“The Horla,” Dracula’s Older French Cousin

By Daniel Ferreras Savoye


Abstract: Although both Guy de Maupassant’s “Le Horla” and Bram Stoker’s Dracula have benefited from a great deal of scholarly attention, their striking similarities in terms of form and content have been so far ignored by the critics. The comparative analysis of both texts not only sheds new light upon the influence Maupassant’s short story assuredly had on Stoker’s novel, but illustrates as well fundamental mechanisms of the fantastic mode, such as familiarization and scientization, which allow us to better define it against the ever-elusive notion of gothic literature.

Keywords: The fantastic, Maupassant, Stoker, “The Horla,” Dracula, vampire, gothic


There is another vampire before Dracula, just as disturbingly modern, and that is the maleficent, intangible entity that destroys the protagonist’s life and sanity in Guy de Maupassant’s classic fantastic tale “The Horla” (“Le Horla”). Originally published under the name “Letter of a Madman” as early as 1885 in the French newspaper Gil Blas, “The Horla” was further developed throughout two consecutive versions, in 1886 and 1887, the last one being the most well known and that which is usually read. Although all agree in considering “The Horla” as a masterwork of fantastic literature, starting with the author himself who felt the need to keep on improving it in form and content by rewriting it twice, its striking similarities with Dracula have gone unnoticed, in spite of the considerable amount of scholarship devoted to both works. “The Horla” is only occasionally mentioned and in a peripheral way as one possible literary antecedent of Dracula, along with William Polidori’s The Vampyre, Thomas Prest’s Varney the Vampyre, and far behind Sheridan le Fanu’ Carmilla, which provides some of novel’s most obvious tropes, such as the friendship between two young women or the character of Baron Vordenburg, a clear inspiration for that of professor Van Helsing. However, when it comes to the treatment of the supernatural in the fantastic mode, Dracula is much closer to “The Horla” than to Varney the Vampyre or Carmilla and it is not a coincidence if Maupassant’s creature remains to this day more well known that any other vampire that preceded Dracula.

Chronologically speaking, the first English translation of “The Horla” appeared in Modern Ghosts, a compilation of supernatural stories published by Harper & Brothers in 1890, that is seven years before Dracula was published in 1897, which would have given Stoker ample time to appreciate and assimilate Maupassant’s fine story telling. Not only are Stoker’s first working papers regarding Dracula dated “8/3/90” (Frayling 339), the very year “Le Horla” appeared in English, but some specific details, both formal and referential, lead us to conclude almost irrefutably that not only Bram Stoker was very aware of “The Horla,” but that he also left some clues behind, either willingly or unwillingly, regarding the direct influence Maupassant’s story had upon his creation.

Given their many similarities, a comparative analysis of these two masterworks of fantastic literature will naturally further our understanding of the fantastic mode by revealing some of its more characteristic structural patterns and recurrent narrative motifs, allowing us, among other things, to distinguish it from the often misused and confusing notion of “gothic genre.” To better contextualize my demonstration, I will use the 1890 English translation of “The Horla,” that which, according to all probabilities, Bram Stoker read the same year he began to conceive Dracula.


The Three Faces of “The Horla”

“The Horla” tells the story of a man who feels progressively possessed by a mysterious being as his reality is suddenly subverted by the irruption of unexplainable occurrences. The first version, “Letter of a Madman,” presents relatively little action, leaving more room to the protagonist’s considerations regarding the natural limitations of human perception and our incapacity to see beyond the surface. By reflecting upon those matters, the protagonist progressively sharpens his senses until he perceives indeed an invisible presence lurking about which frightens him to the verge of madness, and leads him to address this letter to his physician: “My dear doctor, I place myself in your hands” (“Mon cher docteur, je me mets entre vos mains” (233)). Whether “Letter of a Madman” is logically presented in an epistolary form, the second version of the story, and first to be entitled “The Horla,” is a framed narration, in which the narrator is invited by an eminent alienist to hear the story of one of his patients, who in turn tells the tale in the first person. This particular version adds several instances of supernatural manifestation to the story, such as the protagonist’s sensation of a deadly weight on his chest that sucks his breath as he sleeps, water and milk disappearing overnight from the nightstand, a rose floating in the middle of an alley in the garden, and the pages of a book turning by themselves, without however sacrificing the intellectual considerations that compose most of “Letter of a Madman.” It also includes external witnesses, for it is revealed at the end of the story that three of the patient’s neighbors have apparently fallen prey to this strange being for they claim identical symptoms, a fact which is corroborated by the physician. The patient finishes his story by pointing out a newspaper article which reports a similar epidemic in Brazil, and stating that he indeed saw a Brazilian boat on the Seine a few days before he began feeling that strange and threatening presence around him; he then concludes that the mysterious creature was most likely hidden aboard.

