French Horror - The Deluge: British and European Branch - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

French Horror
The Deluge: British and European Branch
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw the surprising emergence of Guy de Maupassant (1850—1893) to prominence in the realm of supernatural and psychological horror literature. I say surprising because this master craftsman of the short story, although manifestly influenced by Poe in the construction of short fiction, appears not to have been notably attracted to the supernatural until late in life; whether the onset of paranoia and other psychological troubles, apparently the product of the syphilis that resulted in his early death, led or contributed to this attraction remains an open question. None of his six novels are supernatural.

In Maupassant it is frequently difficult to make a clear distinction between supernatural and psychological horror, not only because the appearance of the supernatural frequently engenders extreme psychological reactions in the protagonists but because those protagonists themselves, often patently disturbed at the very outset of the tale, become highly unreliable narrators, so that the manifestation of the supernatural becomes a matter of doubt.

Consider the celebrated “He?” (“Lui?” Gil Blas, 3 July 1883). Here a man decides to marry, even though he holds the institution of marriage in disdain, “so I shall not have to be on my own!” (18). The reasons for his terror of solitude emerge gradually in the narrative. He had once come back to his house to find someone sitting in the chair before the fire—but no one is in fact there. This kind of thing happens several times, until the man becomes terrified of seeing “him” in his residence. The result is a constant state of fear:

“Well, then!” you’ll say. “What are you afraid of?” Yes, I know … Well … I’m afraid of myself! I’m afraid of fear, afraid of my panic-stricken mind, afraid of that horrible sensation of incomprehensible terror.

Oh, you can laugh, if you like. But it’s terrible—and incurable. I’m afraid of the walls, of the furniture, of familiar objects, which seem to me to take on a kind of animal life. Above all, I am afraid of the horrible confusion of my thoughts, of the way my reason becomes blurred and elusive, scattered by a mysterious, invisible anguish. (18—19)

As this passage itself suggests, the entire story reads like a clinical account of madness.

Similarly, in the mad narrative called “Who Knows?” (“Qui sait?” Echo de Paris, 6 August 1890), the narrator announces at the outset: “I am writing this in a private mental hospital” (145). This does not inspire confidence, especially when he tells the bizarre tale of coming home at night and finding all the pieces of his furniture marching out of the house of their own accord. Later the man finds them in an antique shop, but when he notifies the police the furniture is no longer in the shop; still later, the furniture returns to the man’s house. Did the furniture ever really walk out? Was the man mad even before he checked himself into the mental hospital? We never know, and are not meant to know.

“The Dead Girl” (“La Morte,” Gil Blas, 31 May 1887; usually translated as “Was It a Dream?”), if genuinely supernatural, constitutes a spectacular use of the supernatural for the purposes of moral satire. A man loves a woman, but she dies soon after they are married. He later goes to the cemetery where she is buried and sees all the occupants of the graves rising up: they are erasing the euphemistic inscriptions written on their tombstones and instead are writing the unvarnished truth about themselves. Here is one of them: “Here lies Jacques Olivant, who departed this life at the age of 51. Through his callous behaviour he hastened the death of his father, because he wanted his money. He tortured his wife, tormented his children, deceived his neighbours, robbed people whenever he could, and died in disgrace” (136—37). In a particularly grim twist, the man’s beloved’s tombstone is revised as follows: “Having gone out one day in order to deceive her lover, she caught cold in the rain, and died” (137). The story remains just on this side of allegory.

“Apparition” (in Claire de lune, 1884), uncharacteristically set in the past—the Rouen of 1827—deals with a soldier who meets an old friend who has aged hideously: this man had married but his wife had died after a year. The man asks the soldier to go to his chateau and bring back some papers from the bedroom, which has been sealed up since the wife’s death. He does so—but sees the apparition of a woman who, in a transparently sexual gesture, asks him to comb her hair. Later the spectre disappears—but the man’s coat is covered with long black hair.

Some of Maupassant’s tales are manifestly tales of crime and suspense: “On the River” (“En Canot,” Bulletin Français, 10 March 1876), in which a man in a boat, finding it difficult to pull up his anchor, finally manages to extricate the anchor from some impediment and finds that it brings up the body of a dead woman with a stone tied around her neck; “The Little Roque Girl” (“La Petite Roque,” Gil Blas, 18—23 December 1885), in which the mayor of a small town comes upon a young woman bathing and, in a fit of madness, rapes and kills her, but then finds himself overwhelmed with guilt and terror and kills himself. But even these tales are written with such a compressed tensity of expression that they become almost intolerably grim.

