If you haven’t yet heard of Welcome to Night Vale—the bi-weekly podcast of paranormal fiction produced by Commonplace Books—what underground and/or transdimensional bunker have you been living in to escape the Glow Cloud, and why?
Alex Brown capably introduced you to the podcast last summer shortly after its one-year anniversary because you certainly needed to know about it. But it turns out you need to know more, to learn of what’s transpired since, and how the show’s evolved and transmogrified, because you apparently haven’t been keeping up with it on your own. Sounds like something those jerks from Desert Bluffs would do—not keep up with Night Vale. That’s unwise, reader.
Welcome to Night Vale is now approaching its second-year anniversary and it’s certainly grown into its own. Literally grown into its own skin, I mean, then stretched that skin into disturbing and only vaguely humanoid shapes. And through all this time, the podcast has propagated its already impressive following (it’s one of the most downloaded podcasts on iTunes); spawned merchandise; inspired wikis, transcripts, and a plethora of fan art; engendered a live show; and will even coalesce into a novel in 2015. All this visible germination and consumer-creation sure sounds like the work of StrexCorp, the sinister private corporation from neighboring town Desert Bluffs, and its “smiling god.” Except that’s just what they’d want you to think, right?
So what’s the appeal? What’s the deal with this Night Vale business?
If you missed it the first time, Welcome to Night Vale is a unique, multi-headed beast among podcasts. Akin to a radio drama with a cast of one—well, not anymore (more on that later)—it depicts the news and community events of the sleepy, oneiric little desert town of Night Vale which is situated somewhere in the American Southwest. It’s The Twilight Zone meets Lemony Snicket by way of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. It’s an arid Treehouse of Horror version of Springfield stickynoted with X-files.
Despite its unmistakable Lovecraftian flavor—being rife with paranoia-inducing strangers, menacing shadow figures, and otherworldly entities—horror plays a clear second fiddle to comedy. In old H.P.’s tales, the nameless and the unspeakable are mercifully rare; in Night Vale, they are given names and spoken of often. They are commonplace yet disturbingly hilarious. It’s a fascinating distinction, actually, and it’s what makes Welcome to Night Vale quite original. Headless people and apocryphal angels are discussed casually, Street Cleaning day is a holocaust of fear, librarians are nefarious, and parades are a staging point for revolutions. What would be horrific for us is almost ordinary to Night Vale citizens.
The story arcs have continued to expand and multiply. Intern Dana, who in the first year vanished inside the forbidden Dog Park, has managed to make sporadic contact with radio host Cecil from various times and spaces. Khoshekh, the cat floating in the men’s bathroom of the radio station, was gravely injured by a mysterious, adorable creature. The malevolent yet tiny invading army from below the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex finally reached the surface and invaded Night Vale! And of course, the ominous Glow Cloud has lingered and is still on the school board.
Perhaps of greatest current interest is Night Vale’s mayoral race. Since Mayor Pamela Winchell announced in episode #24 that she’d be stepping down from office, three candidates have arisen: the Faceless Old Woman secretly living in your home, polycephalic blogger Hiram McDaniels (whose campaign slogan is “I’m literally a five-headed dragon…who cares”), and billionaire Marcus Vansten. Their campaigns culminated (but did not conclude) with the live episode “The Debate.”
Now for some meta talk. I can’t help but think that, like many generators of intense fandom, Welcome to Night Vale’s own popularity is threatening to break its delightfully shuddersome spell. And I do say this as a fan. Starting with the 14th installment, calls for reviews and plugs for merchandise began to precede most episodes’ content, becoming a regular thing. The podcast’s creators eventually added in requests for donations and marketing for the live shows. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a podcast, it’s free to listen. They ask for but don’t require donations—we shouldn’t complain and maybe a donation would be nice. But it detracts somewhat from the atmosphere and charm of Night Vale, diminishing disbelief before it’s even begun.
Then there’s the fact that the show just isn’t what it once was. For half a year, Welcome to Night Vale had but one voice—that of the diegetic Cecil, who gave us news and personal commentary about the preposterously awesome goings-on of his little desert community. His idiosyncratic delivery, superb enunciation, cheerful demeanor, and particularly the acting talent of real world Cecil Palmer was all we needed to immerse ourselves into the Night Vale microcosm. That and some damned fine writing on the part of creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, not to mention the occasional guest writer such as Zach Parsons and Glen David Gold.
Why was that not enough? Beginning with episode #16, “The Phone Call,” other voices—and more to the point, other people reading similarly-written lines—cropped up more and more frequently. Gradually, the show has stepped away from the first-person subjectivity that first breathed life into it. Cecil was the jovial yet cognitive dissonant lens through which we viewed Night Vale and its players. Is the friendly desert community exactly as he says it is—as even an outsider might perceive it if he studied it thoroughly for years—or is Cecil’s the unique viewpoint of a Night Vale native who aspired all along to be a radio announcer, and who in his youth received the Advanced Siege-Breaking Tactics merit badge in the Eternal Scouts? The voices of additional characters have made Cecil’s point of view and his language style more common, more third person, and therefore less unique. Less fun. Welcome to Night Vale has become a very colorful radio drama of comedic sci-fi horror, but it’s not the winsome monologue it once was.
To be fair, some of the other characters we’ve become familiar with are excellent. The Faceless Old Woman is voiced by playwright, stage actress, and former child actress Mara Wilson, and getting to hear all five heads of blogger/fugitive/dragon Hiram McDaniels is a treat, courtesy of Jackson Publick of The Venture Brothers fame. In general, the show’s early experiments with new voices were great fun and done sparingly.
The problem is, most of the characters cannot match the acting chops of Cecil—not by a long shot—nor can they hold up against imagination itself. Cecil’s portrayal of them outshone their own narratives. For example, I personally liked the character of Carlos (visiting scientist and Cecil’s own crush) much better in my imagination, with his “perfect haircut” and “perfect coat” and the way his mere presence in town affected Cecil. But now I know exactly what he sounds like and all mystery is gone. He’s just some guy and not preternaturally intriguing at all. A shame! Finally, what of Cecil himself, who is still touted as the “voice of Night Vale”? Now he’s just the one we hear the most and probably still like the best.
I’m not saying there’s any shark-jumping going on yet. Far from it. Welcome to Night Vale is still the best fiction podcast out there. As a fan of both Night Vale and sci-fi in general, I’m optimistic that its success could inspire others to be experimental with their fiction. Night Vale’s magically perfect mix of character, writing, and ambient music is peerless in the podcasting world, but wouldn’t some peers be great?
You know who doesn’t want to see more audio innovations? Steve Carlsberg. Don’t be like Steve, readers. He’s just the worst!
Jeff LaSala is a writer and gamer whose doppelgänger is unaccounted for. He’s written speculative fiction for Wizards of the Coast, The Very Us Artists, and some others—and spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about gargoyles.