(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Durtal decides to write a biography of Gilles de Rais, the French marshal briefly associated with Joan of Arc, who was the subject of a famous sorcery trial in 1430. His friend des Hermies expresses his delight that Durtal is abandoning the realistic novel, but Durtal wants to apply the methods of modern realism to his task, in spite of the difficulties involved.

Des Hermies takes Durtal to the bell tower of a church and introduces him to the bell ringer Louis Carhaix, who asks to meet him. Carhaix thinks he might be useful to Durtal’s research. Durtal describes the early part of Gilles de Rais’s life to des Hermies, observing that his excessively luxurious lifestyle alarmed his expectant heirs to petition the king to prevent his selling off parts of the estate. The debts that Gilles de Rais subsequently ran up, Durtal opines, caused him to take an interest in the magical arts, by which means he hoped to learn the secret of making gold. After his alchemical experiments failed, Durtal claims, Gilles de Rais turned to active Satanism and the mass murder of children.

Having heard Durtal’s account, des Hermies raises the subject of modern Satanism and brushes aside Durtal’s opinion that there is no such thing, with an assurance that it is rife in contemporary Paris. Durtal thinks that it would help his work enormously to be able to study Satanist rites firsthand. Later, at Carhaix’s house, des Hermies offers an account of the uninterrupted descent of a Satanist tradition from the time of Gilles de Rais to modern times. He then begins supplying Durtal with research materials supporting this contention.

Durtal receives an admiring letter from a woman who read his last work of fiction. He replies to it, thus beginning an extensive correspondence that inflames his curiosity considerably. She uses a pseudonym, but he eventually guesses that she might be Hyacinthe Chantelouve, the wife of the historian at whose house he first met des Hermies. This guess is confirmed when she confronts him in Gilles de Rais’s castle, where he went to soak up the atmosphere....

(The entire section is 855 words.)