Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor
October 20, 2015
It was a crisp spring afternoon when I started listening to the aptly named podcast Welcome to Night Vale, the kind of afternoon where if you breathe in too quickly, the wind sinks its tiny teeth into your throat. In Night Vale, that experience might end up being more than metaphorical. A year and a half later of listening to the unpredictable, jarring, and yes, deeply entertaining show, translated into excitement for the novel that was later announced, set in the same universe. Welcome to Night Vale shares a title with the radio show that inspired it, and from which it takes much of its narrative power.
While WTNV-the-podcast is guided by the soothing and confident voice of Cecil, community radio host, the novel is narrated by an omniscient third person who focuses on two women in Night Vale, Jackie Fiero and Diane Crayton. Jackie and Diane are both long-time residents of Night Vale, their lives tied to the community in ways even they don’t realize. The town has a way of slipping into your identity and your path without much notice, and it’s easy to just let it. After all, are we not intrigued with every episode of Night Vale that we listen to, unable to walk away from the feeling that maybe, with just one more episode, we might finally understand what this place is, and who its residents are meant to be or represent?
WTNV-the-novel tries to answer those questions, but isn’t as all-encompassing in the way it handles the atmosphere. Its narration is punctuated by small callbacks to figures and events and tidbits of knowledge available to glean from the podcast, which occasionally tripped me up and took me out of the story. Having to take a minute to remember what angels were (and why we’re not supposed to acknowledge their existence) or recall how far the Glow Cloud’s got in its attempts to enter Night Vale politics derailed me as I read. Having listened to the podcast, I felt pressured to recognize the references and inside jokes. Perhaps that’s something that other fans won’t struggle with, but it did slow me down and made it harder to enjoy the story for what it was.
Cecil does make a few appearances, mostly in transcribed excerpts of the radio show. A few weeks after finishing the novel, I still can’t decide if the choice to shift character focus was a good one, when fans have grown so invested in Cecil, and in his relationship with Carlos, he of the flawless hair. On one hand, it allows the reader to connect with characters who may not be as blissfully accepting of Night Vale’s strangeness as Cecil is, who may be questioning the status quo in ways that Cecil doesn’t.
On the other hand, the Night Vale universe is difficult enough to hold onto, even after months of listening and analyzing the prickly world for hints as to its true nature. It took me a while to warm up to Jackie and Diane, though I still struggle to pinpoint the exact reason why. Neither of them are uninteresting or badly formed characters, but it feels like they aren’t solid enough to carry the story forward. I don’t know that Cecil would be a better choice either, given that he does more reacting to the story than moving it along.
Said story is a mite unwieldy, partly because its stewards are unsure of most everything in their lives. When nothing can be relied upon to stay the same, or to at least shift in recognizable ways, the characters struggle, but the author must be able to tie the reader to the characters anyway, and make some room on that fast-moving ride. In Welcome to Night Vale, Jackie and Diane set out on journeys that are certainly as interesting as they are flat-out confusing. The “King City” paper becomes annoying far more quickly in a few pages than bi-monthly mentions of the Glow Cloud and its commands. Diane’s backtracking is understandable for the first few chapters, but doesn’t make sense later on. Reading Night Vale felt a lot like cycling my legs on a broken stationary bike: I’ve spent time and effort doing something that doesn’t really take me anywhere, physically or metaphorically.