Review – Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel

Ok, so I’ve finally read a book, first time in years, got round to it eventually. It’s an odd thing to go from avid reader, to functionally not a reader, and be consciously aware of the fact. The last ten years of my life have been consumed by reading books that present fictional history as real history, and teach me how to manipulate words and numbers into worlds full of stories, and while there’s nothing – oh, and a lot of YouTube – wrong with that at all, I feel that I have lost a rather fundamental skill and lapsed woefully in concentration. I have forced myself to read a book, something that at one time came as naturally as breathing.

But that’s not a book review, that’s a rant.

Welcome To Night Vale is the surrealist, not-quite-comedy, not-quite-horror podcast that came to us way back in 2012, and has been riding high on a wave of popularity, allowing it to take its unique blend of the uncomfortable and the endearing to theatres around the world, to branch out into many other series that defy complete explanation, and to produce a novel back in 2015, some time shortly after I discovered it.

Making this review about three years late, but who’s counting?

The series presents as a community radio show, for a strange desert town where time does not quite work, helicopters circle overhead, and a glowing cloud that deposits large quantities of animal carcasses chairs the PTA. All of this is told from the perspective of our host, Cecil, who presents the commonplace as bizarre and terrifying, and the outlandish as mundane and workaday. It seems almost cliche, but the way in which it is presented is charming, disquieting, and generally very entertaining.

In the book, we take on two new perspectives, those of two of Night Vale’s citizens attempting to live normal lives, and being beset by upheaval and strife. Jackie is a nineteen year old who runs the pawnshop, and has done for decades, who accepts a piece of paper from a man in a tan jacket that reads KING CITY, and that she cannot put down. Dianne is the mother of a shapeshifting boy desperate to learn about his father, who has mysteriously appeared in town, all over town, and repeatedly.

Unsurprisingly their fates intertwine, as it transpires that the man in the tan jacket and the mysterious multitudes of Josh’s father, Troy, are also linked by history. The narrative is interspersed with clips from the local radio show, laying seeds for a future plot point in between the typical array of tangential monologues and reporting on the strange. The travels around Night Vale bring in many of the town’s beloved locals, like Mayor Dana Cardinal, Old Woman Josie and her friends named Erika who are not angels, John Peters (you know, the farmer?), and many, many more.

It’s a story about identity, decision, causality, and parenthood, and one I shan’t spoil here. If you’ve never heard the show, this book might come as an odd experience, but as a fan I can hear the voice of the author very clearly. Often things are defined by what they are not, or by expectation, for example the descriptions given of many characters simply involve the narrator demanding we imagine them:

Imagine a woman.
Good work!

Only to then defy what expectations we may have formed about how this is going to go by pulling something like this:

Imagine a fifteen-year-old boy.
Nope. That was not right at all. Try again.
Okay, stop.

In this way, authors Fink and Cranor manage to capture many things that would be indescribable by the English language. Without describing a person we have a sense, not of what they look like, but of who they are, an emotion might be described by what a character “does not say” rather than their facial expression, taking the approach of an internal thought process rather than describing what might be captured on a camera. We – as writers – often attempt to capture the image of a narrative, especially when it is immersed in a fantasy or fantastical world like that of Night Vale where the mundane is made uncomfortably unfamiliar.

Instead, we have a story about the people in it, rather than the actions they perform. It’s an emotion-centric form of narrative I have never encountered, and one granted a particular reality given the strange approach to description taken by the authors that describes feelings in ways that mere adjectives cannot.

This is also the story of the Man in the Tan Jacket. Fans will know him well as the person who does much around the town, and is remembered for none of it, his every attempt to do something productive, or to upset the unnatural order of things in the city, simply forgotten. He has been a profound mystery since the earliest days of Night Vale, and having his story brought to light is… well something of a double edged sword.

It’s an easy comparison to draw between Night Vale and Lovecraft, in which the wonder and horror come from how inexplicable and unexplained things are, the deeper the mystery that surrounds them. He – the Man in the Tan Jacket, holding a deer-skin suitcase that buzzes as if full of flies, and his mysterious actions, his choices to take action, or to interfere and meddle – has straddled a careful line of mundane and wondrous. His description has always been bland, and always the same, but being impossible to remember, and the way in which the citizens of Night Vale come to edit him from their lives no matter how influential he has been, have made him an incredible reoccurring character to the series.

Now the veil has been pulled back. Not all the way, but far enough that we can point and say “that is who he is and why he is what he is” and it strips away so much of the mystery. I want to go back and listen, to see if I can tie him to this narrative as far back as his earliest appearances, and I might! But now, something will be lost forever, the potential of the unknown is always a more spectacular thing than could ever be revealed as the truth.

Nevertheless I am in awe of what I have just read. Perhaps it will rekindle my love of reading, but the fact that it took me months just to get this far suggests strongly otherwise, and I have a small collection of classics to read that I have borrowed from another friend. In some ways I have come to rue this self-ascribed piece of homework, but I’m glad of the motivation. Who knows, one day I might do a review of something a little more recent than Faust.