{Isolation Tales} SWELL HEAD By Stephen Volk

These are the most testing times the human race have faced since World War II. This time the enemy is unseen, an enemy so powerful it’s forcing many of us to retreat back into our houses. It’s here that people will try to continue to live as normal a life as they can and it’s here that the wonderful art of storytelling may blossom. Be it, young children sitting in front of a parent, or a person sadly on their own listening to the radio, stories will be spread and remembered, to be told to future generations once this horrible virus has faded.

I wanted to be able to share some stories with the fiends of Kendall Reviews, stories to help people get through these difficult times. It’s a huge honour for me to be able to bring you another story from the incredible Stephen Volk.

Thank you so much for your support Stephen, it means the world.

Stephen wrote…

Here is another story from me. My wife always tells me it is her favourite of all the stories I’ve written, and she always tells people to read it if they think I just write horror.

It’s about brotherhood, which we could all do with right now!

Swell Head

Stephen Volk

My daddy’s name was Jarvis but they called him Rudy and my mother’s name was Gillian but they called her Jake. Don’t know why, but that’s the way it was. I was born in 1927, which put me between two World Wars, and pretty much that’s the way I’d a wanted it.

Skinny ass up on a tractor. Come here, my daddy calls. I was ten, give or take. Not a whole lot going on in my mind except getting that plow line straight as a dead dog’s tail. Come on, he said, we’re going to the hospital. And I knew my momma was there so I thought something bad had happened, and he seen the fretting on my face and says, Hell, you got yourself a baby brother. What do you think of that? I said I didn’t know, and that was the truth. I didn’t.

The doctor said, You can’t see him just yet. There’s been complications.

My daddy asked them what that meant and they said, Like we say, complications. Come back tomorrow.

So we did.

They looked even more uncomfortable then, looking at each other like neither one of them wanted to do the talking. One said, Look, er, sir, you know there’s been complications?

My daddy said, Uhuh, I got that. What kind of complications?

So then I guess they told him because they took him into a little room for a while and then down the corridor. I stayed with the lady at the desk. She smelled of perfume. Daddy come back and I asked if he seen him.

He looks okay, he said.

Anyways my baby brother didn’t come home in a hurry, and my daddy wasn’t cut out to be no cook and he knew it. Our belly rumbles were like cries for my momma to come back, which in time she did, and that’s when I got my first glimpse of him, all swathed in his baby-blue blanket and cooed over as she crossed the threshold, then later when I craned over the crib.

Daddy? Daddy, what’s wrong with his head?

Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with his head.

He’s beautiful, said my momma.

It’s… real big.

No, son. All babies look like that. It’s disproportionate, because they got all that growing ahead of them. You’ll see.

Course, I didn’t see.

That was the complication. The one the doctors had told him about.

My brother had a big, big head. When he came into this world, 30% bigger than normal. And, this was the worrying part—getting bigger every day.

Pretty soon, three months, four months on, momma couldn’t go on disguising the fact, even though she persisted in calling him beautiful. To her he probably was. After all, I’m no oil painting and she loved me fine. That’s the deal with mothers. Nature puts that in them. She probably couldn’t see him for what he was.

Six months old, he had a body the size of a regular six-month-old baby. Trouble was, his head was—what can I say? Large.

Like somebody was creeping in at night and taking a bicycle pump to his skull and just inflating him all up.

Like a big old basketball on the pillow.

Weird thing was, as we observed week in week out, it was like all the feeding and growing went above the neck, while the rest of him stayed the same.

On his first birthday he had the body of a six-month-old attached to the head of an eleven-year-old. This I know because I compared his cranial dimensions to my own with a tape measure stolen temporarily from my momma’s sewing box.

She simply put more pillows under him as he grew. Said he had more of a weight to carry than the rest of us.

My, she said, Just wonder at the thinking he’ll get to doing. Why, I’ll lay money he’ll be some kind of doctor or professor, with a brain that size. I’d say that’s rare. I’d say we’ve been blessed.

