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Literature / Swellhead

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A 2007 short story by horror writer Kim Newman, part of his "Diogenes Club" sequence of stories featuring Seventies psychic detective / glam-rock fashion enthusiast Richard Jeperson. Unlike the other stories in this sequence, which are set around the 1960s-1970s, this one transplants Jeperson to the modern day. It's the 21st century Where Are They Now Revival TV movie to the earlier stories' seventies action series.

It's the new millennium, and strange things are afoot on the long-deserted and distant island of Skerra, located at the point where the borders between Britain and Iceland become vague. A survey team has disappeared, but not before sending back an unsettling discovery — a bloody jacket, 1970s style, covered in the blood of two men; long-retired psychic detective Richard Jeperson, and Sewell Head, a humble sweet-shop employee and pub quiz champion. Problem is, there's only one jacket like that in the world, Jeperson owns it, and he's certainly never fought Sewell Head to the death while wearing it. Convinced that the appearance of the second jacket means that bad things are afoot on Skerra, he is persuaded to come out of retirement and joins Head and others — including Detective Sergeant Stacy Cotterill, sent by her boss (and Richard's old friend) to keep an eye on him, and pompous government scientist Adam Onions — on a reconnaissance mission to find out exactly what's going on. Realities are beginning to weaken and merge together, however, and a dastardly evil — Swellhead — is rearing its head to finish a battle that may never have begun...

So far, this is the last Richard Jeperson story.note 

"Swellhead" provides examples of:

  • Alternate History / Alternate Universe: The story is about what happens when one of these begins to encroach on our reality. Hint — bad things.
    • In a meta-sense, as well as the alternate universe that forms the crux of the plot, the story also references and hints at several other Alternate Universes and Alternate Histories Kim Newman has written or co-written, including Anno Dracula, the Back in the USSA stories and an as-yet unpublished sequence in a Nazi-occupied Britain. Not to mention the Temps Shared Universe; a very different Sewell Head first appeared in "Pitbull Brittan", Newman's contribution to the first Temps anthology.
    • In a further meta-sense, while 'our' Richard Jeperson's adventures affectionately homage 1970s ITC-style television adventure serials, from what we learn the Alternate Universe Jeperson apparently starred in a series of 1970s James Bond-style spy movies.
  • Appropriated Appellation: Sewell Head takes on his childhood nickname of "Swellhead" when he becomes a supervillain.
  • Arch-Nemesis: Jeperson for Swellhead. And the reason his plot fails, due to Swellhead's need for a Worthy Opponent who, according to tradition, will defeat him at the last moment.
  • Asskicking Leads to Leadership: The long-departed native Skerrans were a matriarchal society in miniature, with leadership being up for grabs if any woman could best the current leader (Droning) in a no-holds-barred fight. Stacy winds up becoming the new Droning when she defeats Miss Kill, although she certainly doesn't intend to claim the title of a frigid island with nothing but nasty goats and worse memories.
  • Boring, but Practical: Stacy defeats Miss Kill's She-Fu with some down-to-earth self-defense moves including, in the last resort, headbutting her.
  • Bragging Theme Tune: Jeperson suggests Swellhead have one for himself, and actually thinks up some lines.
  • Collapsing Lair: Due to Swellhead's defeat, his ability to change reality fades; including the Elaborate Underground Base.
  • Continuity Nod: The Institute for Psi Tech, the NGO that employs Adam Onions, first appeared in Newman's novel Jago, which also has a one-scene appearance by a rookie WPC named Stacy Cotterill.
  • Crossword Puzzle: Adam Onions and Sewell Head both have subscriptions to a high-end crossword magazine that "scorned newspaper distribution. The publishers set an entrance exam for the subscription list, charging on a sliding scale, lower price for higher grades." The smug Onions pays £1,000 a year for the privilege of being counted a subscriber. Head gets his for free.
  • Different World, Different Movies: The Elaborate Underground Base contains books, music and technology from the Alternate History it's originated from — such as the novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick and Ray Bradbury; however, this serves to weaken the perspective of those inside it and get them to accept its reality. At one point, Jeperson begins to think he's going senile because of it.
