The Horla

In which the hero realizes that he shouldn’t have waved at that ship from Brazil.

Original title: “Le Horla”

By Guy de Maupassant

First published in 1887

Available online from Project Gutenberg (translator unknown)

The idea that everyday reality is an illusion runs deep in Western civilization.

In the fifth century BC, Zeno of Elea made the argument that motion (and consequently all change) is an impossibility, illustrating the concept with his famous arrow paradox.

A century or so later, Plato compared everyday reality with being shackled in a cave which is illuminated only by stray light filtering in from the outside.  Tied up among the metaphorical stalagmites, we mistake the flickering shadows on the wall for the whole of the universe.

2000 years later, similar arguments were dominating European thought. Descartes demonstrated, perhaps better than he wanted to, that the only things we can be sure of are our own mental states. Slightly later, Immanuel Kant stated that the world conveyed by our senses is a distortion of the Noumenon (that which actually exists, which we will forever be incapable of knowing).

Within the last century, the discoveries related to quantum physics have given the concept new life. As in the time of the pre-Socratics, the lines between philosophy and science are becoming blurred. And so everything comes full circle.

The illusory nature of reality wasn’t only a philosophical idea; it was also a major theme in literature. From the shape-shifting gods and goddesses in The Odyssey, to the medieval legends of Elfland and Magonia, to the works of Borges and Dick, the lurking suspicion that everything we see around us is some sort of front just won’t go away.

“The Horla” is part of that tradition.

The story is presented in the form of a diary. At its beginning, the unnamed narrator is enjoying the view of the Seine from his front yard. On a whim, he waves to a Brazilian ship sailing upriver.  It’s an innocent act, but it will have repercussions later.*

Not longer after this, the main character develops a sudden fever, accompanied by feelings of anxiety and what a modern medical practitioner would likely describe as sleep paralysis. His doctor can find no underlying cause for these symptoms, but prescribes a trip to Mont Saint-Michel.

It’s during this vacation that the protagonist encounters a loquacious monk, who regales him with accounts of the local legends. When our man mildly questions the veracity of some of these, the monk has a pointed response:

“‘Do you believe it?’ I asked the monk. ‘I scarcely know,’ he replied, and I continued: ‘If there are other beings besides ourselves on this earth, how comes it that we have not known it for so long a time, or why have you not seen them? How is it that I have not seen them?’ He replied: ‘Do we see the hundred thousandth part of what exists? Look here; there is the wind, which is the strongest force in nature, which knocks down men, and blows down buildings, uproots trees, raises the sea into mountains of water; destroys cliffs and casts great ships onto the breakers; the wind which kills, which whistles, which sighs, which roars—have you ever seen it, and can you see it? It exists for all that, however.'”

Good point, Brother Grumpy. Oh, and next time I’ll just stick to my Lonely Planet Guide.

The protagonist returns home, apparently cured. His condition rapidly returns, however. Soon he’s noticing that someone is drinking from the carafe of water he leaves by his bedside every night; the water is missing even when the bottle is sealed. He then comes a realization that humans aren’t alone on this Earth — that a sinister race of beings, imperceptible to us, is in our midst:

“Invisible beings exist, then! How is it then that since the beginning of the world they have never manifested themselves in such a manner precisely as they do to me? I have never read anything which resembles what goes on in my house. Oh! If I could only leave it, if I could only go away and flee, so as never to return, I should be saved; but I cannot.”

It’s then that he hatches an escape plan…

If the main conceit of “The Horla” seems paranoid, there’s a simple reason for that.  De Maupassant contracted syphilis when he was a young man.  By his late thirties, the disease had profoundly affected his brain, resulting in severe anxiety attacks and feelings of persecution.  That both of these mental states feature so prominently in “The Horla” isn’t accidental; De Maupassant’s struggles with mental illness are why this story seems like lived experience.

De Maupassant is a major figure in French — and world — literature because of his sharply-drawn characters and vivid settings. Surely he deserved a fate better than the one that he received, dying in an asylum at the age of 42.  Nonetheless, he took what he’d been given and managed to turn it into art.  He may have come to distrust the world he saw around him, but certainly his talent was no illusion.


One final note: “The Horla” was the basis for the 1963 horror film Diary of a Madman, which starred Vincent Price.  It’s not deathless cinema, but it’s fun.  The film is also notable for its overuse of the eyelight effect.


*Of course.