I, meantime, grew like most kids, skinny and normal.

And he didn’t. Well, except for his head, that is. And how.

Not that he complained about it. No, sir. Never did hear him cry or whine about his lot. He just didn’t. Maybe he was biding his time for the tragedies to come. Maybe he did know they were coming. If he did, he wasn’t telling.

Anyways, momma sung to him real pretty. She had the voice of an angel, my daddy said. When kiddo was bouncing on daddy’s knee he kind of—lolled. And instead of cradling him like regular parents do, they cradled his head and let his tiny body, well, dangle, the way a sock hangs off a foot. As an afterthought.

His features were rounded, but not ugly. Kind of soft. Pliable. Open to wonder, the way babies are. Yet the body attached to it remained the size of a Kewpie doll.

I asked my momma if they were going to send him to school. As the day grew near I feared what was expected of me, and what they would make of him. My friends, that is. The ones who had no idea I even had a brother because I sure as hell hadn’t told them. Did I have to tell them now? And what would they do when they found out? I’d like to say I was worried on behalf of my brother, but I wasn’t. I was worried on behalf on me.

No, he doesn’t have to go to school, son, said Momma. We think he’s fine right here. And she took my daddy’s hand in hers, and I was safe.

After school I’d creep into his bedroom and read to him. Telling him what we did in class that day. His big squidgy head would roll on the bed, staring at the ceiling then lying on its side till he fell asleep, sometimes with my words ringing softly in his ears. The small clothes, baby clothes, even though he was six now and every hat size behind him.

I read Treasure Island. He liked that. He liked adventure. Jules Verne. H. G. Wells. He liked travelling to the moon.

Of a night not seldom he used to gaze out his window at the man in the moon up there. Guess he was thinking, look at that feller way up in the heavens, with his big old round head just like mine.

Momma would take one ear and me the other and we’d turn him, so that he wouldn’t get bed sores on his chin, and we’d bathe him, wrapping him in towel after towel and dry his hair and momma would comb it neatly with a parting. And sometimes we used to have to keep an eye which way he rolled in his sleep because we thought he might crush his own body under him. We tried to get him to sit in a high chair and join us to eat, but the weight of his head just got too much and the strain of holding it up exhausted him and made him cranky. So we started taking him food to his bed and pretty soon he didn’t want to leave that bedroom or that bed, period.

It didn’t shock me any more—this head just sitting there, wide as the mattress, tall as I was when I sat there next to him, book open on my lap. No attached body to speak of, just a set of limbs and torso that just seemed to get in the way.

Me and him played games on wet afternoons or when there was no school. Gin rummy and poker for matchsticks. I got riled when he beat me. And he’d poke out his big fat tongue as he clawed up the winnings with his teeny hands and I’d smack him and we’d fight, cat and dog. Oh, yeah.

I wasn’t no angel, I admit. He got himself a stack of attention because he was different. And I didn’t like it one bit. I resented it. Wasn’t very charitable and wasn’t very nice, I see that now, sure. But kids are kids, and they see the world like that and that’s the way I was.

I said bad things to him on occasion. Occasion, I made him unhappy. Ain’t proud of that. Far from it.

But that was a long time ago.

Gotta live with it, and I do.

One time I wanted to go play down by the creek with my friends and Daddy said no, you got to play with your brother. That got me so mad that I didn’t want to be there I pushed him into the fire. Rolled him right into it, jamming him in the orifice like a big damn cork in a bottle. And he hollered. Boy, did he holler. But I held him there and cussed him and said I hated him and called him all the names under God’s sun. I even smelled his hair burning.

Got a whupping for that.

Told my daddy it was all his fault, cause he wouldn’t let me play in the creek. Said I wished I hadn’t got no brother. He said, Hush that right now and remember the Lord Jesus Christ can hear every word you utter, boy.