  • Disco Dan: Both Richard Jeperson and Swellhead, in different ways; Richard, in his 'groovy' seventies gear, is completely behind the times — however, he's cheerfully accepted it and is comfortable in his niche. Swellhead is also behind the times — he holds all pop music since about 1973 in contempt, which comes back to haunt him — but one of the reasons he's doing what he's doing is to force everyone to like what he likes.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Swellhead has killed childhood bullies plus anyone who has annoyed him in any way, e.g. by singing awful pop songs.
  • Doing in the Scientist: Adam Onions. Quite literally.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: It works well until Swellhead tells his Faceless Goons to take their helmets off.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: One seems to have appeared out of nowhere under the island of Skerra: Turns out, it actually has appeared out of nowhere; or at least, an Alternate Universe.
  • Egopolis: Swellhead's base is a small-scale version of one. He orders his minions to worship him, he has trophies of his accomplishments everywhere, he has a trophy room with the heads of the people he hates he has murdered, and his Evil Plan is to expand the base's reality until the world is nothing more than a billion illusions and him the sole remaining true human.
  • Evil Genius: Franklin Yoland notes that whoever built the base beneath Skerra was a decade ahead of modern technology, using components from three decades ago.
  • Exploring the Evil Lair: Justified as it's their job to find out why the Supervillain Lair is there in the first place.
  • Fair Cop: Detective Sergeant Cotterill. Lampshaded; it's explicitly mentioned she was a professional model before she joined the force.
  • Genius Sweet Tooth: Sewell Head has a fondness for chocolates and sweeties.
  • Genre Savvy: The villain, Swellhead, is correctly convinced he's a Bond-style villain and uses his Reality Warper powers to make this the case. Unfortunately for him, he inadvertently uses this to strengthen Richard Jeperson's own power; every villain needs a hero worthy enough to challenge him, after all...
  • Government Agency of Fiction: The Diogenes Club, of course, although we learn it's been shut down since the Thatcher years. The successor group is I-Psi-T (pronounced "eyesight").
  • Grand Theft Me: A particularly insidious example; Sewell Head is gradually taken over by Swellhead, an Alternate Universe version of himself who happens to be a Bond-style supervillain. He then proceeds to do the same to other members of the party; it's implied that everyone there in one way or another has an alternate self who is somehow involved.
  • He's Back!: The entire story is Richard Jeperson coming out of a twenty-five year retirement to sort out his messes. He initially lampshades this, insisting that this isn't going to be "Richard Jeperson Rides Again". He gradually comes to realize what a mistake he made in retiring, however, and the ending all but states outright that Richard Jeperson is back in the game for real...
  • Haunted House: More like a Haunted Elaborate Underground Base. Which itself turns out to be the actual ghost.
  • Human Chess: Mentioned as a Noodle Incident when Jeperson starts remembering events from the alternate reality; played on an estate in Surrey, on a board with electrified squares.
  • Human Head on the Wall: Swellhead's lair includes a hallway where the heads of his enemies (plus anyone else he has a grudge against) are displayed like hunting trophies, along with listing the means of their demise.
  • Hustler: Sewell Head is a nerdy variant, with pub trivia quiz contests instead of billiards.
  • In Their Own Image: Swellhead plans to reshape the entire world from his imagination.
  • Island Base: The logistical impossibility of building a secret base on an isolated island, without leaving a paper trail or accidentally allowing someone to notice, is lampshaded by Franklin Yoland.
  • Just Between You and Me: Subverted with a lampshade; Swellhead claims he's not an inadequate who needs everyone to understand his plan. However, Jeperson is clever enough to figure it out anyway.
  • Karmic Death: Swellhead has inflicted these on people who bullied him in the past; a Drill Sergeant Nasty shot with a .303 rifle, a taunting Alpha Bitch with her trachea crushed, etc. He bashes in Adam Onions' head with his own laptop (which the narration makes clear he trusts more than a human) when the man annoys him a bit too much.
  • Kneel Before Zod: "I should like you all to take a moment to me."
