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Episode Thirteen by Craig DiLouie3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsFound footage movies have been both beloved and derided by horror fans ever since The Blair Witch Project broke out from the Sundance Film Festival in the late ’90s. But it’s not the only stylistic approach movies have taken to create a real-life “you are there” vibe for the audience. Mockumentaries have been around for ages, “screenlife” films replicate post-COVID online anxieties, while YouTube and other online platforms have brought us so-called alternate reality games (ARGs) and “unfiction,” fictional stories that suspend disbelief by presenting themselves as cinema verité realism.

But can this approach work for prose fiction? Not only can it, the whole schtick originated there, with epistolary novels going all the way back to Bram Stoker and beyond, giving readers the sense they’re living the events of the story in real time with the characters. Later stories like Robert Bloch’s “Notebook Found in a Deserted House” and Simon Kurt Unsworth’s terrifying “The Pennine Tower Restaurant” (available in Ellen Datlow’s Tachyon anthology Hauntings) are among many chilling tales keeping the tradition alive. And now we have Craig DiLouie’s Episode Thirteen, about a hapless group of ghost hunters who get way more than they bargained for.

To evoke authenticity, DiLouie unspools his narrative as a series of journal entries, emails, text messages, and raw camera footage transcripts. When it works, it works well, and when it doesn’t, it reveals many of the limitations inherent in trying too hard to adapt found footage technique to prose form. This shows up most noticeably in the journal entries, some of which throw the story’s pacing off badly. Other times, we get journal entries where it seems implausible that a character would have taken the time right at that very moment to write one. I mean, if I’m being menaced by some nightmarish horror from the abyss beyond time, I’m not gonna stop and say, “Hey, can you give me a minute? I have to journal this.”

It’s 2016. Our team of investigators work for a cable show called Fade to Black, doing its best to compete in an oversaturated paranormal market. The show’s hook is that husband and wife team Matt and Claire Kirklin engage in a friendly rivalry, with Claire playing Scully to Matt’s Mulder. But Claire is privately frustrated with the show and is ready to move on. She’s a dedicated scientist who wants to pursue a proper scientific career, which being the token debunker on a ghost show is emphatically not. The network also thinks that while the show has so far worked well in offering both true believer and skeptical viewpoints, ratings are losing steam, and they need to take everything up a notch to wrap up season one if they hope to have a season two.

Hope comes in the form of the Foundation House, a hundred-year old mansion in Virginia that was home in the early 1970s to an outfit calling themselves the Paranormal Research Foundation. It’s the kind of outfit that forms when intellectuals do too many psychedelics. The PRF was comprised of members of the Human Potential Movement, which was a real thing borne from the ’60s counterculture. The PRF scientists believed that all people possess innate paranormal powers, which could lead to a true utopia if only these powers could be tapped. In their repurposed mansion they conducted numerous experiments of an ethically dubious nature on human subjects, until the entire team inexplicably disappeared. Investigating this sounds like a situation where nothing could possibly go wrong!

DiLouie builds his story with great care, and makes some honestly surprising choices that bypass cliché so that we come to understand what’s in this house is happening on a cosmic level, not only far beyond ghosts but beyond the capacity of our intrepid investigators to process. That’s all I’ll say about that.

As for the other three members of the team, DiLouie makes choices I both liked and disliked. Kevin is the show’s tech manager, an ex-cop who is even more of a fanatical true believer than Matt, due to his fear that a literal demon has been pursuing him ever since the night he and his partner answered a really bad call in Philadelphia. It’s a little too obvious early on that this guy is going to be a loose cannon and troublemaker.

Jake is the camera op, who enjoys the show but sees it as a job first and foremost, until events in Foundation House start to make him think maybe there is something to all this ghost hunting business. Jake is sympathetic, but Jessica Valenza, whose real name is Rashida Brewer, is the one truly likable character. A trained actress who is all too aware, as a young black woman, that she is the show’s diversity hire, she remains invested due to her fear Fade to Black may be the only big break she may ever get, and she understandably wants career success to help her raise her son. Through texts with her worried sister, she earns reader sympathy in a way the more shallowly drawn Matt and Claire don’t. We can chuckle at her jokes about “hunting ghosts with crazy white people” while also admiring that when things start getting real, she’s the smartest one of the bunch, making a beeline right for the exit.

Episode Thirteen is smartly conceived, even if its execution can feel uneven and occasionally contrived to fit DiLouie’s docu-realist approach to the material. It’s overlong and its attempts at big scares don’t always deliver like they should. But the final passages are harrowing. And DiLouie very effectively makes the case that seekers might not like what they find, or they might like it more than they ever believed possible — and it’s an open question which of those situations is worse.