Insofar as houses we inhabit in nightmare represent the contents of our minds, the two places we instinctively want to avoid are the attic and the basement—especially the basement. Come to think of it, it’s probably not a bad idea to stay out of the kitchen, the shower, the bedroom, or any of the closets. The house, the human mind—haunted or seemingly purified of the obstacles that cloud its understanding—is the darkest and scariest place on earth.
Thomas Ligotti’s masterful 2003 story Purity, contains at least two houses. There is reference to one haunted attic and two vividly rendered basements. Like much of his fiction, this one exhibits the internally coherent logic of dream, which brings a unity to the work and increases its power to disturb the reader. Though quite effective on the level of horror entertainment, there is much more going on in this ambitious story.
The narrative includes discussion and application of a grim philosophical notion: that there are no new ideas, no originality, no uncontaminated understandings of the world. There is only endless “renting” and recycling of old notions. People are infested with “intellectual cooties”—(memes?)—many of them constrictive and stifling. The story contains a sympathetic portrayal of impoverished and oppressed people, but consistent with Ligotti’s world view, there is no deliverance from their misery, only flight. The boy narrator Daniel has an intimate relationship with two very different families, but a basement of horrors lies underneath each one. Finally, Ligotti uses the setting of each home to introduce and play with the idea of the egregore, which—in this story at least—may be an agent of grace. (See also Nethescurial as an Egregore.)
The intricately balanced, symmetrical structure of the story is impressive. In Daniel’s family, father-and-son and mother-and-daughter are dyads that exist in completely separate worlds that do not communicate. By the end of the story, there is a victim left in the basement of both houses, bereft of cash, sanity, and in one case, life. Both families have to flee to new houses as a result of horrific events, a process the author implies will occur again and again in the future.
There are numerous vertical and horizontal parallels: between what happens on the top floor and what lies underneath, and between events that occur in the narrator’s home and in his friend Candy’s house. She lives just a few streets away, but in a much more dangerous, dilapidated neighborhood. All of the “halves” are held together by the young narrator, who carries a prized possession with him as he visits top and bottom, or this side and the other. Daniel is an ambassador, or perhaps an interloper.
He also an unusual child—the first subject in his father’s obsessive experimentation in the basement. His father literally wants to “siphon” off the “three principle obstacles”, mental impurities that prevent the human race from obtaining “a pure conception of existence”. The first two principles to be removed include nationalism and belief in God, (or more broadly, the supernatural). Ligotti elaborates on these and similar notions in many of his stories and essays—see for example his 2010 nonfiction work, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Horror Contrivance.
Daniel’s cognitive impediment is a minor one: he wants to believe that the attic is haunted, perhaps by the spirit of someone who once hanged himself up there, thereby creating a supernatural link to another dimension. His father impatiently dismisses this—dad knows best. Instead he gives his son an explanation that describes what some occultists would call an egregore: a force or substance that exists in certain places that can be shaped and manifested by the human imagination. “The attic is not haunting your head,” he says, “your head is haunting the attic.” The father uses a contraption in his basement laboratory to siphon this sensibility out of his Daniel’s mind, curing him. But he gives the stuff back to him in a little jar for a keepsake, a nice touch.
(It is no accident that later on, an evangelist, collecting donations for a religious charity, happens to ring the wrong doorbell and becomes an unwitting subject of the father’s gruesome research.)
Meanwhile, the narrator repeatedly visits his friend Candy over in the “bad” neighborhood. She is an African American woman of uncertain age, one of a number of squatters inhabiting a decrepit and hazardous shell of a house just a few blocks away. She is “sweet” to the boy, but her name contrasts sharply with a life embittered by poverty, crime, and oppression. The two are affectionate and protective of each other, but like the father-and-son and mother-and-daughter division in his own home, parts of their respective worlds do not overlap and cannot be shared or communicated. However, they do share the narrator’s prized possession, the little jar of jelly-like substance, distilled egregore.
We learn that the stuff operates differently depending on the individual. For the young narrator, it reproduces the wonder and awe of the supernatural; for his friend Candy, comfort in her loss; for the villain who arrives to threaten Candy and kidnap the boy, momentary terror, then rejection.
There is a climactic encounter with the malevolent police detective who may also be a local child murderer, (compare to one of Ligotti’s earlier stories, The Frolic—see also Talismanic Terrors in Lovecraft and Ligotti). He is swiftly dispatched, becoming the second victim in the story, but Candy and her associates must now flee the premises and part with their young friend.
Daniel and his family are reunited in the end after this disturbing adventure at Candy’s. They too must move because of what is now in their basement. His father has apparently had a nervous breakdown related to the results of his peculiar research project. Interestingly, Daniel is finally interacting with the other half of his family, his sister-and-mother. The story ends with an iteration of the third principle, the third impediment to human progress. This is expressed in the form of a jarringly homey platitude—it must be intended as bitterly ironic, its sarcasm rising to toxic levels. It is a final slap in the face of those complacent enough to believe they understand the nature of human existence or have any hope for its future.