'Welcome to Night Vale' Is a "Welcome" Introduction to a Strange New World
Although it takes a while for the heart of Welcome to Night Vale to be revealed, it's ultimately worth the journey.
Welcome to Night ValePublisher: Harper Perennial
Author: Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink
Publication date: 2015-10
Having never listened to the original Welcome to Night Vale podcast, my closest frame of reference and comparison for the unnerving surrealism of Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s novel of the same name is Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories From Wayside School series. You likely read these books in elementary school if you’re around my age: the ones where the school is accidentally built on its side so it’s actually 30 stories tall; where there is no 19th floor (most of the time); where the very first story features the teacher turning her students into apples. The books were absurd, often quite humorous, and more often than not fairly disturbing.
In particular, the story in which a shockingly mouthy new student buried in layers of coats is revealed to be a dead rat stays in my mind as classic Wayside School. This mixture of genres and moods also applies to the world of Welcome to Night Vale, where characters argue over the merits of invisible pie; avoid the library at all costs (because librarians are dangerous monsters); and, in the case of one protagonist, remain 19-years-old seemingly forever, unable to age as she watches her friends grow old and die.
Yet if Welcome to Night Vale were merely an exercise in pushing the limits of building a convincing Salvador-Dalí-esque world, it would not be as charming a novel as it is. Instead, while it does take a while to get there, Welcome to Night Vale eventually unfurls its complex, multifaceted narrative enough to reveal the heart and emotion at its core. Reaching this point actually gave me a sense of relief as well as narrative satisfaction, because otherwise, Welcome to Night Vale might have just been an exercise in style, overly delighted with its own wit.
The story focuses on Jackie, the aforementioned eternal 19-year-old and proprietor of a pawn shop, and Diane, a single mother who crosses paths with Jackie after her teenage son Josh, a shapeshifter who occasionally is a fly or has antlers, disappears. Both women are linked by encounters with a mysterious man and the recurring words “King City”, a city in the general vicinity of Night Vale that's impossible to reach.
Breaking up the narrative are transcripts from the “Voice of Night Vale”, hosted by the ebullient Cecil Palmer (the narrator and protagonist of the original podcast), whose interns always seem to die (as radio in Night Vale is a very deadly business). These radio broadcasts further deepen the downright creepy aspects of living in Night Vale. For example:
Last night, at a press conference, the City Council reminded everyone that the Dog Park is there for our community enjoyment and use, and so it is important that no one enter, look at, or think about the Dog Park. They are adding a new advanced camera system to keep an eye on the great black walls of the Dog Park at all times, and if anyone is caught trying to enter it, they will be forced to enter it, and will never be heard from again. If you see hooded figures in the Dog Park, no you didn’t. The hooded figures are perfectly safe, and should not be approached at any costs. The City Council ended the conference by devouring a raw potato in quick, small bites of their sharp teeth and rough tongues. No follow-up questions were asked, although there were a few follow-up screams. (p. 28)
Welcome to Night Vale really only picks up in the latter half of the book, choosing to spend what feels like too much time with world-building and establishing the bizarre idiosyncrasies of this small California town. Once Jackie and Diane figure out how to get to King City, where they have determined Josh has disappeared to, the action becomes appealingly streamlined as their friendship also grows.
Upon doing some googling of the Night Vale universe, I gathered this novel is not a straightforward adaptation of the podcast, but an expansion of Jackie’s and Diane’s stories, as they seem to be minor characters in the original material. So while we definitely get a sense of the downright weirdness that is, for the denizens of Night Vale, seemingly ordinary, there seem to be a lot of elements that are winks and nods to fans of the podcast -- like all of the references to angels (which most emphatically do not exist in Night Vale, and are also called Erika) -- that ultimately don’t make much of an impression and don’t seem entirely necessary to the overall plot. When the story focuses on Jackie’s growing maturity and understanding of Night Vale and Diane’s learning to connect fully with Josh, it’s quite winning, and I would have rather had more moments like those than so many descriptions of characters who only appear for a few pages.
Ultimately, Welcome to Night Vale is an enjoyable read for people who, like me, were actually bemoaning the lack of Wayside School-esque fiction for people above the age of ten. If its goal was to get me interested in the podcast and the general Night Vale universe, however, then it didn’t quite succeed. Then again, that response might just be my general lack of interest in podcasts: if there were a written sequel or missive from the same universe, I might be tempted to pick it up and read it, if only for a little bit of escapism to a world that will always be weirder and stranger than our own.