Book Review: “Welcome To Night Vale” (2015) by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor



In the summer of 2013, Tumblr was briefly taken over by a curious little fandom – a podcast by the name of Welcome To Night Vale. Up to that point, no one had ever heard of it and those in the know had trouble explaining it to newcomers. “It’s like if Twin Peaks had a local radio show. And there were angels. And an entire civilisation of tiny people hidden underneath the bowling alley. …You kind of have to find out for yourself – just listen.” After a few days of scrolling past pictures of mysterious desert landscapes and fanart of the stars above a glowing Arby’s sign, curiosity got the best of me and I downloaded the first few episodes. An hour later, I was hooked.

Over the next couple of weeks, the smooth voice of Cecil Baldwin became my constant companion as I did my grocery shopping, folded laundry, and waited for the bus (bus not here why the bus so late). For me, this story could not have come at a better time; after my obsession with the TV show Hannibal and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves earlier that summer, Night Vale‘s strange combination of horror and comedy fit right in. As time went on, I dusted off my rarely-used credit card to buy the crossover episode with The Thrilling Adventure Hour, got a ticket to one of the live shows, and started exploring other podcasts like Serial and The Infinite Monkey Cage. Night Vale ended up being much more than a summer obsession – it was an eye-opener.

So you can imagine my excitement when it was announced that Fink and Cranor were working on a Night Vale novel. Two of my favourite media together at last! I even went through the trouble of pre-ordering it, something I very rarely do. The week it finally came out, I practically camped out next to my mailbox, waiting for the postman to arrive; I hadn’t been this excited about a new publication in a long, long time.

In many ways, this book is exactly what I expected it to be: a look into the strange lives of Night Vale’s citizens that expands on the familiar canon from the podcasts. The novel reveals the truth behind one of the show’s biggest mysteries: the identity of the Man in the Tan Jacket. What I had not expected was that this is not a story about Cecil Palmer. Every couple of chapters we get a transcript of his radio show as the plot develops, but he is mostly a peripheral figure in this tale. Instead, we follow Jackie Fierro, the owner of the Night Vale pawnshop, and Diane Crayton, who is having a hard time raising her shapeshifting teenage son. As they get wrapped up in one of the town’s many mysteries, they encounter some fan-favourite characters (including Old Woman Josie and Carlos the Scientist), but in the end, it is still their story.

For the podcast, writers Fink and Cranor have developed a distinctive style, with a cadence that I could pick out of any line-up. Even in the chapters that are not radio transcripts, you can hear Cecil Palmer’s voice narrating every line. However, for me, those transcripts were still the highlight of the novel. I appreciate that Fink and Cranor were trying to expand on the world they had created, and it is clear that they loved working on this project, but there is a reason that the radio show format of the podcast works so remarkably well. The narrative is continuously interrupted by bizarre commercials, the community calendar, and, of course, the weather.

And now a word from our sponsors.
Have trouble sleeping? Are you awake at all hours? Do birds live in you? Are you crawling with insects? Is your skin jagged and hard? Are you covered in leaves and gently shaking in the gentle breeze?
You sound like a tree. You are perfectly healthy. Also, you don’t need to sleep. You’re a tree, a very very smart tree. Are you listening to the radio? Is a human assisting you? What plan do you have for our weak species? Please, tree, I beg of you to spare me. Please, tree. Spare me.
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It is a great framing device, and everything comes together beautifully: its serial storytelling, Cecil Baldwin’s booming voice and pitch-perfect delivery, the recurring cast of guest voice actors (including Mara Wilson, Retta, and Wil Wheaton), the sound effects, the musical intermezzos, and, in case of the live shows, the interaction with the audience. It is utterly unique and a large part of what makes Welcome to Night Vale so special. It is more than just writing – it’s a multi-faceted project.

I’m sure that it must have been a bit of a relief for Cranor and Fink to break out of this format for a little while, but I feel like something was lost in this change of medium. That said, just watching the footage of Cecil Baldwin and Dylan Marron recording the audiobook on Youtube fills my heart with joy, which makes me think that perhaps this is the better way to experience the story: by listening. That would be my advice to other long-time Night Vale fans: invest in the audiobook. That way, you’ll still get to experience this expansion on the world you know and love, but with a familiar voice guiding the way one chapter at a time. After all, I could not help but hear Cecil speaking the words in my head when reading paragraphs like these:

Imagine a fifteen-year-old boy.
Nope. That was not right at all. Try again.
Okay, stop.
He is tall. He’s skinny, with short hair and long teeth that he deliberately hides when he smiles. He smiles more than he thinks he does.
Imagine a fifteen-year-old boy.
No. Again.
No. Not close.
He has fingers that move like they have no bones. He has eyes that move like he has no patience. He has a tongue that changes shape every day. He has a face that changes shape every day. He has a skeletal structure and coloring and hair that change every day. He seems different than you remember. He is always unlike he was before.
Good. That’s actually pretty good.

(God I love this podcast.)

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