The third and final version of “The Horla”—the very one that was translated by Jonathan Sturges and published by Harper & Brothers in 1890—is presented under the form of a diary, which gives a day-to-day account of the protagonist’s battle with the invisible creature, climaxing in a tragic scene, where the narrator, attempting to eliminate the mysterious creature that has invaded his vital space and his consciousness, burns down his house and his servants along with it, to no avail since he senses that the creature is still alive, and finishes his diary contemplating suicide as the only way to escape its terrifying grip. This version uses most of the same motifs as the previous one albeit in a slightly different arrangement in order to improve their narrative efficiency: the narrator is no longer committed to a mental institution and appears on the contrary perfectly at ease at the beginning of the story, which shows him enjoying the view of the Seine from his garden and saluting a Brazilian boat which he finds particularly handsome, a gesture whose significance will not be revealed until the article describing the mysterious epidemic in Brazil is mentioned toward the end of the story. The news regarding the apparent invasion of mysterious creatures in some villages in Brazil, which corroborate the narrator’s tale and hence contribute to the fantastic effect by turning a subjective adventure into an apparently objective reality, is itself more precisely presented than in the previous version, in order to accentuate its realistic dimension: it is no longer a random piece from some anonymous newspaper but a scientific report published in the fictitious albeit prestigious sounding Revue du Monde Scientifique, the name of which is reminiscent of the Revue des Deux Mondes, one of the most respected publications of the time.

The form of the diary allows naturally for a more direct identification with the receiver, as we experience the progression of the action at the same time as the narrator, whose discourse becomes increasingly fragmented, hence strengthening the relationship between form and content. Unlike the letter of the madman in the first version and the exposition of the patient in the second, which are stylistically static, the diary from the third and last version formally documents the increasing fear of the narrator by linguistically reproducing his mental breakdown. This last version also distances the narrative voice from the immediate neighborhood of psychiatrists and lunatic asylums, hence further removing madness as a possible explanation: whereas “Letter of a Madman” is addressed to a physician, hence implying that the protagonist has accepted the possibility that he might have gone mad, as suggested by the title itself, and the first version of “The Horla” is framed within the walls of a mental institution, the final version only introduces the possibility of madness insofar as the protagonist doubts his own sanity, which paradoxically could be considered as a sign of mental health, for true madness does not doubt itself.

In spite of these noticeable differences, all three versions, however, preserve one specific narrative motif, which constitutes the only true instance of a supernatural occurrence in “Letter of a Madman,” as well as the final and climactic confrontation with the mysterious entity in the two versions of “The Horla”: one evening, as he strongly feels the presence of the mysterious being around him, the protagonist looks at himself in the mirror and is unable to see his reflection. As his reflection slowly reappears, emerging from behind a diffuse mist, he deduces that the mysterious creature was between him and the mirror, and that it absorbed his reflection. The Horla having no reflection at all should naturally remind us of Dracula himself, and as to confirm our suspicions, the word “vampire” appears at the end of the last two versions in relationship to the epidemic which is forcing the inhabitants of entire villages in Brazil to leave their homes, claiming that they have become possessed by a mysterious creature who steals their breaths and drinks their milk and water during the night.


