Purgatorial stories — hallmarks and patterns

This post is a spin-off of the three-mood short story reading project.

I’d noticed a number of stories (and novels, and shows) with what I could only describe as a particularly purgatorial aesthetic/mood. This post is a first attempt to bring all those notes and thoughts together.

Here are the main sections:


There’s probably a more accurate word for this — a place between a permanent afterworld or forgetting or damnation on the one hand, and life before death/the story on the other. There’s more than a dash of Hades/Erebus to it, but also an expectation (rather than exception) of journey and a possibility (however remote) of return.

Photo of one page of journal with tiny handwritten mind-map notes about purgatorial fiction
Using the observation journal to break down some of the patterns

Initial examples

Every so often, a consistent pattern emerges across stories I’ve been reading — perhaps a particular story-shape for a given theme (a classic grief or Gothic structure, for example). Part of the fun of noting an effect is puzzling out what makes it work, and finding ways to achieve it. Even if I’m rediscovering something well-known or obvious, the process of finding it out is the point.

Here are a few of the early examples that sprang to mind in (of all things) a Hopepunk reading group, and subsequent discussions on Twitter (particularly with Gareth Powell, but much of that thread is missing now).

  • Fargo season 1 (more than Castle Rock season 1 — Fargo is less observationally-apocalyptic than the economically grimmer Castle Rock, but that probably makes it more purgatorial than hellish)
  • Alternate Routes — Tim Powers
  • The Castle of Crossed Destinies — Italo Calvino (it’s been a while since I read this — this is more of a vibe)
  • Weirdly NOT Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock (its purgatory is nearby but aspirational) but definitely the Tom Wright / Malthouse production of it as a play, with its low cloud-ceiling of massed sticks, sudden utter darkness, and physically oppressive cicada sounds, its time-travelling schoolgirls and actors shifting through characters and costumes.
  • Passage — Connie Willis

The hallmarks

Here are some of the key recurring elements in stories that felt properly purgatorial — the elements by which the effect seems to be achieved.

  • Persistence and return
    • A sense of a person or life persisting (past death, or a metaphorical equivalent — exhaustion, etc)
    • Love (continuing or reaching beyond death)
    • The possibility of some form of revenant
    • Often strong Orpheus & Eurydice overtones, although few explicitly O&E stories feel purgatorial (possibly because they are usually revising the base story). But key elements include: the leaving and forgetting of a life before/outside, the crossing of a Lethe (and the river features heavily in Gone Girl), following and seeking and reversals and steps back, and whether you can get what you thought you wanted…
  • Agency and flaws
    • Complicity/culpability (but with excessive consequences)
    • Biting at each other (even within/out of love)
    • Stories cannibalising stories (also perpetuation/persistance through stories)
    • Themes/questions of agency
  • Spatial/temporal limits:
    • Delimited, low-ceilinged world (explicitly or aesthetically)
    • Circularity (incl physical & temporal spiral & time loop)
    • A space that is less liminal than facilitative, not unaware of humans, nominally built for human purposes, but not for long-term comfort or habitation (place as psychopomp)

Some uses of the purgatorial effect

  • Weary or almost-fatalistic indictment
  • Claustrophobic urgency
  • Contingent and tenuous hope through love and narrative and agency
  • The effect of a noir-adjacent grimness

Collected thoughts on some purgatorial short stories

Alix E Harrow’s “The Long Way Up” (see here in the February notes), with its underworld of cellars and basements, specifically muses on concepts of agency.

Lucius Shepherd’s “Ditch Witch” (see here in the February notes), a supernatural noir story, is filled with motel rooms and oppressive night and a sense of indirect but disproportionate consequences for actions.

Catherynne M Valente’s “The Sin of America” (see here in the February notes), even more than Valente’s Orpheus and Eurydice story “L’Esprit de Escalier” (January notes), very clearly (and explicitly) contains those purgatorial elements: the low-ceilinged world (metaphorically, and in the description of specific rooms), intense love, violence, removal of agency, stories cannibalising themselves, complicity, disproportionate consequences, biting at each other, attempts to reach to others.

Nicasio Andres Reed’s “Babang Luksa” (see here in the February notes), a musing on grief and home and climate change, also has the explicitly low-ceilinged world (the sky, but also the sense of childhood homes), themes of persistence and return, a degree of complicity/traceable consequences that are excessive, biting at each other, love, cannibalising of stories (and perpetuation through them), questions of agency, attempts to bring someone away with you… Notes of death and time and inevitability and affection.

