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Episode 35: The Horla by Guy de Maupassant
Episode 3515th February 2020 • Classic Ghost Stories • Tony Walker
00:00:00 01:07:04

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The Horla by Guy de Maupassant

Welcome to Episode 35 of the Classic Ghost Stories Podcast!

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Imagine that!

The Story

Today’s story is a famous French short-story by a prolific and highly regarded author: Guy de Maupassant. In fact, he was known as the father of the short story!

Guy de Maupassant

De Maupassant was a famous French short-story writer born in France in 1850, who died aged only 42 in 1893 in Paris. He is buried in Montparnasse cemetery.

De Maupassant was considered a master of the short story form and his first story, set in the Franco-Prussian War Boule de Suif (A Ball of Suiet) was published in 1880 and is a great story. 

You may not know that the use of ‘de’ in front of the name (like von in German) indicates noble birth and De Maupassant’s mother urged his father to secure the right, from an ancestor, to so style himself.

De Maupassant’s father was violent to his mother and the young lad was witness to this. His mother had the courage and support to separate from his father because of the violence and De Maupassant and his brother went with her. As this was the 1850s or so, this was very rare and very brave of his mother.

At school, De Maupassant became friends with Gustave Flaubert. And he saved the life of the English poet Algenon Swinborne from drowning.

As a profession, he was a newspaper editor and wrote fiction in his spare time. 

The Horla

The Horla was first published in 1887, and is set in 1867 near Rouen in Normandy, France. The narrator is obviously a gentleman — a man of leisure who comes to believe that he is haunted by a monster, which later reveals its name as ‘The Horla.’ This is a nonsense word pronounced in French without the H- (so why then include it, monsieur de Maupassant?) but which I have chosen to pronounce in English with an h.

De Maupassant was said to suffer from a mental illness and I recognise the symptoms of anxiety he describes at the beginning but which has become so advanced so that it develops psychotic features — in this case the delusion of the invisible being. There are clear paranoid elements, in that he believes the Horla is a superior being come to replace mankind. 

There is an example of the secondary rationality that you see in psychosis, where after the clearly irrational primary psychotic insight, in this case that he is possessed by the Horla, then rationality kicks in to explain how this could be so. In his case, he links it to a weird psychic vampire epidemic in Brazil and deduces he was infected when he saluted the Brazilian ship that went by on the Thames, before which he was fine. 

The power of the the Horla is the same domination of will shown by Dr Parent who hyptonises his cousin Madam de Sable.

It all makes perfect sense, but of course is delusional.

He shows relatively little remorse for burning his servants alive, I must say, though it wouldn’t be out of the way in many cases of paranoid psychosis that he believed them in on it. Though in this story they clearly aren’t.

So, the Horla probably draws on De Maupassant’s real experiences of being mentally ill, but fictionalised. It is possibly this reality that makes the story quite unnerving. I remember being very disturbed by it when I read it first in my teens.


Mesmerism or Animal Magnetism was brought to public attention in the 18th Century by the German doctor Franz Mesmer. It was a fairly weird theory of magnetic fluid, but I’m sure future generations will consider our accepted theories as fairly nuts too.

It was taken very seriously in its time and the Royal Academy of Medicine in Paris had a serious study of it in 1826 and they decided it was a legitimate medical procedure.

Of course hypnotism was used by Sigmund Freud.

It is better known to us as hypnotism.

Humanity’s Successor

H G Well’s Time Machine, and in fact his War of the Worlds, also deal with the future of mankind where there is the possibility or the actuality that the human race will be succeeded by another race of creatures, for better or worse; usually worse for humanity.

I think in the 19th Century this idea of being superseded was a concern, and we could read it as being based on an allegorical or subliminal racism. But it might not be that. I don’t think it is that in The Horla. 

However, I only note that the French and British in particular were preoccupied with their Imperial role and their self-perceived superiority to those they ruled over. The Russian and certainly the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and probably the Roman Empire before them) weren’t so concerned with purity.

Water & Milk

This idea of vampires (psychic ones in this case) drinking water and milk for sustenance is not unique to this story.

There is actually a 2014 vampire film by Svitlana Zavialova called Milk & Water, where the vampires are vegetarians!

Otherwise the water and milk diet is promoted for weight loss!

The Yellow Wallpaper

I read this story, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman a while ago now, but it is similar in that it is a first person narrative of someone who may be haunted, in the Yellow Wallpaper, by her actual wallpaper, or who may in fact be crazy.

The dramatic first-person crazy narrative can also be found in Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, which we also read, but in that case there is no ambiguity; he is in fact insane, and not haunted.

For the narrator the crazy first person narrative can be a lot of fun to do. The Horla is a little understated compared with the other two; and I think, by the end my money is definitely on there being some kind of invisible being, whereas in the Yellow Wallpaper, I was more convinced she was insane and the thing from the wallpaper was a figment of her insanity

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