Life is hectic. Sometimes, I need a quick horror fix. So I picked up my coveted horror anthology and looked for a story that wasn’t too long. I saw “Was it a Dream” and recognized Guy De Maupassant’s name, so I found a winning contender. Surprisingly, this random stumble yielded pleasing results. “Was it a Dream” initially reads like a romance story, but soon transmutes into the vaguely macabre and otherworldly. “Was it a Dream” is a horror-genre classic, borrowing the best from the genre and ending with a pointed – and poignant – statement about humanity and the way we memorialize the dead.
The narrator opens by describing his deep love for a woman. Indeed, the story doesn’t open like a typical horror story – at least not at first glance. The narrator proclaims: “I loved her madly! Why does one love? Why does one love? How strange it is to see but one being in the world, to have but one thought in one’s mind, one desire in the heart, one’s name on the lips” (175). This seemingly romantic statement takes a turn upon a second examination. While the statement appears benign, immediately we see that the narrator was fixated on a woman to a point that surpasses mere devotion and moves toward obsession. He admits that his love breached the typical boundaries of strong affection when he says he loved her “madly,” a word that insinuates something more sinister than romance is waiting in this plot.
He continues to describe the love, and the loss. Edgar Allen Poe had many female lovers and relatives die of tuberculosis, and this reality reflects itself in his stories, which often contain sickness. Suck sickness darkens the plot; usually it does not make the horror, but it supplements other macabre components to amplify the horror. Guy De Maupassant employs a similar strategy here: The narrator describes his lover’s coughing after she came in from a cold, rainy night. He details her death and his grief, establishing the story’s dark ambience.
To continue this discomfort, Maupassant situates his narrator in a cemetery with the resolve to spend his night by his lover’s grave. If I endeavor to write a horror short story – and I may – I should remember this fact: a cemetery is always an excellent setting to establish a horror story’s mood. Once the narrator resolved to spend a night in the cemetery, I knew that I, as a reader, was on the brink of something deliciously scary. After all, the unadulterated dead – without a zombifying disease, without vampiric abilities, just the pure, unadjusted dead –always make good fodder for a horror story. Cemeteries are supposed to be peaceful resting places, but as a horror junkie I’ve never seen them that way. They’re semi-pervasive, near-sinister reminders of our mortality, of the ultimate truth that Buddhism affirms: that everything is transient. They provoke humility and portend doom.
Unsurprisingly, the cemetery becomes a place where the living and the dead commune, though I’ll go into no more detail than that. Maupassant sets the mood in the cemetery well. One gets the feeling the narrator is slowly losing his mind as he relates: “Graves! Graves! Graves! Nothing but graves! On my right, on my left, in front of me, around me, everywhere there were graves!” The narrator also describes – to enhance the “aura of creepy” – an abandoned cemetery at the edge of the main cemetery “where the dead have long since blended with the soil, where the crosses themselves decay” – a stark bit of religious imagery to augment our picture of a decrepit, outlying burial ground.
Suffice it to say, Maupassant’s narrator provides horrifying details of his evening, and the story’s climax is not likely to disappoint fans of the genre. But embedded in a genuinely horrifying story is an event that provokes contemplation of interesting, complex themes. If this story indicates Maupassant’s perception of humanity, then his vision is grim indeed. His commentary seems to suggest the we revere the dead to an unreasonable degree, and that humanity is degenerate. If it’s taboo to speak ill of the dead, Maupassant mocks our ceremonies and formalities regarding death in this piece. And one gets the sense that nothing is as it seems. After all, it all could have been a dream. Especially given this piece’s title and its enigmatic ending, it’s a must read!