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  • Writer's pictureMartyn Rhys Vaughan


Updated: Jun 29, 2022


Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) is recognised as the master of the short story form—having written 300 of them, as well as 6 novels.

His mother was an independently-minded woman and was noteworthy for divorcing her husband due to physical abuse, at a time when women were regarded as property of their husbands. She arranged a high standard of education for her son, but one in which he developed pronounced anti-clerical views.

He was a volunteer in the Franco-Prussian war and this caused him to develop a profound hatred of war, which coloured much of his written work. He later worked in the Naval Department for the French Government. He died at a young age due to complications of syphilis.

Several of his short stories had fantastic themes but this essay will consider his story “The Horla”.

It is another of those stories which involve an invisible adversary. We have already seen in this series perhaps the earliest example in Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?’ and they have continued to plague SF since, including my own “Hideous Night.”

The story open with an unnamed man standing at his window admiring the ships of the Seine. A 3-masted Brazilian schooner catches his eye and he waves at it. Shortly afterwards he develops a fever which he cannot shake off, except in those increasingly rare occasions when he leaves the house. From then on he has the distinct feeling he is not alone in the house, especially in his bedroom. On a visit to Mont St. Michel he meets a monk who tells him that there are invisible forces at large in the world.

On returning to his home, he notices that a bedside bottle of water was full when he fell asleep but is now empty. A series of experiments follow in which he places water, milk and food items on the bedside table as an experiment. In the morning, the water is always gone, the milk sometimes, but the food never. He deduces there is something in the house which is subsisting on liquid but not solid food. Later he sees the pages of a book turning over by themselves and rose plucking itself in the garden.

He later reads that a contagious form of madness has broken out in Brazil and concludes that something leapt from the schooner when he waved at it and has now taken residence with him.

Unsure of whether he has simply gone mad or is actually being persecuted by an invisible being, he burns his house down, accidentally killing his servants.

But he realises that the being—who he now knows, calls itself a “Horla”—was not killed and that his only escape is to kill himself.

“The reign of man is over, and He has come.”

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