Le Dracula    

Maupassant’s Horla thus seems to already possess most of the same characteristics of Stoker’s Dracula and to function in comparable ways. Its relationship with light and darkness, for instance, is similar to that of the vampire, since it is most maleficent at night but can still exist in the daylight, just as Dracula, who, contrary to popular belief, does not spontaneously combust when exposed to sunlight, but only loses most of his powers. The Horla can also manifest himself during the day, as in the episode where the narrator, strolling through his garden, sees a rose being cut by invisible hands, suspended in the air and apparently kissed by invisible lips. Although doubtlessly frightening, for it signifies the irruption of the unexplainable in a very mundane setting, this instance of the supernatural in the protagonist’s formerly quietly arranged life does not imply any direct physical threat—it would almost seem an amicable gesture. It is the night that turns the Horla into a monstrous predator, who sucks the breath of the narrator during his sleep, just as the vampire sucks the blood from his victims. The Horla also drinks the water and the milk that the narrator leaves on his nightstand; although definitely less fulfilling than blood, both water and milk still signify life at primordial and essential levels, for water is the fundamental condition for life as we conceive it, and milk is directly and universally related to motherhood. In Stoker’s novel, breath, water, and milk are fused into one single element, blood, which is both life and liquid.

The definitive version of “The Horla” also reworks the encounter of the narrator with the Brazilian ship aboard which the mysterious creature is supposed to have arrived by introducing it at the beginning of the story, as the narrator is but a happy, worry-free fellow, so enchanted by the view of the beautiful three masts that he feels compelled to salute him. Naturally, he will not realize the significance of his gesture until the end of the story:

Ah! Ah! I remember, I remember the beautiful Brazilian three-master which passed up the Seine under my window on the 8th of last May! I thought it was so beautiful, so white, so gay! The Being was aboard it, coming from that distant country where his race was born! (42-43)

This handsome ship aboard which the Horla allegedly arrived from Brazil to Normandy naturally reminds us of the ship Dracula used in order to travel from his native Transylvania to the city of London. Furthermore, the protagonist’s gesture of salutation could be interpreted as an invitation to invade his home and his consciousness. Just like Dracula, the Horla travels by sea from a distant, exotic place to what can be considered as familiar surroundings—the outskirts of Rouen or different districts of London—and needs to be previously invited in order to invade his victim’s homes. The last revision of “The Horla” therefore adds an element which has since become one of the most well-known staples of the vampire’s narrative universe, the need for the monster to be invited in by his prey who therefore become involuntarily responsible for their own demise. This confers a truly tragic dimension to the characters’ ordeal, as they appear prisoners of their actions, just as Oedipus was of his.

On the formal front, Dracula, interestingly enough, reunites the three types of narrative we find in the successive versions of “The Horla”: the epistolary format (“Letter of a Madman”), the testimony (“The Horla,” first version), and the diary. However, the latter, which corresponds to that of the final version of Maupassant’s tale, overwhelmingly dominates the economy of the narration in terms of both quantity and significance, since the most important developments are presented through Lucy’s and Mina’s respective journals, Dr. Seward’s diary and, of course, Jonathan Harker’s journal, which opens the novel and first introduces the ominous Count Dracula. Jonathan Harker’s diary progresses in the same manner as that of the nameless narrator of “Le Horla,” starting by recording rather ordinary information, such as trite details regarding local cuisine and inadequate transportation until the final leg of his journey and his arrival to Dracula’s castle. However, in spite of the uncanny atmosphere of the castle, Jonathan Harker’s diary does not start to express fear openly until the end of the second chapter, precisely after he realizes that count Dracula has no reflection in his shaving mirror:

Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder, and heard the Count’s voice saying to me, “Good-morning.” I started, for it amazed me that I had not seen him, since the reflection of the glass covered the whole room behind me. […] Having answered the Count’s salutation, I turned to the glass again to see how I had been mistaken. This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in the mirror! The whole room behind me was displayed; but there was no sign of a man in it, except myself. (30-31)

Jonathan Harker searches then for a way to escape the castle and concludes that it is “a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!” (32).

