Review: ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ podcast becomes an equally weird, haunted yet humorous novel
A sentient Glow Cloud hovers in a sky filled with surveillance helicopters. Mysterious hooded figures linger near the local dog park, and it’s best if residents yield to them in traffic. An old woman lives on the outskirts of town with a flock of helpful angels, which cannot be discussed by her neighbors because angels, the town insists, do not exist.
If any of these people or paradoxes sound familiar, you are among the listeners of “Welcome to Night Vale,” a twice-monthly podcast written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Starring and narrated by the town’s community radio host, Cecil Palmer (voiced with sinister aplomb by actor Cecil Baldwin), “Night Vale” depicts the sort of place where government conspiracies and unexplained phenomena aren’t just possibilities, they’re a part of life. Think of “A Prairie Home Companion” filtered through the anarchic paranoia of Art Bell’s “Coast to Coast AM” with a generous helping of David Lynch.
Since its launch in 2012, the show has become a popular podcast that has included appearances by famous fans, including Wil Wheaton, James Urbaniak and Glenn David Gold. Live performances have sold out quickly, and now the show marks another shift into the physical world with its debut novel (published by Harper Perennial).
With Baldwin’s stentorian voice as a focal point and guide, the podcast regularly delivers a mix of pitch-black humor and deadpan chills. However, as “Night Vale’s” host is fond of reminding listeners, past performance is not a predictor of future results. Can a premise based on placing an unsettling voice in your head for 20 to 30 minutes also effectively sustain itself for 400 pages?
In bringing Night Vale to the page, Fink and Cranor wisely narrow their focus to primarily two characters. Jackie, the owner of a pawnshop who, in typical Night Vale fashion, has been a 19-year-old woman for a very long time, and Diane, Night Vale’s PTA treasurer.
They are brought together by a haunted note, “King City,” delivered by a man in a tan jacket holding a deerskin briefcase. This sinister figure is a fixture of the “Night Vale” podcast, lurking near unsettling events and being only obliquely remembered. This carry-over of one of the podcast’s familiar mysteries offers a welcome connection with “Night Vale’s” extended family, and it’s fortunately not the first.
As Jackie and Diane pursue the mystery, Diane is struggling to connect with her teenage son, Josh. He remains curious about his absent father, Troy, despite her insistence against his curiosity, and is struggling with his identity. In Night Vale, this translates to a being a literal shape-shifter, often taking the form of a psychedelic mishmash of spare animal parts.
Though “Night Vale’s” twisted appeal is built upon these kinds of situational non sequiturs, Fink and Cranor’s prose hints there’s an empathetic humanity underscoring their well of darkly fantastic situations. While shape-shifting barely stands out as irregular behavior in Night Vale, Josh’s condition is underscored with a gentle understanding: “Like most teenagers, he always was what he happens to be in that moment, until he never was that.”
Similarly, the book delivers some chilling scenes with expansive detail and multiple voices that their bite-size, single-perspective podcast format could never support. A brief hospital stay seems drawn from the most reason-defying nightmares of Terry Gilliam, and Jackie and Diane barely escape the most harrowing and lethal of Night Vale destinations: The public library.
Despite its signature gothic wit and unsettling atmosphere — the image of a car lot surveyed by salesmen howling like wolves particularly lingers — “Night Vale” remains oddly short on character depth. Jackie and Diane’s voices are often only distinguishable because one punctuates her dialogue with “dude” or “man.” And many other elements, including “the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your house” and Cecil’s radio broadcasts, amount to cameos from the podcast that establish “Night Vale’s” weird world without explaining more about it.
As a companion piece, “Welcome to Night Vale” will be hard to resist. Though the book builds toward a satisfyingly strange exploration of the strange town’s intersection with an unsuspecting real world, “Night Vale’s” mysteries — like the richest conspiracy theories — don’t exist to be explained. They just provide a welcome escape.
“Look, life is stressful. This is true everywhere. But life in Night Vale is more stressful,” the book cautions.
“There are things lurking in the shadows. Not the projections of a worried mind, but literal Things,” it continues, adding what could be a humble statement of purpose for Fink and Cranor. “But when Cecil talked it was possible to let some of that go.”
Welcome to Night Vale
Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Harper Perennial: 416 pp., $19.99
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