"Video Palace: In Search of the Eyeless Man" Book Review
Written by Jeff Tolbert
Published by Tiller Press
Edited by Nick Braccia and Michael Monello
2020, 384 pages, Fiction
Released on October 13th, 2020
Video Palace: In Search of the Eyeless Man is a horror anthology based on the Shudder podcast of the same name. Its eleven short stories are presented as part of the research output of one Dr. Maynard Wills, a professor of folklore at The New School. Wills was inspired by the Shudder podcast—here imagined as a truthful account of supernatural events—to researching the elusive Eyeless Man. He solicited legends and personal narratives about the creature from friends, whose contributions are also presented as genuine accounts.
Everything in the book is presented as truthful. Wills has the byline on the front cover; on the back, he has a bio blurb that, somewhat confusingly, announces that he is an associate professor. (Inside the book itself, Wills explains that he is an adjunct.) He’s also listed in the “About the Authors” section along with the book’s many contributors. Wills’ research into the legendary being apparently drove him insane, and he is said to be missing as of the book’s publication. The preface is written by one Daniel Carver, who introduces himself as Wills’ graduate student and the final compiler of the manuscript after Wills’ disappearance.
Naturally, none of this is real. Wills isn’t real, Carver isn’t real; the New School doesn’t have a folklore program. The real editors, Nick Braccia and Michael Monello, are named on the back cover as “experts” with whom Wills consulted. The people contributing the accounts of the monster are all published authors of fiction, but preface their works with little letters addressed to Wills explaining how they came by the narratives they share.
The individual stories in the anthology are interesting, if familiar. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the Eyeless Man is just a repackaged Slender Man. Both monsters cause insanity; both are attracted to individuals for opaque reasons, but communications technologies are usually involved; both inspire cultish followings. They’re also both tall, featureless, and usually well-dressed. Originality is not the only determinant of quality, but one wonders why such a close replication of an existing Creepypasta was necessary.
Standout stories are Gordon B. White’s “Ranger Ronin Presents…,” about two brothers lured into a bizarre “dojo” which trains children to enter the Eyeless Man’s world; Merrin J. McCormick’s “Two Unexplained Disappearances in South Brisbane,” the title of which says it all; Ben Rock’s “Ecstatica,” about a cultish New Age group whose recorded teachings expose its members to the Eyeless Man; and Bob DeRosa’s “Deep Focus,” about two college film students who unexpectedly capture the Eyeless Man in a documentary film project. (DeRosa’s story, with its film students and the creeping insanity their project causes, is the most explicitly Slender Man-like story in the whole collection, recalling the plot of the popular Marble Hornets YouTube series.)
The frame story, meanwhile—the conceit of Wills’ research into the Eyeless Man, and the rambling faux-scholarly pieces he inserts between nearly every story—is more challenging to review. In my day job, I’m a college professor and folklorist, and I study the supernatural. I’m a real-life analogue of Dr. Wills, in other words. Naturally, I was interested in a book that purports to be a folklorist’s research project, but this same conceit is precisely what gives me pause here. Its fictional status is so buried that an average reader, someone not versed in academia or familiar with the Shudder podcast (which I am not, as of this writing), might mistake it for something other than fiction. (I myself had to look up Wills and the New School’s course offerings. Although folklore is a small discipline, folklorists do turn up in unexpected places.) Wills tosses out citations to another fictional folklorist, Carol Bernhardt, and carries on a correspondence with a fictional physicist, Peter Gilliam. He talks about his career as an adjunct (which is questionable in and of itself, as adjuncts are terribly underpaid and exploited by universities) and his relationship with his graduate student, Carver (which adjuncts don’t have: typically, only full-time faculty are able to advise students or have graduate assistants). Although the copyright page carries the familiar disclaimer that this is a work of fiction, it says nothing about the ontological status of the book’s supposed author.
Fiction often deliberately replicates the forms and aesthetics of real-life professions and institutions, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But burying the fictional status of a work can have unexpected consequences. The most obvious example, and clearly the inspiration for the Eyeless Man, is Slender Man, a fictional creature whose fictional status was obscured by time and the ebb and flow of meme culture. I'm not sure why the creators of Video Palace would want to replicate that famous creepy pasta so closely, but that's what they've done here. There's a lot to be said for realism in genre fiction, of course: horror stories can be internally consistent and compelling when presented in a documentary style. Dracula, one of the finest examples of horror literature, is framed as a series of letters. Stoker did not suggest that Jonathan Harker was a real solicitor, or that Abraham Van Helsing was a real academic. Nothing is lost by this except unnecessary confusion. It just isn't clear why Video Palace: In Search of the Eyeless Man needed to try so hard to seem not realistic, but real.
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