Stephen Volk is the creator/writer of ITV's multi award-winning paranormal drama series Afterlife starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln, and the notorious (some say legendary) BBCTV "Halloween hoax" Ghostwatch, which spooked the nation, hit the headlines, and caused questions to be raised in Parliament.
His latest feature film, co-written by director Nick Murphy. is The Awakening, a period ghost story starring Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, The
Town), Dominic West (The Wire) and Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake).
On stage, his recent play at The Bush Theatre, The Chapel of Unrest, starred Jim Broadbent (Longford. The Iron Lady, Cloud Atlas) and Reece Shearsmith (League of Gentlemen, Psychoville).
Other credits include Ken Russell's Gothic, a trippy retelling of the Mary Shelley/ Frankenstein story starring Gabriel Byrne, Natasha Richardson and Timothy Spall; The Guardian, directed and co-written by William (The Exorcist) Friedkin; Superstition starring Mark Strong and Charlotte Rampling; and Octane starring Madeleine Stowe and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. For television, he has written stand-alone scripts for Channel 4's Shockers and BBC1's Ghosts. He also won a BAFTA for his short film script The Deadness of Dad starring Rhys Ifans.
His first collection of short stories, Dark Corners, was published by Gray Friar Press in 2006, from which his story 31/10 (a sequel to Ghostwatch) was shortlisted for both a British Fantasy and a HWA Bram Stoker Award. More recently his novella Vardoger was shortlisted for both a Shirley Jackson Award and a British Fantasy Award and his stories have been selected for Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Best British Mysteries, and Best New Horror with two stories appearing in the inaugural edition of Salt's Best British Horror 2014. He also writes a regular comment piece for the magazine Black Static, called "Coffinmaker's Blues".
His most recent fiction is the novella Whitstable - featuring the late horror star Peter Cushing and published by Spectral Press in 2013, the actor's centenary year. Also published in 2013 was his second story collection, Monsters in the Heart (Gray Friar Press). Both have been announced as finalists for the British Fantasy Awards 2014 as Best Novell and Best Collection respectively.
Before becoming a full-time writer he worked as an advertising copywriter, notably for Ogilvy Benson and Mather, winning a Silver Lion, IPA Effectiveness in Advertising Award and two Design & Art Direction Awards. Before that, he studied Graphic Design at Coventry College of Art and was a winner of the BBC/UNESCO/ICOGRADA/ASIFA International Animated Film Contest, subsequent to which he gained a postgraduate certificate with distinction in Radio Film and Television at Bristol University's Department of Drama.
He was born in Pontypridd, South Wales, and now lives in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, with his wife, the sculptor Patricia Volk, and a cat he doesn't like.
A rocket whooshed and pop-popped somewhere in the night. Iris Gadney’s heart jumped. She hated this time of year. It always crept up on her, and her biology reacted before her brain did. It was funny like that. She should know by now, but she never did. It was always unexpected, the knotting in her stomach that came with the smell of sulphur in the air. What was in fireworks anyway? Gunpowder, she imagined. She didn’t really know. She could ask her husband. He taught Chemistry after all. He’d know. But she didn’t want to. She didn’t care. She just wanted November the fifth to come and go and everything to return to normal. That’s all she ever wanted – normality.
Des hadn’t so much as twitched at the noise. In fact hadn’t moved from behind the Daily Express for at least twenty minutes, but she knew better than to try to winkle him out of his shell into conversation. When he came home from work he was like one of those deep sea divers who have to go into a decompression chamber. He was never himself – whatever ‘himself’ was – until he’d gone through the sports results, always reading the paper backwards, as if world events like the Vietnam War and the famine in Biafra, the latest pronouncement by Prime Minister Ted Heath (‘Ted Teeth’ as Des called him) or the army firing rubber bullets in Northern Ireland, were of far less importance than men kicking a ball around – which, to him, they probably were.
She went into the tiny scullery at the back of the house, and was halfway through making tea, buttering sliced bread for some corned beef and Branston sandwiches, when she heard the familiar ding-dong (Avon calling!) of the door bell.
“I don’t know, do I?” Iris lowered her voice to a sarcastic murmur as she wiped her hands on a tea towel and strode past the expanse of newspaper. “I expect it’s for me. I expect it’s Blue Boy from The High Chaparral…”
By the time she got to the front door Kelvin had already opened it and her mood instantly lightened because he was facing another eight-year-old, Gareth Powell (she knew his mum Gloria, only by sight, mind). It hadn’t happened much before – a friend coming to call. It hadn’t happened ever before.
