A friendly desert community where the sun is always screaming, the sky is full of strange arrows and patterns, and next door to a desert otherworld which holds the absolutely terrible Desert Bluffs and their monstrous radio host, Kevin. Damn them and their Smiling God. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Well, mostly. For those listening to the podcast Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the novel by the same name by the authors by the same name is something of a love song. For those new to the world of Night Vale, it’s radio station host, and it’s dog park that is open to the public and also under a permanent ban against all dogs, it is likely a weird experience in post-irony, love, loss, and shape shifting. But more on that later.
Now that it’s been something like 2-4 seconds depending on the loading time of your browser, we can continue. Welcome to Night Vale, the novel, is many things. As a long time listener of the podcast, it’s easy to see how the authors worked in nods to many an episode and character from the show, without leaving you in the dark if you hadn’t listened to the show, and without hammering you over the head with story you are familiar with if you have. I was initially a bit apprehensive when I started the novel, as the possibility existed that the story was going to end up treading over the same ground as the “core” episodes of their back catalog that set up things like city hall, the dog park, and the library.
The most interesting aspect of reading the novel for me, after getting past all the fan service, was the extent to which the novel makes clear the horror of living in Night Vale. When you listen to the podcast, it’s easy to eventually discount how scary it would be to live in a world of secret police, spying, and death at the hand of random occurrences which should unto themselves warrant a horror film. The way that Cecil discounts much of these events as just “how it is” in Night Vale in the podcast removes the listener from the aftereffects that stay with the actual people living in the city.
I was also struck by the pacing of the novel, and the extent of the use of what I think has to be called “post-irony.” The novel takes a lot of time in very small scenes, often taking a paragraph to examine some small action from every angle, before going on. When it does so, Fink and Cranor don’t do what one might rather expect for a story set in a world where the premise is simply, “all conspiracy theories are true,” and aim for the hardest shock. Instead, they choose to lay out a series of possible outcomes or causes for an event, and then oftentimes simply discount the lot of them, having apparently intended to just acknowledge that the world they’ve built is confusing, scary, and alien to the reader. When the expectation is that you would anticipate the novel to go somehow beyond the extremities of the podcast, the only reasonable way to beat that expectation in the world of Night Vale is to step back.
At it’s core, the novel is a story about a woman and her son, and a girl and her mother. It’s not about strange goings on in Night Vale, though they happen. It’s not about Cecil and his “investigations,” though they happen. It’s a simple story about family. And for someone who hasn’t listened to the podcast, or has in any way past experience with Night Vale, it’s worth a read on those grounds alone. The novel is heavy with emotion, love, and loss, and stands on it’s own, independent of the show. That being said, if you read the novel, and you choose to listen to the podcast after the fact, the breadth of the world that is under the hood of the story will be much larger for you, and can only serve to increase the impact.
On the podcast’s feed, the first chapter of the book was originally put up as a promotion for the book and audio book. And honestly, having read the book, I rather want to go back and buy the audio book just for the experience. There’s something about the baritone voice of a scientist loving, possible multi-centarian radio host who has a deep misunderstanding of how to pronounce other places in America telling the story of a desert community of people who just want to make their way in a world of various colored helicopters that seems right.