There are few places on earth like Night Vale—for which we should all be deeply grateful. Night Vale is the creation of Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, originally introduced in their podcast, Welcome to Night Vale. Anything can happen in Night Vale: all powerful Glow Clouds*, violent doppelgängers, tiny civilizations living underneath the bowling alley, men that can’t be remembered, five-headed dragons, and worse. Usually, nothing is every explained in the podcast and mysteries remain mysteries. Usually. In the novel, Welcome to Night Vale, we finally learn why one of Night Vale’s weirdnesses exists.
The podcast is narrated by Cecil Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin). Each installment is an episode of the community radio program. We get the news, traffic, community calendar, deeply bizarre ads, and the weather (always a song instead of actual weather). A new and terrible danger is introduced in the first few minutes (creatures from another dimension, the summer reading program, etc.), only to be resolved during the weather segment. The novel breaks this pattern and tells a story from the perspective of two new characters, pawn store owner Jackie Fierro and Diane Crayton, the mother of a teenage son who can’t settle on any one shape. Jackie has met the man in the tan jacket—who no one can remember—and cannot get rid of the note he left. Diane has also tangled with the man in the tan jacket, but she’s much more concerned with her son and his quest to find his vanished father.
For most of Welcome to Night Vale, the two protagonists appear to be working at cross purposes. It’s only towards the end of the book that they (and we) learn that their missions are related. After once more showing up in the same place at the same time, Jackie and Diane reluctantly team up to visit the library for information in one of my favorite scenes in the book. The Night Vale Public Library is notorious. Anyone who enters risks life and limb at the claws of the librarians:
There is a librarian on the loose in our city. And Night Vale, there is no triple-thick armored wall or bloody animal carcass lying over a bamboo covered pit of sharp sticks to protect us from this stalking oblivion. Without the military grade steel walls of the library to keep the librarians contained, Night Vale, we are helpless! We are doomed. (“The Librarian – Live at Skirball“)
Being a librarian, I’m always eager to learn more about my Night Vale counterparts.
In fact, learning more about Night Vale and its citizens and denizens is the biggest draw for this book. I worry, like many of the fans I’ve seen talking about Welcome to Night Vale online, that newcomers to the story of Night Vale will be lost and turned off by the inexplicable weirdness. In one of the earliest radio excepts in the novel, Cecil reminds us, “If you see hooded figures in the Dog Park, no you didn’t” (location 573**). There are parts of Welcome to Night Vale—book and podcast—that make me wonder if Fink and Cranor are the love children of H.P Lovecraft and Schrödinger’s Cat. (This could happen in Night Vale.) Without the podcast to through new readers into the deep end of the weird, parts of this book will be baffling. Not only does it take some mental gymnastics to adjust to the contradictory nature of Night Vale, there’s a lot of history to catch up on.
I also worried that the premise of Night Vale would get stale when extended to book length. The podcast episodes only run to a half an hour on average. I shouldn’t have worried. The authors of the podcast’s flights of horrific fantasy did not let me down. The novel tones down some of the ineffable terror to take us inside the daily lives of the people who live in Night Vale. Given enough time, one can get used to anything—even if it is whispering a secret into a car’s cupholder to shift gears. The people of Night Vale keep (mostly) calm and carry on in their weird corner of the planet. It’s a nice contrast to the podcast.
I had a great time on my extended visit to Night Vale. Even better, I lived to tell the tale.
** Quote is from the 2015 kindle edition by HarperCollins. DO NOT APPROACH THE DOG PARK!