In the darkest spaces between nightmares and hallucinations is a place unlike any other. The town is populated by hollow-eyed messenger children and ominous hooded figures, haunted by non-existent angels and towers of roaches in deer masks, and tormented by a tiny underground army and wheat and wheat byproducts. A hellscaped sky stretches its gaping maw over the Sand Wastes and Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex, and citizens who aren’t busy battling their evil doppelgangers or being converted into buzzing shadowpeople defined only by the absence of light in the vague shape of a torso and limbs go about their daily lives and try not to get on the bad side of the City Council or the Sheriff’s Secret Police.
Welcome to Night Vale.
I don’t know if you’ve been on Tumblr lately, but some crazy craziness is going down. Between the Hannibal and Supernatural season finales, and the major Doctor Who and Sherlock announcements, it would be understandable for anyone not in a fandom to feel like the internet is collapsing into the tears of a million non-canon ships. But perhaps the biggest fandom to burst onto the scene in the last few months is for the gloriously creepy and eerily beautiful podcast Welcome to Night Vale. Out of seemingly nowhere, my feed exploded in bizarre fanart of a 3-eyed tattooed radio host and plaid-wearing lab geek mooning at each other, floating cats, hooded figures and many-eyed angels, and, strangest of all, a fascination with Arby’s.
Just as the constant grind (PUN!) of and Sterek and Destiel pushed me into an undying love for Teen Wolf and Supernatural, my Night Vale intrigue was piqued by the avalanche of its fanart and fanfic. I should point out first that I generally dislike podcasts, for the same reason I generally dislike audiobooks. With stuff like that, I want to sit quietly and pay attention. Someone spent time and energy creating a work of art, and it’s my job as the consumer to give them my full focus and concentration. If that art happens to be a story, I want to picture the scenes in my head, to daydream along with the fiction. Which means if I want to listen to James Marsters read the latest Harry Dresden book, I have to sit still and do nothing for the next umpteen hours. No doing dishes, no driving around town, no nothing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that kind of time.
Besides, audiobooks and podcasts feel so impersonal to me. On the other hand, I also like being read to because you get to watch the person telling the story. You can see their reactions, and it’s like experiencing it with them. Let me put it this way: I’ve failed to listen to the complete Coraline audiobook more times than I can count, yet have watched Neil Gaiman read aloud The Graveyard Book at least a half a dozen times. Trust me, this isn’t the first time I’ve felt so contradictory over two very similar things. I also hate tomatoes but love tomato sauce. So sue me.
The point I am taking the long way around to is that podcasts just aren’t my thing, man. As much as I was curious about this new fantasy thing that was totally up my alley, the podcast part of the concept was really harshing my buzz. Then I put aside my petty, pathetic quibbles and sat down and listened to an episode. And then I listened to one more. And one more after that. And next thing I knew it was Street Cleaning Day, I was in a vicarious relationship with Cecil and Carlos, if I ever met Steve Carlsberg I’d call him a huge jerk to his face, and was convinced Desert Bluff sucks.
Despite you having never heard of it until this summer, Welcome to Night Vale has been airing twice-monthly, 20-30 minute shows since June 2012. The free podcast, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and narrated by Cecil Baldwin, has the air of a community radio show. Cecil the Narrator provides news updates about the horrific and/or terrifying local events, makes snarky comments about his fellow citizens, and waxes romantically on beautiful, perfect Carlos. And yes, the weather really is a musical interlude, but it is all kinds of awesome. If you don’t like Satellite High’s “The Bus Is Late” then you are wrong and no and stop it right now.
The storylines are quirky, gross, chilling, and hilarious. Nothing ever goes quite like how you’d expect. And the dialogue is even better. Cecil the Narrator relates the grotesque updates with a deadpan horror mixed with poetic earnesty. The unearthliness is routine in the little desert community, and Cecil is the perfect tourguide. Welcome to Night Vale is akin to listen to Edgar Allan Poe talk about going to the 7-11.
Here’s another reason to give this podcast a try: without proselytizing or tokenism, Night Vale features a person of color involved in a gay—albeit fairly tame—relationship. The show has intentionally not described many of the characters (so no matter how many times you see fanart of Cecil portrayed as a white dude, there’s an equal chance he won’t be), except for Carlos. Because of Cecil’s unconditional admiration/obsession, we know his paramour has dark and delicate skin, a voice like caramel with oaky tones, and “a square jaw and teeth like a military cemetery. His hair is perfect, and we all hate and despair and love that perfect hair in equal measure.” Moreover, the residents of Night Vale are as varied as the Lovecraftian monsters that menace them. The names alone—Khoshekh the hovering cat, Coach Nazr al-Mujaheed, 7-headed dragon Hiram McDaniels, Telly the barber, Simone Rigadeau, Tamika Flynn—are worthy of praise for their diversity. Speaking of fanart, though she’s never described in the show, Intern Dana is almost always depicted as either a black or Middle Eastern girl. Awesome. So. Very. Awesome.
As the great Kate Leth said, Welcome to Night Vale is “like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman started building a town in The Sims and then just…Left it running. For years.” So, ladies and gentlemen and those of you not clearly falling into either category, here’s what you’re going to do next. You’re going to download the podcasts, follow them on Twitter, and consume some fantastic fanfic and fanart.
Good night, listeners. Good night.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.