  • Laughing Mad: At one point while trying to hide among Swellhead's men, Stacy sees their ridiculous Strange Salute and has to force herself not to start laughing, because she's still utterly terrified and is afraid that if she starts she'll never stop out of sheer panic.
  • Load-Bearing Boss: As soon as Swellhead dies for good, the Elaborate Underground Base begins collapsing both physically and metaphysically, fading out of existence as it fills with seawater.
  • Lotus Position: Given that Jeperson's not as young as he used to be, he needs some assistance assuming the position. Levitation comes in handy however when Swellhead tries opening a trapdoor beneath him.
  • Magic Versus Science: An old argument between Jeperson, who takes the magic side, and Onions, who takes the science side. It's played with, however, in that Jeperson isn't exactly "anti-science" per se — he just opposes Onions' particular brand of blinkered, self-serving "practical applications" (i.e. how-can-we-exploit-this-for-personal-gain) approach.
  • Mundane Object Amazement: A sign that Swellhead has fully taken over Sewell Head is his sudden fascination with the compactness of a laptop computer. That and using it to bash the owner's head in.
  • Mysterious Woman: Inverted with Miss Kill.
  • Mutual Kill: It's implied that the final conflict between the Alternate Universe versions of Richard Jeperson and Swellhead ended in one of these.
  • My Brain Is Big: There's a reason they call him Swellhead!
  • My Eyes Are Up Here: When they first meet Stacy, Jeperson looks at her face while Onions looks at her body.
  • Noodle Implements: When discussing her backstory, Stacy reveals that she had originally planned on modelling but her career opportunities dried up because she refused to have her wisdom teeth removednote . Jeperson approves, and in doing so implies that there's a hidden dark, Satanic-ritual-style reason why this is done.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Adam Onions (It's pronounced Oh-NYE-ons), a pompous little man who's so consumed by using his special scanners to explore every single tree he comes across that he completely fails to notice that he's gotten trapped in a particularly nasty forest. To read; he's so busy looking for evidence of ghosts that that he doesn't realize — or accept — that the entire structure he's in is one large ghost. Because he and Richard have a long-standing enmity, he's also quick to smirkingly dismiss anything Jeperson says. This comes back to bite him hard.
  • Parrot Pet Position: Stacy arrives at Richard's house to call him out of retirement and finds him walking around with a Siamese cat perched on his shoulder (and a Persian kitten peeking out of his coat pocket).
  • Popular History: In-universe; at one point, Richard Jeperson alludes to petrol shortages and power cuts, television stations ceasing transmission at 10.30pm and a terrorist bombing campaign against the mainland United Kingdom occurring in 1973. One of the other characters immediately declares that none of that happened, he's delusional and confusing The '70s with World War II. All of that, of course, very much did happen; because she's an idiot, however, Jeperson is more amused than offended.
  • Power Incontinence: Jeperson has been living in seclusion for over twenty years because the world has been falling more and more into turmoil, and since he can't turn his ESP off going outside has been increasingly painful and disorienting. He ultimately decides, however, that withdrawing from the outside world was a mistake, given the lives he still could have saved.
  • Pronouncing My Name for You: Adam Onions has to explain that his surname is pronounced "Oh-NYE-ons".
  • Race Against the Clock: Unfortunately this works against Swellhead, as the good guys stop it at the last second, just like the movies he's based his supervillain character on.
  • Reality Warper: Sewell Head / Swellhead. His supervillain plan is essentially to recreate all of reality inside his head.
  • Red Right Hand: A henchman with a mechanical cutting hand, and the aptly-named Swellhead. Honorable mention goes to Miss Kill's wax mask of herself.
  • Retired Badass: Richard Jeperson. Partly deconstructed, in that it's frequently pointed out — and he increasingly comes to realize and accept — that if he'd stayed in the game rather than retiring, things would have been a lot different, he could have made a lot more difference, and people might even still be alive. The ending implies He's Back! for good.
  • Send in the Search Team
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: While doing research into Skerra's past, Jeperson finds that the Ministry of Defence has over the years used her island for naval exercises and anthrax testing, despite it ostensibly being an independent country and without bothering to get permission from the Droning of Skerra.
