost is haunting him. I’m a believer in the unreliable narrator. Maybe he’s hallucinating? Maybe he sleep walks and drinks the milk himself? Maybe his house staff is trying to scare him? And maybe his description of the night creature bending over him is sleep paralysis1. For this last example, compare:
I sleep — a long time — two or three hours perhaps — then a dream — no — a nightmare lays hold on me. I feel that I am in bed and asleep — I feel it and I know it — and I feel also that somebody is coming close to me, is looking at me, touching me, is getting on to my bed, is kneeling on my chest, is taking my neck between his hands and squeezing it — squeezing it with all his might in order to strangle me.
I struggle, bound by that terrible powerlessness which paralyzes us in our dreams; I try to cry out — but I cannot; I want to move — I cannot; I try, with the most violent efforts and out of breath, to turn over and throw off this being which is crushing and suffocating me — I cannot! (Maupassant, “The Horla”)
Sleep paralysis occurs in 30% of the general population. In it you wake up in bed, feel paralyzed, and tend to sense a terrifying presence in your room. Sometimes you see something; sometimes you hear noises or even feel electrical shocks throughout your body. I have personally seen a small humanoid during one occasion of sleep paralysis; during another, more recent one, I saw what looked like a dog in my room. Others see ghosts, vampires — whatever they have in their minds or are particularly afraid of. Deceased relatives and loved ones are particularly good candidates for showing up during bouts of sleep paralysis. (Center for Skeptical Inquiry, “Waking Up to Sleep Paralysis”. See also Wikipedia for more technical descriptions of the disorder)
Guy de Maupassant died at age 42 of some mental illness, and this story was written during this “going crazy” stage of his own, so my prediction is that he too experienced some of the hallucinations he writes about. And yet, in the end “The Horla” is simply a ghost story. There is no way to explain away the crazy happenings of this invisible creature that’s haunting him. And it makes for a good story. I highly recommend it.
I’m tackling the Everyman’s Pocket Classics Ghost Stories volume, aiming to read one or two stories a week. Next up: Henry James’ “The Friends of the Friends.”
- I know about sleep paralysis because my husband occasionally suffers from it and has since childhood. ↩