I’ve been fascinated by the idea of weird sleep disorders for a very long time. Even as a little girl I was a prodigious dreamer and can still remember every detail of the baroque and scary nightmares I had then. I was so fearful of the dark that I created a literal barrier around myself with teddies and toys in bed. It was mainly so that Dracula wouldn’t ‘get me’ in the night. The Hammer Horror films of the seventies have a lot to answer for.
But it wasn’t until I was at university that I had my first experience of a terrifying phenomenon known as Sleep Paralysis. Years later, this provided inspiration for my new crime novel, SLEEP TIGHT, where a serial killer prays on people via their nightmares.
For me, an episode of sleep paralysis happens like this. You become aware of ‘waking up’ in your bed. Then you realise someone’s there in the bedroom – someone who means you harm. That’s when you try to leap out of bed but find your body completely immobilised. You try to scream but all that happens is a desperate raw croaking coming from your mouth. It seems to go on for ever until you crash back to wakefulness. Some people have a crushing feeling on their chest and there are stories of creatures that squat on top of sleeping forms from many different cultures. It has been said that stories of alien abduction and many ghostly visitations were really episodes of sleep paralysis.
All that’s really happening is a misfire in your brain’s waking processes. When we sleep, our muscles relax in a way that stops most of us getting out of bed and re-enacting our dreams. With sleep paralysis, our bodies are still in sleep mode but our brain has got caught somewhere in between the two states. It’s incredibly scary when it happens, which thankfully is relatively rare.
More commonly, I get something called hypnagogic nightmares, where I have a few seconds of nocturnal hallucinations in vivid detail. It’s usually a person who has broken into the room and is standing over the bed. I begin to ‘wake’ and think, ‘It’s okay, it’s just a dream’. But then the face comes into high-definition detail and I can see every feature. I think, ‘No! This time it’s real!’ That’s when I wake up screaming. My poor husband has had so many nights of this over the years. When my son on the floor below hears it, he just tells himself it’s Mum being weird again before going back to sleep. (Heaven help us if we really do get an intruder.)
I’d wanted to write about this for years and started off with a children’s book idea about a ‘Sleep Witch’ who stole into people’s bedrooms when they had nightmares. Yep, it was probably too scary for kids and it didn’t really work, so ended up being dumped.
But I firmly believe no idea is ever wasted and somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I would return to this subject one day.
When I came to the end of my book contract for psychological thrillers, I decided I wanted to be brave and write something really ‘out there’ that would get my imagination firing on all cylinders. I settled on the idea of a killer who targets people with sleep disorders. I discussed it with a friend who said, ‘Great, but how will you get the supernatural bit to work?’ Supernatural? Huh, that wasn’t what I meant! But that night as I was climbing into bed, the thought came to me: What if there was an element of the supernatural to it? And even better, what if there was a secret division of the Met Police who dealt with crimes of this nature? That night I didn’t sleep much either, but it was from pure excitement this time. I knew I wanted to write that book even if no publisher wanted it. I’m happy to say that Harper Collins did, and SLEEP TIGHT is the first of the series featuring the Uncharted Crimes Investigation team and DC Rose Gifford.
I did wonder, while I was writing it, whether my brain would be so immersed in sleep-related scares that I would experience at best bad dreams and at worst, episodes of sleep paralysis. But it was the strangest thing: for the entire period of writing this book, I didn’t even have one hypnagogic nightmare.
I’d love to report that I was cured for ever, but as soon as I’d handed the book in, things went back to normal.
Still, it was nice while it lasted.
Sleep Tight by C S Green. Published by Harper Collins (Out Now)
Even in your dreams you're not safe... The nightmare is only just beginning... When DC Rose Gifford is called to investigate the death of a young woman suffocated in her bed, she can't shake the feeling that there's more to the crime than meets the eye. It looks like a straightforward crime scene - but the police can't find the killer. Enter DS Moony - an eccentric older detective who runs UCIT, a secret department of the Met set up to solve supernatural crimes. Moony wants Rose to help her out - but Rose doesn't believe in any of that. Does she? As the killer prepares to strike again, Rose must pick a side - before a second woman dies.