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THE DIARY OF A MAD MAN:
THE HORROR STORIES OF GUY DE MAUPASSANT


Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) is a strange figure in French literature. The majority of his works are short stories dealing with the social life of the French, most humorous, many with twist endings. The rest of de Maupassant's original output were tales of the Franco-Prussian War, described in a black humorous style. He is considered to be part of the Realist school, following his master, Gustave Flaubert. Today he is remembered for a handful of surprise ending stories such as "The Necklace" and for his horror tales.

It is with Le Gaulois in 1883 that de Maupassant diverted himself from a career as a humorous short story writer and begins on a second career that would make him a horror writer to stand beside Edgar Allan Poe. The stories in de Maupassant's first nine volumes often speak of insanity, and it becomes clear that the author had a fascination with mental illness that grew with time, for lunacy is often used by de Maupassant as a plot devise. In "Diary of a Mad Man" we read
a judge's diary revealing how he was obsessed with killing then murders a little boy and a fisherman. The editor appends that many such unknown killers are at large and undiscovered.

Vincent Price in The Diary of a Madman (1963)

The fascination with insanity becomes reality for de Maupassant in the 1880s. The French writer suffered from syphilis which produced a growing mental illness. It is during these last ten years he produced his most popular and terrifying stories, and indulging for the first time in true supernatural fiction (His earlier stories like "The White Lady" and "The Specter" contained no real phantoms, merely using the semblance of the supernatural to further a plot). H. P. Lovecraft in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" makes the distinction between de Maupassant and other writers thus:

"The horror-tales of the powerful and cynical Guy de Maupassant, written as his final madness gradually overtook him, present individualities of their own; being rather the morbid outpourings of a realistic mind in a pathological state than the healthy imaginative products of a vision naturally disposed toward phantasy and sensitive to the normal illusions of the unseen."

"He?" or "The Terror" is most often considered de Maupassant's first horror story and an indictor of his coming madness. In this tale, a solitary man explains why he is getting married to a woman he does not love. He simply can't stand to be alone. He believes he is going insane after seeing a shadowy figure in his room. The figure never reappears but the man can feel it lurking. It is not the figure's intentions which frighten him (and the reader) but merely its presence.

Of de Maupassant's terror tales, roughly half are tales with no outward supernatural forces but the impending sense of doom or insanity. Others like this include "On the River" in which a boater gets frightened when he is stranded because his boat's anchor gets stuck in the river. Later when some fishermen rescue him they find the corpse of a dead woman with a stone tied around her neck resting on the anchor.

In homage to Poe, one of de Maupassant's prime influences, "The Spasm" recounts a premature burial. A man meets a father and daughter at a health spa. The father tells of the daughter's harrowing experience. The girl who suffers from nerves was found in a stupor and thought dead and was buried. She awoke when a grave robber cut off her finger to steal a ring. When she gets home she recognizes the robber as her father's servant, Prosper. The twist with the servant is typical of de Maupassant's earlier work.

"The Mother of Monsters" is probably de Maupassant's most revolting story. A tourist who visits his friend in a small country town is taken to see the "Mother of Monsters", and then explains her story. Once a peasant girl who had become pregnant, she hid her condition by wearing a painful girdle. The child that was born was a hopeless freak and shamed the mother until some circus people offered her money for it. Getting a cash amount as well as an annual stipend, the woman went into production of monsters, having eleven that gave her a good income. Not happy to end the story there, de Maupassant adds a coda to the tale, a condemnation of women's fashions, with a coquettish beauty in a saloon whose children are hunched-back because she insists on being trim.

"Vendetta" or "Semillante" shows de Maupassant's interest with the Corsican blood-feud. One of three stories using the idea, "Vendetta" is perhaps the best. The Widow Saverini swears a vendetta against Nicolas Ravolati, who killed her only son, Antoine. To achieve this she trains the family dog, a loving creature named Semillante, to attack a scarecrow with meat hidden in it. The widow disguises herself as a beggar then takes the dog to Longosardo, where the murderer is hiding. The dog tears the man's throat out in his home and the woman and dog escape undetected.