I said, I ain’t bothered Jesus hears nothing.

He said, well you oughta. And consider what you got and that young un ain’t. Consider that once in a while.

And I did.

He didn’t get hurt. Not permanent. But not a day goes by I don’t think about all the nasty things I said and done to him because I knew no better and sometimes I wanted a little helping of the love he got dished up to him every day.

Once a Bible salesman come to the farm and momma gave him tea and the next day in school a kid who was the kid of the Bible salesman asked me, You never told us you got no freak brother, freak.

I said, Yeah, that’s cause I ain’t.

Well, my poppa seen him and he say he so ugly he make the Lord weep. He say he got a head bigger’n the biggest watermelon you ever did see. Bigger’n the stone they rolled to seal Jesus’s tomb. He say, such abominations didn’t ought to be ’llowed to live.

I said, Give a dang, cause I ain’t got no brother.

That night they threw stones at our windows. I knew who it was out there.

They yelled out: Swell Head! Swell Head! Swell Head!

And I covered my ears till I couldn’t stand it no more. And I looked at my brother and I started shouting at him too: Swell Head! Swell! Head! Swell Head! And in my bare feet I ran out of that house and down to the kink in the track with the bushes where the voices were coming from. And I stood there with my friends shouting: Swell Head! Swell Head! Swell Head! And I ran off with them into the night, laughing loud as they were. Louder, if I could’ve.

I stayed out that whole night and came back the next expecting the whupping of my life but the house was real quiet. Daddy was in bed and momma was sewing by candlelight. She said my brother been asking after me. Wanted me to sleep with him in his bed. That’s what we did. Kept each other warm. She said he missed me. Couldn’t get to sleep no other way. I said I was too growed up. There wasn’t no room no more. I slept in my own bed that night. I remember it felt real cold.

One day a Carnie Man arrived. Said he was from Coney Island.

I’ll give you $50 for that child, sir. I’ll take the burden off you good folk right now and give him a good life.

Ain’t innerested, said my daddy.

Well, I’ll up the offer to a hundred.

You got a problem with your ears, mister.

Okay. You country folks drive a hard bargain. One two five. Here in my pocket. Last and final offer.

My last and final offer is you get your fat butt off my land or you get buckshot all over it.

Rebuke to a guardian angel. That’s what that is, sir. And I’ll avail myself of your company no longer. God be with you. Or not, as the case may be.

I didn’t take to school work. Wasn’t scholarly inclined. Not that there was any question that I’d do anything but stay on the family business that was there under my two feet every day when I woke up, the farm my daddy bust his back to keep running. I didn’t think it was dumb and I didn’t think it was great. You’d have to be crazy to choose that kind of life, but I didn’t choose it, it was just there. And I guess my idleness just accepted it.

We thought the rate of increase might diminish in adulthood, but no. Soon we got worried he’d topple off the bed, so daddy constructed rails either side. Daddy was always constructing little things to make his life a tad more bearable. Like the periscope so he could see the sunrise and sunset, and the picture of the Laughing Cavalier we got from a yard sale.

We’d take turns doing chores, tidying, taking him his food. Having to edge round the bed now because, well, the size of him, his tiny arms nowhere near long enough to be up to the task of feeding himself. Mashed potato was his favourite. Steaks gave him trouble. Meat of any kind. I guess he was a vegetarian.

He also liked TV. The Lucy Show. Phil Silvers. He really liked The Flintstones. The Partridge Family. Starsky and Hutch. Kojak. A Man Called Ironside. Miami Vice. The Streets of San Francisco. Hawaii Five-O.

He couldn’t move round the room much anymore so we put mirrors outside. He could watch cars passing way off on the interstate. He could watch them come into view over the horizon and turn to the other mirror and see them head off south.

Once a car came by, with a bunch teenagers shouting: Swell Head! Swell Head!

I said, Don’t listen to them morons.

