Set in the world of the podcast from which it takes its name, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s novel Welcome to Night Vale is better written and more emotionally true than you might think, given its origins. (See also The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, a novel that started off life as a YouTube series, and should have stayed there.)
Briefly, the podcast takes the form of a community radio show in a desert town called Night Vale, where a glowing cloud sits on the school board, a seven-headed dragon runs for mayor, and people don’t believe in mountains – among many other things. In Night Vale, the strange and disturbing is mundane, and vice versa. As such, it foregrounds how the things we take for granted may in fact be miraculous, and how life is both strange and fleeting: “mostly void, partially stars”.
The novel runs with the same tone; but its narrative is more focused. Whereas each episode of the podcast may tell its own tale, and overall storylines advance only slowly, if at all, the novel offers up a considerably tighter narrative, focused on just two characters: Jackie Fierro, the nineteen-year-old owner of a mystical pawn shop, who never seems to get older or experience any progression of time; and Diane Crayton, treasurer of Night Vale High School’s PTA, whose adolescent son is a literal shape-shifter (an obvious metaphor for the crises of identity that people of that age often face!). Both of them, separately, receive a message from a mysterious man in a tan jacket (a recurring, and sinister, character in the podcast): a piece of paper, which they literally cannot put down, reading simply KING CITY.
They investigate, separately. They run across each other. They annoy each other; they go on a journey together; they bond! Narrative-wise, Fink and Cranor aren’t doing anything new or clever, especially compared to the episodic and quite narrative-free podcast. But the book is solidly built, and perhaps all the more emotionally resonant for that. At its heart it’s a novel about community, reconciliation, emotional re-connection and mutual support, in which people help each other to go on in trying times. This is where the weird fantasy elements really come into their own: adrift upon the sea of strangeness which is their reality, the citizens of Night Vale rely on each other to build islands of safety and of courage.
I’ve always found Welcome to Night Vale, the podcast, strangely soothing, despite its creepiness: radio show host Cecil Baldwin builds a haven of mundanity out of terror and surveillance. The novel’s helped me clarify for myself just why that is, as well as building on that sense of contingent safety to become something that can stand on its own just fine.