Lauren Ring’s “They Call It Hipster Heaven” (see here in the February notes) is not quite a purgatorial story (there are elements missing, eg of complicity, agency, opportunity), but it’s clearly adjacent, or at least on the banks of the Lethe. And that tension between place and desire, between frame and contents, is similar.

Compare this to Tom Piccirilli’s “But For Scars” (see here in the February notes), another supernatural noir story. While it shares many hallmarks of purgatorial stories, its noirish sense of inevitability/circularity excludes the note of (remote) hope. There might not be an awareness of despair, but there is no goal of ultimate escape or salvation — there are daily efforts at grubby honour, but the dead build up, here. The fully purgatorial stories contain some hope, however tarnished, however much someone may fail at the last.

Compare Alix E Harrow’s “Mr Death” (see here in the February notes) to Harrow’s “The Long Way Up” (also in the February notes). “The Long Way Up” leans into that sense of the low-ceilinged purgatorial world (thanks to Bailey Steinworth for that recommendation). But the characters (living and otherwise) in “Mr Death” look resolutely beyond those apparently lowered horizons. (And the two story shapes are almost inverted.)

B Pladek’s “All Us Ghosts” (see here in the February notes) is concerned (among other things) with the theme of ongoing revolution/carefully moderated resistance/advocacy. That raises questions of perpetuation of cycles and affection, of narrative and agency and low sky/horizons and their maintenance — which bring it nearly into that purgatorial space, although without the more common initial culpability. The story is explicitly doing a Plato’s cave thing, rather than purgatory/Orpheus & Euridice, etc. But it’s in the neighbourhood, and so interesting for purposes of comparison. But while people are trying to exist and persist in this world, they aren’t really expecting to escape.

A lot of the supernatural noir stories (from Supernatural Noir, ed. Ellen Datlow, discussed throughout the February notes) feel adjacent to the purgatorial, but I think that boundary highlights a key difference. Many noir protagonists are in some form of hell, or other bleak afterlife from which they can’t escape, whether or not they know it (and most of them do).

John Langan’s “In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos” (see here in the February notes), contains that sense of spiralling fate both in that looped pattern and in a the more granular constant referring back to the events (and crimes, and complicity) that began it all.

In both Leah Ning’s “Pull” (see here in the February notes) and Iriarte‘s “Proof by Induction” (see here in the February notes) there’s a circularity and finality (if with more emotion) to this story of loss and grief and virtual pocket-worlds. But in both, it’s a finality without complicity (cf the noir stories) — mortality is inevitable; you choose what to do with that fact.

Unlike Iriarte’s “Proof by Induction” and Ning’s “Pull”, the purgatorial stories tend fall somewhere between grief & fatalism — this a limited world created out of the failure to either fight or yield, neither clawing back from the edge of the abyss nor dropping over it. Iriarte’s “Proof of Induction” does create a quasi-purgatory in the form of the Coda; the main character finally uses it to change something and get out (to an extent).

Jaime Marvin’s “Silver Bells” (here in March notes) is definitely adjacent to the purgatorial stories: confined, low-ceilinged world, culpability/complicity, perpetuation of cycles, the possibility of hope, stories cannibalising themselves, love… However, it has less of people biting at people, and the situation is to a degree voluntary (it’s self-exile). It does have a rather neatly looped twist on Orpheus & Eurydice.

Another quasi-purgatorial night-driving story was Samanta Schweblin’s “Headlights” (see January notes) — the long low-ceilinged night, the sense of some unexplained judgement, the biting at each other of brides and husbands, the possibility of escape but only through desperation and violence (and that never confirmed).

Vajra Chandrasekera’s “Peristalsis” (here in the March notes) in which the dead (perhaps) watch a show about the living (perhaps) who watch a documentary about the dead, is definitely running alongside the purgatorial stories. There’s the same sense of a limited horizon, of love having meaning but also consuming itself, of stories cannibalising stories, of a degree of complicity or culpability, of the possibility (but not the certainty) of escape — although these effects are split between the viewers and the viewed, which dilutes or masks the echo.

