Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Development Of Story: Shadow People - From Supernatural Myth to Psychological Study

As part of my second year on the creative writing degree, I had to conduct a research project and tie it in with a piece of creative fiction. As I was starting to write the first Louise Miller book, Dirty Little Secret, I figured I'd hit two birds with one stone and do a research project on a particular aspect of that. 

I've kept the references in but any others such as Appendix entries, won't be displayed.

When I got the original idea for the book, Dirty Little Secret, I wanted a reason that someone would think there was another person in their room but not be worried about it. Reading several articles and medical studies, I found the reason in the phenomena of sleep paralysis. This is an illness in which the sufferer finds they can’t move their bodies, and sometimes struggle to breathe. Sleep is a period of unconscious mystery, a time of peace and content, and yet some find themselves in the grip of such a terrifying experience. Stoker commentates as such[1], though he refers to the deadly curse of Dracula rather than the terror of sleep paralysis.

My novel opens with the character of ten year old Joanna suffering from an episode of sleep paralysis which ends with devastating consequences and I thought it would stop there, but the more I looked into the topic, the more I discovered in relation to how stories change and adapt to fit  the culture and/or society of the time.  (for an example of how this research was used, read the opening chapter to the novel as Appendix A).

In this research study I’ll be looking at the myth/legend/tale of the shadow person, an elusive being that appears to those who suffer sleep paralysis and how it has changed over many centuries, as it is a strong foundation of the novel I’ve written. I’ll look at the early origins and some of its journey to present day representations, including how it has affected some aspects of language itself.

With the notion of sleep paralysis, I started to look back to its origins and discovered that even the early Egyptians had stories about being visited when sleeping, and their souls becoming wandering deities. In fact, the Egyptians belief system was heavily centred around the concept of the soul, breaking it into nine separate entities, each one overseen by its own god. In his book Temple Of The Cosmos, Jeremy Naydler commits two chapters to this subject; The Soul Incarnate and The Soul Discarnate[2]. One such aspect was that of Shut, the shadow or silhouette of the soul. In the opening commentary to The Egyptian Book Of The Dead (an ancient Egyptian funeral text), Egyptologist Ogden Goelet, Jr. described how the entombed would leave their shrines to wander as a formless shadow[3], and it is from this initial tale that I believe all the future stories would be formed.

In fact this would be further expanded upon by Dr Kasia Szpakowska, in her detailed study The Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project: Second Millennium BC[4]. This study gave deep analysis of the iconographic, archaeological and philogical aspects of every demon found in many texts, decorations and papyrus manuscripts, such as The Book Of The Dead. It is during an interview with Ancient World Magazine, where she discusses the Pavor Nocturne (night terrors) and from the Ramesside Period the Papyrus Leiden I, 348, an incantation against sleep paralysis.[5]

An example of the way in which these stories are adapted and changed can be seen in the collaboration with Dr Szpakowska’s academic study and the modern dance of choreographer Betsy Baytos, in which she discusses the connection to Egyptian iconography, and this modern form of storytelling.[6]

From this research I was able to include some details for further rewrites of the novel, such as the introduction of scarring on the body of Egyptian symbols of shadow deities as well as more detailed dialogue between characters as to the nature of sleep paralysis origins.

But as the story developed, I felt that there was more of a deeper evil lying beneath the surface. This was where I found the Japanese tales of the kanashibari intriguing, as these would add more of a layer of horror to the tale, creating a unique horror/crime hybrid. Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo) explored many such occurrences in his collection In Ghostly Japan, most notably in the story A Passional Karma, where the main character is visited by nightly terrors in the form of two women[7]. The subject matter of the nightly terror has now changed with the Japanese culture, moving away from the deity to be worshipped, to the demon to be feared. A later work, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things would explore this topic further, and later be adapted into the 1965 anthology horror film, Kwaidan[8].

It would be in his book, Kanashibari: True Encounters With The Paranormal In Japan, that Thomas Bauerle would examine encounters with sleep paralysis entities. One such occurrence he describes in detail[9]. The book then goes on to detail the shift from historic folkloric tale to recent mental health diagnosis studies. This obvious shift in tone poses many questions ripe for further study: How did the storytelling change from ancient Egypt, to feudal Japan? Is this a societal shift or one of cultural difference? As this is beyond the scope for this report, one such starting point would be the excellent blog post Culture Change: The Waves of Storytelling[10].

