The Ghostly Writer

The French writer Guy de Maupassant was famous for approximately two things: one, his brief yet incredibly prolific writing career; and two, his claim that one of his many stories just happened to have been dictated to him by his ghost-double, his doppelganger.

M. de Maupassant was dying of syphilis for the last several years of his life (perhaps we have three things he was famous for), and insanity is one symptom of that terrible disease. In “The Horla,” which he published in 1887, a few years before his death, the narrator is tormented by a demon he can not see, can not prove exists, but who comes to him every night and drinks the water off his night table and makes him ransack his own house, to the consternation of his servants. (I might write a parody of this and call it, “The Santa.”)

There is a pretty fair translation of “The Horla” at the University of Virginia Library’s E-Text Center. Here is a chunk:

I fell asleep, dreaming thus in the cool night air, and then, having slept for about three quarters of an hour, I opened my eyes without moving, awakened by an indescribably confused and strange sensation. At first I saw nothing, and then suddenly it appeared to me as if a page of the book, which had remained open on my table, turned over of its own accord. Not a breath of air had come in at my window, and I was surprised and waited. In about four minutes, I saw, I saw—yes I saw with my own eyes—another page lift itself up and fall down on the others, as if a finger had turned it over. My armchair was empty, appeared empty, but I knew that He was there, He, and sitting in my place, and that He was reading. With a furious bound, the bound of an enraged wild beast that wishes to disembowel its tamer, I crossed my room to seize him, to strangle him, to kill him! But before I could reach it, my chair fell over as if somebody had run away from me. My table rocked, my lamp fell and went out, and my window closed as if some thief had been surprised and had fled out into the night, shutting it behind him.

The great writer could have been describing the inner sensation of the act of creation, in which one does not notice or remember one’s surroundings while composing; many writers describe writing as an act of taking dictation from some unknown entity rather than consciously thinking thoughts and finding connections and developing the logic of the work. But according to contemporary accounts of de Maupassant’s description of the events surrounding the composition of this particular story (nothing that he wrote himself made any assertion about a doppelganger), he claimed that his double came to him in his room while he was at his desk, which startled him, yet he continued to write. A ghost story dictated by the writer’s ghost.

Over the next five years, de Maupassant grew increasingly insane, made an attempt on his own life, and died in an asylum at age 42. For its sad narrator, “The Horla” closely hues to that outline:

The reign of man is over, and he has come. He whom disquieted priests exorcised, whom sorcerers evoked on dark nights, without seeing him appear, He to whom the imaginations of the transient masters of the world lent all the monstrous or graceful forms of gnomes, spirits, genii, fairies, and familiar spirits. After the coarse conceptions of primitive fear, men more enlightened gave him a truer form. Mesmer divined him, and ten years ago physicians accurately discovered the nature of his power, even before He exercised it himself. They played with that weapon of their new Lord, the sway of a mysterious will over the human soul, which had become enslaved. They called it mesmerism, hypnotism, suggestion, I know not what? I have seen them diverting themselves like rash children with this horrible power! Woe to us! Woe to man! He has come, the—the—what does He call himself—the—I fancy that he is shouting out his name to me and I do not hear him—the—yes—He is shouting it out—I am listening—I cannot—repeat—it—Horla—I have heard—the Horla—it is He—the Horla—He has come!—Ah I—the vulture has eaten the pigeon, the wolf has eaten the lamb; the lion has devoured the sharp-horned buffalo; man has killed the lion with an arrow, with a spear, with gunpowder; but the Horla will make of man what man has made of the horse and of the ox: his chattel, his slave, and his food, by the mere power of his will. Woe to us!

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This is a re-write of a post from two years ago.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 17 asks us to reflect on the word, “Ghost.”

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