The Stains, on the face of it, is quite a simple story. Man goes walking on moors, meets girl, becomes obsessed. Is it all happening in his mind? Well, no, because others notice the outward and visible signs of his obsession. And why is his experience paralleled by what is happening- but on a mundane level- to his brother? What is the nature of this symbiosis? How exactly are the two men linked? And does the man's dead wife- whose absence is always present- have some agency in what is going on? And why the continual banging on about time and timelessness? Is it a story of nympholepsy, of mid-life crisis, of spiritual awakening...?
The first time I read The Stains I read it as a horror story because that is how it was marketed. And it works on that level. There are things in it that are satisfactorily disgusting and scary. But the more I read of Aickman the more I think he wants us to plough through the horror- as saints are supposed to endure the dark night of the soul- for the sake of whatever there is on the other side. Our man in The Stains comes to his peculiar end in an ecstasy of terror and erotic fulfilment. In the dark. In the absolute dark. On the brink of a terrific encounter.