The majority of British readers will be annoyed by the first chapter of this book and wonder what on earth it is all about; so a word of explanation is necessary.
In France, in the latter part of the last century, intellectuals were crazily absorbed in a bitter controversy between two schools of literary thought – the Romantics and the Realists. The idealistic novels of Victor Hugo were representative of the former: the descriptions of kitchen sinks and prostitution in Emile Zola’s works representative of the latter. People even fought duels on the question; and it is about it that the two characters are arguing.
But be of good cheer, reader. That does not last long. We are soon intrigued by particulars of women being visited nightly by incubuses and priests indulging in sexual perversions. It is, in fact, upon his accounts of Satanism in this book Down There (spiritual Hell) that Joris Karl Huysmans earned his right to a permanent place in the forefront of writers on the occult.
He was born in Paris in 1848, became one of the first Realist writers then, overcome by morbidity, turned to religion and, after becoming a lay-brother of the Benedictines, died in 1907.
The book embodies three inter-related subjects.
(1) The author, Durtal’s, conversations with his friend Doctor des Hermies – mostly held over evening meals up in the tower of St. Sulpice, where their host, Carhaix, is the bell-ringer.
(2) The history, written by Durtal, of Joan d’Arc’s protector, Gilles de Rais, which gives a very full account of the hideous manner in which the handsome young Marshal of France slaughtered scores of kidnapped children for his sexual gratification; and :—
(3) Durtal’s affair with Madame Chantelouve. It would be difficult to find a more realistic piece of writing than this last. The man who, having become disgusted by sex has given it up for several years against his will is attracted to this strange, beautiful woman who enjoys him in her dreams but is reluctant to give herself physically; then, under her cold exterior is discovered to be a raging demon of lust.
The author’s preoccupation with Gilles de Rais’s lascivious brutalities begets in him the urge to find out if similar satanic practices are still performed; so he persuades Madame Chantelouve to take him to the house of a notorious renegade priest named Canon Docre. Together they witness there the celebration of a Black Mass, and few finer descriptions of this obscene ritual have ever been written.