Intermediate weird horror in french: Le Horla

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I love old timey horror, because I find most contemporary horror too intense. The 1887 Guy de Maupassant novella “Le Horla” was perfect for me– important and influential (it gave H.P. Lovecraft ideas for Chthulu), not too scary, and accessible to intermediate french readers. Plus, someone actually yells, “Oh! quelle horreur!”

It is 30 pages, in the form of diary entries. I read it after Harry Potter book 3 and it was slow going but doable. There are maybe 5 words that are important to the plot that you need to look up, and the rest of the time you can guess which words refer to types of anxiety and which ones refer to types of trembling. I have found Maupassant’s writing too flowery in english, but in french I thought it was lovely. His habit of making elaborate descriptive lists was even helpful for learning vocabulary. When something is as enormous as a galaxy, as deafening as thunder, and as invisible as the wind, it is easy to guess the meaning of those adjectives.

Like many stories about hauntings, one way to read Le Horla is as a story about settlers and imperialists grappling with the harms of their colonial projects. Instead of the more typical scenario where an “Indian Burial Ground” produces angry ghosts in american suburbs, we watch an upper class French narrator realize he’s being enslaved or colonized by an incomprehensible alien force. He spouts some racist nonsense while grappling with his horror, but I took satisfaction in watching a european deal with the receiving end of colonization and the limits of his scientific knowledge.

Since the story is public domain, you can find the text online or order from one of those cheap public domain publishers. I liked this free audiobook of Le Horla on for listening practice, but there are many others available for free online.

Surprising inspirational aspect of the Chernobyl “Zone Of Alienation”

There has been an ongoing scientific debate about the extent that flora and fauna of the zone were affected by the radioactive contamination that followed the accident. No scientifically documented cases of mutant deformity in animals of the zone were reported other than partial albinism in swallows and insect mutations. There have been individual eyewitness reports of other animal mutations but no comprehensive statistical analysis has been completed to date. The cloud of heavily polluted dust left the Red Forest (Rudyi Lis)—a strand of highly-irradiated pine wood near the plant which was subsequently bulldozed.

There have been reports that wildlife has flourished due to significant reduction of human impact. For this reason, the zone is considered by some as a classic example of an involuntary park. Populations of traditional Polesian animals (like wolves, wild boar and Roe Deer), red deer, moose, and beaver have multiplied enormously and begun expanding outside the zone. The area also houses herds of European wisent and Przewalski’s Horses released there after the accident. Even extremely rare lynx have appeared, and there are reports of tracks from brown bears, an animal not seen in the area for several centuries. Special game warden units are organized to protect and control them.

Horror movies, self-mutilation, vampire-incest?, publishing old drafts.

Letting more old drafts shine their light into the internet. More quotations from The Monster Show .

I think the reason I saved this first quotation was that I hadn’t thought about movies being made by the most surgically altered and self-mutilated people around. I liked thinking about horror movies reflecting the horror of Hollywood culture, not only of wider American culture.

p.167, On Arlene Francis, star of Murders in the Rue Morgue:

Her real shudders came after the film was completed when other producers, eager to discuss her future in films, began wielding scalpels shaper than those of Dr. Mirakle. They would offer her riches, it appeared, but only if she would consent to give up a portion of her nose. Rhinoplasty was all the rage in a Hollywood that now placed a premium on robotic, standardized glamor in the Busby Berkeley mold. Dorothy Tree, for example, was a highly regarded Broadway actress of the late 1920s, but her strong profile relegated her to bit parts in films, shuffling around in a shroud, for instance, as one of Bela Lugosi’s vampire wives. Finally, after leaving her original nose behind her in the vaults of Dracula, she began to get speaking parts and billing. Producers and casting directors were eager to prescribe and preside over surgical rearrangements of the female body, an obsession beginning to be weirdly echoed, or perhaps weirdly magnified, in horror movies and popular literature. Indeed, the persistent, essential connection between plastic surgery, self-mutilation, and horror had only begun.

And this next one just made me curious about what this proposed link is.

p.191, on incest and vampires…

[In Mark of the Vampire, 1935, Tod] Browning and his screenwriter Guy Endor likely took some inspiration from Ernest Jones’ pioneering psychoanalytic study On The Nightmare (1931), which explicitly linked vampire fantasies to incest guilt.

Freaks, zombies, horror movies… old drafts.

More old drafts that have been sitting in the archives, more quotations from The Monster Show .


