In the popular podcast, Video Palace, Mark Cambria, aided by his girlfriend Tamra Wulff, investigated the origins of a series of esoteric white video tapes. Cambria went missing in pursuit of these tapes, but not before hearing whispers of an ominous figure called the Eyeless Man.
Fascinated by these events, Maynard Wills, PhD, a professor of folklore, embarks on his own investigation into the origins of the tapes and the Eyeless Man, who he believes has lurked in the dark corners of media culture and urban legends for decades. As part of his study, he has invited popular writers of horror and gothic fiction to share their Eyeless Man stories, whether heard around the campfire or experienced personally.
Those who participated and shared their tales include Bram Stoker Award® winners, Owl Goingback and John Skipp, Brea Grant and Graham Skipper.
As Professor Wills chases the shadowy Eyeless Man he’s increasingly unable to separate fact from folklore. Only his protege, Daniel Carver, strives to save him from the fate that befell Mark Cambria and untold others. Read this thrilling and terrifying collection at your own risk; you might just get swept away, too.
THERE ARE PROS AND CONS TO COMMISSION VS SUBMISSION
Once we got the approval to start on Video Palace: In Search of the Eyeless Man, we only had about three months to get a manuscript together in order to hit the necessary pre-Halloween release date. Since we both have full-time jobs and Nick was wrapping his forthcoming book on The Sopranos, we knew an anthology approach was the only option, with the two of us acting in a producer/director/editor capacity. At first, we thought we’d light the beacons and solicit submissions, but when we thought about it, the risk seemed too great. Would we have time to read everything? And what if we read everything and didn’t love what we got? To paraphrase a line we both use with our daughters, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” We ultimately decided that we couldn’t guarantee we’d get to great this way. Instead, we decided to commission stories. Between our personal networks, plus a big boost from Ben Rock and Bob DeRosa (our podcast writer/director team) we were able to wrangle a varied and talented group of voices who we believed could deliver so long as they were set up with the proper info and received the right guidance. Going the commission route gave us more confidence and control. It also meant a lot more hours prepping, chatting and working through our vision; remember, if we went submission, we would probably have received 100+stories. We were contractually obligated to deliver a book with 10-12 stories and we could only afford that many before going deep(er) into our own pockets. We’d have to budget, brief and coach to greatness or else we’d be left to write stories to cover our remaining word count; whether we had a great idea (and the time to nurture it) or not. What did we miss out on by going commission? Well, we were limited in the people we could approach (though lucky we know so many great writers) and we’re fairly certain we would have been able to surface some new and amazing voices had we rolled the dice on submissions. This being our IP, our baby, the control meant more to us. We’ve got some ideas for how we can open up Video Palace storytelling opportunities in the future, though.
CONTRACT & LEGAL RIGAMAROLE IS THE REAL HORROR STORY
Legal work is the bane of any creative endeavor, but it was especially challenging for us as we were taking characters and mythology we created with Shudder for the Video Palace podcast and adding entirely new stories and characters for the book with the folks at Simon & Schuster/Tiller press. Because we wanted to offer our contributors an up-front payment and royalties as well, we had to form an LLC to act as the legal entity between ourselves, Shudder, Simon & Schuster/Tiller, and our contributors. The first step was getting Shudder and Simon & Schuster on the same page over all the various rights and character issues while protecting ourselves and our contributors. Fortunately, both organizations made it as easy as possible, and everyone wanted to make this book happen, but the details of the law and contract language really bogged us down on occasion. This was especially challenging as we were moving forward with the book while still working through the contracts. Making sure that the interests of all the involved parties were being handled appropriately was far more time consuming than we expected and significantly more expensive than we budgeted. In fact, we would have lengthy conversations between ourselves about everything before we would get on the phone with our legal team just to minimize the amount of time logged on the legal meter. We kept our legal emails to a minimum and would preface any internal discussion about issues we wanted to address by asking ourselves if it was a battle worth fighting, as the cost of the battle came out of our own pockets.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BRIEF
Working with commissioned authors (who had varying degrees of familiarity with the podcast) on a tight timeline, we knew we had to strike the perfect balance of material and inspiration so that our collection would feel “of a piece.” Give too much mythology and an author might burrow down a rabbit hole, don’t give enough and you can end up receiving 5000 words that hit a beautiful but entirely wrong note when considered against the whole. We had to get it right at the start to imbue everyone with confidence and spark inspiration. First we constructed an enticing invitation doc that focused on tone, theme and length with some broad examples of the kind of stories that might work. Once an author showed interest, we delivered a much more focused and tactical brief that we hoped would set each writer up right. These documents really helped to level set everyone and I think we did a good job making the assignment–to create in somebody else’s world–seem fun and open. We wanted everyone’s story to feel more theirs than ours, but it was also crucial that they all hung together. In addition to the documents, we spoke to everybody via phone, some for as much as an hour, (and with plenty of follow-up emails and chats), to ensure comfort level and same-pageness. These conversations really helped. We both have an enormous palette of references, thanks to our voracious (and, shall we say, irresponsible!) media diets. To get individual writers aligned, we drew comparisons and built bridges to specific IP, books and movies that our contributors loved to help cover the gap. We absolutely believe we would have mucked this “kick-off” up if not for our combined four decades of marketing and advertising work. Every day we have to communicate to clients and colleagues with documents, presentations and conversations that keep business moving efficiently. It all starts with Goldilocks Guardrails. Not too overbearing, not too precious, but not wishy-washy either. Clarity up front saved us so much time and, frankly, made the editing and feedback process a snap.
