Guy de Maupassant's Reality-Bending, Terrifyingly Paranoid Horror Stories
On New Year’s Day, 1892, Guy de Maupassant’s mother fell on her knees and begged the 42 year old writer not to leave her home – to stay with her and rest. She was horrified by his shaggy appearance, and her premonitions proved cringingly accurate. Refusing her pleas, he fled into the night. His mind reeling from the syphilis boiling in his brain, the artist arrived at his home in Cannes where his manservant valiantly attempted to rally his spirits. In the morning he rose and drove a paper knife into his throat. It was the climax of his mental devolution, and while he survived the wound, he was committed to an asylum from which he was never released. His mind hemorrhaged impulses. He rushed around his cell, licking the walls, howling like a wolf, and gushing paranoid accusations. He begged to be straight-jacketed when he sensed the fits coming on – which they did with frequency. In June, ’93, he collapsed into a seizure, and lapsed into a coma. He never awoke. His heart stopped beating on July 7.
One of the greatest contributors to the short story genre, de Maupassant stands alongside Hawthorne, Hemingway, Irving, Poe, Kipling, James, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Balzac,
Kafka, and Hoffmann as a major artist in the genre. While we will look exclusively at his macabre writing, it would be remiss to proceed much further without recommending his literary fiction. “The Necklace,” “Ball of Fat,” “Two Friends,” “Mother Savage,” and Bel-Ami enjoy an international reputation, and in France his work continues to be treasured alongside Flaubert, Balzac, Voltaire, and Dumas – his principle French influences.
Often pessimistic, always cynical, de Maupassant’s writing resembles that of American writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville. His horror is similarly caustic, and it is often difficult to discern what in his oeuvre should be considered horror versus literary. Indeed, there is often crossover, and few members of this anthology are distinctly horrific, much like the broodingly macabre writings of Poe, Hawthorne, and Hoffmann: rather than splashing loudly, they bubble and percolate on a low, droning simmer.
Born in 1850, Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant (it’s pronounced ghee (as in “geek”) deh mawñ-pah-sawñ) wrote professionally for a paltry eleven years before succumbing to syphilitic psychosis. His works, however, exceeded three-hundred in number. Among those, it has been estimated that nearly twenty percent could be defined as weird, horror, or macabre. In our anthology of his most memorable horror I have assembled those which come closest to falling under the umbrella term of speculative fiction. Some are simply strange or dark (“The Dead Girl,” “The Grave,” “The Inn,” “On the River”), many involve gauging the borderlands between sanity and madness (“Am I Insane?,” “He?,” “The White Wolf”), but several (“The Apparition,” “The Horla,” “Who Knows?,” “The Hand”) are baldly supernatural.
De Maupassant’s writing circles around several themes, the most pervasive of which is the decadence, perversity, and infidelity of humankind. Like Bierce, Lovecraft, Poe, Hawthorne, and O’Brien, de Maupassant was a fierce cynic, hateful of society, underwhelmed by human fidelity, virtue, and intelligence, convinced of the depravity of the human spirit, and certain of the species’ unimportance and vulnerability in the enormity of the cosmos. His writing, much like Hawthorne and Melville’s, centered largely around examples of human depravity and moral weakness. Horror often rides side-car to satire, but the two are excellent travel companions, enhancing one another’s power.
Stories such as “The Dead Girl,” “Am I Insane?,” “The Inn,” “He?,” “Magnetism,” and “Diary of a Madman” showcase human frailty and hypocrisy, sometimes in gruesome manners. “Diary of a Madman” famously begins with the grand funeral of a respected and beloved judge, only for his private journal to be unearthed, its contents exposing the deranged thoughts and psychopathic preoccupations of a sadistic serial killer. In “The Dead Girl,” a man mourns the loss of his beloved, only to learn (through a macabre nightmare) that she caught her fatal cold while cheating on him. “Am I Insane?” offers us another couple tangled in a psychologically sadomasochistic
relationship, wherein the submissive man becomes engorged with jealousy at the thought that his haughty lover might be having an affair – with her horse.