A pattern was beginning to emerge of women representing the shadow personalities; the Egyptian texts refer to Shut in the feminine, while the Japanese shadow demons always took the form of women or old hags. The stories were changing again and as the Gothic tale now began to emerge with writings such as Walpole’s novel The Castle Of Otranto, or Radcliffes The Romance Of The Forest, so too did the tale of the shadow person evolve once more. Gothic fiction blends pleasure with terror, emotion and romance and some saw the appearance of the shadow person as the embrace of a lover. In her article Your Dark Side: Shadow Aspects of the 7 Feminine Archetypes, writer Ayesha uses the word shadow to describe the flip side of feminine personalities, tying several into Greek myth[11] – I look at the subversion of the language surrounding Shadow people later in this report.

In Appendix C, The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781) is a further example of the Gothic imagination as previously shown in literature, with the fair maiden lying prone while she is dominated by the repressed desire of the male. Poking its head through the curtains is a literal depiction of the title, a dark horse, or night mare. Yet again this is a classic example of the heavy feeling victims of sleep paralysis feel on their chests. It has now become a trope of the tale, and I have further interpreted this to express the repression of women; my novel is set in 1987 when women in the Police Force were looked down upon and shunned by their male colleagues. That it still occurs to this day is obvious and abhorrent, but in the time I set the book, it was even worse. And this all ties in with the progression of the shadow people tale, not only as the sleep paralysis but the repression of the female characters.

As the twenty-first century arrived, the tales of shadow people had morphed once again, moving into the realm of outright horror, most notably depicted by the Slender Man. The very act of storytelling itself has moved from ancient Egypt where everyone told stories, to the Japanese lone Rakugo, wandering from village to village and now to modern day, where the Slender Man version began on an online platform called Creepypasta[12]. Here, it was acknowledged that several different countries all had the same story, each one derived from ancient tales of the shadow people, but now it was used for pure entertainment as opposed to furthering either religion or community. While the site is entertaining, none of the stories have any way of being verified as factual or based in reality and to that extent it can only be shown as how the tales have transitioned into modern day as pure entertainment.

However, a troubling side effect has been the effect on mental health, especially of young people who read these stories and take them on face value. I will briefly touch on how medical studies have been carried out into the phenomena of sleep paralysis later, but there is a more deeper potential study to be found here into the effects of mental health on the development of story, but that is beyond the scope of this report. I will add that in the case of CreepyPasta and the Slender Man story, this led to the attempted murder of Payton Leutner in 2014 in Wisconsin, where her two friends led her into the woods and stabbed her 19 times – she survived this – done to appease Slender Man. A documentary on this can be found here.[13]

What is central to this study about the tales of shadow people and sleep paralysis are the medical studies conducted on those who suffer sleep paralysis – because in our modern society, those who tell such tales are not to be taken on their word but instead studied and probed to find whatever infliction there is that causes them to think such things. I created a character who is a psychologist to explore this topic in more detail (and offer readers another possible suspect).

It was Shelly Adler in her book Sleep Paralysis: Night-Mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection who describes in clinical terms the stages that those who suffer this affliction go through; not in terms of myth or legend, but actual physical occurrences from first hand witnesses[14]. Now, sleep paralysis is no longer simply a tall tale told around a campfire, but an illness that required treatment. Further studies into this phenomena continue to this day, the most recent being a paper about the effects of sleep paralysis on a sample of Polish students, in which fear and visual hallucinations were reported.[15]

Even the use of the word shadow has changed over time. The ancient Egyptians called the soul, the ba or shadow of one’s self[16]. Today, we have the term shadow governments, policed by shadow men as discussed in the book Shadow Men by Anthony Napoleon, PH.D. The term shadow people is also used to describe those who fall beneath societies norms, especially people addicted to methamphetamine; ironic as that is one of the drugs used to treat sleep paralysis. Huey Lewis sings: “She’s shadow boxing and losing the bout!” in his song Stop Trying, implying the woman of their affacetions is swinging at nothing but their own fear (and losing).

The tale of shadow people has been used to explain sleep paralysis through the centuries, the stories adapting to fit their time and culture, and yet they all retain central themes: a strong, unseen presence; the feeling of weight or being held down; unexplained noises and smells. Modern day culture has seized on the supernatural aspects of the story, expanding the horror to better entertain. The ailment has developed into an area of medical study that now has its own research departments in hospitals across the world, all of which stem from the first telling of the shadow of ones soul in Ancient Egypt. It is a fascinating subject and one I have only scratched the surface of in my quest to find a suitable narrative hook for my own novel with many diverging branches including the evolution of language, religion, physical and psychological doctoring and, of course, the campfire tale.