“Mum!” Her son looked over his shoulder at her with eager eyes under the scissor-line of his fringe. “Gareth wants me to go out to play. He says a whole pile of boys are up the quarry making a bonfire!”
“Well you can forget that for a start,” Des said from the sitting room before she could answer. “There’s probably a load of yobs from the Sec Mod up there, and I’m damned if I’m running you to hospital because some head case does something bloody daft.”
“They’re only collecting wood,” Kelvin bleated.
“You’re telling me they’re not going to be messing round with sparklers? And matches? And bangers? ’Course they are – and little nippers like you are the ones that get picked on. When I was in school a lad called Truscott got a jackie jumper put in the hood of his duffel coat. We never saw him again after that.”
“Gareth, love. Why don’t you come in and play?” Iris offered, ever the peacemaker. “You can go in the middle room.”
Kelvin frowned hard. “He wants to go up the quarry!”
“Yes, well, you’re not – and that’s final,” his father called, shirtsleeves rolled up, tie still on. “If he wants to go, he can go on his own.”
Kelvin swivelled his head back to his friend, who was already looking sheepish and backing away as if frightened. Perhaps his dad didn’t talk to him the way Kelvin’s dad talked to Kelvin.
“Gareth?” Iris said.
The boy didn’t meet Kelvin’s eyes and his cheeks reddened as he faded into the shadows beyond the glow of the porch light.
“I – I’ll see you in school tomorr-”
The word was broken by a crackling rasp in the sky and splutter of magenta, the explosion above spilling arrows of sodium yellow. Iris’s heart sank and he was gone.
“Hey. Children’s hour is on.” She pressed the door shut. Kelvin was already climbing the stairs, head downcast. “Tea’s ready in a minute.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You got to eat. Get down here. Now.” The slight lift in his dad’s voice was more than enough to get Kelvin to do as he was told. “I’m not in the mood for it, all right?”
The corned beef and pickle sandwiches were eaten in silence. Kelvin had a face that looked like it was chewing cardboard, and that annoyed his father, who glowered. “Having a meal together is important. He can see his friends in school.”
“Lots of things are important, Des,” Iris said quietly. “Lots of things.”
“Please may I leave the table?”
Kelvin’s mother told him of course he could. His father told him not to slam the door. Both adults listened to his small footsteps on the stairs.
“He needs to watch that. The face on him.” Des drank the last of his tea and replaced the cup in its saucer.
“He’s only a kid. God help him, whatever he does he can’t please you.”
“Maybe he can’t.” Des said. “I never pleased my dad.”
“That’s no reason to take it out on him.”
“Let’s just pack it in there, can we? Christ…” Des ran his fingers through his flat Brylcreem-slick of hair.
“If it’s work, don’t take it out on him. That’s all I’m saying. It’s not his fault you don’t get on with the new Head. It’s not his fault you’re taking on extra duties to try to impress her, things you–”
“It’s not work,” Des cut in.
And she knew it wasn’t. She also knew he wouldn’t talk about what it was. How the hell could he talk about it when he couldn’t even look her in the eyes? In the beginning she’d wanted to say something, and sometimes she tried, but all she got was a stone wall, and no tears. Never any tears. The tears were all hers. And if he’d let go – just once – she might have thought they were sharing something. But he never did. Never could. And it made her feel like a cow, bringing this badness into his life every time she opened her mouth and every time she walked through the door. Sometimes she wanted to ask him if he wanted her gone. And she would go, except deep down she knew he needed her to cling to, like a drowning man needed driftwood. Not a particularly nice or wonderful piece of driftwood, just something that was better than nothing to keep him afloat.
He caught her wrist as she gathered the plates. “Hey. I love you.”
“Well, love him too, occasionally.”
“I can’t help it.”
“Yes, you can,” Iris said firmly, managing to avoid her voice cracking. “If I can, you can.”
Kelvin was monosyllabic over his cornflakes, and Des seemed to want to match him for sullenness, as if two could play at that game. Iris, as ever, was piggy in the middle, relieved to have the house to herself as Des drove off up to Porth in time for assembly and Kelvin left to trudge his weary way down to the Primary School in Tyfica Road. By himself, of course. Always by himself. A lonely little figure – but perhaps he wasn’t lonely at all. Still, it gave her a little stab in the heart every morning as she waved him goodbye. She always told herself he’d probably meet some mates on the way and chat and have a lark around, as boys do. But what mates? He never talked about any. Or he’d talk about one, and the next week they wouldn’t be friends any more. She remembered the awful perils of her own playground life: finding a best friend one minute who turned into a horrible enemy the next. A bit like marriage. God, did she really think that?