More standard tales of horror and terror and the weird certainly make an appearance. “The Hand” and “The Flayed Hand” were both inspired by an incident in his youth when the British poet Algernon Swinburne showed him a mummified hand. Both may claim instrumental in inspiring a number of severed-limb revenge tales such as W. W. Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw,” A. Conan Doyle’s “The Brown Hand,” and Jerome K. Jerome’s “Marble Hands” and “The Skeleton.” “On the River” is a ghoulish, atmospheric work that invests the sparkling waters of daylight with an ominous malignance in the dusk.
Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and Irvin F. Cobb’s “Fish-head” find inspiration here. “The Apparition” is a rare French ghost story written in the English model of Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Edith Wharton. But it is “The Horla” – a story about an invisible, “modern” vampire who thrives on subjugating humankind – that claims the most honor. A likely reworking of Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?,” “The Horla” attracted attention from Bierce, Blackwood, and Lovecraft, whose respective masterpieces “The Damned Thing,” “The Willows,” and “The Call of Cthulhu” each feature an invasive, invisible (or unseen) supernatural force that stalks men’s thoughts.
Like O’Brien, whose racism and religious chauvinism are difficult to digest, de Maupassant’s writings rage with misogyny and misanthropy which often interrupt and stain pleasurable reading. His mother, a free-thinking woman who separated from her husband and took her children with her, was a strong and pervasive figure in his life who directed his education and saw to his intellectual growth. Nonetheless, de Maupassant was a prolific philanderer, contracting syphilis in 1874 in the midst of a storied career of affairs, one night stands, and whoring. His stories “Magnetism,” “He?,” “The Dead Girl,” and “Am I Insane?” showcase his distrust of and objectification of women quite adequately, though a quick perusal through his literary fiction will reveal a vast stockpile of sexism.
We may wonder if his mother’s anachronistic decision to liberate herself from her husband shook her son’s confidence in the constancy of women – a topic which he fondly addresses and readdresses. And yet, his work is not without its compassion towards females. Tender and graceful, “The Apparition” is startlingly critical of emotional abuse towards women, and “The Grave” – a predecessor to his tremendously distrustful “The Dead Girl” – examines the touching heartbreak of young love lost (though not
without the aid of her bloated corpse oozing dead, congealed blood).
De Maupassant is a rarity to Oldstyle Tales Press in that he was not published in the English language. For a variety of reasons, we have attempted to limit our publications to those which do not require a translator. Primarily this is meant to limit our scope, and narrow our focus. It is noteworthy that many of the great supernatural works are the product of the English-speaking world – the writers of Canada, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, the United States, and Australia. This is not, of course, the only source of great supernatural fiction. Germany (Hoffmann, Goethe, Friedrich H. Karl, Meinhold, Ewers, Gotthelf), France (Hugo, Balzac, Gautier, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Merimée, Huysmans) Eastern Europe (Meyrink, Ansky, Grabinski, Dashkov, ), Russia (Turgenev, Zhelikhovsky, Dostoevsky, Amfiteatrov, Grin, Gogol), and Japan (Akinari, Kidō, Rohan, Kōtarō) – among other nations and language groups – have provided superb practitioners of the art.
De Maupassant may be the first of a longer line of international writers whom we publish (Hoffmann is certainly on the short list), but translated fiction brings benefits along with concerns. We are pleased to be able to introduce de Maupassant to non-Francophones, but acknowledge that the sheer elegance of his prose is diluted – lost, if you will – in translation. For this we apologize, however we leave you in the capable hands of the translators. De Maupassant’s stories are infamous for their myriad of titles in English (“Lui?” has been titled “He?” “Him?” and “The Terror”), so we have included all of the known titles in the table of contents to assist with reading.
As you enter into de Maupassant’s world, note that in spite of the disease which ravaged his mind, his work is stellar, evocative, crisp, and literary. During the decade that he produced work, his stories truly began to show signs of his sickness – thematically, not stylistically. Insanity and loss of perspective haunt his tales. While his specters are rarely entirely supernatural, they are nearly always quite chilling, even more so when one considers the source – the transposition of insanity to the written word.