[1] Stoker, B. (1897). Dracula. London, UK. Archibald Constable & Company. “How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads, to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.”

[2] Naydler, J. (1996). Temple Of The Cosmos. Rochester, Vermont. Inner Traditions International.

[3] Goelet, O. (2015). The Egyptian Book Of The Dead: The Book Of Going Forth By Day: The Complete Papyrus of Ani. Chronicle Books.In many BD papyri and tombs the deceased is depicted emerging from the tomb by day in shadow form, a thin, black, featureless silhouette of a person.”

[4] Szpakowska, A. (2016). Demon Things: The Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project: Second Millenium BCE. (19/12/2020)

[5] Szpakowska, A. (2019). Egypts Nightworld: An Interview With Dr. Kasia Szpakowska. (22/12/2020). “Papyrus Leiden I, 348 (Ramesside Period) seems to be an incantation to guard against nightmares. It begins stating that it is to ward against “terrors that fall upon a man in the night” which matches one of the most common symptoms of a nightmare – that inability to move like something is on top of you.”

[6] Baytos, B. and Szpakowska, A. (2019). Eccentric Dance Timeline. (18/12/2020). “After researching for several years the iconography of these ancient Bes figures, circa 1300 BC, I now recognise a distinct parallel to movement of the Eccentric Dance.”

[7] Hearn, L (1899). In Ghostly Japan: A Passional Karma. Japan. Curtis, Brown and Little. “Night after night the shadows came at the Hour of the Ox; and nightly Shinzaburô heard the weeping of O-Tsuyu.”

[8] Kobayashi, M (dir.) (1965). Kwaidan. Film. Japan. Bengei Pro Ninjin Club Production Company.

[9] Bauerle, T. (2017). Kanashibari: True Encounters With The Paranormal In Japan. London, UK. Asteroth’s Books. “…all of a sudden my eyes snapped open and I found myself wide-awake…I looked up to see a woman standing above my wife Tuesday as she slept…”

[10] Walters, A. (date published unknown). Culture Change: The Waves Of Storytelling. (22/12/2020).

[11] Ayesha. (2017). Your Dark Side: ‘Shadow’ Aspects of the 7 Feminine Archetypes. (19/12/2020). “In the shadows, the lover loses her self-sufficiency and comes to rely soley on her connection with others for validation.”

[12] (2010). Slenderman. (11/12/2020) “The Slender Man is an alleged paranormal figure purported to have been in existence for centuries, covering a large geographic area. Believers in the Slender Man tie his appearances in with many other legends around the world, including; Fear Dubh (or, The Dark Man) in Scotland, the Dutch Takkenmann (Branch Man), and the German legend of Der GroBmann or Der Grosse Mann (the Tall Man).”

[13] Crime Vault. (2018). Slenderman Stabbing: Documentary. (23/12/2020)

[14] Adler, S. (1963). Sleep Paralysis: Night-Mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection. New Jersey, US. Rutgers University Press. “…these typically occur in clusters: (1) a sense of an evil presence accompanied by various sounds (footsteps, whispering); (2) breathing difficulties, feelings of suffocation, bodily pressure, sense of doom; and (3) sensations of floating, flying and falling (including out-of-body experiences and viewing one’s body from an external perspective.”

[15] Wrobel-Knybel, P; Karakula-Juchnowicz, H; Flis, M; Rog, J; Hinton, D.E; Boguta, P and Jala, B. (2020). Prevalence and Clinical Picture of Sleep Paralysis in a Polish Student Sample. Environmental Research and Public Health. Poland. (23/12/2020). “93% reported fear (most commonly fear of death, 46%), and 66% reported hallucinations (most commonly visual hallucinations, 37%”

[16] Wasserman, J. (1994). Fascimile of a vignette from the Book Of The Dead of Ani. (19/12/2020).

Sunday, October 17, 2021

A Writers Process

When asked how he writes his books, Stephen King once gave the flippant answer: "One word at a time." A little simplistic some may say, as far as the writing process goes, but actually, factually, correct. All writing, be it a short article such as this, a research paper on the migrating habits of lesser-blue sparrows, or one of Mr King's thousand-page doortstop novels, each piece is eventually written one word at a time. But how does the writer approach the actual writing? What is their process for getting an idea out of their head and on to the page?

