Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The use of a first-person narrator is a highly effective means of intensifying the story’s horror. The reader becomes a helpless witness to the onset of the narrator’s madness (or perhaps to his visitation by a supernatural being). By first establishing the narrator as a sympathetic figure and then involving the reader in his tragedy, Maupassant makes the ending of his story truly horrific. This is particularly important because the deaths of several innocent victims could all too easily have repelled Maupassant’s readers.

“The Horla” is an excellent example of Maupassant’s compact style. No detail in the work is unnecessary. The Brazilian ship mentioned at the beginning of the story becomes important, for example, when the narrator reads an account of the “mass hallucination” that occurred near Rio de Janeiro. The monk’s tale of a ghost appearing near Mont Saint-Michel and the story of a séance in Paris both serve gradually to strip away the narrator’s skepticism. By the time that the climax is reached, every detail of the story has been found to play an important role in advancing a sense of horror.

A word of Maupassant’s own coinage, “horla” is a pseudo-Portuguese word that the narrator uses to describe the supernatural being that haunts him. Although derived from the French expressions hors de lui (“outside of himself”) or hors là (“outside there”), “horla” also suggests the words horreur (“horror”), horrible (“horrible”), and hurler (“to howl”). The result is to imply that the level of terror in the story cannot be expressed by ordinary words.