[Tod] Browning spent a lot of time at the ballpark and racetrack in the early thirties, and veteran Hollywood writer Budd Schulberg (author of The Disenchanted and What Makes Sammy Run? ??) had a memory of another Browning pastime. “The marathon dance was in vogue then and we went a few times to the Santa Monica Pier to watch the young unemployed zombies drag themselves around the floor in a slow motion dance macabre,” Schulberg wrote in his 1981 memoir ??Moving Pictures. “Even more appalling than the victims on the dance floor were the regulars, affluent sadists in the same front-row seats every night, cheering on their favorites who kept fainting and occasionally throwing up from exhaustion. One of the most dedicated of the regulars was Tod Browning, who never missed a night and who got that same manic gleam in his eyes as when he was directing Freaks.”


The rediscovery and rehabilitation of Freaks became almost a cause celebre in the film journals beginning in the early sixties. Once considered crass and tasteless, the film was now “compassionate” and “sensitive.” In a way, the appreciation of Freaks became a politically correct means to indulge a morbid curiosity about thalidomide deformities, while still being able to feel self-righteous and progressive.

An anti-war horror movie I’d like to see, old random drafts.

In the spirit of spitting things out rather than polishing them forever and driving myself crazy, I’m going through my archives and publishing drafts.

A couple of years ago I was reading a lot about horror and monsters. At some point I saved quotations from The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.

p.186, regarding WWI vets.

The Frankenstein pictures continued to be a cultural dumping ground for the processed images of men blown to pieces, and the shell-shocked fantasy of fitting them back together again.

That was the first idea I ever heard about horror as a mirror of culture, from a Chuck Palahniuk interview. It doesn’t make me want to watch horror movies, particularly. But this next movie is something I would like to see.


For his unnerving final sequence— completely irrational, but nonetheless a devastating moral statement— [Abel] Gance recruited actual members of the Union des Gueules Cassées, and created a nightmarish montage of all the ruined faces that had been haunting the world’s cinemas for the past fifteen years in the guise of “horror entertainment.” The actual men are nameless, but they could easily be the living models for the masks worn by Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Lionel Atwill, and others. As a conscious antiwar statement, J’Accuse is superior; as an unintentional revelation of horror’s major subtext in the twenties and thirties, it is breathtaking.

“The life of art”

I’m reading a book on the history of horror movies (finally, prompted by a haunted house analysis that Dark Daughta linked). My horror book quotes a character from Upton Sinclair’s 1922 novel They Call Me Carpenter, talking about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

This picture could not possibly have been produced in America. For one thing, nearly all the characters are thin. … One does not find American screen actors in that condition. Do your people care enough about the life of art to take a risk of starving for it?

Boy terror

The rest of that horror essay I was quoting yesterday debates a super-Freudian interpretation of the “final girl” in slasher films— the one who doesn’t die— as a simultaneous castrator and phallus-envier. Cut something off that monster and wave your big knife in the air, ladies. The horror can’t end until the cocks are properly distributed according to your moral fortitude. Meh.

After all the feminist sexuality reading I usually do, it is bizarre to read an essay where somebody takes Freud seriously, even temporarily. Nobody seems to get away with discussing Freud’s take on sexuality without at least a disclaimer about the myth of vaginal orgasms, but in discussing horror apparently it is acceptable to dive into repressed womb envy and castration complexes with all sincerity. Maybe the academic tone of the essay disguised the author’s disdain, but it seemed like she was buying it.

I got a lot more interested when she started pondering why it has been so much easier to have women transition into monster-killing hero roles on film than to spend any screen time on men screaming in terror. Gender as theatre, this is more my speed. It actually made me sad for guys, to think of (mostly) guys in the ’80s making slasher movies for (mostly) other guys and having to kill all the men quickly in the distance while the women got butchered in close-ups. The audience’s only chance to identify with fear in most of those movies was through feminine characters. Men had a very limited range of possible emotions and options for expressing them. How were people supposed to learn about masculine fear? That’s terrible!

The author pointed out that the cliched lack of stereotypical femininity in the surviving girl (always the smart one, or the one wearing pants, or the one who doesn’t put out… also usually the one named Stevie or Georgie or something) might not just be about misogynistically killing all the feminine or sexually active women. She suggests it’s about giving guys a somewhat mannish hero to identify with, since an actual terrified man is off limits. The last girl is the character who realizes the full scope of the danger— she’s the most afraid, and spends the most time being afraid. Those are the interesting emotions, the ones that prompt the shivers and startles. I think it’s terrible that it’s still largely taboo for that to be a man’s role! Hopefully my kids will be able to activate their repressed fears with screaming victims of all genders.

If anybody knows some movies where men scream and cry in terror (preferably half naked?), do tell. I feel like I must know some, but all I can think of at the moment is Deliverance. Maybe some war movies would fit the bill.

Imax, slasher films, pornography

I feel a meandering mind-map coming on, starting from an essay about slasher movies by Carol Clover (roughly summarized here ) that I read in this anthology about gender in myth.