HELP YOUR PUBLISHER’S MARKETERS HELP YOU
Thanks to all the authors and editors who came before us, we were aware that the marketing capabilities of most publishers are typically stretched thin. Since we both hold day jobs in marketing, we know how challenging it is to manage the sheer volume of titles released each month by a publisher like ours, so we decided rather than be the squeaky wheel asking for more marketing support, we took it upon ourselves to be an engine for ideas and enthusiasm with our team. We brought marketing ideas to the table and found everyone super-receptive to hearing them, and enthusiastic enough to invest in the ones they felt would move the needle and be manageable given their insane workloads.
And while the legal hassle up front was painful, having both Simon & Schuster and Shudder onboard for the marketing has been amazing. We asked if we could have some stories from the audiobook production to create three bonus episodes for podcast fans and everyone agreed to it — the first one drops Monday, October 12. We asked for specific assets to be made for sharing across their social feeds as well as for our contributors and they delivered. They are even making a special premium item we requested that will be used to help generate more attention for the book. We’re currently in full self-promotion mode and we’re so much better equipped to handle it because we listened to their suggestions, they listened to ours, and we’re all working towards the same outcome. The choice we made–being marketing production partners, rather than worried authors–resulted in us having a real sense of agency around the book’s success and stronger collaboration with our publisher.
DIFFERENT MEDIUM, DIFFERENT RULES
The criteria for success in a prose collection is completely different than for an audio drama. We couldn’t just dive in and try to tell written Video Palace stories without having a conversation on how to achieve that. So much of what made our podcast work well is specific to dramatic performance: actors who emote, sound design, editing and score, for example. We had to get on the same page–and quickly–about what makes the DNA of a Video Palace story, regardless of medium. Once we crystalized that, through a kind of reverse engineering, we focused on providing guidance around prose techniques, so that we–and our writers–would understand how to explore the universe through language only.
There’s certainly some crossover. In both mediums, you want to withhold just enough information and, when you do provide answers, they need to spark new questions. Ultimately any Video Palace story needs to transport the listener and create competing feelings of curiosity and vulnerability; a must in horror fiction. You’ve got plenty of tools to do that in audio, plus the podcast is a first person story, so listeners benefited from the immediacy of their connection to Mark. But in prose, everything–all the pressure–is on language to achieve these feelings. To help set up the stories to feel more personal and dangerous, we invited each author to determine how they came upon their story. Did it happen to them? If not, who did they hear it from? In the case of first person stories, the immediacy is there, but even in second-hand ones there’s a clear connection to the author. We gave each writer the chance to write a little upfront intro about the origin of their story. The ones we got worked so well, we made sure everybody included one in their final draft. This helped make things all the more personal and relatable. Ultimately, the smartest move we made was commissioning extremely talented writers and storytellers. In prose stories, rife with menace and woe, just one awkward metaphor or wrong note can torpedo the immersion. The mastery of evocative language was a must and everyone delivered.
Nick Braccia is a Cannes Lions– and Clio–winning writer, director, and producer. In 2018, he cocreated and coexecutive produced the horror podcast Video Palace for AMC Network’s streaming service Shudder. While working at the marketing agency Campfire, he helped to develop immersive, narrative experiences for TV shows like Outcast, Sense8, Watchmen, The Man in the High Castle, Westworld, and The Purge. Braccia is a member of the Producers Guild of America and lives in Manhattan with his partner, Amanda, and daughter, Evie Blue.
Michael Monello is a pioneer in immersive storytelling. In the late 1990s, Monello and his partners at Haxan Films created The Blair Witch Project, a story told across multiple media, which became a pop-culture touchstone. Monello cofounded Campfire in 2006 which creates groundbreaking participatory stories and experiences for TV shows such as True Blood, Game of Thrones, The Purge, The Man in the High Castle, Westworld, Hunters, and more. He cocreated and co-executive produced Video Palace, a scripted fiction horror podcast for Shudder. Monello lives in Brooklyn with his wife Julie and daughters Ava and Lila.