This particular episode is the first supernatural occurrence in the novel, a truly fantastic moment, for the unexplainable is presented in a most mundane context—Jonathan Harker is shaving. It also introduces what has become one of the most distinctive and exploited features of the vampire, his absence of reflection, which he shares with the Horla in all three versions of the story. However, whereas the moment when the narrator is unable to see himself in the mirror is the last, most extreme iteration of the supernatural in “The Horla”—and the only one in “Letter of a Madman”—it is on the contrary its first real irruption in Dracula, as if Dracula started precisely where the Horla ends.

As to underline this symmetry, this entry in Harker’s journal is dated May 8th, which is the exact same date as the first entry in the narrator’s diary in “Le Horla.” This particular date might seem innocuous enough outside of a close circle of friends, for it is the day on which Gustave Flaubert, Maupassant’s friend and mentor, passed away. From a
strictly biographical standpoint, May 8th had naturally ominous connotations for Maupassant, which explains why he chose it as the beginning for a dark fantastic tale. In Dracula, this day marks the first true confrontation between Harker and the supernatural, that is the moment when the novel becomes fantastic. This parallelism of dates and narrative motifs leaves little doubt regarding the influence “The Horla” had upon Dracula, for the choice of the 8th of May to present the episode of the mirror, whether conscious or unconscious, is an undeniable reference to the vampire’s older French cousin.


The Un-Gothic

From a generic point of view, “Le Horla” and Dracula are both exemplary illustrations of the modern fantastic. Although Dracula is often presented as a “gothic” novel, the term proves rather misleading for it describes a narrative category—a set of narrative motifs—rather than a particular narrative mode, that is the way the narrated universe relates to our reality. This common confusion explains why the gothic usually includes an almost infinite variety of authors, ranging from Edgar Allan Poe and Ann Radcliff to Howard Philip Lovecraft and Stephen King, enthusiastically overlooking the fundamental differences and specific intentionality of their respective works. Whereas many of Poe’s tales are uncanny rather than fantastic, for they do not present any supernatural element in their narrative universe, i.e., “The Purloined Letter,” “The Gold Bug,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” those by Lovecraft, on the contrary, generate their narrative authority from the direct opposition between what is rationally acceptable and what is not. Whereas Ann Radcliff’s novels present a strange reality where the apparently supernatural is often explained, those by Stephen King present an utterly normal reality suddenly subverted by the irruption of the unexplainable, which will remain unexplained, i.e., Christine, Needful Things, or The Shining. This last example does include its share of gothic elements, such as the old fashioned hotel and the isolation of the mountains; however, the interest of the narration resides in the progressive subversion of an acceptable reality rather than in the exploration of its protagonists’ familial conflicts and romantic interactions, as in Radcliff’s novels. The paradigms we usually conceive as “gothic,” such as ancient ruined castles, crypts, skulls, ghostly apparitions, monsters, and strange noises in the night are not enough to create the fantastic mode, which depends upon the organization of the paradigms rather than upon the paradigms themselves: the fundamental narrative authority of the fantastic stems from the confrontation between the very possible and the utterly impossible, a confrontation which all but disappears with Ann Radcliff’s conception of the “explainable supernatural.” Furthermore, in the case of Dracula, it could be argued that the narration quickly sheds its gothic trimmings, first of all by introducing the narration from the perspective of a rather unexciting fellow, whose preoccupations are more practical than romantic:

The time I waited seemed endless, and I felt doubts and fears crowding upon me. What sort of place had I come to, and among what kind of people? What sort of grim adventure was it on which I had embarked? Was this a customary incident in the life of a solicitor’s clerk sent out to explain the purchase of a London estate to a foreigner? Solicitor’s clerk! Mina would not like that. Solicitor—for just before leaving London I got word that my examination was successful; and I am now a full-blown solicitor! (21)

Jonathan Harker’s conceptions of life and love appear rather bourgeois and dull, very much like his excitement at having passed the examination to become a real solicitor, which correspond perfectly to the pragmatic rather than emotional tone of his journal’s initial entries.