For all the excellence of Maupassant’s other tales, his richest and most compelling supernatural tale remains “The Horla” (“Le Horla”), which was published in both a short version (Gil Blas, 26 October 1886) and a long version (as a booklet, Ollendorf, 1887). This mesmerising narrative of a man who believes himself to be haunted by an invisible creature who appears to subsist on milk and water makes one momentarily think that the events of the tale can be accounted for psychologically. At the very outset he announces that he is feverish and depressed; after his condition deteriorates, he goes on a vacation to Mont St. Michel, where he hears strange legends of monsters and asks himself whether “beings other than ourselves exist” (100). All this appears to suggest that the invisible monster may be a hallucination; but then the man conducts an experiment that seems to confirm the actual existence of the alien entity. Unless we are to assume that the narrator is so unreliable that even his bare recital of facts is in doubt, we are forced to assume that at this point the supernatural is involved.

The narrator’s poignant utterance much later—“The rule of man has come to an end” (117)—is the result of his reading a book by one Hermann Herestauss, “doctor of philosophy and theogony” (114), who, it appears, has provided a kind of anthropology of the supernatural:

From reading this book I have the impression that man, ever since he has had the ability to think, has had the foreboding that a new creature would appear, someone stronger than himself, who would be his successor on earth. And, feeling that his arrival was imminent, but not being able to see what form this new master would take, man has created, out of sheer terror, a whole race of imaginary occult beings, vague ghosts born of fear. (114—15)

When the narrator hears of similar creatures appearing in Brazil, he feels that the onslaught of these invisible monsters has come in earnest—so what else can he do but kill himself? “The Horla” is one of the pinnacles of that fusion of supernatural and psychological horror that Maupassant made distinctly his own: once the manifestation of the supernatural is verified beyond all doubt, the effect on the psyche of a sensitive mind is so cataclysmic that madness or suicide is the only escape. A fair number of Maupassant’s stories fail to deliver, but the best of them will give him an unassailable place in the supernatural literature of his time.

It is customary to regard Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848—1907) as a significant figure in weird literature, but his actual contributions to specifically supernatural writing are slim to negligible, although this is not of course to deny the scintillating brilliance of his two chief novels, À Rebours (1884; usually translated as Against the Grain) and Là-Bas (1891; usually translated as Down There). There is, indeed, a pervasive sense of weirdness in Against the Grain and the quest of its celebrated protagonist, Jean Des Esseintes, to find some exotic phase of human activity—physical, artistic, or religious—to relieve his ineffable ennui; but it becomes plain that Des Esseintes’s quest is fundamentally aesthetic—a rejection of the bourgeois naturalism of Zola and his school. Much the same could be said of Down There, where at the very opening we are regaled with a vicious attack on Zolaesque naturalism, which “rejects every aspiration towards the supernatural and the beyond” (8). The protagonist of Down There, Durtal, does not entirely subscribe to this view, and of course nothing supernatural actually occurs. Instead, we are given highly detailed—and rather repulsive—accounts of the mediaeval black mass, the loathsome crimes of Gilles de Rais (about whom Durtal professes to be writing a treatise), and, in the novel’s most sensational (but quite brief) scene, a depiction of a modern-day black mass, chiefly involving a mixture of lasciviousness and deliberate blasphemy. This scene, as well as the novel as a whole, may have influenced subsequent supernatural literature to some degree, but the overall effect of Down There is more disgust than terror.

The work of another distinguished Frenchman, Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1838—1889), should be noted if only to make the point that they do not fall within the scope of the weird tale. His Contes cruels (1883) and Nouveaux contes cruels (1888) are masterpieces of the short story and, in their emphasis on grim twists of fate, set the stage for the later work of Maurice Level. His most celebrated tale, “The Torture by Hope” (“La Torture par l’espérance”), in which a prison official deliberately lets a prisoner escape only so that he may experience the added pain of recapture, is certainly a keen and meticulous analysis of sadism; and much of Villiers’s other work reveals keen psychological analysis of this sort. At best, his stories may venture occasionally into the realm of psychological suspense, but even here only rarely.