Over the next few weeks I'm going to be posting some articles and posts I wrote as part of my 2nd years creative writing degree which explores this topic from a variety of angles, starting with today's post specifically about the writers process.

For writers at any level, but especially those taking up the pen (or keyboard) for the first time, this can be extremely confusing, baffling to the point that they waste countless hours frustrated over every detail, studiously researching all their favourite authors to discover the hidden gem, the magic bullet that will help them create a best-selling masterpiece of writing. I know; I speak from thirty years’ experience of trying all manner of different methods when it came to my own writing. Yet what this experience has taught me, with all its false steps, dead-ends and abandoned projects, is that there are three core elements to a writer’s overall process, each adding their own unique ingredient to the process dish: Conceptual, Practical and Revisionist.

Conceptual Process

This is the question most writers hate: where do you get your ideas from? The answer being: everywhere. A newspaper article, an interview on the radio. A catchy sentence in a book you read, a throwaway comment made by your next-door-neighbour’s cousin once-removed. Wherever you get your idea (mine tend to come either when I’m in the shower or bath), next you must decide what to do with it. Note it down? Flesh it out in full, creating synopsis, outlines, character profiles, location details, or just wing it? Research everything straight away or plan to do that in the second draft?

John Irving, writer of Dickensian-style novels such as Last Night In Twisted River, and A Prayer For Owen Meany, fully maps out his book, starting with the last sentence (which rarely, if ever, changes) while Stephen King begins with the What If? scenario and starts writing, letting the story take him where it wants to go. He never writes his ideas down, thinking that “the writer’s notebook is a fantastic way for bad ideas to stick.” Joe Eszterhas famously wrote an idea down for a film on a napkin, went home and turned out Basic Instinct and sold it for $3million in thirteen days.

My own process has changed over the years and now, as I write my third book, the practice seems to work. I start with the chapters broken down and suggested page lengths for each to give me a sign of the pace of the book to come. This is something I did when I wrote screenplays, charting the pacing of the book so I could structure how action and information was revealed. It changes, sometimes drastically as I actually write, with the chapters being longer in length before being trimmed back during several edits.

With the structure in place I tell myself the story, noting down a paragraph about what happens in each chapter. Again, this changes in the writing. When I jotted the story for myself for From Sorrow's Hold, the original idea was based around religious killings with clues left on the bodies, that would lead the detectives to discover religious passages that held hints to the killers identity. When it came to actually writing the book, the story took me down a completely different path, but having the initial plan in place allowed me to modify and steer the course a lot more easily than if I just winged it. 

Practical Process

With your idea ready, perhaps fully mapped out, perhaps nothing but an instinctual inner compass heading, it is time to write. Do you write longhand, typewriter or computer/tablet/phone? Have you a set daily total of either words or pages you want to get down, or is it a case of writing for a set period of time? Have you an overall deadline for the project or will you finish when you finish? Each of these elements forms your practical process and I’ve tried them all.

King’s process, which he discusses in detail in his book on the craft of writing On Writing, is a little more complicated than his “one word at a time” answer. He writes every day, including birthdays and Christmas, looking to get 2000 words or ten pages down. Joe Eszterhas has a formula of 6 pages a day for twenty days to get to his first draft. The writer John Irving writes longhand for up to eight hours a day (broken by the usual interruptions of daily life). The act of writing with pen, he says, slows him down, letting ideas form fully without his fingers rushing off on the keyboard, something I have found happening with my own work lately.

As for me, I give myself 12 weeks to complete the book, aiming for 6 pages a day. If I stuck to this, I would have 500 pages done, which amounts to around 180'000 words - way too big for a crime novel. My books are around the 80-90'000 mark, but having this extra time allows for me to write about 30K words, then go back to the beginning and refine it as the story changes. Sometimes I need to do this, sometimes not. But the time is there. I've found this has resulted in a much tighter, cleaner, manuscript when finished, which makes the next part of the process so much easier.

Revisionist Process

How many drafts should you do? One, three? Do you let people read your work as you write, or wait until you’ve finished? What about beta readers – do you work with a small group who offer feedback before you do your revising? When do you send it out to agents, publishers or producers?

