Wednesday, December 22, 2004

the Horla

I finished reading Guy de Maupassant's story "The Horla" last night, from "The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories." The protagonist sounds so much like a person in desolation.

"Now I know, I can divine. The reign of man is over, and he has come. He who was feared by primitive man; whom disquieted priests exorcised; whom sorcerers evoked on dark nights, without having seen him appear, to whom the imagination of the transient masters of the world lent all the monstrous or graceful forms of gnomes, spirits, genii, fairies and familiar spirits... 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-- he repeats it-- the-- Horla-- I hear-- the Horla-- it is he-- the Horla-- he has come!

But the butterfly, you will say, a flying flower? I dream of one that should be as large as a hundred worlds, with wings whose shape, beauty, colors and motion I cannot even express. But I see it -- it flutters from star to star, refreshing them and perfuming them with the light and harmonious breath of its flight! And the people up there look at it as it passes in an ecstasy of delight."

In the introduction to the book, editor Leslie Shepard notes that De Maupassant died of syphilis in an asylum six years after writing this story.

I started "The Horla" on the train to Boston, on my way to the Pauline Cooperator retreat. I questioned then, and now, my affinity for horror stories, vampire stories, stories of the dark and monstrous. Twentieth century criticism has written at length about "the monstrous" and why it appeals to us. But much of that criticism is a criticism of the Church, and religion. Horror movies, stories of the monstrous appeal to us because the Church and religion have repressed the darker sides of human nature so that we have to approach them obliquely, through tales of terror and the supernatural.

Not all modern criticism goes that way - it's mostly mainstream literary critics who do so, not the genre critics.

But after my experience recently of such desolation, I find myself wondering if this sort of story, the horror genre that I am drawn to both in reading and in writing, is part of the "old man" that I ought to discard as I put on the new. There is a stubborness in me that insists this cannot be so -- but is it part of my Steppenwolf-Rae to embrace the dark and shy from the light, in fiction? Certainly that thought merits consideration and prayer.


Gordon said...

I'm reluctant to condemn horror as a genre, too. I can't come up with specific reasons, except that I think horror (like almost everything) can have redeeming value or not, depending on how it's written. I also think a lot of horror uses the fantastic and supernatural to explore more common themes in a way that gets us to look at them in a different light.

Rae said...

You are reluctant to condemn horror as a genre, Gordon. I have been perhaps too lavish in my praise of horror as a genre -- maybe half the reason I have loved horror so much is because I liked to be the cool Catholic chick who is into blood and guts and all that. Your reluctance to condemn it may be a point at which I might begin a re-evaluation, because you have never struck me as a Catholic who wanted to be cool.

Today in the first reading St. John's letter states that "God is all light, there is no darkness in Him."
It is notoriously difficult to imagine God and goodness with accuracy and not sentiment through art, but much less so the devil and evil. Is darkness easier to portray than light because we spend more time in the darkness than in the light? Or is it the "glamour of evil" that makes horror an easier genre than joy? Is joy even the opposite of horror?

Gordon said...

Sadly, I think it's that most of us are much more familiar with horror or at least sadness, than with true joy (i.e. the joy and peace that Christ brings). This is true not just for "godless heathens" but for all of us, Christians and nonChristians alike, I think.

Perhaps also (or instead) it's that we are intimately more familiar with what Hell might be like, than what Heaven is.

Duffy said...

Interesting, Rae, especially since I've used you as "cover" for my own fondness for the genre. As in, "Well, if even Rae says it's OK, it's got to be OK." I'll have to re-think this now.

By the way, I love your compliment to Gordon: " have never struck me as a Catholic who wanted to be cool."