Maybe they were the morons I’d been to school with. Maybe they were a whole other bunch of morons.

Then there was the surgery. So much surgery I lost count.

What they found was that his body had atrophied. That means wasn’t no use no more. He was just encumbered by the dead weight of it, what the doctors said. He was absorbing it. Eating hisself. But the thing was, it wasn’t doing him any good. It was poisoning him. We couldn’t get him to the hospital. We had to bring the hospital to him. First he had to have his arms removed, and then his legs. Two different operations. Full anaesthetic, put him out cold. No sooner he recovered from that they said, Well, we’re real sorry ’bout this, but there’s more.

My daddy said, More what?

They said, More to do. If you want him to keep living.

He said, I do.

So in the end that tiny body was amputated whole off of him—only his, what they say, vital organs remained, heart, lungs, liver, which the doctors managed to tuck up into the space within his skull cavity and sew him back up. Thank you, Dr Gordon. Thank you, medical team. Not a night I don’t say a prayer for you. (…And him, obviously.)

Anyways. Result was, my brother had to get used real quick to the fact that what little he had dangling there was gone forever. He was only a head now—a big, bulbous, still-growing head.

He got awful sick after that. Thought I’d lose the feller. But he was tough. I forgot that. He was tough coming into this world and tough right through, you ask me.

Irony was, he pulled through but my momma didn’t.

The strain was all too much for her. Fifteen operations over five years. But not just that. I think the caring for him wore her down, slowly but surely over time. And the fact she had to hand him over to strangers and was powerless to help him, that finished her. Maybe she worked herself into thinking she was going to lose him and couldn’t bear that so wanted to go first. Maybe she reckoned she go right up to heaven and get stuff prepared, like a good mother should.

Without her guiding light, daddy became lost and old and weak. He fell in a field of a heart attack two weeks later, almost like he planned it that way.

Soon after that people from Welfare came. Nice good-meaning folks. Concerned, but I guess that’s their job.

You able to care from him here, son?

Always have.

I mean, we can move you. The county will pay. If you want to move.

Move where? I said.

In his best interests.

In his best interests is with me, I said.

So they went.

And that was my brother and me, all on our ownsome.

No time to think about it. I had my work cut out. He was outgrowing his bed again. Double bed. King size. Chin nudging the foot of it. Cheeks hanging over either side.

I moved more and more stuff out. Wasn’t much room for furniture anymore. Just him and the TV.

I’d go up with his bowl of mashed potato and he’d turn his head to see me, his forehead brushing the light bulb cord. He’d nudge it from side to side like a stray curl of hair. I’d roll him upright. He’d perch on the bed, secured by pillows, making it look like a small nest under him. He was real hard to get under now, to change the bed linen and such, to wash and clean and such. It was hard work. Not that it wasn’t hard work before but the bigger he grew the harder it got. And it was my job now—nobody else’s.

I continued to read to him. New stuff, old stuff. New York Times. And not just the funny pages. International Herald Tribune.

We continued to watch TV. Oprah. Montel. Jerry…

Sometimes I smelt his hair burning and it makes me feel bad all over again.

Sometimes I heard the trucks going by.

Sometimes I heard their voices calling: Swell Head! Swell Head!

Sometimes I thought of the Carnie Man.

Sometimes I wanted nothing better than to curl up next to him in the dark and feel his warmth as he slept.

What he thought about most of the time, Lord only knows. I never did. Never shall. And that’s the truth.

Guess I could have married, right woman came along. The right woman didn’t come along, so that didn’t happen. No good crying over spilt milk, as they say in China.

Course, I had my needs over the years.

So did he.

Naturally, time to time, I did my best to ease em. Seemed cruel to me not to make an effort to find some way to satisfy his desires, like any man wants. Any normal man wants. Not that he was—that word, as momma used to say. She didn’t like that word used in front of him. (For obvious reasons.)

