La-Bas by Joris-Karl Huysmans - Book Review - Kristopher Cook

Là-Bas by Joris-Karl Huysmans

by Kristopher Cook
La-Bas by Joris-Karl Huysmans Book Cover
At the novel's centre is Durtal, a writer obsessed with the life of one of the blackest figures in history, Gilles de Rais - child murderer, sadist, and practitioner of all the black arts. The book's authentic, extraordinarily detailed descriptions of the Black Mass have never been surpassed.
Series: Durtal
Genre: Contemporary
Available from: Amazon UK | Amazon US
Estimated Read: 3 minutes

Published in 1891, the language used within Là-Bas is from old-Englis, however, when books are translated it’s up to the translator’s discretion to choose the vocabulary accordingly.

This style does give it a unique feel. While the world around the characters feels medieval and gothic, the book is surprisingly easy-to-read.

Là-Bas drew great outrage from the French public, who called for it to be banned, with little success. This controversy only led the book to become more iconic over time.

The literal translation of Là-Bas is ‘over there‘, although, in the case of this book, it means ‘down there’. Down refers to the depths of hell.

Writers Write The History Books

Durtal, the main character in the book, is a disguise formed by the author to portray his true self. Huysmans went on to extend the legacy of the character by including him in all of his subsequent novels.

As a writer, Durtal becomes obsessed by a historical figure known as Gilles de Rais; a child murderer, necrophile, and a performer of the black arts.

The thing that one tends, and that obeys one, becomes personalized, and one ends by falling in love with it.
Joris-Karl Huysmans, Là-Bas

His research into de Rais life is used to jump between the two timelines; Durtal’s in the current day, and de Rais, who’s often seen purveying his fantasies by abusing his power of authority, in the past.

Despite the torture and cruel nature of de Rais, the language never falls into squalor. There were times when I thought it might fall to the depths of The 120 Days of Sodom, but thankfully Huysmans knows what he’s doing.

Durtal even mentions De Sade in fleeting comparison to de Rais, “And assuredly, the Marquis de Sade is only a timid bourgeois, a mediocre fantasist, beside him!”

Durtal has become disgusted by the current world. Everyone is only looking out for themselves, seeking higher powers where possible.

A Magical Realm

During investigations into the middle-ages, Durtal discovers that black magic is still present in Paris. Despite its underground culture, he, along with his lover Madame Chantelouve manage to enter into a black mass being held at a nearby cathedral.

This is where Huysmans writing comes into its own.

His prose becomes barbaric by nature, depicting the torturous goings-on between the occult leaders, their followers, and those being sacrificed. It compares to the infamous scene from Ken Russell’s The Devils – You know the one.

Durtal’s curiosity and desire for wanting to know more helps give him a great sense of relatability. We’ve all been curious about something at one time or another, only to be led down a dark road, clambering to get out.

There are a few moot points in the book where Durtal converses with his friends over dinner at his castle. They are used more as precursors more than as informational pieces.

Still, they also add humanity to the character in the way he goes about helping out others.

Closing Thoughts

This book’s full of gothic horror, suspense and mystical murders. Although there are times when the book strays into stale territory, for the most part, it remains enjoyable. Characters are exciting enough and relatable offering much in the way of narrative. The midway stage is a little drawn, but otherwise, check this one out.

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