Few forceful frights in found-footage novel
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Veteran horror author Craig DiLouie takes on the found-footage sub-genre in his latest novel Episode Thirteen.
Based in Calgary, U.S. ex-pat DiLouie is an author of many horror and post-apocalyptic novels, the most popular of which is Suffer the Children. With his latest, DiLouie sets out to explore the conventions of found-footage horror, a sub-genre that is hugely popular in horror film (in part because it is notoriously cheap to produce) but that can struggle to find its footing on the page.
Fade to Black is the latest hit ghost-hunting reality show, led by a husband-and-wife team. Matt Kirklin is the unabashed believer, eager to prove the existence of the supernatural, while wife Claire is the scientific debunker; their similarity to The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully is mentioned in a tongue-in-cheek nod.
For the 13th episode of their show, the Fade to Black crew will be investigating a decrepit mansion that was once the headquarters of the Paranormal Research Foundation, a collective of occult scientists who carried out a number of experiments before all going missing inside the mansion in 1974. The TV crew will live inside the mansion for a few days, attempt to make contact with the spirits inside and test any phenomena through a series of scientific gadgets.
After a bit of a false start, the spirits do indeed make contact in spectacular fashion, and the researchers redouble their efforts to explore deeper into the mansion. Of course, they encounter more than they expected.
The ghost-hunting film crew is hardly a new idea, appearing in many films such as Grave Encounters or the Korean hit Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum. It’s also outdated: most ghost-hunting “shows” have found a home on YouTube or other online platforms rather than traditional TV.
DiLouie is well-versed in the various tropes of found-footage horror films, but that familiarity hasn’t translated into avoiding them or trying something new. The first half of the novel plays out much the same way as a generic found-footage film would, with fake-out scares and tension among the crew before the real action begins.
The first question which arises with a premise such as this is why develop this idea as a novel instead of a film. Episode Thirteen doesn’t really have a satisfactory answer to that question. Approaching the found-footage trope from a literary perspective has the potential to explore elements that would be left out of a movie. While there are hints of this kind of approach, such as reports from the film crew to the show’s producers, and journal entries which could have allowed deeper insights into the characters, DiLouie settles into the same old tropes of a movie, relying on long descriptions of footage that would work better if they actually were footage.
At one point, the author pokes fun at the all-too-common problem of “why would you stop to film that instead of running away,” but the characters here behave in the same way, only stopping to write their reflections in a journal.
DiLouie has a number of books under his belt and that experience shows; Episode Thirteen is an easy read. But the ideas within don’t hold up to much scrutiny, and thinking about any of the novel’s problems deflates the whole premise.
Episode Thirteen is light and breezy, a horror version of a beach read, but doesn’t offer much in the way of scares or originality.
Keith Cadieux is a Winnipeg writer and editor. His most recent book is Signal Decay from At Bay Press.
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