Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Just because you're paranoid: revisiting three terrorific tales by Guy de Maupassant

I’d happened upon a dog-eared copy of his collected stories while staying alone for a few days in this sort of cottage belonging to the father of a friend, a little place in the Rockies. This was years ago and I recall knowing next to nothing about Guy de Maupassant, really, though some sliver of a memory told me ‘Le Horla’ was supposed to be something special. I cooked up some coffee, rubbed my knees to get warm, nestled by a foggy widow in the kitchen, figuring I’d kill a little time with some light reading. I didn’t figure on being unshakably creeped out. Or on the story being so deliciously wrought.

It seems Maupassant’s not read so much these days, at least in English. I don’t know his novels, but his stories are marvelous. I’ve been reacquainting myself with several of them, partially because I've been realizing just how many great filmmakers have adapted Maupassant—Buñuel, Ophüls, Godard—but mostly because autumn is the time of year I habitually set aside for reading anything that might raise the little back-of-the-neck hairs, which often winds up being something from the 1900s, that century haunted by the clash of scientific discovery and persistent folklore, by anxieties drawn from exploration, colonialism and industrialization. Several of Maupassant’s best stories are sly examinations of class insecurity, some, like the marvelous ‘Tellier House’ or ‘Mademoiselle Fifi,’ focus specifically on the fortunes of wily prostitutes. Relatively few could be considered horror in the strictest sense, and those that come closest are relentlessly ambiguous with regards to the supernatural—yet the very particular breed of unease in which they trade functions as a sort of bridge between Poe and Paul Bowles, while exhibiting a flair for economy that looks forward to Hemingway.

‘The Hand’ is a terrific example of Maupassant’s deft managing of the short, sharp macabre, one of those tales relayed by a party with only limited knowledge of what truly passed. A magistrate promises a small audience of women—it seems always the women who are openly curious about all things ghastly or inexplicable in these stories—his memory of “a case that truly seemed to verge on fantasy,” involving an Englishman residing in a Corsican town, a place teeming with legends of violent vendettas. The Englishman possesses an impressive collection of trophies from his travels to exotic lands, among them a human hand, shackled at the wrist, which belonged to an American, the Englishman’s “worst enemy.” Things get especially interesting when the Englishman is mysteriously murdered, and I love the way Maupassant has his otherwise very orderly narrator stop in the midst of describing a crime scene to conspicuously note that the culprit was never found. A finger, however, eventually is. I won’t tell you where.

‘The Inn’ was supposedly a big influence on Stephen King’s The Shinning, though its narrative simplicity and formal elegance could have just as easily informed countless subsequent stories of cabin fever. It concerns a pair of guides looking after an inn nestled in “those bare and rocky gorges that cut through white mountain peaks,” a place that serves as refuge for travelers going through the Gemini Pass. As the story begins the guides are escorting their summer guests down the mountain on the eve of winter, when the inn becomes a “snowy prison” and the area impassable. Ulrich, the younger of the guides, is heartsick for one of the daughters of the departing family, and Maupassant, in spare language, vividly evokes the ache felt as the desired girl carries on past the point where the guides must turn back, disappearing into the distant valley that will soon be erased under a blanket of white.

But the pain of the girl’s absence felt by Ulrich will eventually be replaced by his panic over the absence of Gaspard, his elder co-worker and sole companion for the six-month long off-season, aside from their dog. With Gaspard’s disappearance, paranoia replaces longing, rising like a presence within the “death-like hush of the sleeping mountains.” Maupassant traces Ulrich’s growing worries in prose that keeps within the constraints of reportage, always cool and detached, the antithesis of the histrionics that can makes the work of H.P. Lovecraft, for one, hard to take at times.

Oddly enough, Lovecraft cited ‘Le Horla’ as a source of inspiration for his own ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’ though whatever tonal resemblance they share might be explained by the fact that ‘Horla’ is written in the first-person as a journal, allowing Maupassant to indulge in flights of subjective inner turmoil on behalf of his lonesome, deeply troubled protagonist, who, regardless of how we interpret his claims of being pursued by some invisible entity, is clearly losing his marbles. Maupassant’s prose is by nature not overtly poetic, yet there’s much poetry in his looping of images which shift in meaning upon return, as is the case with the ship from Brazil sailing down the Seine. When first it appears our protagonist is so inexplicably moved by its grace that he salutes it. By the time it returns, this ship will become a harbinger of catastrophic malaise.

The journal keeper is tormented by a heightened awareness of the invisible influences at work in the world, phenomena that seems to him sufficiently grounded in both science and common sense. His sleep is gradually invaded by the sensation of some succubus-like presence, what would today be likely diagnosed as the effects of parasomnia. He sees containers of water and milk mysteriously drained every night. At one point he witnesses the power of hypnosis on a relative and is overcome with terror of the psyche’s frailty, all the more reason to feel susceptible to the elusive force he characterizes as spying, watching, penetrating and dominating. He’s spiraling into some sort of psychologically induced abyss, clearly, yet this doesn’t mean that the entity won’t succeed in corrupting and finally ruining him.

“Solitude is certainly dangerous for active intellects,” the protagonist of ‘Le Horla’ tells us, which may remind us of the inherent solitude of the writer. At one point the protagonist complains about having never read anything that might describe his condition—but how did Maupassant feel toward the end of his life, shortened by syphilis and its accompanying madness, knowing that not only had he read about such conditions but actually wrote about them? Some say he was already going mad when he wrote ‘Le Horla.’ He died, a year after attempting suicide, on June 6, 1893. He was 42.

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