Aug 30 2013 11:00am

Do Not Approach the Dog Park: Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale

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.

Hooded Figure
1. Hooded Figure
Night Vale is brilliant, funny, and twisted and I agree that more people should give it a try. I do feel that some caveat should be given about the fandom, though. While there are a lot of wonderful and creative people out there, Night Vale fandom also has an overabundance of headcanon vigilantes who will attack you for picturing the characters "wrong." Oh, but it it isn't an /attack/ and they aren't saying you can't picture the characters however you want, they just want to be sure you understand what an insensitive, unintelligent, unimaginative, lazy racist you are if you picture any of the main characters as white. Because there is no excuse for that.

So yes, love Night Vale for all its wonderful creativity, tongue-in-cheek dark humor, and the glorious blooming romance between Cecil and Carlos, but tread carefully in the fandom, for it's even more threatening than Street Cleaning Day.
Alex Brown
3. AlexBrown
@Hooded: Yes, I'm aware of the fandom arguments for Night Vale, but there are asinine arguments about every fandom. Anyone arguing about a Night Vale character's race is fighting a battle with no ground. Although Carlos is described as "dark," never once has his ethnicity - or anyone else's, for that matter - been mentioned. The argument that Cecil the Narrator "sounds" white is one of the dumbest things I've ever heard and is probably coming from the same people who got upset when Amandla Stenberg was cast as Rue from Hunger Games.

@LKBurwell: "The Sherriff’s Secret Police have apparently taken to shouting questions at the Glow Cloud, trying to ascertain what exactly it wants. So far, the Glow Cloud has not answered. The Glow Cloud does not need to converse with us. It does not feel as we tiny humans feel. It has no need for thoughts or feelings of love. The Glow Cloud simply is. All hail the mighty Glow Cloud. ALL HAIL."
Hooded Figure
4. oliveramy
Ok ok. I've been resisting the Night Vale temptation on tumblr for the past month or so and just scrolling past every other post on my dash. I guess now I HAVE to listen since Tor has vouched for it.
Good thing I have a few hours drive ahead of me tomorrow and a whole three day weekend at my parents' house.
I have to admit, the fan art is brilliant and intriging.
It took me a few years to get over my resistance to watch any Doctor Who and at The Eleventh Hour (which I watched first) I was a full on Whovian-no turning back.
All the DW tumblrs I follow have turned into NV tumblrs. There has to be some crossover to be that good! :)
Here goes nothing!
Dan Guy
5. danguyf
I enjoy Nightvale, but I find Cecil insufferable as our radio host. I assume that he's trying to affect some odd, out-there syncopation and air, but instead it just sounds like a guy clearly reading off of a sheet of paper, which would be fine if that was the news bits that "Cecil" is reading to us, but even his allegedly spontaneous asides sound awkwardly read.

Now that they're getting bigger, I hope that they kill off Cecil and replace him with a voice actor with the necessary skill.
Hooded Figure
6. oliveramy
@danguyf, I just downloaded the first few episodes and I'm enjoying it so far but I agree that Cecil sounds too flat.
I'm used to listening to things like Cabin Pressure and Neverwhere. Even the Lord of the Rings audio book as some great inflections and emotions in the read, albeit very long.
Maybe we don't need to kill off Cecil but get him some voice acting lessons to put some inflection in his voice.
Dan Guy
7. danguyf
Or hire Edgar Oliver. Oh my goodness, I can only imagine Edgar Oliver recounting the daily news from Nightvale... And he's local to them in NYC.
Genevieve Williams
8. welltemperedwriter
Like a lot of people, I started listening to Night Vale this summer (it seems Night Vale hit some sort of critical mass; wish MY podcast would do that). That I've been listening to it on my commute when I would normally listen to the radio news just makes the whole experience more surreal.
Bridget McGovern
9. BMcGovern
I've been meaning to add "Welcome to Night Vale" into my podcast rotation for the last couple of months, and now I'm finally four episodes in and completely delighted.

Regarding Cecil--as much as I love Edgar Oliver, I actually think Cecil's voice is perfect for the show. His sort of flat, affectless, NPR-done-badly delivery cracks me up. Listening to him freak out about Carlos's haircut just made me so happy...thanks again for the recommendation, Alex!
Alex Brown
10. AlexBrown
@olieramy, danguyf: I politely disagree for the same reasons BMcGovern mentioned above. I think Baldwin is the perfect Cecil in fiction and in reality. I don't find him insufferable, just stuffy and opinionated. He's also an unreliable narrator, which is always fun.