Still, there were places in Appomattox and beyond, bars mostly, where men in tight shirts hung out and dallied round certain women. Didn’t take long to find em and didn’t take Einstein to work out their occupation, like they found those guys with beer guts and froth in their whiskers so handsome they just had to populate that bar stool showing near enough all they got above the fish nets and enjoying all that fascinating talk. Moses, some o’ them practically had dollar signs on their eyeballs. Not that it mattered to either party. Didn’t matter to me. Sure as hell didn’t matter to my brother. He sure wasn’t in no state to be choosy.

Whisky was imbibed. I found it lubricated my persuasive powers and somewhat numbed the face on occasions it got slapped.

Not every girl wanted to come back. Not every girl wanted to leave the bar. Plenty wanted to do whatever it was in a motel room two blocks away like they always did. I’d explain, that’d be fine, but the problem is it ain’t for me, it’s for my brother. And you look like a nice person, you got a real nice face, it’s only a twenty minute drive and I’ll bring you right back here to your own front door. By now I’d’ve told them the whole story. Sometimes they didn’t listen or quit and hooked themselves round some other less loquacious loser. Sometimes they half-listened, gleaning the bleary details over a procession of daiquiris. Sometimes they listened to the whole stew pot and said, Where’s your car? I got an hour, tops.

It was just a story, right?, she said as she stepped inside.


She thought I was crazy and evidently that didn’t bother her till now. Been with plenty of nut jobs over the years, she was thinking. Can’t afford to be picky. Let’s get this done with, fast. I seen it in her eyes, like I seen it in the eyes of all the others. But she covered it well, hoisted her purse strap up her shoulder and smiled good teeth at me.

Nice place. Woman’s touch?

Only my momma’s. She’s long gone.

Kiddin me. Had you down for a married man.

I said I wasn’t.

That don’t mean zip. Mind if I smoke?

Down here’s fine. But not upstairs. It affects his sinuses.

She looked at the cigarette in her fingers like it was an alien object and put it away. I unnerstand. She smiled again and I could see her thinking, I done lots of weird shit for people who pay for it, this is just more weird shit, that’s all.

You got lots of books, mister.

He reads a lot. Not himself. I read to him. Aloud.

Like a big old baby. She saw the look on my face and said, I didn’t mean that. I don’t know what I mean. Maybe I bettern’t talk too much. I talk shit.

I think you talk fine.

Well, talking’s extra and you’re already on the clock. Now she took out the cigarette and lit it, playing with the gold lighter like she was practising a card trick. You got some moonshine? If that ain’t possible crack cocaine will do. Jesus, I’m joking. Lighten up, pops. This place’s like a mortuary.

I thought you said it had a woman’s touch.

I changed my mind. I need some warming on the inside. It’s bitter out there.

Jack Daniel’s?

To the rim. No water. Then you can have what you paid for. You want to do it here, or in the bedroom?

Me? No. No, ma’am. I thought I made it clear. This ain’t for me, miss. I’m sorry. These—services ain’t…

I know that’s what you said. Sure that’s what you said. That’s part of the game, right? The turn-on? The fantasy? The kick? This fucked-up story of a brother with a head the size of Alabama who hasn’t left his room in forty years, who had his fucking vestigial baby body amputated by surgeons—

It’s true. I swear. You’re not here for me. You’re here for him. That’s the whole idea.

Okay, okay, okay. Gimme another. To the rim. No water. Let me sit down. Fuck, you’ve got a lot of books. All them names on them shelves, they’re hurting my fucking eyeballs. Now listen. Joe in the bar? He knows me. He knows where I live. He looks after me. If I don’t come home tonight he’ll know about it, okay? And he saw me speaking with you, he served you drinks, he was right—

I’m not—look, I ain’t some Ted Bundy. I ain’t no Jeffrey Dahmer. Jesus Christ. I ain’t some serial killer with a basement full of torture equipment. I’m just a guy who has a brother.

