British author Ross Jeffery’s harrowing novella Only the Stains Remain was published in 2021, and immediately caused something of a buzz in the reviewer community. It is an excellent book (though I have a couple of minor quibbles, which I’ll get into later), but it is most assuredly NOT for everyone, as it deals with a very disturbing topic—horrific child abuse— presented in fairly graphic detail. It isn’t quite as soul-crushing as, say, Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, but it’s along the same lines, so reader beware. It’s a powerful read, but it is definitely not a good time.
The story is framed from the perspective of a man named Jude, who is telling the reader in the present day about events that occurred when he was a child, back in 1982. The structure of the story—which is essentially a straight-up revenge narrative—is not exactly a traditional, three-act sort of format; rather, it’s played out as more episodic, like a series of vignettes. In the present day, Jude, who appears to be on some sort of mission and carries a bag with him full of various objects, will pull out one object and then recall what this particular object signifies in light of the events of the early 1980s.
So back in 1982, Jude and his older brother Kyle lived on their family’s farm. Life seemed relatively normal for them until their beloved mother died of cancer. After that, their father—who had been a completely acceptable father beforehand—seemed to fall into some dark place where he just checked out and didn’t care about anything anymore. He began drinking heavily and became overtly abusive towards his sons, smacking them around, treating them like slave labor, and being generally neglectful when he wasn’t physically hurting them. It seemed that the man could not deal with life after his wife was gone, and hated the sight of the boys who reminded him so much of her.
All of this was bad enough, but things were about to get exponentially worse. In his drunk, weakened, and uncaring state, the boys’ father allowed two of his brothers and another man who was a family friend to either move into the house, or have free run of the place. Said free run, sadly, also extended to the children.
The boys were always very close, but their shared misery only brought them closer. Older brother Kyle was fiercely protective of Jude, and for a while, quietly endured the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, simply to keep the scumbag men away from his younger brother. Despite his heroics, however, it was clear that this situation wasn’t going to last long.
Jude, who was quite young at the time, knew what was going on, and it terrified him, as well as made him feel guilty for what Kyle was suffering on his behalf. Eventually, though, Kyle’s sacrifice didn’t satisfy the men anymore, and they began to set their sights on the younger boy. It started out horribly but slowly: one of the “uncles,” Dwight, sought to “claim” the younger boy by burning his arms with cigarettes. The men also took the boys on a hunting trip where they forced the children to kill a squealing baby boar that the drunk and leering men had tied to a tree for just that purpose.
As time goes on, the abuse gets more and more appalling, until finally things come to a horrifying apex. I won’t spoil exactly what happens, although I will note that since this story is structured more like a series of episodes than a single arc, it’s not really important if certain plot points get spoiled. In fact, this story is set up in almost exactly the same way as I Spit on Your Grave, only with little boys instead of a woman.
So in the present day, an adult Jude is systematically going about a campaign of revenge against the men who destroyed his childhood. One interesting choice the author made—which I was a little iffy about at the time but understood more as I thought more about it—was the fact that although the child abuse is described in rather graphic detail (as I said, reader beware), the mechanics of the revenge are largely given short shrift. For example, there will be a scene in the present day where Jude has captured one of the men, but the details of the tracking down and the capture are left to the imagination; we simply begin with the man already in custody. The revenge, too, is not prolonged to any great degree. At first I thought this approach was a little odd—surely, for maximum catharsis we would want the revenge to be as horrific and protracted as the original abuse was—but then I began to understand that maybe the point was that although Jude had some of the worst things happen to him that could happen to a person, he still retained enough of his humanity to pull his punches, as it were. He wanted to wipe these shitheads off the face of the earth, justifiably so, but he didn’t want to become as monstrous as they were while he was going about it. All he wanted was for them to feel a modicum of the pain he had felt in the moments before their useless lives were extinguished.
Though the writing style is evocative and quite beautiful in parts, Ross Jeffery does use a lot of run-on sentences, which made my grammar nerve twitch uncontrollably. I get that a writer doesn’t have to be rigidly grammatically correct if it’s their style, but it still bothered me a bit. I’ll also note that because of the story’s more episodic structure, it can get slightly repetitive at times, as the revenge against each perpetrator is carried out in a methodical fashion. In that sense, the flashbacks set in 1982 are really the most interesting part of the tale, while the revenge almost seems like a foregone conclusion.
This is a book that you have to be in a certain type of headspace to read, because it deals with very unpleasant subject matter described quite frankly, so if you are upset by realistic depictions of child sexual abuse in fiction, then this is not the book for you. But it is a very emotionally impactful story if you wish to brave its murky waters, and I can see it being quite cathartic for someone who suffered this type of abuse themselves. Just be advised that it describes the worst humanity has to offer and will probably make you depressed for a long while afterwards.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.