@welltemperedwriter, BMcGovern: "Your body is a temple. A temple of blood rituals and pagan tributes, a lost temple, a temple that needs more calcium. You should maybe try vitamin supplements."
Stacey Busuttil
11. MadJack
I discovered this the other day - currently completley addicted. Awesome to see it on Tor.
A.J. Bobo
12. Daedylus
I just discovered this a few days ago and have listened to the first 2 episodes. I find that it's kind of like Terry Pratchett books - it works best in small doses. If you listen to too much at a time, then the impact of the writing style gets lost.

That said, I've loved it. My best description of it after the first episode was "Greater Tuna meets Castle Rock".
Lianne Burwell
13. LKBurwell
@DaedylusSL, I completely agree. I've been listening to episodes before bedtime, about three times a week. That keeps me from overdosing on Night Vale. It also means I won't run out of episodes for a couple more months.
Hooded Figure
14. All Hail the Glow Cloud
My boyfriend and I have taken to yelling "GET IT TOGETHER, STEVE!" at each other whenever one of us makes a minor mistake.

What I mean by this is that Night Vale will consume your brain and your life and this is a good thing. You should let it.
Alex Brown
15. AlexBrown
@MadJack, DaedylusSL: "A bar walks into a bar. The bartender is a snake eating its own tail. The windows look out only onto the face of the one who looks."

All Hail the Glow Cloud: "One critic, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “We don’t even have a river or bay in Night Vale. There would never be a boat to necessitate a drawbridge!” He continued to…you know what? Forget it. I can tell you right now that that was Steve Carlsburg who said that, and he is such a spoilsport, that Steve! Have you ever noticed how he never replaces his hubcaps? It’s laziness, pure and simple. Laziness. I just can’t let him ruin our town by denying Night Vale a drawbridge when he can’t even care for a tan Corolla!"
Pernilla Leijonhufvud
16. Therru
A friend kept nagging me about WTNV until I looked it up and started listening. It does consume your brain. Well, I never much liked my brain anyway. I'm happier now.

As for podcasts and audiobooks, I'm an avid crafter and an avid fiction reader, and podcasts and audiobooks allow me to do both things at the same time! Knitting gets boring without something to listen to, and just sitting still listening to something makes me really restless in a way that reading doesn't. I usually suck big time at multitasking, but these two activities don't seem to use the same part of the brain, and thus they complement each other perfectly, distracting the very part of the brain that is not being used by the other activity and otherwise would start clamouring for attention. Win/win.
Hooded Figure
17. Librarian
"it seems Night Vale hit some sort of critical mass"

Spoilers... "One Year Later" seems to have been the catalyst to the show's greater popularity, for reasons that become pretty clear when you listen to it.

Up til then, Cecil's swooning crush on Carlos, and the fact that Carlos didn't seem to notice or respond to it, could have been written off as a running joke. Instead, the writers paid it off in a poignant and affecting way. The relationship attracted a lot of passionate fans.

Also, "One Year Later" makes it clear that the show isn't just random weirdness: some of the weirdness is linked into subplots that are building up over time and going somewhere. The show proved that it rewards attention, so people started paying more of it.
Alex Brown
18. AlexBrown
@Therru: "And remember, wear seat belts. They are a cool fashion statement, and easily obtained by cutting them out of your own car and crafting them into any number of accessories."

@Librarian: Huh. Interesting theory. The overarching story plots were always there, but you're right, they definitely did ratchet them up then. I suspect it's a combination of unexpected and coincidental factors that happened to collide at exactly the right moment.
Hooded Figure
19. GregMachlin
Alex: Night Vale is awesome, but you better not be voting for the Faceless Old Woman (who lives in my apartment) for Mayor. She burned my fridge! Team Hiram McDaniel all the way. Hiram for Mayor! Hiram for Mayor! Hiram for Mayor!
Alex Brown
20. AlexBrown
@GregMachlin: Hiram McDaniel has had my vote for ages, even before Mayor Pamela Winchell first announced her decision to step down with a quietly delivered a prepared statement without a microphone and no one could hear what she had to say.
Hooded Figure
21. Magda K
Wondering if there are any Joe Frank fans out there who've been converted to Night Vale ...

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