The atmosphere of the Carpathian mountains and the general appearance of Dracula’s castle do belong among the most recognizable paradigms of gothic literature, however, not only are they presented from the point of view of a very ordinary individual, they are also quickly left behind, as the narration moves to more recognizable surrounding, such as London and its vicinity, where most of the action takes place: what makes Dracula an authoritative narration does not reside in its gothic elements but in the constant confrontation it presents between an acceptable reality and the supernatural.

We find as well our share of gothic elements in “The Horla,” although it is not usually considered a gothic tale, such as the visit of the protagonist to the Mont-Saint-Michel, which describes the site’s tormented gothic architecture and relates a strange conversation with a monk who expresses our inability to see all that surrounds us in rather mysterious if not mystical terms. However, just as it happens in Dracula, where the narration has to move away from Transylvania to a more familiar environment in order to preserve its fantastic dimension, this visit to the Mont-Saint-Michel occurs early in the tale, as the narrator, believing that he is only temporarily ill, has decided to take a trip in order to restore his health and has apparently succeeded, as stated in the following entry: “ June 2nd: At home again. I am cured. And besides, I have made a charming excursion. I visited the mont Saint-Michel [sic] where I had never been” (9). In actuality, the beginning of this quote in the French original, “je rentre,” is better rendered in English by “I’m on my way back home,” hence further dissociating the gothic from the fantastic: the Horla does not manifest itself within the recognizably gothic environment of the Mont-Saint-Michel but only within the familiar space of the narrator’s house.

Both texts, Dracula and “Le Horla,” therefore separate the fantastic from gothic motifs, which, rather than enhancing the fantastic effect tend to dilute it by connoting a less realistic environment, where specters and apparitions are accepted by common folks, as are the superstitions the natives share elliptically with Jonathan Harker at the beginning of his journey or those told to the narrator of “The Horla” during his visit to the Mont-Saint-Michel, which involve a ghost shepherd with an invisible head herding a he-goat and a she-goat with human faces. It is precisely when they are cut off from these superstitions and fairy tales that “The Horla” and Dracula gain their statures of terrifying monsters, as they materialize in a reality we can identify as our own, further suggesting the real possibility of the unthinkable.


Weird Sciences

In order to enhance the suspension of disbelief, the supernatural has to be wagered against an utmost rational, if not scientific conception of reality, which tends to push away the matters of the heart, and so, rather than developing Lucy’s or even Mina’s romantic matters, which soon fade into the background, Dracula concentrates upon the investigation of its main protagonists, in particular Dr. Seward and professor Van Helsing—both men of science—as they search first for possible explanations and then for the means to destroy the vampire in a very lucid, scientific fashion. Similarly, the narrator of “The Horla” experiments in a highly rational manner with the different liquids he leaves on his nightstand in order to determine if they are indeed being drunk by the invisible creature during the night; in one instance, he wraps up the bottles of water and milk with white muslin and rubs his lips, his beard, and his hands with black-lead before going to sleep, as to demonstrate to himself that he is neither sleepwalking nor going mad.

Since the narrative tension on which the fantastic mode relies is most of all epistemological, it naturally plays upon the limitations of sciences within sciences themselves, which tend to be represented in their more enigmatic modalities, raising more questions than providing solutions, as to challenge our very means of apprehending the world. Just as the narrator of “The Horla” started by questioning our perception and understanding of what surrounds us, Dr. Seward and Professor Van Helsing often discuss the validity of human perception and understanding of reality, and underline their fundamental flaws by presenting apparently unexplainable yet verified facts:

Can you tell me how the Indian fakir can make himself to die and have been buried, and his grave sealed and corn sowed on it, and the corn reaped and be cut and sown and reaped and cut again, and then men come and take away the unbroken seal and that there lie the Indian fakir, not dead, but that rise up and walk amongst them as before? (172)

Scientific demonstrations hence only demonstrate the inadequacy of our epistemological apparatus, which echoes the doubts repeatedly expressed by the narrator of “The Horla” regarding our understanding of reality.

