Exclusive Interview: “Episode Thirteen” Author Craig DiLouie
If you’ve ever watched a reality show about ghosts, you’ve probably muttered to yourself, “That’s so fake.” But what if they weren’t; what if the ghost someone was hunting…was real. Even cooler, what if you learned that through journal entries, transcripts, and other forms of written expresion. That’s what writer Craig DiLouie set out to do in his new ghost story horror novel Episode Thirteen (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, DiLouie discusses what inspired and influenced both this scary story and how he chose to tell it.
To begin, what is Episode Thirteen about, and when and where is it set?
The ghost-hunting reality TV show Fade To Black has finally gained the chance to investigate the former site of the Paranormal Research Foundation in Virginia, which lead investigators Matt and Clare Kirklin believe will make for a powerful thirteenth episode, one that will win them a second season. In this brooding, derelict mansion, they hope to use their scientific methods and high-tech gear to crack a notorious haunting while uncovering clues about the bizarre experiments that went on there in the 1970s. But as Foundation House begins to unravel its mysteries, Matt and Claire discover it wants something in return.
Revealed in broken pieces, in tapes, journals, and correspondence, this is the story of Episode 13 — and how an entertaining show about hunting ghosts became a nightmarish documentary of obsession, madness, and human terror.
Episode Thirteen is what’s called an epistolary novel. Did you set out to write an epistolary novel and Thirteen is what you came up with, or did you start writing Thirteen and, in that process, realize it would work as an epistolary novel?
I’ve always been fascinated with the horror trope of a “house within a house” or a hidden world transposing our own. His House, Relic, The Night House, Angel Of Darkness, and House Of Leaves are good examples. Talking it out with my editor at Hachette, who is a fan of found-footage horror movies, I came up with the approach of a “found footage horror novel” that would provide the lens through which we see a group of people explore a haunted house and discover a secret world.
This was an odd choice for me, as honestly, I often find epistolary difficult to read. For me as a reader, often the epistolary elements feel grafted on for a little extra realism or setting, and if they don’t advance plot or character, I tend to skip over them as speed bumps. For Episode Thirteen, I wanted to make it epistolary from the ground up, while making it immersive enough that the reader wouldn’t get bored or have to work so hard at willing suspension of disbelief.
This required a lot of choices so that I played to the strengths of the format while mitigating its tradeoffs. For example, I kept the chapters short, with a terrific variety of media, so that every time you finish a chapter, there’s something new that invites you to keep going. I also included the characters doing journal entries — why they are all keeping journals during the investigation is explained — so that you can see what’s going on inside their heads. As this is a novel where a great deal of the horror is psychological, this connection with the characters was essential.
The approach provided some amazing benefits where I think the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, a jigsaw puzzle with context, one that slowly reveals a scary picture you didn’t expect to see. The video transcripts for major action sequences provide quick reading with plenty of white space for reader imagination, the journal entries provide depth and let the reader in on plenty of secrets about what the character thinks internally versus what they present externally, and overall, the story has a realistic, voyeuristic feel. It all played to my strengths as a researcher, where I was able to do a deep dive into the science of ghosts, the techniques and technologies of ghost hunting, and how a reality TV show works. As the author, I couldn’t be happier with how Episode Thirteen turned out.
Clearly, Episode Thirteen is a horror story. But how scary does it get? And why was this the right amount of scary?
What is scary is highly relative, and it’s one of those things where sometimes the harder you try, the less scary it is. As the author, you really have to focus on telling the story and trust the reader’s imagination. In short, the reader provides the fear. For Episode Thirteen, I leaned on building an atmosphere of dread, having the horror elements reveal themselves in surprising frantic bursts, and fleshing out relatable characters so that when they’re scared, hopefully you as the reader are as well, through empathy.
As for the right amount of scary, good question. That’s a tough one for any horror author. In Episode Thirteen, I wanted the feeling of dread to ramp up in volume until it’s constant. As for the scary moments and horror reveals, they were timed so they feel big and pack a cathartic punch. Another rule I set for myself was not to throw the same punch twice, so each reveal had to be distinct in terms of what the reader experiences and how it affects the characters and plot.
Finally, I wanted to inject emotion into the read that went beyond horror, which was a sense of wonder and mystery. The backstory, the claustrophobic and unreal “house within a house,” all of it takes the reader beyond the traditional ghost story to places they don’t expect.
