The strange town of Night Vale has captivated listeners since 2012 when Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor first brought this fascinating fictional world to life in their terrific podcast, Welcome to Night Vale. The mysterious goings-on in this intriguingly peculiar setting have since been delivered to us regularly in bimonthly, half-hour installments. With each episode, we tune in to host Cecil Palmer’s (voiced by actor Cecil Baldwin) community radio show in which he relays the news and announcements from the desert town where “the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep”. A delicious blend of surrealism and comedy has made the project one of the most successful podcasts online, and has spawned a companion piece, a novel titled Welcome to Night Vale.
The novel takes us on an adventure in the bizarre land where time doesn’t work, people don’t believe in mountains, and it is illegal to consider the existence of angels (who obviously don’t exist, even the ones who live with Old Woman Josie out by the car lot). The story revolves around the lives of two women: Jackie Fierro and Diane Crayton.
Jackie is a teenager who runs the only pawnshop in Night Vale. She has been “recently 19 for as long as she could remember” because she does not age and has no recollection of her past. All she can recall are endless days at the pawnshop where she has been working for decades. But her life and all its routines are disrupted one day when a man in a tan jacket holding a deerskin suitcase stops by her shop. He pawns a slip of paper with the words “King City” written on it in dull, smeared pencil before running out to the desert. Jackie soon discovers that she can’t let go of the piece of paper; no matter what she does to it, it reappears in her hand. This, she quickly realises, is a bit of a problem.
Those living in this bizarre land have an offbeat look at life
Diane, a single mother, is raising her teenage son Josh who, unlike most boys his age, changes his physical form constantly.But, like most boys his age, Josh “thinks he is several things at once, many of them contradictory”. Diane works at an office in the marketing department and has become aware of the fact that her co-worker, Evan, has disappeared and been forgotten by everyone but her. Also, her ex, Troy, who she hadn’t seen in 15 years, is back in town. He hasn’t tried to contact the family yet, but Diane is starting to see him everywhere she goes. Josh is interested in meeting the father he last saw when he was a baby. This, she thinks, might not be the best idea.
In a quest to regain normalcy — or what passes for normalcy in Night Vale — both women set out to out resolve their predicaments. They are ultimately brought together, their desperation leading them to locations as harrowing and dreaded as the public library in a quest to understanding what is actually going on.
With a style that feels like an amalgam of Douglas Adams and H.P. Lovecraft by way of The Mighty Boosh, Welcome to Night Vale is a wonderfully crafted, charmingly bizarre concoction of silliness and eeriness with an offbeat look at life and existence. “What are people but deaths that haven’t happened yet?” a character asks at one point, summing up the book’s tone and its dark philosophies.
Night Vale’s reality may not align with the reality of the rest of the world, but its peculiarity often finds basis in real issues. Teenage struggle with identity manifests into literal shape shifting, as parents are confronted with a “faint, distorted echo” of their children. The inability to break a routine morphs into the course of a life getting frozen and looped. There are also satirical jabs at topics like newspapers and print media, government and governance, surveillance, and a host of other issues, delivered with deadpan wit (along with the requisite weirdness).
“The only pawnshop in the town of Night Vale is run by the very young Jackie Fierro. It has no name, but if you need it, you will know where it is. This knowledge will come suddenly, often while you are in the shower. You will collapse, surrounded by a bright glowing blackness, and you will find yourself on your hands and knees, the warm water running over you, and you will know where the pawnshop is. You will smell must and soap, and feel a stab of panic about how alone you are. It will be like most showers you’ve taken. Before you can offer Jackie your item, there will first be some hand washing, which is why there are bowls of purified water throughout the shop. You need to chant a little as you wash your hands. You, of course, should always chant when you wash your hands. It is only hygienic. When you have been properly purified, you will lay the item on the counter, and Jackie will consider it.” — Excerpt from the book
The writers expand on the eerie setting of the podcast as they take Night Vale and its quaintness from audio to print. Cecil’s radio show remains a continued presence in the novel; transcripts from the programme are interspersed with the story. Familiar characters — Old Woman Josie, the Angels named Erika, Carlos, John Peters, and the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your house — also make an appearance, as do familiar locations, like The Moonlite All-Nite diner and Big Rico’s Pizza.
The book stumbles a little, however, because of its pace. The non sequitur-ladenprose makes the progress slow. This is the same brand of quirky, random weirdness that has powered the podcast for the last four years. But it turns out that this quirky, random weirdness is a lot more entertaining when it is delivered in half hour doses through Cecil Baldwin’s soothing voice than in the form of a 400-page book. Things do pick up in the second half after Jackie and Diane join forces, and the authors’ descriptive style lets them create some interesting, tense scenes along the way, but the novel often loses momentum as it gets lost in its own whimsy, forgetting to move the story along.
Also, while the lead characters are amiable, they aren’t very interesting. After years of listening to his community updates, we’d probably have been more invested in the story if Cecil was a more integral part of it.
On the whole, Welcome to Night Vale is an amusing, creative romp in the “town full of hidden evils and the secretly malevolent”. Its surreal premise, black humour, and deadpan style make the novel an enjoyable read, even though its slow pace makes the progress slightly labourious at times. This isn’t a fast-paced thriller, although that won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the style of the podcast.
If you haven’t experienced the crazy world of Night Vale yet, then you might want to download a few episodes to get a taste of the project. You are likely to enjoy the book if you like the podcast and don’t mind a novel that marinates at length in the weirdness of its setting and doesn’t hurry through its curious tale.
The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.
Welcome to Night Vale (FANTASY) By Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor Harper Perennial ISBN: 978-0062351425 416pp.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 24th, 2016