There are many Robert Aickman (1914-1981) stories that I could have chosen – famous contenders like ‘The Hospice’ and ‘The Swords’ are rightly celebrated and could easily be on this list. But it is the long short-story ‘The Stains’ that has stayed with my thoughts more than any other.
‘The Stains’ focuses on that most Aickman of characters, a sad and unremarkable middle-aged English civil servant, Stephen, whose wife Elizabeth has recently died. Bereft and unsure of what to do with himself, he takes a leave of absence from work to stay with his brother in “the north” who has published “two important books on lichens”. Stephen, perturbed by his brother’s wife, begins taking long walks on the moors; and one day he meets a young woman named Nell who is collecting mosses and lichens. She fascinates him, and he is intensely attracted to her. She becomes a kind of path toward liberation for him, representing a mysterious and ancient world that he craves in the face of creeping modernity. It is strongly implied she is an aspect from nature, a nymph of some sort. She, if she exists at all, is a relic from a deep past that Stephen romanticises, much like the lichens his brother studies. He fetishises her “aboriginal” nature.
Then he notices a strange lichen-like stain on her body. They move into together, the walls of the house they attempt to domesticize becoming covered in strange fungal and lichen growths. The stains spread to Stephen’s body, before nature comes to claim him utterly.
‘The Stains’ is the most intriguing, nuanced, and saddest of Aickman’s stories and its meaning can be endlessly deciphered and interpreted but never fully pinned down; as with all of his work, that is its great and enduring strength.
First published in New Terrors, ed. Ramsey Campbell, Pan Books, 1980; collected in The Unsettled Dust, Faber & Faber, 2014