Okay. Okay. Fuck…

She went quiet and drank from the glass and while she did I went to the record player and put on Billy Joel. It played Uptown Girl. One of his favourites. I sat back down thinking to myself he was up there probably grinning, probably swaying to and fro like a big old bouncy beach ball, like a big old hot air balloon. I grinned too, till I thought to myself it might look weird.

What kind of dancing you good at, miss?



Twist. Disco. Jive. Guess I got my own combo, like most people. Why?

I turned up the record player. Because that’s what he wants. That’s what he asks for. For somebody to dance for him. Nothing physical. No intimacy at all. He just wants to watch a lady dancing.

She considered the Jack Daniel’s but didn’t take no more though her fingers remained entwined round it. Her eyes flickered to the ceiling but after she looked there once she didn’t want to again.

I guess you exaggerated, right?





Yeah. Knew it. Sure you did. So he’s… unusual. I get it. So he wants to watch. No touch. Why didn’t you say so? Won’t be the fucking first time. You sure he won’t touch?

He’s a head. No physical contact whatsoever.

And he doesn’t want to screw me.


He doesn’t have a penis, right?

None, of any kind. I swear.



She blew air, held her head the way people do before they scream, then tidied her bra and hair in that order, stood up, straightening her leather skirt and said: Okay, let’s get this show on the fucking road.

She went on up the stairs, dropping her coat over the bannister rail from where it slid. I followed, after turning up the Billy Joel, turning to see her long legs disappearing up to the landing.

When I got there she stood by the vanity mirror in momma’s room. Her blouse was off and she was unhooking herself between the shoulder blades when she saw me and stopped.

Does he want me to take off my clothes?

That’d be nice, I said.

I tugged the curtains shut (you could see from the highway) and switched on the corner light.

Her skirt lay in a pool round her high heeled feet and she swayed a little to the music. Getting in the mood of it I guess, shifting her weight from hip to hip. Hands going from her waist to her neck, sweeping her hair above her only for it to fall down again onto her shoulders.

I walked over to the door to my brother’s room. Chipped and blistered. Lacking in paint. I knelt down and briefly put my eye to the key hole.

He likes it, I said, straightening up. He likes it very much. His eyes crinkle when he smiles.

She kept on dancing. She was beautiful. Losing herself in it. I faced the wall and tried not to look because this wasn’t for me, this was for him but even when I didn’t I could see her shadow cast on the wall and she was a dream. She was a peach.

He likes this music, I said, not facing her. He likes you.

He can’t see me, she said chuckling, stomach sucking and curving in shadow.

No, but he knows that you’re here.

Then let him see me, she said. Open the door.


Open the door, goddamn it, she said, and I turned to see her hips still swaying to the music, wrists figure-eight-ing past her face. Let him see me. If that’s what I’m here for. If that’s what you brought me for, let him see me.

Next thing I remember is her scream.

And what a scream that was. Golly gee.

Reckon she never did believe it wasn’t some kind of story. Never did think I was nothing but some crazy person, some pervert on the prowl. Made me wonder though, why she wanted to see what was behind the door—why did she ask that?

Anyways, she ran. Heels hammering on the stairs. All leather skirt and bra and pants of her. All chicken-flesh and blood red cheeks of her. All screeching shimmering moonlit streak in the direction of the freeway of her, coat waving behind her like a surrender flag. Guess she hitched a ride all right. Quite a few truckers tend to use that route of a night time. I sorta presume she got home okay. No reason to think different. She sure was travelling. My estimation she’d a got there by foot in the time it takes to boil an egg.

I went downstairs and made mashed potato. Whole bucket load. Guess I thought he might be after some comfort eating. After being hurt like that, I mean. Member of the opposite sex screaming like that at the sight of you partial to hurt a man’s feelings, was my assumption. Course, I couldn’t speak for him, much as I share a bunch of his D&NA.

