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Behind the Scenes: The Phantom Self

It’s not easy to write about The Phantom Self, as the main challenge in the book is to work out what’s going on! But I’ll try to skirt around the edges without giving too much away!

I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of parallel universes, multiverses and doppelgängers and had been toying with a story based on that for a while. In fact, the original, non-interactive version of Nightshift had parallel universes as its big reveal, but the least said about that the better…

In addition to doubles and parallel worlds, The Phantom Self is based on one of my great fears, which is not knowing what is real. It’s something that we all take for granted, but when I did my nurse training placement in a mental health unit, I realised that some people are living with very real (to them) experiences, whilst everyone around is telling them it’s not so. How frightening would that be? What do you believe? Who do you trust? And I also have a very specific nightmare of someone simply disappearing — one second, they’re there, the next gone — and what if you asked for help, but it was as though the person never existed and you’d never been seen together? The prospect makes me shudder!

Films like ‘Triangle’ and ‘Time Crimes’ were inspirations (and I highly recommend both), but the biggest influence was an obscure British TV drama from the late 80s about a woman who went to stay in a B&B, where her boyfriend mysteriously vanished. I have absolutely no idea what it was called and have tried and failed to track in down, but I ‘borrowed’ elements from one of the scenes and that appears in the Games Room in the Ankou Field Studies Centre.

The characters were not based on anyone real, but all their names were picked to tie in with the theme. For example, Fetch and Vardøger are doppelgängers; Parsimony relates to Occam’s razor; Everett was a scientist who researched multiverses, and Erwin is the first name of Schrödinger — yes, that ‘alive and dead cat in a box’ experiment.

And that brings us to the poor calico cat. You may be wondering why the feline got trapped in the chest, where it died a tortured and horrific death. You might be suspicious about the scratches all over your arms, although you couldn’t remember where you got them from. Maybe you saw the night vision camera footage, which told you how but not why

Unfortunately, I’m not going to give you any answers here either, but book 6 — ‘Game Over’ will reveal all! However, I can put one rumour out of its misery, by telling you that the Calico Cat wasn’t Charpentier. He returns, alive and well and in all his sardonic glory in the final.

The room names: Puffin, Kittiwake, Gannet and Guillemot are simply sea birds, but some have suggested that it stems from a homage to Puffin Books, as they were the publishers of the Fighting Fantasy books. Not true! When I was 11 or 12, my family went on holiday to Anglesey, Wales, and on a beach, I found a skeleton of a puffin, complete with its beautiful, multicoloured beak. My Dad took the beak and mounted it in clear resin as a keepsake. Which is not the typical father-daughter relationship, I agree, but perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to more ghoulish things…

Talking of Wales, the Ankou Field Studies Centre was based on a real location. I visited an Environmental Field Studies Centre in Pembrokeshire, on the south-west coast, for my Biology ‘A’ level, although there was no cave or cuttlefish nearby. Otherwise, The Phantom Self has no real-life experiences or events that I wove into the story. It all developed organically from placing someone in a weird, horrific situation, then letting them react.

And if that sounds simple, it was actually a nightmare to write. I had a mass of A3 papers sprawled all over the floor, as I tried to keep track of all the various happenings on each day you were at Fetch’s Point. I wanted readers to have those moments of realisation, when they figured out, step-by-step, what was going on as the saga unfolds, so I needed to be very careful in making sure all the clues were there.

If that wasn’t enough, The Phantom Self is book 3 in The Cluster of Echoes and needed to tie in with the others, too. So, did anyone meet Otto? He was working with Parsimony but left to go for an interview with a certain Bio-Imperium… Yes, if you head to the library in The Alchemist’s Folly, you will meet Otto again and find out how his new career choice is working out for him. And that’s not the last you see of Otto, as he has a cameo in Shopping Maul!

Talking of Shopping Maul, you might have found the newspaper ‘Douglas Herald’ in the lighthouse, which had the story about a genius schoolgirl taking part in the Golden Hare Treasure Hunt. And if you were successful at Fetch’s Point, you found out that Occam’s Occult Investigations were going off to the next case at a hospital — yes, Nightshift is also in the same universe!

I always enjoy writing different death or end scenes, but my favourite was “…you simply sit on the stone floor and cease to exist. At this moment in time, it’s probably the most logical thing to do.” It made me laugh because it really summed up just how confused you might be at this stage.

Finally, I did love the ‘turn to 300’ ending. NO SPOILERS HERE, but there were three ways that you could succeed, and I liked that, while it might feel counter-intuitive or just plain wrong, it nevertheless aligned with the themes. Plus, there was a pretty big and unequivocal clue that told you exactly what to do, if you only found and followed it…

The Phantom Self was updated in December 2022 with a new cover and interior illustrations. The hardback edition has the puzzle solutions and lots of juicy background stuff, plus a little side note on the fate of Occam's Occult Investigations...

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