King works with the door closed (getting the story down, no one sees what he’s writing) and then with the door open (his wife Tabatha is his Ideal Reader, the one he writes for, and she always reads his work first). He then puts the book aside for about six weeks, works on something new and goes back to it, revising it twice with a polish before sending it to his people. John Irving spends years on a book – his current work, Darkness As A Bride was due for release in 2021, but there's no sign of it yet, so that means it will have been 7 years between books – with at least a year researching the subject once he has that last sentence. Eszterhas can get to a finished, ready to sell screenplay in 50 days.

Dirty Little Secret went through five drafts before I sent it out. As I honed my own process, From Sorrow's Hold has had three drafts, and the current book will have the same. There will be more drafts when my agent or editor get their hands on it, but the number before I say: "Yeah, people can read this now." is about three or four.

But it doesn't matter if it's twenty drafts before you send it out: it's ready when you say it's ready.

Finding Your Process

As you can see there are many factors to consider when finding your own writing process, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Certainly not something that should detract from the actual writing. It is all too easy to waste time copying another person’s process, marking out chapter lengths, outlines and such, but until you find your way of working, the work you create won’t feel real or genuine.

Until you find your own personal way of writing, I suggest you follow Mr King’s advice: one word at a time.

Cheers - JP

Friday, October 8, 2021

Series Reading

Like a lot of people during the pandemic, I took up reading as a coping mechanism. Now, I've always been a strong reader ever since childhood. 

I've always had a book on the go, dipping a toe into it when there were a few spare moments, or diving head first into the book and doing laps until it was done. 

There have been times when I've lapsed on the reading, choosing instead to put something on the idiot box instead - usually a Marvel movie these days - but the book has always been sat there waiting to be picked up. 

When I first started reading I was heavily into fantasy and read, and collected, everything by the Terry's Pratchett and Brooks. It was always an exciting moment when a new book was being released. The same with a new Stephen King book - in fact I just got his latest; Billy Summer, and it is now waiting patiently to be read after my latest obsession.

Starting to write crime fiction in early 2020 I needed to learn the tropes, styles and tricks of the genre and so began reading Ian Rankin's Rebus series, as well as Roz Watkins (DI Meg Dalton series), and Karin Slaughter (Grant County series). But it was Rebus that I dived heavily into, reading the first seven books back to back. It took a few months, what with writing my first crime novel, DIRTY LITTLE SECRET, as well as all the work needed for my second year at University.

That was when I realised that, despite really enjoying the Rebus books, I needed to read more widely, and so I looked at Peter James, Michael Connelly and a writer I was introduced to via an online book club, M.W Craven.


The Washington Poe and Tilly books (of which there are currently four, the fifth due out next year) are an amazing series of crime books. Dark in tone and humour, they are a rip-roaring read with chapters that drag you forward, being incredibly moorish to the point where I read a full book in an afternoon.

If you haven't read these yet, I suggest you go order them from your local bookshop right now. 

And now my latest binge obsession is Lin Anderson and her Rhona MacLeod books. Not as involved as, say, a Rebus, quite an easy read, they are just as moorish as the Craven books. For me, it is not so much about the crime that Rhona and her forensic team investigate as it is the personal relationships of everyone involved that draws me on. I am now onto the third book, Deadly Code, with the fourth Dark Flight, waiting in the wings. I'll be ordering the next few books in the series soon - there's seventeen altogether so far - and I'm determined to get to the end before I start on another series.


I really enjoyed the first Peter James Roy Grace book, Dead Simple, so I'm thinking that's where I'll go next before returning to finish off Rebus. After that, probably Michael Connelly and his Bosch series; I tried reading the first book, The Black Echo recently, but this was after I'd binge watched all seven series of Bosch on amazon Prime, so it was too close to the TV show - which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Reading a series back to back is a challenge: will the books remain fresh? Will I lose interest in the characters through too much exposure at once? Will I tire of the writer's style? There is that risk, and if you find that happening you can always switch it up, and go back to another series, or start another. For me, I am thoroughly enjoying these books and am determined to read them through.

After that, I'll probably read two or three Peter James books, and then go back to Edinburgh and Rebus for a while. And if someone new comes along, well, I'll probably grab them up too.

But when The Botanist (the next MW Craven book) is released... well, everything else can just go take a hike as that is getting read right there and then.

So go off, dive into a series and enjoy.


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