Tales of Terror
By Guy de Maupassant
Selected and Translated by Arnold Kellett
Foreword by Ramsey Campbell
Tartarus Press, December 2008
There is a telling moment in Isaac Babel’s great story, ‘Guy de Maupassant’, when the narrator, on glancing at a row of the French writer’s works, refers to them – or rather their morocco leather bindings - as ‘the magnificent crypt of the human heart’. One arrives at the same judgement, a similar feeling comes over one, after reading this selection of 32 of Maupassant’s darkest tales, superbly translated by Arnold Kellett.
In the foreword, Ramsey Campbell warns that ‘the light of these tales may shine into your own dark’, but of course for the select few – meaning you and me, naturally, as well as one other whom you’re free to nominate – this is a very good reason to read them.
Many of these stories take a peek at the mental processes of some very disturbed people. ‘The Case of Louise Roque’ looks at events following the rape and murder of a young girl. It is vividly realised in terms of setting (a village astride a wood) and character (the postman who discovers the child’s body, the girl’s grief-stricken mother, the priest who likes his food, etc.) but where Maupassant excels is in his description of the torment of the murderer.
Another story along these lines – abnormal psychology and its malcontents – is ‘The Head of Hair’, an account of how covetousness and fetishism leads eventually to madness. An antique collector shuns women – they’re alive and so fearful and dangerous – and places all of his passion into his hobby. Yet when he acquires an eighteenth century watch, he can’t help but wonder who was ‘the first woman to wear it on her bosom, keeping it warm and cosy in the folds of her dress – the heart of the little watch beating close against the heart of the woman?’ Our hero nonetheless plumbs for the mechanical movement of the watch over a living woman’s vital heart and when he later discovers the relic of a woman’s head of hair, he is transported into an ecstatic state. Degeneration and madness ensue. While this is an unpleasant, perverse tale it does have a definite ring of truth; and the juxtaposed polarity of the heart/watch is, I’m sure you’ll agree, neatly done.
And, in fact, there is a psychological truth and subtlety to all of these tales. For example, ‘Fear’ makes the point that this emotion need not be a rational response to objective danger; no, it may simply overpower and take possession of you.
The tales of escalating cruely (such as ‘Coco’ and ‘The Blind Man’) were the most difficult to read; the nastiness gradually increases, as in a Michael Haneke film, and it’s unclear how or when or indeed whether it will end. Both Ramsey Campbell and Arnold Kellett make the point that many of these stories predict Maupassant’s own descent into mental illness, and it is difficult to disagree with this.
The penultimate paragraph in Babel’s story gives an account of Maupassant’s life and especially of his last years. It was a hard road he trod and a harder fall he took. Arnold Kellett has wisely selected from among the myriad health-giving but poisonous fruits of a tragic, artistically productive life. The ‘magnificent crypt of the human heart’ indeed. Open these pages at your own peril.