Episode Thirteen by Craig DiLouie

It’s been a while since I’ve read a good ghost story, and there’s a reason for that. The genre has become so defined by its tropes that it’s formed its own subgenre of reality TV, which itself has tropes. Genres evolve, but between evolutions, they fall out of favor, the proverbial haunted house going inactive during the daylight hours.

Now, I’m loving what Mike Flanagan is doing with ghost stories on film. He seems to be progressing the genre into character-driven territory in which the horror is driven by environment instead of gorey thrills. As above, so below, what Flanagan brings to film, Craig DiLouie is bringing to literature.

His latest, Episode Thirteen is a further evolution to the ghost story genre, taking a ghost hunting reality TV show and fictionalizing one particular hunt where the show maybe gets a little too real.

The Episode Thirteen pitch goes something like this: An ensemble cast of characters producing a ghost hunting TV show (called Fade to Black) have had a successful debut season but are searching for a place to shoot their finale, which could give them the best chance of being renewed for another go-around. At Foundation House, in rural Virginia, where a team of paranormal scientists once conducted torturous experiments and then disappeared, our heroes may have found what they were looking for. The ghost hunters try their playbook at Foundation House, but as pressure from the studio increases and bizarre encounters and discoveries occur, they start to suspect they’re going to need some new tools for this one.

One of the things I find interesting about Craig’s work, in general, is he’s always trying something new. His novels aren’t challenging, per se, to the reader, but he’s challenging himself in ways many writers don’t. Instead of playing it safe and simply sticking to what he’s good at, Craig seems to be working his way down a literary bucket list, and for my money, he nails every one. Supernatural ghost thriller Episode Thirteen is another testament to his ability to try new things and execute well on the first try.

Written in epistolary form, Episode Thirteen presents itself as a story told through found documents. The intent here is apparently to model itself off of a found-footage film, but a book obviously can’t replicate that (that’s just physics). Cleverly, Craig works in a kind of ghost character who performs the role of the narrator, a meta-fictional “editor,” who opens the book with a note. This character has transcribed the found footage and occasionally breaks in to offer context, description, and even some insight. What I appreciated about this is the narrator has a presence in the story, something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently (the narrator as character). It’s subtle, but sometimes Episode Thirteen’s narrator breaks through with a quip, observation, or flash judgment. He appears to be totally objective, but his subjectivity sometimes breaks through just enough to give the narration some seasoning so as not to be bland, something that can trouble reported stories in epistolary form.

What always gets me about Craig’s novels is they are incredibly well focused, and that is true in Episode Thirteen. It seems to me, as a faithful reader, the writer knows precisely the story he’s telling me, something so many writers seem to struggle with. Ask almost any writer what their story is about, and they’ll almost invariably fumble. At least when reading the finished product, Craig’s books never seem that way to me. There are two things that are very important about this: 1). As I get older, my patience with literature is waning, so meandering stories sometimes feel like they are wasting my time. It isn’t that I can’t appreciate the journey; it’s that I want to know we have a destination.  2). Trust.

Trust is something I’m not sure we talk about enough with regard to the writer-reader relationship. Too many authors take my interest for granted, assuming since I picked up their book, I must be willing to follow them unquestioningly wherever they go. I never feel that way about Craig’s books, not even the ones you might describe as a “slow burn.” Intent is always apparent, and Episode Thirteen’s pitch all but bakes that in as the story unfolds in ways that maybe aren’t terribly surprising but are no less satisfying and fulfilling.

More to the point regarding the reading experience, I thought the allure of it all was infectious. Craig made me feel for the story what the characters feel for their investigation. That kind of parity is something I think every author chases with every story they tell, but so few of us actually achieve it. There’s empathy, and then there’s transcendence and transfer, empathy triggering something greater. I was utterly immersed in and engaged with Episode Thirteen. The whole thing is a marvelous meta experience in what draws us to the dark, and there’s a really fascinating revelation to be had at the end of this one. Maybe, Episode Thirteen suggests, we’re drawn to the darkness with the promise of illumination.

Yep, that’s a metaphor for knowledge. As I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately (why I’m compelled toward dark fantasy and horror), Episode Thirteen provided the right epiphany at the right time for me.

Beyond the grand scale, one of the most fascinating aspects of Episode Thirteen is the characters in the book are all identifiably pieces of a singular human identity. Don’t mistake that as a suggestion that they’re stereotypes. They are never stereotypes. But we do see spotlights shined on finer points of them, the stuff that’s important for the story Craig is telling. Fundamentally, the Greeks pondering about rhetoric might have classified some of these characters in a certain way: We have logos, the character who approaches hauntings through science and reason. We have pathos, the character who infuses the investigation with their passion and open-mindedness, the one who gets us to care about a question we may never be able to answer. We have ethos, the veteran who’s tangled with the darkness before and lends some credibility to phenomena. We also have the audience incarnate in the cameraman, and maybe this idea falls apart with the fifth character, an actress who may actually be the most reasonable of the ensemble and who has the greatest personal stake in a son she needs to get back to. There was a time while reading I thought she would be our avatar, the one person in the story who would do what we would all hope we’d do. Maybe she’s the context or the purpose of the rhetorical situation.

But anyways, examining Episode Thirteen this way, we can view these characters as pieces of ourselves (<–the point). Sure, in the midst of a haunting, we’d like to think we’d approach everything rationally but still maintain our passion and not do anything to undermine the credibility of the investigation, but would we? Interestingly, Craig plays with our expectations of these characters, each crossing the lines into the other Greek concepts until we come to understand none of these qualities live in perfect isolation of each other, just as no one is defined entirely by one quality, lest we become stereotypes, right?

As criticisms go, the book handles one of my biggest ones: the stakes. The team here has had a good first season, but their odds of renewal seem long. The trouble with that was I didn’t understand why I should care. Three of our five main characters aren’t particularly invested in the show, and the other two seem like they will continue ghost hunting regardless of whether they’re filming (one of them seems to actually prefer the cameras to be off). The team’s leader, however, is so likable that he was enough to get me invested at least for the time it takes for the question of, well, are there ghosts in Foundation House? to present itself. The book evolves and raises the stakes as you hope and expect, so no worries there. If you pick this one up and feel the drag through the first act, stick with it. Trust Craig.

Episode Thirteen isn’t a book that offered me some grand insight into humanity that will stick with me for years. It’s too subtle for that. There’s an idea that’s quite compelling regarding knowing the impossible, and it rears its ghostly little head later in the book. Thing is, Episode Thirteen could get oppressively philosophical with that idea very quickly (either a bug or a feature of my own writing that I continue to struggle with), but I think Craig is too disciplined and focused for that. The novel gives you just enough to chew on so that you can take it with you if you want, but it doesn’t force that upon you by any means.

What will stick with me, though, is the experience. Utterly engaged, I felt for this book what the characters felt for their investigation, and in a book comprising literal documentation, I find that an accomplishment worthy of appreciation. The trouble with the epistolary form is it can so often fall to the extremes: either mind-numbingly boring and distant or awkwardly intimate and raw to the point of violation. Episode Thirteen never wavers toward either side. It may sometimes approach the edge and peek over it, but perhaps as a product of the trust Craig builds with the reader, there’s never a hint of vertigo.

If you’re looking for a ghost story, something like the Blair Witch meets Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House in book form, I whole-heartedly recommend this one.