Last Updated on October 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632
The protagonist of this story is an unnamed narrator, about whom we know relatively little, except that he is a man who is sufficiently well off to employ a coachman and various other servants, and who seems to live on his own, apart from these servants. At the beginning of the story, the narrator is relatively calm, but is anxious that he seems to be becoming ill. In order to fend off this illness, he takes a holiday to Mont St Michel. Whilst there, he meets a monk who tells him of local superstitions, all of the supernatural type. When he returns back to his home, he finds that other members of his household are sick with his feverish anxiety, too. As time wears on, he becomes increasingly convinced that he is being haunted by some unseen force. Ultimately, thinking he has lured this force into his room and shut it in, the narrator sets his house on fire. At the end of the story, his voice has become increasingly unhinged, and it seems that he may kill himself for fear that the being is not dead.
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The being, called the Horla by the narrator, is the force that looms larger and larger in the narrator's life. At first, it seems that he may be afflicted by sleep paralysis, but the narrator becomes convinced that the Horla is drinking and eating things laid out for him in the night, and is pursuing the narrator as he goes about his daily business. It also appears to be reading the narrator’s books, turning pages as if perusing the text. The narrator has discovered similar occurrences to his own whilst reading a scientific journal; apparently, inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro had reported a “madness” in which the Horla, “a species of vampire,” would “feed on their life while they are asleep.” Eventually, the narrator believes he has seen the Horla as a sort of mist that visits him in the night. The mist is visible in the mirror and nearly blocks the narrator’s own reflection completely. At the end of the story, the Horla is—perhaps or perhaps not—destroyed. Ultimately, it is unclear whether the Horla really exists at all.
A monk who the narrator meets at Mont St Michel tells him various stories of what exists in the world beyond our general understanding. He inspires the narrator to think about the supernatural. The narrator thinks of the monk as either a philosopher or a fool, yet his words about the unseen workings of the world left an impact.
Various servants of the narrator appear in the story, particularly the coachman, Jean, who is also unwell due to a lack of sleep. The servants notice that glasses are broken in the night, and take to blaming each other. The implication is that the Horla has been causing a ruckus, yet remains characteristically unseen.
The narrator also visits his cousin, Madame Sable, who is holding a dinner party alongside a doctor, Dr. Parent, who is a hypnotist. She is hypnotized to ask her cousin for five thousand francs for her husband the following morning. Madame Sabe is extremely distraught by this action: she cannot recall why she is asking for the money and becomes increasingly upset when her cousin informs her he does not carry that amount of money on a regular basis.
Dr. Parent hypnotizes Madame Sable, and the narrator is amazed when she does exactly as he said she would and comes to his hotel to request five thousand francs. This convinces the narrator that more things are possible than he had assumed before. It unsettles him, too, because he was quite skeptical of the whole ordeal to begin with.