At dinnertime Des stayed in Porth and got something from the school canteen – silly driving all the way home to barely have time to bolt his food – but Kelvin came back, and this was a time she looked forward to. They could talk about stupid things. Different things. But today Kelvin didn’t seem to want to talk at all.
She asked him what was wrong. At first he didn’t want to say. She asked if it was about his dad. He said no. What was it, then? “Come on. Tell me. I’m your mum.”
“I don’t know. I just saw these boys on the way home, and they had a toboggan, just a box with wheels on, but it had this guy in it and it had a – one of those – waistcoat things and a sheriff’s badge pinned on it, and a face with a beard stuck on, and a floppy hat – and it looked brilliant.”
She shrugged. “Well, we can make one of those.”
“Can we?” His eyes looked like they’d pop out.
“’Course we can. Don’t be daft. It’s easy.”
“Dad won’t like it though.”
“’Course he will. He did it himself when he was your age. Everyone did. Come on. He’s staying in school to do some marking tonight, so we’ll start it now and do the rest before he gets home.” Before she’d finished the sentence her son was out of his chair, baked beans on toast abandoned. She smiled. For some reason she felt almost as excited as he did.
They chose the clothes together. Iris suggested that old, baggy pair of trousers Des wore when he was decorating. They’d seen better days and were only fit for the dustbin. Then there was that red polo-neck jumper that had been put out with the rubbish, shrunk in the wash and too tight for her husband’s burgeoning pot belly – she salvaged that from amongst the potato peel and tin cans. It smelled of tomato soup and earth, but Kelvin said it was great, and he was the boss. He snatched it off her and she couldn’t admonish him. It was fabulous to see him enthusiastic about something, lost as if in a quest for treasure as they raided bedroom drawers for a pair of old grey football socks and some woollen gloves that were a Christmas present from an auntie in Aberdare: white, with green holly leaves on the back.
They laid out all the items on the carpet in the sitting room. Even the rough shape of the trousers, socks, gloves and sweater had the immediate semblance of a person, although an extremely flat one – this was shortly about to change. Iris switched on the transistor radio. They sang along to the recent number one, In the Summertime by Mungo Jerry. Kelvin was grinning from ear to ear. Iris dumped a mound of old newspapers, which had been gathering beside the fireplace, and both of them started scrunching up the pages of newsprint into balls, stuffing them deep into trouser legs Iris had knotted at the ankles with string. In no time the lower limbs began to thicken lumpily, rolled-up paper filling in the hips, groin and pelvis.
“Don’t do any more till I get home,” Kelvin said breathlessly as he left for school, but Iris couldn’t resist finishing the task she’d begun. Sewing box open beside her, she stitched the bottom of the polo-neck to the waistline of the trousers, after which she bit off the loose thread with her teeth. Alone in the house now, looking down at the semi-deflated body draped across her lap, she felt ridiculously like a surgeon repairing some wound. Repairing a life. Not building, but resurrecting. Silly…
She abandoned it for the ironing, not even looking into the room for the rest of the afternoon. She didn’t know why. But when Kelvin burst in his feet didn’t touch the ground. He skidded on his knees onto the sitting room carpet and he was instantly shoving more screwed-up pages of the classified ads from the Western Mail – births, marriages, deaths – into the cavity of the pullover. She chuckled as he stuffed it into the open neck, watching the torso fill as if with bone and tissue. The arms were tied at the wrists and soon sported white woolly gloves with flappy, insubstantial fingers like the teats of uninflated balloons. They worked to Tears of a Clown by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Back Home by the England World Cup Squad, and The Wonder of You by Elvis Presley – a song Kelvin said was for old people but his mum said she liked it because it was romantic. She knelt on the floor with him and sewed the football socks, now bulked out with paper like the rest, onto the knotted stumps of the ankles.
“I know!” An idea galvanised Kelvin and he vanished upstairs, reappearing with a shiny, frog-green anorak that hung in his wardrobe even though he’d grown out of it a long time ago. Together they dressed the guy in it, sliding one arm then the other into the sleeves. It lolled between them, feeling as though it should be heavy but light as a feather. Kelvin stood back, admiring his handiwork. “He looks good doesn’t he? I think he looks the best.”
His mum smiled. “Needs a head though, don’t you think?” The hood gaped like a feeble mouth. “What are we going to use?”
“We’ll find something.”
“Hang on. Where are you going?” He’d already hoisted the guy in his arms and was shuffling to the door en route to his bedroom. “Don’t you want to show your father?”
Kelvin whispered, “Not yet.” He put his finger to his lips as he heard the back door open and close. And when, over tea, Des detected the whiff of secrecy between them and asked what the two of them had been up to, both of them said, almost in unison: “Nothing.”
