‘The Horla’, by Guy de Maupassant

A great short story; a great horror story; a great depiction of madness, as good as ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. But what I love about ‘The Horla’ is its ending. Short stories, perhaps even more than novels, like to tease the reader with the idea that the story goes on after the narrative ends, that the characters have an afterlife of sorts, in some hypothetical literary realm belonging to neither reader nor author. Maupassant gives this homily a swift kick up the jacksie by leaving its greatest horror for that – terrifyingly attenuated – aftermath. After ‘The Horla’, Maupassant is telling us, no hypothetical continuing narrative, no more story, no more stories at all.*

(first read it in the Melville House Art of the Novella series [a travesty: it’s not a novella!] Again, available in plenty of editions and anthologies and online, including here)

* Last night, at the launch of his collection Darker with the Lights On (in conversation with Joanna Walsh and Chris Power), David Hayden talked eloquently about stories as ‘biomes’, a biome being a term in ecology for a large community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat. It is a space you can enter, which is in some sense self-sufficient – like a smaller-scale version of the Gaia theory, I suppose – and nurturing, and it can, it is implied, nurture anyone who enters and adapts themselves respectfully to the habitat – the reader, in other words. It’s a lovely idea, and it offers another way of explaining why ‘The Horla’ is so particularly devastating as a story. Maupassant’s story does operate as a biome, a complete world unto itself, that draws the reader into it and closes them off inside – but it’s a diseased habitat, and when the crisis and disaster happen, the reader finds they’re still stuck inside, with no means of egress. The biome is a bio dome, fatally contaminated but effectively sealed. The forked paths of this particular garden are one-way only.

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