‘It Devours!’ Is Little More Than a Clever Addition to Welcome to Night Vale’s franchise

The sophomore literary effort from the Welcome to Night Vale franchise hits a double, gets on base... but never makes it home.

It Devours! A Welcome to Night Vale Novel
Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor
Harper Perennial
Oct 2017
The greatest thrill of the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, since its debut in 2012, has been its ability to methodically and clearly create an alternate world equal parts chaotic, chilling, mundane, and emotionally nostalgic. The premise is deceptively simple. The host, Cecil Gershwin Palmer (also main character and narrator) is voiced by actor/performer Cecil Baldwin in a deep, hypnotic style suitable to NPR weekend storytelling shows. He gives news accounts and observations about Night Vale. He is in it and of it, reflecting upon a benevolent Glow Cloud that hypnotizes the townspeople. There are running jokes and story arcs that play best to faithful true believers of the series and its sensibility. Listeners patient and willing to wallow in this Night Vale world understand the goal is less about the plot (such as it is, as it’s thinner than most will like) than the created style. When it comes to style and audio atmosphere, few cultural products have been as strong and addictive as Welcome to Night Vale. Creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor love the dark desert town of Night Vale and the people who live there, and binge-listening to the episodes can prove a welcome relief from our merciless real world.

Success (artistically and otherwise) in one form definitely does not guarantee striking gold in another, however, but that has not stopped Fink and Cranor from taking that step. Those who equate the mood of Welcome to Night Vale with Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion reports from the fictional town of Lake Wobegon have always stipulated that it also has flavors of a more mild (yet still frightening) Stephen King. Keillor started as a writer, and his books always fed nicely into the myth of Lake Wobegon. (The Robert Altman film adaptation of Prairie Home Companion was also more beautiful than people probably wanted to admit.) Writers and podcast show creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor published their Welcome to Night Vale novel in 2015, and it featured minor characters Jackie Fierro and Diane Crayton. Fans of the podcast embraced the opportunity to meet these characters in literary form as they embraced this story that they probably took as their own hybrid of Twin Peaks and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The problem with any sort of niche pop culture movement is that its tight and vocal audience can be more forgiving than they should be at product that becomes more tedious than it should be. This is the unfortunate initial reaction most readers will probably take from It Devours! A Welcome to Night Vale Novel. No matter one’s willingness to indulge in this micro-managed genre world creatored in a science fiction/fantasy world, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that this is just another piece in a puzzle that will probably not have a foreseeable expiration date. If the Night Vale world and the characters who inhabit it are to be spread through different mediums and situations that are only alluded to in the podcast, then logic tells us that each successive product will diminish in quality.

It’s difficult to review It Devours! A Welcome to Night Vale Novel in a conventional way because plot is secondary to mood, atmosphere, and the creation of a world that seems to have a purpose and direction. Those who want a definite sense of plot (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) will probably become quickly and easily frustrated. In this novel, local scientist Nilanjala Sikdar investigates a strange phenomena (what else?) surrounding Night Vale. Her colleague Carlos (Cecil Palmer’s husband) asks her to investigate the rumblings just outside the city limits. Nilanjala relies on logic and fact, but she understands the need to expand her horizons when faced with this strangeness. The Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, through one of its acolytes Darryl, enters the fray as the story attempts to examine the balance between logic and science and the inevitability of strange doom always so comfortable in the world of Night Vale.

It Devours! A Welcome to Night Vale Novel opens with a prologue meant to set up the story. A man named Larry disappears. He’s swallowed into a mysterious void that’s as unexplainable to him as mountains. Among his heroes are W.E.B. Dubois and Redd Foxx. When we meet Nilanjala, we learn that she sees science as “…a process towards perfection.” She meets Darryl, the fervent member of The Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, and we learn that in Night Vale it’s illegal to not know how to play guitar. Nilanjala has been in Night Vale for four years, but she’s still greeted by her neighbors (as she enters public places) with cries of “Interloper!” This is written off by Carlos as Night Vale’s equivalent of “bless you”. Writing implements are illegal in Night Vale, and Nilanjala spends her time presenting various hypotheses that can never really be developed, which is a characteristic of the writing style here that’s both understandable and frustrating.

Had It Devours! A Welcome to Night Vale Novel included more of Chapters 6, and 22, replications of religious pamphlets, and less of the rambling narrative including characters like The Wordsmith, this would have been a more compelling book. The pamphlet illustrates (literally and figuratively) that this big, smiling, tooth-filled mouth in the horizon will devour our sins. The idea is a conflation (or misreading?) of devour and devote. In these pamphlets, featuring such aphorisms as “Try to remember what you look like” and “You are radiant and forever”, the reader becomes part of The Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God. We are removed from the sometimes tedious ramblings as they appear in a conventional narrative and their visual counterparts allow them to come alive.

Nilanjana needs to help Carlos study a non-existent house. He had been trapped inside it for an indeterminate amount of time, and (again) the inclusion of this element only seems to compound and frustrate the reader. This genre doesn’t need to provide logic and easy answers, but it should be tighter, more disciplined, more focused. Pieces of Night Vale are disappearing, there’s a smiling mouth in the horizon, and time leans toward nothing. Is the city council doing this? The Night Vale world certainly is disturbing. After all, it’s probably only in Night Vale where the ending of The Wizard of Oz features “…a crying Dorothy float[ing] over Kansas in a war balloon, firebombing it into a sterile wasteland.”

There’s a degree of tenderness and humanity in It Devours!. Nilanjana is, for all practical purposes, a brilliant scientist, but she’s also lonely and in search of some companionship. Will she go to Darryl? In Night Vale, dating apps like Lurk and Void were popular, but Nilanjana “…had never been able to stumble on where they were hiding, and had found the whole process exhausting when she really wanted to get back to her experiments.” The reader more interested in the humanity of a character like Nilanjana will become quickly frustrated when scenes like this are introduced and never fully developed. Sometimes strangeness kept in the horizon and only vaguely developed is more powerful than what we have in this narrative.

Somewhere there are probably websites devoted to micro-peculiarities in the Night Vale World, such as how people had to apply for Haunting Licenses. “The city only issued a few a year, because ghosts were cool and everyone wanted to be a ghost.” The late singer Aaliyah is summoned via an Aaliyah Séance Night at Dark Owl Records. In Night Vale, people can stay 19 forever, come back, and resume life. Take this observation:

“People in Night Vale are not comfortable with books in general, understanding that they are, in the best cases, wastes of time, and in the worst cases, traps left by the Secret Police to find out who the curious ones are so they can be removed from the population.”

We know the Secret Police is always lurking in the shadows of Night Vale, and we understand the risks involved in slipping out of step, but the juggling of moods proves frustrating. Do we root for the possible love life of Nilanjana as she gets deeper into the mysteries surrounding this community? Do we just want more gaping holes in the ground and houses in the netherworld where time has no significance? Night Vale is not a calm and sweetly strange environment. The malevolence is always looming, and it’s not easy to conclude how or where the writers want their audience to focus their allegiances.

Granted, It Devours! A Welcome to Night Vale Novel will please its core audience and prove a solid sophomore literary effort from writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. As a novel that should be able to exist beyond the appointed genre, though, itfalls short. There are tedious stretches, periods of walking around one track and not really getting anywhere. It’s fun, but the clutter and elements of self-indulgent preciousness make it hard to take it as more than just a clever addition to a franchise, not a strong literary effort in its own right.

RATING 7 / 10