Episode Thirteen is not your first novel. Not by a long shot. Are there any writers, or stories, that you think had a big influence on Episode Thirteen but not on anything else you’ve written?
For Episode Thirteen, the main influences were found-footage horror movies, ghost hunting, science, and a crazy computer game called Phasmophobia.
I’m a real research hound. It may sound weird for a fiction writer to say, but I always start my fiction by exploring nonfiction. I want to know the details and what’s possible. These details feed the story, inform the characters, and help drive the plot, and they provide this wonderful realistic setting, which the more realistic it is the more fantastic the monster element stand out against it. For this novel, I did a deep dive into how reality TV shows work, specifically paranormal investigation shows like Ghost Hunters, and what techniques and gadgets are used in these investigations. From there, I took a deep dive into physics to try to answer the question of whether ghosts are possible and if so, what are they made of. As this is an epistolary novel, everything had to sound authentic and lived in.
A final influence was Phasmophobia. This is a co-op computer game where you and some friends go into a haunted house to do a paranormal investigation. The objective is to locate where the ghost is active and then capture enough evidence you can characterize what kind of entity it is. Ideally, without dying! As the longer you’re there and depending on what you do, the ghost starts to get very angry. I absolutely loved playing this game, which was psychologically fascinating as while you’re in the haunted house, you’re on the clock under mounting threat from something that for now is invisible but is slowly revealing itself, and the experience is so immersive you really do get freaked out. I played this game a lot to get in the mood for some fictional ghost hunting. For Episode Thirteen, I really wanted to bottle this game’s dread, the spirit of exploration of ghost hunting, the weirdness and mystery of the ’70s-era experiments in the backstory, the fun and realism of found-footage horror, and the wonder of discovering a dark and secret reality beyond our own.
What about specific epistolary novels? I know you said you find them difficult to read, but since you also said you like to do research, did you look at anyone else’s for ideas of what to do…and what not to do?
I’ve read few true epistolary novels. Most times, I come across an epistolary element in what is otherwise straightforward fiction. I’m sure there are many fine works out there, but probably the best epistolary novel that comes to mind for me off the bat is e by Matt Beaumont; it’s a hilarious portrait of life at work at an ad agency as told through a set of emails.
The best epistolary novel I’ve read recently is Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. It’s epistolary, though it’s an oral history, showing snippets of interviews with people who were in a famous ’70s band. Very different in format than a mixed media work, though the flavor is the same. Reading that one reinforced for me the need to lean on the tension between reality and what’s true by showing conflict in different points of view. How we see ourselves and how others see us may be different things. We may experience the same event but interpret it very differently.
Given that Episode Thirteen is based on a reality show, someone might want to turn around and turn it into a TV show. Do you think that would work?
A limited series or movie, sure. I think it would totally work. The adaptation would hopefully discover the same depth without the journals, communicating visually instead of through text.
And if someone wanted to do that, who would you want them to cast as Matt, Claire, and the other main characters?
Honestly, if it were up to me, I’d cast people the average viewer wouldn’t recognize. As Episode Thirteen is really the literary equivalent of a found footage horror movie, putting it on a screen for real I think would require a different standard for suspension of disbelief. This is a story where you should just let yourself go and enjoy the ride with maximum believability, a gritty sense of reality, and an open sense of wonder. To push the reality aspect, I think it’d be ideal to go with actors who aren’t yet recognized brands, similar to what The Blair Witch Project accomplished. Which would be totally fitting for the horror genre, where so many fresh actors get their start and find careers in terrific indie productions.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Episode Thirteen?
Just that I appreciate them reading it and really hope they enjoy it. That, and I hope they will give it a review on Amazon and Goodreads if they do.
Finally, if someone enjoys Episode Thirteen, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?
I’ve written many novels, but in the horror genre, I think if someone likes Episode Thirteen they might enjoy The Children Of Red Peak and Suffer The Children. The Children Of Red Peak could be described as Netflix’s The Haunting Of Hill House meets the Jonestown massacre, a novel of psychological horror about the survivors of an apocalyptic cult. Suffer The Children is a grimdark story about a disease that kills the world’s children but allows them to return to life for a short time if they ingest human blood, turning their parents into monsters by asking them all: how far would you go for those you love? [For more on Children, check out this earlier interview.]