Welcome to the town of Night Vale, a small community in the American Southwest. The sun is hot, the nights are long in this friendly little town, where a mysterious government organization watches your every move in a van just down the street.
Welcome to Night Vale has already seen substantial success as a biweekly podcast that follows municipal radio host Cecil Palmer. The show aims to make the surreal, normal and the normal, surreal.
I can’t hide that I am a huge fan of Welcome to Night Vale. I’ve listened to all 97 episodes, and know each and every character that has roamed through the sand wastes, the desert otherworld, Nulogorsk, Desert Bluffs, and, or course, Night Vale itself. Because of this, I won’t try to write about the novel from the perspective of someone who is unfamiliar to the series. Instead, I’d like to talk about how the book delves deeper into some of the things that gives Welcome to Night Vale its appeal, as well as qualities I noticed in the book itself.
The entire concept of a small desert town, isolated and full of oddities, lends a certain type of charm that I would normally associate with road trips that last late into the night, or visits to diners at three in the morning. American culture has a special place for the weird and wild, and it fits nicely with the vast expanse of unfamiliar roads or quiet, empty places where anything is possible and the unexpected is likely. We have so much space here that it’s unthinkable. Surely, in a landscape like this, one might imagine, places as weird as Night Vale would fit perfectly.
Even in a town as strange as this, however, the inhabitants are still (mostly) human. They may live side-by-side the sheriff’s secret police, or the faceless old woman that lives in their home, but part of the appeal of Night Vale’s story lies in the way characters’ lives still manage to reflect our own.
In the novel, readers follow the stories of two women named Diane Crayton and Jackie Fierro. One is a single mother who works to raise her only son, a teen named Josh, while the other is the sole operator of Night Vale’s pawn shop. The difference here is that Josh is a shapeshifter and Jackie hasn’t aged past nineteen in decades, and is now developmentally frozen in time. I know that those situations don’t exactly sound relatable, but let me explain how they manage to be, regardless.
Josh, just like any other teenager, isn’t sure of who he is or who he wants to be. This just happens to manifest more physically than the average teen. Sometimes, he and his mother have trouble really communicating with each other, and often feel worlds apart even when they are in adjacent rooms. Diane is deeply protective of her son, and works hard to make sure he has a good life, but draws the line when he becomes curious of who his father is.
Jackie, on the other hand, enjoys the stability of the pawn shop, but begins to wonder who she could be beyond her job. Most, if not all, of her identity is tied to her occupation. Every day is a repetition of the last. She sees old friends growing old, getting married, having children, living their lives, and she wonders what her life could be like if she could just turned twenty. If she wanted to turn twenty at all.
Now, does this all sound familiar?
I love the way that readers can delve into the characters’ thoughts. Sometimes, we see them directly, through windows made by paragraphs of insight. At other times, we can only see their actions. The world that the characters move through almost feels like a Murakami novel during these times; their world is so surreal, and they move through it without seeming to dwell much on the implications. Sometimes, the door is not pull or push, but bleed. Sometimes, touching a pink, plastic flamingo can be dangerous or deadly. The waitress at the local diner can sprout fruits for patrons to pluck. These things are common sense. They are normal.
“You were my baby. But babies become children, and they go to elementary schools that indoctrinate them on how to overthrow governments, and they get interested in boys and girls, or they don’t, and anyway they change. They grow into adults, and become dangerous things.”
As I mentioned before, part of the appeal of Welcome to Night Vale is the way it creates normalcy in an environment of weirdness. The opposite is also true: Night Vale fosters weirdness in familiar images, as well. Waiting room magazines that offer readers instructions on “How to Lost Weight Without Losing Sight of Your Own Mortality,” bloodthirsty librarians, axe-wielding journalists, and a sentient glowcloud at local PTA meetings are, by our standards, undoubtedly strange, but they are there to subvert (and perhaps, poke fun at) the very things we expect and find normal. Maybe it’s not the environment that counts after all, but the people who inhabit it. Maybe the same core concepts that draw people together could exist even in literally impossible circumstances such as these.
And now, the weather.
Longtime fans of the podcast will be happy to note that, while Cecil Palmer, the podcast’s central character, is not the main protagonist of the book, sections of his show appear from time to time. Their consistency throughout the novel create a sort of subplot of their own. Each appearance also plays into the current events of the chapter, adding another layer to the story as a whole.
Those familiar with Welcome to Night Vale will also pick up on the many references scattered throughout the book. Readers who have not listened to the podcast might enjoy returning to the book to find new information after listening to a few episodes.
I will not reveal the ending here, but, while some of the characters do indeed find what they are looking for, the conclusion remains open all the same. It demonstrates the way that time rolls on, presenting new and different conflicts for us to solve as we move through our lives. And it demonstrates how that is, in the end, just fine.
I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy the strange emptiness of late nights, or fiction with a flair for the strange or at least the paranormal. Try out the podcast, too, if you haven’t already. I know that 97 episodes sounds intimidating, but after listening to the first five or so, you should know all of the basic information you’ll need. My favorite episodes are Feral Dogs, A Story About You, The Man in the Tan Jacket, The Sandstorm (parts A and B), and Numbers.
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Podcasts: Hidden Gems