Yeah, I just loaded up my game so I'm in the same situation as you. Poor as hell, but it's going to be fun building up from scratch. Some of the people on the hardcore circuit have kind of won me over too. Seems like it would be a fun change of pace from the typical D2 experience. Check the forum, groups are getting set up right now.
Can't recommend HC enough. You start of, honking around in act 1 and you got stuff shooting at you, health bar going down for the first time it will strike you, you can die now! Just becomes a totally different game.
Are the stash files physically empty (file size 0) or what? An empty GoMule stash file should have file size 11 bytes. Non-empty stash files should be several KBytes in size. Have you tried copying the files to another hard drive, etc.?
Your post made me backup my stuff on my Google Drive for the first time since a year or so. Don't know if that makes you feel better, though.