Some sciences tend to exhibit their own limitations more than others, and hence remain objectively mysterious, paradoxically functioning as links between reasonable comprehension and what remains incomprehensible. Among them, psychiatric medicine occupies a place of choice, for it deals directly with one of the areas of human understanding that remains irreducible to rational terms by definition, madness, and is logically a recurring theme in the fantastic mode. Although the last version of “The Horla” eliminates all direct mentions to psychiatrists and lunatic asylums, it still retains the constant interrogations of the narrator vis-à-vis his sanity, as madness is the most evident and rational explanation for the irruption of the impossible in real life. In Dracula, the character of Dr. Seward, director of a lunatic asylum, represents the rational view of madness, which allows the supernatural to exist by opposing it to the most extreme manifestations of the human psyche; as a physician, Dr. Seward constitutes a privileged witness of the incomprehensible for he is professionally trained to distinguish the strange possibilities of mental illness from the true manifestations of the supernatural.

One medical practice in particular, hypnotism, which in the nineteenth century used to be regrouped, along with telepathy, thought transmission and such, under the loose category known as “magnetism,” allows both “The Horla” and Dracula to represent the reality of the incomprehensible in an allegedly scientific manner, albeit in slightly different ways. In “Le Horla,” the narrator, feeling sick again, goes to Paris, and while having dinner with his cousin, Mme. Sablé, meets a physician who introduces him to the modern medical advances regarding hypnotism and suggestion. As the narrator and his cousin remain incredulous, the physician offers to hypnotize Mme. Sablé:

At the end of ten minutes she slept. “Put yourself behind her,” said the physician. And I seated myself behind her. In her hands he placed a visiting-card, saying: “This is a mirror; what do you see in it?” She answered: I see my cousin” “What is he doing?” “He is twisting his mustache.” “What now?” “He is taking a photograph out of his pocket.” “A photograph of whom?” “Of himself.” It was true! […] So then she saw in this card, in this white card, as well as she would have seen in a glass! (22-23)

The physician also plants in Mme. Sablé’s subconscious the need to go to see the narrator on the next day in order to ask for a sum of money that she does not need. After the experiment succeeds, the narrator concludes: “The wise man says: ‘It may be’” (29). The original French text adds a question mark to the sentence (“Le sage dit: peut-être?) to better emphasize the uncertainty of sciences when it comes to fully understanding our environment.

In Dracula, hypnotism becomes the ally of the vampire hunters, as Mina, having been contaminated by the unclean blood of Dracula is able, when under hypnosis, to inform the search party regarding the monster’s whereabouts in order to guide their quest. Although the reality of hypnotism has been demonstrated in terms of behavioral suggestion, its representation in both texts “Le Horla” and Dracula goes well beyond its proven capacities, for it is merged with telepathy, which, unlike hypnotism, remains scientifically indemonstrable. Just as Mme. Sablé appears to be able to read the narrator’s mind after being put under hypnosis, Mina becomes telepathically connected to Dracula when hypnotized by Van Helsing. Hypnotism is therefore used by both narrations as a reasonable gateway into the unreasonable, all the more justified that it benefits from a legitimate scientific reputation sanctioned by a historical figure, French pioneer neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, whose name is invoked by Dr. Seward during a conversation with professor Van Helsing and whose lectures at the prestigious Hôpital Salpêtrière in Paris were occasionally attended by one Guy de Maupassant.


French Connection

Beyond their uncanny correspondence of dates, either historical (1890) or literary (May 8th), “Le Horla” and Dracula can be considered as transatlantic twin illustrations of the modern fantastic, which leave behind the narrative trappings of the gothic tradition in order to concentrate upon the rational understanding of the irrational, for the fantastic is not about ruined castles in faraway lands but on the contrary about our familiar surroundings being invaded by the impossible, which is why Dracula has much more to do with his French cousin from Normandy than with Vlad the Impaler himself.


Works Cited

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