  • Shark Pool: Seeing how the place looks like a classic Supervillain Lair, Percy Gill asks where the alligator pit is. Sewell Head presses a button on the Cool Chair and Jeperson nearly falls into the trapdoor that opens in front of him.
  • Shrine to Self: Plenty of statues of himself and Sigil Spam, but that's not enough for the Big Bad.
  • Shoot the Television: Richard shoots the television in his room in the Elaborate Underground Base because he suspects it might be spying on him. It is never established if it was or not but, given everything else Richard learns about the base, it is probably a sensible precaution.
  • Sinister Sweet Tooth: Sewell Head has a fondness for chocolates and sweeties. As he becomes possessed by his alternate-reality self, his rate of consumption increases.
  • Smug Snake: The smarmy New Labour civil servant "Really-A-Good-Bloke" Rory.
  • Strange Salute: Swellhead's troopers salute him by placing a closed fist on their forehead; Stacy, observing this, struggles not to laugh (which would probably get her killed) as it's what kids use to say "knobhead".
  • Take Over the World: Or actually becoming the entire world.
  • Tempting Fate (In-Universe): Jeperson sits in a Lotus Position on top of the trapdoor someone has just fallen through. This is to shake the confidence of the villain, who regards him as a Worthy Opponent.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Onions's persistence that there must be some rational explanation (well, rational by his standards, and he definitely won't accept Jeperson's) to what is going on annoys Head, and eventually when Sewell Head is taken over by Swellhead, Onions annoys him once too many by reminding him that his last name is pronounced "Oh-NYE-ons". Swellhead smashes his head in with his own laptop computer.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Persephone Gill is the hereditary princess (Droning) of the island of Skerra. She's a narcissistic idiot who thinks that George Orwell wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Visions of Another Self: At one point, Richard starts having flashbacks to things that happened to the alternate Richard who battled the supervillain Swellhead — and then a brief burst of flashbacks from a large number of other alternate Richards. (Most of them are shout-outs to Kim Newman's many other alternate history stories, including two — the Anno Dracula story "Who Dares Wins" and the stand-alone "The Man on the Clapham Omnibus" — which actually did feature alternate Richards.)
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: Played with. Most of the Mooks and Evil Minions in Swellhead's base are ghosts, but some — particularly the Elite Mooks — are possessed reality-warped real people. At one point, a minion falls into the machinery moving a giant satellite dish along a track and is instantly reduced to a red smear, but Swellhead plainly doesn't care and Jeperson refrains from pointing it out.
  • Wicked Cultured: Parodied; the villain is massively intelligent and knows pretty much everything, but a) his cultural leanings are decidedly cheesy (he likes Burt Bacharach, and has muzak versions of MOR songs playing in his Elaborate Underground Base) and b) he is actually defeated by his lack of knowledge of the younger generation's pop culture.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: The villain's main motivation is resentment over being picked on and overlooked all his life. When Richard points out his endgame will leave him all alone, in a universe populated by figments of his own imagination, his response is:
    "I'm used to it."
  • Worthy Opponent: In both the Alternate Universe and this one, Swellhead clearly considers this of Richard Jeperson. It ends up being his undoing, as Swellhead's Reality Warper powers inadvertently serve to make Jeperson more powerful — because every villain needs a hero who can challenge them...
  • Your Head Asplode: When Jeperson and Stacy give him a pop-culture question he doesn't know the answer to, the system Swellhead's connected his own brain to suffers a catastrophic failure, and his head erupts into a red cloud with such force that Miss Kill is struck through the eye by a sharp chunk of his skull and dies instantly.
  • Your Mime Makes It Real: Stacy whimsically pretends to shoot at a ghost with a Finger Gun — and it reacts as if it had actually been shot.
  • Zeerust: Yoland lampshades how things in the old days had to be big and impressive (like Swellhead's satellite dish) to attract funding, but now everything is expected to be smaller. Sure enough, the villain is quite intrigued by Yoland's laptop.