As the co-founder and editor for eSpec Books, Danielle Ackley-McPhail has overseen all of the entries in the Systema Paradoxa series of novellas about cryptids. But now, after eleven previous entries, she’s taking matters into her own hands with her own installment, The Play Of Light (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, she discusses where she got the idea for this urban fantasy thriller, and how working on the other Systema Paradoxa novellas influenced it.
To start, what cryptid is The Play Of Light about, and what can you tell us about them?
This is a story about the Shadow People, a cryptid that goes back through all of recorded history around the world. Not necessarily by that name, but remarkably similar descriptions. There are wildly different theories as to what Shadow People are and if they are good or bad, but the overall experience is pretty uniform: the sense that something is watching, indistinct, like a solid shadow, it may try to interact, but goes away if directly observed.
The cryptid community believes they are time travelers, interdimensional beings, extraterrestrials, emergent demons, or guardian angels. Science attributes it to various sleep conditions or drug interactions, or even some psychological disorders.
Why did you decide to write a story about the Shadow People? Because as the boss, you could’ve written about Big Foot, The Loch Ness Monster, The Jersey Devil — one of the big guns. Why didn’t you pull rank and write about one of them?
To be honest, the point of this series is to cover cryptids that don’t get a lot of air time, not the well-known ones. Not to say we haven’t touched on a couple of the big ones, but they aren’t our focus…at least not right now. There are too many cryptids out there that are lost in the shadow of the famous ones. Those are the stories we want to tell. It makes the series more interesting to the long-term crypto fan, and is a good introduction to the broader field of cryptozoology for those just getting into it.
As for why I chose to write about Shadow People…to be completely upfront and honest, I was cheating. I had a snippet from a story I never finished about a decade ago or so and it dovetailed quite nicely with the Shadow People experience.
So, then what is the story you’re telling in The Play Of Light, what happens?
Well…I don’t want to give too much away, but you have a young woman and her father, both who have had experiences with sleep issues, Paradoxical Sleep, that kind of thing, tied very much into accounts of Shadow People encounters. The father is discovered comatose, with no explanation of how or why, and the daughter must figure what he was up to, with the idea that it might be something that can be reversed.
To tell any more would really give away too much of the story, but I will say that I love to play with existing lore and find alternate concepts to tie in to what already exists, and I very much went there with this story. It will not be more of the same, it will definitely be unexpected.
It sounds like The Play Of Light is an urban fantasy horror story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I’m not sure I would classify it as horror. More thriller, if anything, but yes, definitely urban fantasy. While there are intense, creepy scenes, I think horror requires more of a sustained tone throughout that I don’t see here. There are points, definitely, but I feel that cryptid fiction is a genre on its own and it draws on all of those mentioned here, rather than sitting solidly in one.
Prior to The Play Of Light, you wrote seven novels and six short story collections. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Light but not on anything else you’ve written?
If anyone influenced The Play Of Light, I would have to say it was the late, great C.J. Henderson and the equally great but very much present and accounted for James Chambers. But even then, they only influenced it in the respect that they are the authors I am most familiar with who write cryptid fiction. I generally am not the type to look to other people’s work for inspiration, though. I am very much a do-my-own-thing kind of writer. Granted, I have edited both authors pretty regularly in the past, so I am at least familiar with the tone that they build in such fiction and the way they go about it.
How about non-literary influences; was The Play Of Light influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Well, you’ve got me here. I didn’t specifically draw on anything from the show, but I have been watching Supernatural straight through for about the past six months or so. I am sure I must have picked up something of the feel of the creature-of-the-week type episodes from the earlier seasons.
And what about your extremely spoiled cats? How did they influence The Play Of Light?
And again, you caught me. I did play with an aspect of the Shadow People lore with my little soul-sucker, Shiloh, in mind. But again…I don’t want to ruin the experience by giving too much away.
As editor of eSpec Books, you’ve overseen the eleven Systema Paradoxa books that preceded yours. How do you think working on those other stories influenced what you did in The Play Of Light?
Again, I am not really about influence in my creative endeavors, I very stubbornly want to do things my way. But I am sure that working on the earlier books in the series certainly put me in that creepy-vibe mode when writing. The Play Of Light will feel in place among its cousins and add to experience of the overall Systema Paradoxa series.
Was there one of the eleven that had a particularly big influence on The Play Of Light?
I do see some slight reflection of elements from various books that in a way adds to the feeling that each of the individual stories takes place in the same realm of existence, but I didn’t take guidance from what came before.
As I just mentioned, you wrote seven novels before The Play Of Light; one of which, Daire’s Devils, came out just a few months ago. People can read the previous interview we did about it, but for those who hate to click things, what is that book about?
Daire’s Devils is about a military special operations team who much safeguard a prototype flagship from both corporate and military espionage. Only their forces and the crew of the ship have been infiltrated, so they must defend while trying to figure out who they can trust. It is a distant future science fiction that is set in the Tau Ceti star system. The story immerses you with the team and the members of the unit until you feel yourself one of them. The backdrop and history the story is based on was created by my husband Mike McPhail for his Alliance Archives Martial role-playing game so I could focus on the story and the characters instead of having to come up with a whole backstory as well. I describe it as an action-packed, character-driven military science fiction, with just enough humor to take off the edge.
Daire’s Devils is a military sci-fi story; The Play Of Light is an urban fantasy horror story. How do you think working in such different genres influences your work, and in particular, your work on The Play Of Light?
I have always played far and wide in terms of genre. Since my fiction is first and foremost character-driven, it is just a matter of creating the right background and setting the set. I have developed a skill for researching just enough elements to lend veracity to what I am proposing and lifting the language I need from hard research so that the tone is right and the concepts are plausible, but they are always filtered through a character who is not a “trained professional” which means all of the details don’t need to line up or be accurate, because the character themselves does not have detailed knowledge or understanding. This goes for fantasy, science fiction or any other genre I dabble in. Sometimes it is all just about gluing gears on things, but in a way that appears it could be functional.
As you know, Hollywood loves making monster movies. Granted, it’s usually the same two over and over again — those guys have really great agents — but still. Do you think The Play Of Light could work as a movie?
I definitely think this would make a great movie, something with a similar feel to The Sixth Sense, but I think the Systema Paradoxa series as a whole would make a better television series. In fact, we’re kind of planning to put together a deluxe companion book to the series eventually where one author will write a field journal about the cryptids as if they went and collected those stories from those who experienced the events, which would be the perfect framework for an ongoing series.
If that show happened, or if a movie version of The Play Of Light was going to be made, who would you want them to cast as Sheridan?
I think Felicia Day [Supernatural] would make an amazing Sheridan. She has her own geek on already and her past experience gives her an understanding of the creepy vibe this story would take. I didn’t visualize her as the character as I was writing or anything, but she definitely feels like the right choice. And hey, she’s already rocking the deep red hair.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about The Play Of Light?
I can’t really think of anything for this. The Play Of Light is quite different than any of my other novels in feel, and I like to think I captured the right essence for cryptid fiction, but the reader will have to decide for themselves.
Oh, and I would like to give Mike credit for also helping me come up with the concept that I used to explain the varying interpretations of Shadow People, but everyone will have to read the book to find out what that is.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Play Of Light, and it’s the first Systema Paradoxa novella that they’ve read, which of the previous eleven would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Well, I think if someone were looking for the same type of feel in a story, they should turn to Devil In The Green by James Chambers. It shared a slightly similar vibe, though his approach to his story is quite different than mine.
But really, in the end, if they are hungry for cryptid fiction they can’t go wrong with any of the books, though each author did have their own unique take to each story.