Tonight, when I went online to find the first of five spooky stories to read, my power cord burst into flames. Honestly. That’s certainly never happened before. (And yes, it’s an iMac G4, and yes, I just got an email yesterday saying the battery needs to be replaced because of a spontaneous combustion issue, but I must say there was no mention of the power cord. It’s probably my own fault. I had been noticing that the power cord didn’t always seem to deliver power to the computer unless you yanked on it a little. How that became a fire, though, is beyond me.)
This was all a little unnerving, if pretty exciting, because we’ve never had a fire in our house before, other than the kind you make in the fireplace. Several people were disappointed that the fire went out the instant I stepped on my power cord, fortunately using my shoe to extinguish it rather than my bare foot. They wanted to watch some stuff burn, I guess.
Eventually, everyone settled down, having carefully examined the cord and made jokes about their smokin’ mom. And then, the children in bed, I snuck downstairs to their computer, my own obviously now out of commission until I can get myself to the apple store for a new power cord and a new battery. And I got right back to it. It will take more than a little fire to keep me away from a good story.
I dialed up the Project Gutenberg version of Guy de Maupassant’s The Trip of Le Horla. Okay, first I ate a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone to calm my nerves. I’ll tell you I was delighted to learn that the medium for this particular story is air and sea and land and not fire, unless you count a few references to forges which I have to admit freaked me out a little. I guess I must have been more unnerved than I knew, because well after I read the story and wrote this post, I realized the actual story litlove recommended was La Horla, probably truly scary and horrific, since it’s written from the point of view of a syphilitic. Still, I loved what I read and it’s far too late to write a second post and, anyway, the story I did read, while not scary in the least, was pretty terrific. So, I’m beginning the spooky project with a little conflagration, a failure to follow directions, but at least I’m posting. And shouldn’t that count for something?
Anyway: Le Horla is a balloon, a stylish nautical French balloon, piloted by a fanatic balloonist. And the story is the tale of a balloon voyage. A little shaken from my fire experience, and because I was under the impression the entire time I read the story that there was something scary about it, I paid a lot of attention to what that balloon was voyaging over. A forge isn’t something you want to descend into. I will tell you now, that doesn’t happen.
What I will tell you, though, is that I am in love with Guy de Maupassant. Let’s get that right out there, shall we? I want to live in his Paris, and I want to read everything he’s ever written. It is, tonight, the greatest tragedy of my life that I don’t read French and will have to see him through the veil of someone’s translation. But I’ll take it. He is that good. Here’s why:
- I realized that although any copyright on de Maupassant’s work has long expired, the same is probably not true of translations and, thus, the one I was reading on Project Gutenberg seemed very rough, most interested in the literal sense of the story and less in the smoothness of the writing. Possibly because it was the yeoman-like work of a Project Gutenberg volunteer, bless him or her. It took me several paragraphs to get used to the translation, but then it receded into the background.
- And then I realized the entire story was being told in the present tense by the unnamed narrator. Although I don’t like this technique when it’s used in contemporary fiction, it worked beautifully here because it brought me right into the story.
- Having pretty quickly gotten past the two things I thought might ruin everything, I realized that the story I was reading is a marvelous, breathtaking, transcendent description of a balloon trip across France and I didn’t want it to end. I can’t quote examples, but I’m guessing in the French or in a good translation it’s remarkably beautiful because even in the text I read I was transported, as it were.
- The narration really takes off when the balloon takes off, and the narrator somehow manages to give us a sense of how extraordinary it is to be above the earth: so otherworldly that ordinary rules give way, as though the balloon and its occupants had entered into another dimension. My favorite thing about the journey was how the men in the balloon could hear the sounds of the world far below them, and it was children’s’ voices that were the clearest.
- There is very little human interaction. The narrator seems to spend most of the trip looking around him and telling us what he sees. The arc of the story is, almost entirely, the ascent, the ride (up, down, over France, its cities, twisting rivers, forges, farms, and then somehow the balloon and the moon are the only two things in the sky) and the descent. The balloonists are in the background: the captain loves what he is doing. The narrator hangs over the basket.
- Toward the end of the story, you’re suddenly terribly aware of the balloon’s rush toward the earth and you get some idea that there’s something down there the balloonists aren’t aware of — something as vast as the air, but not as welcoming — possibly the sea. But then, the balloon lands in a field, and all is well.
- Until you read the final few lines and you realize all was not, maybe, well for the captain of this balloon. And I’ll leave it to you to find out what that was.
Not scary. Transporting, out of body, beautiful, memorable. A trip I’d be happy to take again. Did I mention I’m in love with Guy de Maupassant? Yes, well, I am. I will not use a fire metaphor to tell you how that works, but I am going to the internet now to find out which translation I should be reading of everything he’s written, including the scary story I was supposed to read. And the power cord had better hold up while I’m doing it.