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In the Shadow of the Skull: Influences

Ninety years after the release of the iconic film, King Kong, I am releasing my own adaptation of the source material, filling in the gaps left in the original story and focusing on the characters and the setting of which we only catch fleeting glimpses on the big screen.

In the Shadow of the Skull has been a work in progress for over ten years. Several years passed after inspiration first struck before I finally began writing it during a period of unemployment in the Great Recession. Suddenly I had time on my hands and decided I should do something productive with it. Besides, King Kong was a story about the dark consequences of greed, a story from another period of economic depression. What better time to tackle a different approach to that story?

Within days of beginning my research for the book, I had the good fortune to find a copy of the text of the 1932 novelization of King Kong at a used book sale. I was able to read the original story from which the 1933 film and all other films that came after it were derived. I used this work as the foundation text for my story.

At the time questions about Skull Island, its people, and the young woman who became the original Bride of Kong first began swirling in my mind, I was attending college and taking classes to fulfill requirements for a minor in anthropology. The courses I most enjoyed dealt with cultural anthropology. There, I learned about different societies around the world and their basic aspects: family life and structure, initiation rites, religion, economics.

We studied some fascinating cultures from the Pacific Islands, including the people of the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea, who formed a complex trading network and traveled long distances between islands in order to exchange for prestige luxuries, like shells (or maybe gold). The Trobriand Islands are a matrilineal society. Property ownership and family allegiances are traced through female relatives. Consequently, the most significant male figure in one's life is not one's father but one's mother's brother. I thought that was a very intersting shift from Western family structures, one that offered narrative possibilities. Several features of my island's culture and economy derive from the Trobriand Islands.

Living on an island is challenging. Resources are limited. The island soil may not be conducive to agriculture, so food might be hard to grow or find. Medicines could also be hard to obtain. A relatively simple injury like breaking an arm, or even contracting a basic respiratory virus, could be disastrous.

In my Emotions and Motivation seminar in psychology, we learned about the Ifaluk of Micronesia, who live in one such fraught environment. Being constantly on the edge of survival means that everyone has to cooperate in order to endure. Violence and aggression are strongly discouraged. Even divisive emotions like envy or anger could pose a threat. Hence, the Ifaluk have developed an elaborate system of emotions and social mores unlike any other in the world to keep their society functioning smoothly.

Fago is an emotion that can't be exactly translated into English; it incorporates shades of compassion, sympathy, love, pity, and respect. People fago one another in an emergency. If your neighbor is sick, perhaps you show fago by tending to her and bringing her food or other supplies she needs. Fago also manifests in day-to-day interactions. The Ifaluk observe a status hierarchy and pay the proper degree of respect to each person they meet so as not to offend them. The community tries hard to discourage rus, a disruptive emotion ranging from anxiety to panic that could cause a distraction or result in injury. Above all, the Ifaluk try to avoid song (resentment or anger). The elaborate steps necessary to maintain interpersonal connections are staggering. 

I referred to the Ifaluk as the primary model for my fictional society. People living in a world filled with dangers and hardships, like Skull Island, would have to carefully regulate their emotions in order to reduce unnecessary conflicts. Anyone who defied social norms or displayed negative emotions could be viewed as a threat. Suppose you were to add giant monsters into such an already-precarious environment?

Trading partner cultures often adopt one another's customs, languages, and beliefs.  Though the islanders in my story are fictitious, their world is a melange of actual island societies with which they might have traded or intermarried, woven together into an original fabrication. 

When naming my characters, I initially used traditional names from the Indonesian and Micronesian regions. However, members of a writers' critique group to which I submitted early drafts of the book reported difficulty keeping track of all the characters because their names were unusual and unfamiliar. Consequently, in many cases, I trimmed down polysyllabic names (e.g., "Ilefagomar" became "Ilfemar") or adapted names to sound more Anglicized (e.g. Lani, Kori) so they might be easier to remember. Though this was done for expedience, it was not intended to be disrespectful to the cultures that inspired my story. 

I hope you will seek out some of the ethnographic works about the Ifaluk and the Trobriand Islanders to learn more about the amazing people who inspired In the Shadow of the Skull.

In the Shadow of the Skull will be available in eBook form this Friday.


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