"The White Wolf" or "The Wolf" has suggestion of lycanthropy but is not a supernatural story, but, like "Vendetta", one of human obsession with revenge. The Marquis d'Arville explains why he does not hunt. Two of his ancestor, Francis and John, were avid hunters. When a gigantic wolf started preying upon their lands, they set out to kill the monster. After an attack on the Marquis' own estate, the two men track the wolf down. In the hunt, John is killed. Francis traps and then kills the wolf, showing it to his dead brother. Francis believes, his brother would have died happy if only he had seen the wolf killed.

The rest, and perhaps the best of de Maupassant's works are the actual supernatural tales. De Maupassant is careful, even in these stories, to keep the monsters hidden, either by only suggesting what has happened, leaving the rest to the reader, or by weakly explaining them as the symptoms of insanity.

Classic Illustrated #21 (1944)

"The Hand" or "The Englishman" is one of two stories about severed killer hands, an idea which has become a cliche in horror fiction, in films like The Hand with Michael Caine. In de Maupassant's tale, Judge Bermutier tells of a strange event. An Englishman, Sir John Rowell, living in Corsica keeps a severed hand chained to the wall and loaded guns in every room. Later Rowell is found strangled and the chained hand is gone. The hand appears once again on the dead man's grave.

"The Flayed Hand" is preferred as the better tale by anthologist, Marvin Kaye, perhaps because of its more mysterious ending. A man's friend buys a severed hand at an auction. The jolly friend attaches it to his bell-rope, but the landlord complains. Placing it inside his room, the friend is found the next day strangled and the hand missing. He survives but is driven insane. He dies later, seeing phantom hands. The narrator finds the answer to the mystery when he returns home and a coffin is opened and a handless but vicious-looking skeleton is discovered.

"The Spectre" or "The Apparition" is de Maupassant's only true ghost story, reminiscent of the works of Edith Wharton. A man is asked by a friend to enter the house of his dead wife to retrieve some papers. While doing this a spectral woman appears asking to have her hair combed. The man obliges despite the coldness of her body. The woman leaves through a door that is firmly locked. When the man returns to his friend he can not be found. The husband of the dead woman disappears forever.

"Was It a Dream?", in typical de Maupassant fashion, doesn't strive to terrify--though the scene in which the dead rise is well done--but to show the hypocrisy of humanity. A man's becomes bereaved when his lover dies. He steals into a graveyard to sleep on the woman's grave, only to find all the dead rising, crossing off the writing on their tombstones and replacing it with truthful statements. Finding his lover's stone, he sees it no longer reads, "She loved, was loved, and died." but "Having gone out in the rain one day, in order to deceive her lover, she caught cold and died."

Lyn Ward's illustrations for "The Horla"

De Maupassant's masterpiece is "The Horla"(1886). Of all the stories he wrote this single tale is most often anthologized and was even filmed, though under the title of a different story, in MGM's Diary of a Mad Man (1963) with Vincent Price. H. P. Lovecraft felt of stories describing alien possession "this tense narrative is perhaps without peer in its particular department."

Longer than most of de Maupassant stories, "The Horla" uses the same diary format that the author used to effect in "The Diary of a Mad Man". The journal describes the day to day life of a man who feels he is being fed upon by some invisible thing that drains him of his essence, leaving him sick and weak. At first he puts the feeling off as nonsense but evidence begins to mount when he leaves for a holiday and feels better and then when he notices liquids, like the glass of water he keeps at his bedside, disappear. Eventually, the narrator witnesses the water being drunk as well as an amorphous cloud that passes between him and his mirror. The man is driven toward madness and burns his home down. He wonders if he has actually trapped and killed it. If not, he will commit suicide.

"The Horla" stands at the top of de Maupassant's list of achievements both for its claustrophobic and subtle feel but more so because it encapsulates everything the writer has written on madness, his tour de force on a subject of which he had a personal knowledge and terror.


Bibliography

De Maupassant, Guy. Complete Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant.
Kaye, Marvin. Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Lovecraft, H. P. H. P. Lovecraft's Book of Horror. Ed: Stephen Jones & Dave Carson. London: Robinson Publishing, 1993.

O'Shaughnessy, Michael. The Monster Book of Monsters. New York: Bonanza Books, 1988.

Pronzini, Bill. Werewolf. New York: Arbor House, 1979.


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MORE ABOUT THE BOOK COLLECTOR STORIES

MY CTHULHU STORY PART 1

MY CTHULHU STORY PART 2

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THE FUTURE OF LOVECRAFTIAN HORROR

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