This being my first experience with Guy de Maupassant, I was both impressed and startled by the subject matter of his short fiction. The Necklace and Other Tales runs a complete gamut of genres, tensions, and cultural observations. Prussian officers are criticized and mocked; a husband is bequeathed a stack of valuable jewels by his mysterious wife; a prostitute is manipulated into sleeping with a man she detests; a prostitute murders her sadistic customer, and gets away with it!
Although I’ve always had difficulty investing in short fiction (ironic, considering I also write short stories), but de Maupassant’s selection was truly wonderful. Described as “poignant scrutinies of social pretension, wicked tales of lust and love, and harrowing examinations of terror and madness,” The Necklace and Other Tales genuinely delivers all that is promised.
“Mademoiselle Fifi” was an unexpected and unique blast of karmic justice. Named for his “dainty figure” and affection for the “French locution ‘Fi, fi donc’ [Fie, for shame],” Mademoiselle Fifi, a Prussian officer, spends most of his time ransacking the castle he occupies with his buddies. He shoots holes in the walls and paintings, and blows up random rooms, just for the sake of entertainment. When they suddenly decide to bring in a parade of Parisian prostitutes for an evening of debauchery, something surprising happens. One of the lovely ladies doesn’t wish to be treated like a punching bag. When Mademoiselle Fifi declares his ownership of all French women, she stabs him in the neck, kills him almost instantly, and runs away. All efforts to apprehend her eventually fail. In addition to her escape, there’s an extra cherry on the sundae, but you’ll have to read the story to find out.
Another great story is “The Hand.” If you enjoy gothic horror, the unexplainable and bizarre circumstances, “The Hand” is a great demonstration of all three. When Monsieur Bermutier encounters Englishman Sir John Rowell one day, he is invited into the man’s home. Chained to the velvet wall of an unusual room, is a human hand, and he doesn’t know what to think of this strange discovery:
A black object loomed out against a red velvet square. I went over: it was a hand, a human hand. Not a clean white skeleton’s hand but a dried black hand with yellow nails, bared muscles, and traces of old blood, blood like filth, on the bones, which had been chopped straight through, as if by an ax, halfway up the forearm.
Around the wrist, an enormous iron chain, riveted and soldered, affixed this dirty member to the wall by means of a ring that was powerful enough to hold an elephant. (148)
The ending, like in “Mademoiselle Fifi,” is an odd surprise. As if practicing for future episodes of Lost, de Maupassant knows how to distort every detail to his benefit, and disrupt the reader’s sense of stability. A simple and inviting landscape can quickly turn sinister and haunting (“The Inn”) or a relaxing, ethereal boat trip can become distinctly macabre (“On the Water”).