I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
Every new book from Craig DiLouie is a surprise because – as far as my experience with his works goes – he never treads twice on the same ground, never sticks to any given theme or genre. With Episode Thirteen he chose to explore the world of professional ghost hunters, and while this is a ghost story, it does not develop in any predictable way, which adds to its appeal – and to its mystery.
Fade to Black is a moderately successful ghost hunting show which follows the scheme of similar reality programs by investigating allegedly haunted houses and seeking confirmation (or debunking) through the application of various scientific tools; lead investigators, and married couple, Matt and Claire Kirklin represent the two sides of the research: he’s the believer in the existence of paranormal phenomena, mostly because of his childhood experience with an imaginary friend who turned out to be anything but, while his wife is the skeptic, looking for scientific explanation of the weird occurrences encountered in their line of work. The team also includes Kevin Linscott, tech manager and former police officer, who’s convinced to have been in the presence of a ghost in the course of one tour of duty; Jessica Valenza, an actress looking for visibility and affirmation while trying to raise a son on her own; and Jake Wolfson, the cameraman who is more focused on filming good takes rather than catching glimpses of ghosts.
After a great start, Fade to Black is experiencing some downturn in ratings that place a second season of the show on the line, so that Matt wants to craft a spectacular Episode 13 (the one before the series’ final segment) to insure that they will be able to go on. The location for this episode is Foundation House, a crumbling manor where outlandish pseudo-scientific experiments were conducted in the ‘70s, involving the use of psychotropic drugs among other bizarre techniques: the mystery surrounding Foundation House, whose staff disappeared without a trace, is enough to insure some spectacular footage. The team approaches the location with a mixture of anticipation and dread for the future of the show, a feeling that is slowly intruding in their interpersonal and working relationships. What they will find goes way beyond their wildest expectations and adds more mysteries to those already plaguing the spooky house…
Episode Thirteen is written with a style resembling that of found-footage movies, chronicling the fateful exploration of Foundation House through videos and transcripts, interviews, personal diaries and e-mails, building a picture of the characters with cinematic quality, revealing their inner workings without need for info-dumps: while the story starts with a deceptively leisurely pace, it slowly grows into an ominous tale and a compelling, compulsive read in which we get to know the characters just as the momentous events unfold. If it’s easy to indulgently scoff at actual tv shows like Fade to Black, here the feeling of being faced with something which is as real as it is elusive is quite strong, and the suspension of disbelief does not require any effort at all.
What’s interesting about the characters is that they are not exactly likable, and yet they remain deeply intriguing from beginning to end, and it’s easy to identify with them as they witness the eerie, scary phenomena that plague the old manor and they deal with reactions that go from the classic “fight or flight” to the difficult battle between scientific curiosity and self-preservation. As the story progresses and the team faces a true descent into Hell (both in the figurative and in the actual sense), their core personalities are revealed in stark relief, all the trappings people use to cover their true self coming undone in a very dramatic way.
It would be impossible for me to write more about the story without falling into spoiler territory, and this is a novel that must be approached with no prior knowledge whatsoever, so that it can deliver all its powerful impact in the most effective way: there is no body horror here, no splattered blood or any other physical manifestation typical of the genre, the dread is more psychological than anything else, mixed as it is with our innate fear of the unknown.
One warning only: once you pick up Episode Thirteen set aside some “quality time” to read it, and be aware that once you start the book it will be next to impossible to put it down for more than the few moments you will need to catch your breath – because you will need to remember to breathe, trust me…