Only the Stains Remain by Ross Jeffery (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)

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Even someone familiar with the genre must surely find it remarkable how broad a spectrum extreme horror has successfully covered with spraying viscera. Many stories up for the Splatterpunk Awards have made a point out of staying away from reality: whether this is done through supernatural fantasy or cartoonish absurdity, the effect is to constantly remind us that, no matter how graphic the subject matter may be, it remains far removed from anything going on in the real world.

Then, at the other end of the scale, we find Ross Jeffery’s Only the Stains Remain.

This novella tells the story of Jude, a survivor of child abuse who, as an adult, revisits the area where he and his brother Kyle grew up, including “the campsite where our childhoods were erased by calloused hands and cruel intentions”. As he does so, he begins a series of reminiscences that start with the final days of his terminally-ill mother.

The plot thread set in the past shows how, after the mother’s passing, the boys’ father collapses into alcoholism, leaving Jude and Kyle at the mercy of their three uncles Lenny, Lucius and Dwight; these men are eager to get their hands on the late woman’s possessions – but find that the biggest temptations that she left behind are her two sons:

The groaning floorboards betrayed our nightly visitor. That sound still haunts me to this day; I hear it each night in my nightmares.
In the recurring dreams, I see the shadow creep under our bedroom door, the monster of flesh and blood and bone hovering on the threshold, contemplating whether or not to come in.
In my dreams, I scream for them to turn away, to walk down the hall, to leave us alone. But they never listen.
They always come in.
Like they did back then.

Jude occasionally relates the few good memories he has of his childhood from when his mother still lived, providing all the more contrast with the seemingly relentless narrative of abuse. As narrator, Jude gives terse but nonetheless penetrating psychological insight into his three uncles: “Every chance Lucius got he would try and get Kyle on his own. He’d split us up like cattle, the ones for fattening up, and the ones for eating – and by god did he enjoy feasting.” Even when these men try to show affection, they do so in an utterly twisted manner. Jude’s eleventh birthday present is a maimed baby boar, ready for him to kill as a rite of passage into manhood.

Now, however, Jude is an adult, and strong enough to finally – at long last – punish his three uncles. His memories of his traumatic childhood are interspersed with the present-day portion of the story in which he tracks down Lenny, Lucius and Dwight, exacting long-due vengeance upon them one by one.

Only the Stains Remain is a very tactile story, treating violence not as a spectacle – as many of the more cinematically-influenced horror stories do – but as a physical feeling, whether it be the feeling of the killer as they grip the handle or that of the victim as they receive the blade. Feelings of a more emotional sort also have their part to play, although for much of the story they find prominence through their absence: the novella charts the steady hardening of psychological scar tissue.

Objects are a major motif in Only the Stains Remain. The story picks out a specific selection of implements and detritus, giving each item both a symbolic weight and a task in the scenes of abuse and violation. The belt worn by Lucius is one example: in Jude’s childhood memories, the sound of it hitting the floor signifies another round of abuse; in the present, however, it takes on another meaning. “You see Lucius never took off his belt, except to do terrible things”, Jude tells us. “That was, until I made him take off the belt, so I could do terrible things to him.”

Teeth are also among the novella’s symbolic objects. Jude refers to his most traumatic memory as “a rotten tooth I can’t stop tonguing”; when he confronts Uncle Dwight, Jude extracts the latter’s teeth and keeps them alongside Licuius’ belt buckle as a trophy. And on it goes: knives, photographs, ropes, bullets and skin-branding cigarettes also stand out in the story’s cabinet of grim curiosities.

The human body, the story reminds us, is itself all too easily reduced to no more than another lifeless object. While in the process of killing the first of the uncles on his hit-list, Jude compares the abuser to “the statue of a dictator toppled in the streets, amidst riotous celebration”, a symbol of atrocity rather than a person. This is a story of deadening, both literal and figurative; and the abusers – who kill something in Jude, who kill something in their own hearts – eventually become objects themselves via their own weapons. Like a portrait by Arcimbaldo, where a librarian is depicted as a man built up from his own reading matter, the story shows us cold, hard men who are made of their cold, hard tools.

The basic narrative of Only the Stains Remain is the familiar rape-revenge story, a controversial formula but one that has been re-used enough to have been refined to peak efficiency. Author Ross Jeffrey’s storytelling is down-and-dirty, with no space wasted. Every implement of torture and killing, every violation of the human body, is boiled down to its core symbolism while retaining all of its immediate shock.

Throughout the novella, empathy is cultivated only to be frozen stiff; and the outwardly crude is created with care and consideration. Only the Stains Remain is a fine-cut jewel of textual brutality.

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