Mary E Lowd’s “Returning the Lyre” (see here in the April notes) is a role-reversal of Orpheus & Eurydice. This one seems to fit the criteria best after the return from Hades — the restricted (metaphorical) horizons, the consequences of choices that seem disproportionate, the sense of love and of stories devouring themselves…

AC Wise’s “Seven Times Seven” (see here in the May notes) both has a looping shape and is about escaping a loop. The process of realising the looping shape and the necessity of a final choice becomes the way to make the choice and escape the loop. Interestingly, this makes the story even more of a loop (the final return), while making it feel less inevitable (the hope). That strong hope and chance of escape, distinct but tenuous, relieves some of its claustrophia — this might have been a purgatorial story otherwise. The night sky and biting at the one you love and the sense of stories eating themselves brings it close.

All the story-shapes for the short stories in this post

Below is a big long list of my attempts to describe three-mood shapes for all the short stories above. At a quick glance, some significant recurring themes include: circularity, dissatisfaction, striving, a descent from grandness to grimness or a movement from desperation through effort to failure (or bare success), damage, exhaustion, defeat, truth and precarity.

  • grand ideas — disillusions — plain ideas
  • the plan — foiled — rebuilt
  • assumptions — determination — working it through
  • “knowing” — learning — trusting
  • what’s meant to be — bitter truths — strong quiet truths
  • door — things through — suspicion
  • meetings — ignoring the strange — swallowed whole
  • dalliance — resisting — succumbing
  • drawn in — bid for freedom — maelstrom
  • mirage — specific — visceral
  • resignation — held breath — complicity
  • representatives — individual — expiation
  • apprehensions — gentleness — violence/perpetuation
  • ominous mundane — metaphor literalised — logical consequence
  • loving horror — grimness grows — each to own
  • striving — cracks — split paths
  • mythic — mundane extension — mythic consequence
  • consequence of prior act — unfolding consequences — repudiate prior act
  • reckoning — negotiations — truce
  • return/descent — feeling the contours — reaching a peace
  • homecoming — awkward settling — so it goes
  • what’s lost — what remains — what goes on
  • promise — denial — gaze
  • approach — chasm — proximity
  • metaphor — literal — surreal
  • place — desire — tension
  • frame — light — shadow
  • memory — impossibility — suspension
  • arrivals — investigations — accumulation
  • the dead? — the living? — living with the dead
  • escapes — returns — circles
  • damage — tracing scars — digging at wounds
  • duty — rebellion — doubling down
  • a chance — a second chance — a variation
  • a job — choices — vocation
  • reluctance — resistance — hold ground
  • sensing — stirring — waking
  • grand ideas — disillusions — plain ideas
  • the plan — foiled — rebuilt
  • assumptions — determination — working it through
  • “knowing” — learning — trusting
  • what’s meant to be — bitter truths — strong quiet truths
  • job — resist — consequences of success
  • affection — resistance — rejecting
  • longing — using — surviving
  • business-like — conflicted — harsh
  • half-lies — half-truths — half-lives
  • lies — masks — honour
  • opportunity — sliding — plunge
  • bickering — suspecting — revealing
  • doubts — questions — confirmation
  • the future (from the present) — the past (from the present) — the loop
  • resist — struggle — yield
  • protest — grieve — peace
  • tremors — quakes — collapse
  • dark trees — edge of doom — more sure
  • resentment — panic — reassurance
  • pulling other back — saving self — freeing third
  • numb — pressing — look elsewhere
  • inchoate — specific — reoriented
  • lack — pursuit — dissatisfaction
  • opportunities — striving — reevaluation
  • chance — repetition — other chances
  • as was — wishing — what is
  • bleak — culpability — flashes of joy
  • stress — miscalculation — pursuit
  • spiral — dropping out — reaching out
  • present — past — way through
  • punishment — crime — friendship
  • ashes — play with fire — lights
  • oddness — deepening peculiarity — inversion
  • bleakness — intensifying strangeness — velocity of approach
  • shock and despair — shock and fear — triumph and grief
  • recursion — division — collapse
  • consumers — consumed — consuming
  • accounts & recountings — warnings — revenants
  • worlds — choices — survival
  • determination — reversal — doubt
  • intention — overset — contaminated
  • making peace — a chance — precarity
  • ritual — emotional — unsettled
  • threshold — return — dissatisfied/haunted
  • gritty — anguished — torn
  • panicked — enthralled — coming to
  • trapped — pain — choosing
  • gripping — tearing — pulling free
  • the curse — the wish — the damage done

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