Some danced a little longer, some danced a little less, and only one ever stayed the night. Name of Pearl, from Georgia. When they made her they broke the mold.

I looked at his big, fond face eating away. That part of it I seen framed in the doorway of momma’s room. ‘Cause he’d gotten that big by then his bedroom was barely big enough to hold him. He was pressing against all four walls. Cracking the plaster, splitting the daub, dust raining down when he turned in his sleep. And his eye big as a whale’s filling the doorway, like Moby Dick’s. Revolving in its tired socket. Rolling left to right, up and down. Blue-red veins in the corners thick as my wrist and spread like the fingers of a branch. Big old shutter of his eyelid falling and rising, blinking at me like Methuselah at a hot rod party.

Should a told her, I guess. What to expect, I mean.

I took a sheet from momma’s bed and dabbed his eye. When it got heavy I wrung it over the bathtub, fetched a book from downstairs and started reading to him.

That was a while back…

Now, when he gets dehydrated his skin cracks so I get a water pail, wet him where I can. I can’t get in the room no more, so he has to turn over a little at a time. We do that. I wash out the folds in his skin real regular. Forehead. Crow’s feet. Bags under his eyes. Anywhere it’s partial for fungal infection to arise if not attended with the correct medication—soapy water and mild antiseptic.

I comb his big eyebrows with a rake.

When I open the door in momma’s bedroom now, the space is filled with half his mouth. He’s licking his dry lips. I cool them with ice cubes. Brush his teeth with Arm and Hammer, one whole tube every night and every morning.

Me? I’m okay.

I guess I might have missed out on some kind of a life. Travel. Not that I know a whole lot what travel’s for. Suited me fine staying right here. Looking after my brother.

He gets antsy. I get pissed at him. We argue. Sure.

But generally we get along.

Always have.

He gets sick. I get sick. Our age, it happens.

The doctors are good. They get him un-sick pretty fast.

Now it takes a little longer than it used to. A few more doctors than it used to.

But his heart is fine. His brain is fine.

He’s healthy.

I tell the doctors what my daddy told me—that when he was a baby the people in the hospital said he wouldn’t last six weeks.

They say, Well, he’s done that. But we don’t know how long he can go on like this. After all, look at him.

I’m looking, I say.

Man from a special home came. Business card, everything.

Said, Sir, we can look after your brother. We are professionals. We’ve had great experience in this area. We know what to do. We can give him drugs. Make him happy. Twenty four hours, sir. Constant care and supervision. You name it. You’re clearly not as young as you used to be, sir…

I said, You know what? Don’t call me sir.

We understand. Course we do. You’re family. Ain’t we all got family, and nobody says it’s easy. But there will be a problem. One day…

I said, You know what? Appreciate your kindness. There’s the door right there.

Had a stroke last August. Now they’re all over me.

Got a rail in the john, I said. Got a beeper in case of emergency. What more do you want?

Be realistic, sir. Come a time we’ll have to move him. Come a time we’ll have to move you. You can’t live here forever. You can’t look after yourself forever and there’ll come a time you can’t look after him, for sure.

I give them the beady glare. I’m fitter’n any of you.


I’ll see you all to the grave. You see if I don’t.

Well. Maybe so. You think about it, though. Because it’s coming.

They left me with that, damn them. Damn them for leaving me with those thoughts. They think I don’t have those thoughts all on my own? They think I don’t sit at night wondering what’s going to happen? Happen to him, if I die first?

It’s all I think about, now.

Every time I forget a tablet or get the shakes. Or get that feeling in my head when my sugar goes down or my legs turn to jell-o. If I go or get taken away, if I take a fall, if I break a hip, if I’m in the hospital, if I’m on oxygen, if I’m not here—what happens then? If I’m not here anymore to look after him? Once I’m gone?

Who’ll look after my brother then? Who’ll care?

