In 1891 Joris-Karl Huysmans published his novel “Là-bas” (translated as “Down There” or “The Damned”) in which he paints a fantasy of Satanism and the occult, such as it was reportedly still practiced at that time in Paris. One of the most sinister figures in the story is the debauched character of the canon Docre, celebrating black masses.
The book caused a scandal. Being an already famous novelist of the naturalist school of Zola, Huysmans had been heading for a passionate rendition of facts, fictionalized non-fiction and “faction”. His canon Docre was not just a fictional character, he was an authentic person. Some said it was the ex-priest Joseph-Antoine Boullan who lived in Lyon and claimed to be the successor of the famous “heretic” Eugène Vintras. Huysmans however, for the sake of truth, released a press note in which he asserted that there was no relationship between Boullan and the canon Docre. The demonic priest of “The Damned” actually was a Belgian “abbé”, a rabid satanist who had a cross tattooed under his feet for the exquisite pleasure of being able to walk always on the symbol of the Saviour.
The curious citizens of Paris soon learned that the Belgian priest was Louis Van Haecke, the chaplain of the Holy Blood of Bruges (Belgium). His photograph was exposed in the window of a book shop on the corner of the Rue de Sèvres and the Place de la Croix-Rouge. Some clever Parisians even organized city trips to Bruges to see this monstrous priest in action. Between 1949 and 1965, the Belgian journalist Herman Bossier published a book and several articles on the subject. He mentions, for example, an eye witness who recounts the events of 24 February 1895: “I have seen the miserable hero of ‘The Damned’! I have seen this sacrilegious monster with the white hair in the Gothic gem that is the Chapel of the Holy Blood in Bruges, where every Friday the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ – brought to the city by a Count of Flanders – is shown to the faithful!”
Of course, this improbable story ended up being known to the diocese of Bruges, where one was far from suspecting what was buzzing around in Paris concerning the popular chaplain of the Holy Blood.