Down There: A History of Satanism

In 1890, the already famous French “decadent” writer Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote to a friend that he was looking for “a demoniac sodomite priest” who performed the black mass. He needed him for a new book, now known as “Là-bas” or “Down There”.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, “J.K.” for the friends, had been a naturalist writer and then wrote the “bible” of decadence (“A rebours”/”Against Nature”). If you want to read all about his early years, take a look here: Joris-Karl Huysmans and the Essence of Decadence. Now, at the age of 42, J.K. was at a turning point in his life and his career. In 1890 he wrote to the young Dutch novelist Arie Prins that he was looking for “a demoniac sodomite priest” who performed the black mass. J.K. needed him for a new book. He had to insinuate himself into the word of the occultists for what would become “Là-bas” (translated as “Down There” in 1924, and “The Damned”).

While visiting museums in Germany for a piece on German art he never published, in the museum of Kassel J.K. was struck by Matthias Grünewald’s “Crucifixion”. The painting depicted in naturalistic detail the ugly face of death, with the oozing wounds and the brutally torn body of Christ upon the Cross. Precisely through this realistic depiction of suffering a miraculous spirituality was made manifest; the very excessiveness of the pain of Jesus Christ was some kind of a transfiguration without halos or other symbols. J.K. had his first glimpse of what he would call “supranaturalism” or “spiritualistic naturalism”. It was possible, through the techniques of documentation and naturalistic detail, to go beyond the material and show the human soul.

At the same time, Huysmans’ life also was a confrontation with gruesome reality: his mistress Anna Meunier was suffering from a painful illness, his friend Jules-Amedée Barbey d’Aurevilly was dying of old age and another friend, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, was slowly expiring of stomach cancer. J.K. set about to document the manifestations of the Spirit in the real world. “Là-bas” started as a study of the model for Bluebeard: the noble and pious Gilles de Rais who fought with Joan of Arc and then, in his castle at Tiffauges, became a kidnapper, torturer and slaughterer of children. But the novel soon turned into the story of the research Huysmans did in order to write it. Autobiography and fiction had merged before, now it was J.K.’s stand-in Durtal who tried to understand the horrible deeds of Gilles de Rais. In order to achieve this, he – as Huysmans – studied the occult, the black arts and the Black Mass.

Huysmans made contact with Berthe Courrière, thanks to her lover, the writer Remy de Gourmont. Berthe believed in black magic and beguiled J.K. with tales of her paranormal experiences. Huysmans also had a brief and bizarre affair with another Lady of the Occult, Henriette Maillat. Both she and Berthe were the models for Hyacinthe Chantelouve, the heroine “down there”. Huysmans contacted, among others, a founding member of the modern French Order of the Rosy Cross, Stanislas de Guaïta; a self-proclaimed descendant of the Chaldean Magi, Sâr Joséphin Péladan; an expert on alchemy, Michel de Lézinier; the renegade priest and exquisitely evil Joseph-Antoine Boullan, no stranger of prisons, who regarded all forms of sexual intercourse as acts of worship and who was accused of having slain his own child, conceived by a nun, on the altar, after a Black Mass. Boullan provided Huysmans with all sorts of documentation on the black arts in 19th century France.

“Down There” is the account of Durtal’s – or Huysmans’ – research, and their discovery: that Satanism is alive and kicking in 19th century France, just as it was in the medieval times. It’s a strong spiritual force, creating real phenomena one can observe and document. The subject matter of “Down There” may be abhorrent, as art – through the power of words – it is highly original, since the categories of fiction and nonfiction, reality, dreams and imagination are called into question.

The novel received a good press, but had some unpleasant consequences for its author: there were some violent attacks launched, calling the originality into question (of course it was not “original”, since J.K. had previously “lived” the plot!) and Henriette Maillat recognized in the letters of Hyacinthe Chantelouve – who had Durtal admitted to a Black Mass – the letters she had written to Huysmans. Fortunately for him, at the ministery where he was still working, J.K. had some connections with the Sûreté (the French secret police) and when Maillat discovered that detectives were asking questions about her, she disappeared from J.K.’s life.

And then there were the Rosicrucians, disturbed at J.K.’s close contacts with Boullan and his high-priestess Julie Thibault. It was the start of a Black Arts War, with magicians casting spells upon each other and Huysmans narrowly escaping a deadly duel. For years afterward, J.K. felt that he was a victim of evil magic. So from time to time he could be found huddled inside a chalk circle scrawled upon the floor to ward off hellish vibrations.

Finally, at the Black Mass J.K. attended himself, or at least at the orgiastic ritual narrated in “Down There”, he claimed to have seen a Belgian priest, who became the prototype of the diabolic Canon Docre. Of course his friend and ally Joseph-Antoine Boullan had nothing to do with it, the authorities better had a look at the life and times of abbé Louis Van Haecke. This resulted into a highly controversial issue, for Louis Van Haecke was the well respected chaplain of the famous Chapel of the Holy Blood in Bruges…

The Black Mass, as described by J.K. Huysmans in “Down There/The Damned”