That’s why I’m sitting here with the gasoline can in my lap. That’s why the gasoline can is empty. It’s done. I can hear the crackling and I can smell the smoke and, you know, it smells kinda sweet. I wonder what’s burning for it to smell so sweet? Momma’s perfume? Momma’s pillows? Or just the past, the memories? And I want someone to get one of them water pails for my tears now, damn it.

I reckon I’ll sit right here in daddy’s rocking chair. I feel tired right now and I don’t feel minded to go very far from this warmth.

And listen. He’s not screaming.

He’s not weeping. Son of a gun.

He’s silent, now.


Oh, yes. He’s silent, my little brother. Silent as the man in the moon.

Swell Head first appeared in the 7th Black Book of Horror, edited by the late Charles Black in 2010. It reappeared in Monsters in the Heart in 2013, which won the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection.

Steve’s most recent works of fiction are the collection The Parts We Play and the much-praised volume, The Dark Masters Trilogy; three stories featuring Peter Cushing, Alfred Hitchcock and Dennis Wheatley respectively – with a guest appearance by Aleister Crowley. 

Stephen Volk

STEPHEN VOLK is best known as the writer of the BBC’s notorious “Halloween hoax” Ghostwatch and the award-winning ITV drama series Afterlife starring Andrew Lincoln and Lesley Sharp. His other screenplays include Midwinter of the Spirit, Shockers, The Awakening starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West, and Gothic starring Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley. His novellas and short stories have been chosen for Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best New Horror, Best British Mysteries, and Best British Horror, he is a Bram Stoker Award and Shirley Jackson Award finalist, a BAFTA winner, and the author of three collections: Dark Corners, Monsters in the Heart (which won the British Fantasy Award), and The Parts We Play. The Dark Masters Trilogy is arguably his most acclaimed fiction so far, consisting of Whitstable, featuring the late horror film star Peter Cushing; Leytonstone, based on the boyhood of Alfred Hitchcock; and Netherwood, featuring both the novelist Dennis Wheatley and the occultist Aleister Crowley. His provocative non-fiction is collected in Coffinmaker’s Blues: Collected Writings on Terror (PS Publishing, 2019).

You can find out more about Stephen via his official website www.stephenvolk.net

You can follow Stephen on Twitter @Stevevolkwriter

Dark Masters

Whitstable – 1971
 Peter Cushing, grief-stricken over the loss of his wife and soul-mate, is walking along a beach near his home. A little boy approaches him, taking him to be the famous vampire-hunter Van Helsing from the Hammer films, begs for his expert help…

Leytonstone – 1906
 Young Alfred Hitchcock is taken by his father to visit the local police station. There he suddenly finds himself, inexplicably, locked up for a crime he knows nothing about—the catalyst for a series of events that will scar, and create, the world’s leading Master of Terror… 

Netherwood – 1947
 Best-selling black magic novelist Dennis Wheatley finds himself summoned mysteriously to the aid of Aleister Crowley—mystic, reprobate, The Great Beast 666, and dubbed by the press ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’—to help combat a force of genuine evil…

You can buy The Dark Masters Trilogy from PS Publishing , Amazon UK & Amazon US

The Parts We Play

An illusionist preparing his latest, most audacious trick . . . A movie fan hiding from a totalitarian regime . . . A pop singer created with the perfect ingredients for stardom . . . A folklorist determined to catch a supernatural entity on tape . . . A dead child appearing to her mother in the middle of a supermarket aisle . . . A man who breaks the ultimate taboo—but does that make him a monster? . . .

In this rich and varied collection of Stephen Volk’s best fiction to date, characters seek to be the people they need to be, jostled by hope, fears, responsibility, fate, and their own inner demons—and desires. These tales of the lies and lives we live and the pasts we can’t forget include the British Fantasy Award-winning novella, Newspaper Heart.

You can buy The Parts We Play from PS PublishingAmazon UK & Amazon US

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