Friday was the day Iris got her meat and veg from Ponty market and, as often as not, if her timing coincided, went to Tyfica Road to collect her son from school at home time. Children were already drifting out of the school gates in twos and threes, chatting and playing boisterously or blowing pink spheres of bubble gum, yet her heart ached a little bit to see her own son walking alone, idly scuffing his feet along the pavement, the strap of his school bag pulling his jumper half-off his shoulder.
“Look!” He suddenly piped up as he saw her, running up, thrusting a punctured Adidas football in her face – the black and white patterned type they’d used that year for the World Cup in Mexico. Seeing her perplexed expression he swiftly added, almost too excited to get the words out: “For his head!”
Des remarked that the boy had lost his appetite and found a horse’s. Kelvin scoffed his fish fingers in record time, asked if he could leave the table and was gone in a flash.
“He’s got ants in his pants.”
“That’s boys for you.”
“What does he do up there?”
“I think he’s got a hobby.” Iris didn’t like lying and knew she wasn’t good at it. She watched her husband get up from the table, turn over the cushions on the settee, delve through the magazine rack. “What are you after?”
“Last week’s Echo.”
“I chucked it out, I expect.”
“Thanks. I hadn’t read that.”
“Sorry. How was I to know?”
“Bloody hell. I better move quick round here or I’ll get thrown out.”
“That’s true.” She kissed him on the cheek, sat down and turned up the telly. Gordon Honeycombe was reading the ITV news and she pretended to watch, but she was thinking about the guy upstairs, with his Adidas football head, which she’d sewed into place on the throat of its scarlet polo-neck, sitting cross-legged on her son’s bed, Kelvin watching her raptly, chin on his fists, before her husband got home.
As she made the bed she stepped on a human hand and jumped back with a shrill yelp. Quietening her heart with the flat of her hand she looked down at the white Christmas glove at the end of a misshapen arm sheathed in anorak green.
Annoyed, she poked it with her toe, but each time it fell back into place so she bent down to shove it back under the bed where the rest of the effigy was hidden. Now on her knees, she couldn’t avoid seeing its bulbous chest packed with paper sinews sandwiched between the carpet and the bedsprings. In the dark it looked like a body wedged in a coffin. She didn’t look at it for long, and stood up. It was Saturday so Des had gone to Cardiff with his cronies to see a match. Cardiff City were playing Hull F.C. at Ninian Park and they always went to a pub first to get the ‘atmosphere’ with other supporters over cheap pies and Brains bitter. Kelvin had nipped out to spend his pocket money, but when she heard the front door slam – that making her jump too – she knew he’d returned.
“What’s that?” she said, meeting him on the landing. He was carrying a brown paper bag. He walked straight past her.
“Come and see.”
By the time she’d entered the bedroom again he was hauling the guy out from its hiding place, and slung it, football-head nodding and jerking, onto the bed.
“I bought it from Gould’s,” Kelvin said, meaning the newsagent’s round the corner from the Army Recruitment Office, opposite the Muni. It was where he bought his Beezer, Dandy, Spider-Man comics and Marvel Classics like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. But this wasn’t any of those. This was a plastic mask with an elastic loop at the back. A shiny, pink mask of the face of a baby, with a ginger curl in the centre of its forehead and holes for pupils.
“Why that one?” Her thought came out in a breath. She heard it like it was said by somebody else, trying to blink but fixated on watching him place it over the blank football-head. “Why not Guy Fawkes, love? I mean – the traditional one, with a pointed beard?”
“I don’t know.” Kelvin shrugged, his back to her. “I just saw it and I thought it would suit him. Come on. I want to show you something else.” He jumped up, taking her by the hand, the guy trailing under his other arm. “I got it from the dump.”
At the bottom of the stairs was a pushchair, filthy and scuffed, but otherwise fairly intact.
“His car. His chariot,” Kelvin said, hoisting the guy and plonking it into the seat. The baby face tilted to one side and he adjusted it, punching it gently into position, tucking in one stray, poking-out arm.
“Does he like it?” she found herself saying, just to say something. Just to fill the air.
“He doesn’t like it – he loves it!”
And – silly – she didn’t remember much else except the squeak and squeal of the wobbly wheels as he manipulated the pushchair towards the open door. She didn’t remember – silly thing – what he said, just that he was going out and she was still standing on the stairs and she remembered telling him, hand splayed on the wallpaper, not to be long and that she was going to have a (breath) lie down… Just a (breath) little lie down for five minutes…
(C) Stephen Volk 2014