By Edward Lucie-Smith (GMP; 1977/86)
The 15th-Century French child murderer Gilles de Rais remains one of history’s most troubling figures. Gilles was an aristocrat who fought alongside Joan of Arc but turned to evil in the years following her 1431 execution. With his finances dwindling, Gilles took to practicing dark magic and brutally murdering hundreds of children until he was arrested, tried and put to death in October of 1440.
Gilles’ exploits were chronicled in J.K. Huysmans’ proto-genre classic LA BAS (1891) and Michel Tournier’s more literary GILLES AND JEANNE (1983). The lesser-known DARK PAGEANT is the most literal-minded of the three novels, being a straightforward chronicle of Gilles de Rais’ life from his teenage years to his execution, as seen through the eyes of a fictional comrade named Raoul de Saumur. Voluminously researched and (mostly) quite lively, THE DARK PAGEANT is a fine example of historical fiction, but also a fatally uneven one.
According to Raoul de Saumur’s first person recollections, Gilles had a dark side from the start. The novel’s opening third, wherein Raoul first meets the teenager Gilles, is the most compelling portion, with a strong narrative thrust and a palpable undercurrent of unease. The middle section, dominated by the enigmatic figure of Joan of Arc, is also interesting. Edward Lucie-Smith previously authored an entire book on Joan, and THE DARK PAGEANT’S portrayal of this sweet but tough-as-nails young woman is fully rounded and convincing.
But the book eventually falls apart. Joan’s fiery execution is left undescribed, as Raoul is for some unfathomable reason whisked off before it occurs only to return to Gilles’ side afterward. Also largely undescribed are Gilles’ crimes, which the author attributes (as does Michael Tournier in the above-mentioned GILLES AND JEANNE) largely to grief over Joan’s death.
It’s understandable, I guess, that Mr. Lucie-Smith was squeamish about depicting the truly horrid details of Gilles’ insanity (there’s also the fact that the protagonist needs a plausible reason to stay around Gilles, which he might not have if he knew what the latter was up to). The drawback to this approach is that the novel’s overall theme of the dangerous seduction of evil is largely subsumed in all the voluminous details of Gilles’ decreasing finances, failed military campaigns and dabbles in necromancy that take up most of THE DARK PAGEANT’S final third. There’s also the problem that Gilles, as presented here, frankly isn’t very interesting outside his evil proclivities.