Guy De Maupassant's 'The Horla': The Greatest Ghost Story You've Never Read

It may have been written in 1887, but this genuinely frightening read is still shit scary today...
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It may have been written in 1887, but this genuinely frightening read is still shit scary today...

Recently whilst watching the original Dutch version of The Vanishing, a creepy as fuck film where the suggestion of violence is more disturbing than what you ever see on screen, I was reminded of a short story I once read which had the same effect. Guy de Maupassant's 'The Horla', originally written in 1887 - is quite unlike any ghost story you'll ever read. Taking in elements of science fiction, psychological madness and the supernatural it tells the story of a man haunted by an unknown force. Narrated by de Maupassant himself, the story builds a sense of dread by not adding any melodrama or shock value but with a steady, pebble rubbing consciousness on the human condition. Fear. Paranoia. Madness.

Things based on reality and scientific fact. Not the things that go bump in the night but rather the things visible to the human iris. By the end of it you almost feel, as a reader, like a conspirator to the story and the writer yourself.

As a protege of Flaubert, de Maupassant wasn't a writer grounded in such supernatural fancy as a rule. The main body of his work focused on the realism of war and it's effect on the common man. His other obsession was the alienation of the bourgeois classes. In ‘The Horla’, the narrator is such an individual. As the story unfolds, were not asked to feel any sympathy for the protagonist and there is a lack of sentimentality throughout. It's what makes it so effective.


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Unlike Dickens, heavy on morality or Poe drowning in symbolism - De Maupassant's hero is a modern anti-hero who could be transported to today. Apathetic to a tee, when he offers an explanation that ‘The Horla’ could be a vampire sailing on from a boat he sees at the start of the story that has come from Brazil, he puts the reader in mind of immigration without ever explaining it. When he talks about hallucinatory flu and its mind-bending qualities he could well be hinting at the opium drifts of the artistic upper classes - what Hunter Thompson called 'a hot knife in the belly of swine.'

Yet even without all this, ‘The Horla’ is quite simply a brilliant ghost story anyway. Its influence has featured on at least one classic Star Trek episode ('Wolf in the Madman') and it was the source material for the 1963 horror film 'Diary of a Madman' starring Vincent Price. It also had a dizzying effect on HP Lovecraft, whose science fiction based horror tales were at least inspired partly by the tale. As for de Maupassant himself - he never really dipped a toe into the genre again. Perhaps he found it odd that such philosophy was wrapped around such a simple story or perhaps haven written such a masterpiece, maybe he felt he could never come close to such brilliance again.