On the civilized side of the continuum lie the legitimate genres; at the other end, hard on the unconscious, lie the sensation or ‘body’ genres, horror and pornography, in that order. …

It is a rare Hollywood film that does not devote a passage or two— a car chase, a sex scene— to the emotional and physical excitement of the audience. But horror and pornography are the only two genres specifically devoted to the arousal of bodily sensation. They exist solely to horrify and stimulate, not always respectively, and their ability to do so is the sole measure of their success…

I’ve seen a lot of people try to show that horror and pornography are related, usually based on some inarticulate statement about the similarity of sex and death. This bodily-sensation aspect seems like a more accurate connection. It’s got me editing my ideas about pornography (again), too.

For the last couple of years, my working definition has been that something is pornographic (to me) when it is presented for its own sake with no intention to communicate further meaning. Literal as opposed to symbolic, I guess. Showing literal sex rather than any experience of eroticism, or showing literal blood and gore rather than communicating a meaning of injury or death or fear (a la gore-porn). I don’t mean that as a diss to actual porn, more as an explanation of why I call Cute Overload cute-porn, and why I sometimes object to the ways other people use hyphenated, non-sexual porn labels. (I’m not sure I experience the Ikea catalog as storage-porn just because it shows a lot of shelving.)

This sensation definition is way simpler, and avoids having to argue about what is meaningful or symbolic. Since porn is some of the most intensely deconstructed media around and easily supplied with symbolic meaning, I think this simple sensation definition is a lot more accurate too. So thanks for that, early nineties essay collection.

Thinking about movies that are made for my body got me thinking about imax. All I want from a six-story tall movie is a strong sense of vertigo! I see an imax film about once every two years, but in my limited sampling they seem to be getting less motion-sick overall. Anybody have better evidence on that? (Tosczaks, or other bearers of yearly passes?) At the least, I’ve been disappointed with the imax films I’ve been seeing. I don’t want a plot at the imax, I want a bodily experience. More helicopter shots going over a cliff, please. I want imax to be more pornographic. Imax has not been fulfilling its potential.

So yup. The other idea I want to store here is about “legitimate” genres. I don’t really buy the idea that they’re less focussed on bodily sensations. The most pretentious, high-class films I’ve seen could be called superiority-porn. Feeling superior is a real sensation, although not often acknowledged as a physical/chemical state. I just dug up a clip from the Helvetica movie where Erik Spiekermann explains that he just likes looking at type. “Other people look at bottles of wine, or whatever, or you know, girls’ bottoms. I look at type.” He looks; it feels good. I’ve only seen the trailers, but that documentary is clearly modernist-typography-porn, and totally classy. (Or, ahem, neutral.)

The pretense seems to be that some cinematically-induced sensations are intellectual, rather than bodily, which actually seems very similar to my original working definition about pornography being devoid of meaning. So again, why am I reading anthologies about symbol and myth in these “body” genres if they are so literal and physical? This seems like a very weird manifestation of the usual classist aesthetic distinctions, where “legitimate” good taste just happens to be whatever working class / uneducated / trashy people don’t appreciate. Classy movies are secretly about sensations, and trashy movies are secretly full of cultural symbolism. Oops.

I’m probably specifically bad at this game— personality quiz questions on the theme of “do you pay more attention to rational thoughts or gut feelings” make my head explode, because surely thoughts and feelings exist in the same soup. I mean, you have to feel whether you’re being honest about your logic; I don’t know any other way. From now on I’m paying special attention to how my body feels when I watch fancy art films.

Monster babies

Last weekend I hung out and watched bird documentaries with some buddies (good idea, Anya!).

My favourite part was how each of us apparently had a favourite bird fact, and each of these facts featured in the documentary.

Rebecca’s highlight was the breeding habits of cuckoos. In case you never took a biology overview in University, a cuckoo lays a single egg in another bird’s nest (hence the term cuckolded), and when the baby cuckoo hatches it pushes the other eggs out of the nest.

Most parasitic cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of smaller birds, so a cuckoo baby grows to monstrous proportions— sometimes bigger than its fake parents or even the nest— and drives its surrogate mother crazy with incessant food requests. The cry of the baby cuckoo sounds like a whole nest full of normal baby birds. Just imagine that for a second: a huge baby that sounds like 10 babies. That’s like something that got edited out of Alice in Wonderland for being too scary.

Among the million things I like, I like monster babies, and really any sort of monster reproduction. Monster sex, monster pregnancy, monster birth, monster mate-wars, monster parenting. I think what I like is complicating love with grotesque evil.

This is all a very long introduction to some comics by Natalie Dee, who I think might be even more into monster sex and evil babies than I am: