Like its predecessor Welcome to Night Vale, Jeffrey Fink and Joseph Cranor’s second Night Vale spinoff novel It Devours! is much better than anyone had a right to expect.
Although characters from the first novel do feature, it’s a standalone story in its own right, following the adventures of scientist Nilanjana as she investigates what’s been causing the mysterious and deadly sinkholes opening up in the desert on the outskirts of Night Vale. Her researches lead her to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, a church whose members seem to be taking their belief in a giant all-devouring centipede a little too literally for the town’s comfort.
Because, of course, this is Night Vale, an absurdist vision of small-town America where wheat and wheat by-products have been banned since they all turned into snakes in 2012, black helicopters circle overhead recording citizens’ every move, and a radiant glow cloud serves on the school governing board. (All hail the Glow Cloud!) The ever-encroaching, Lovecraftian-but-funny chaos of the town makes it an ideal setting for a story about people trying to make sense of a vast and confusing universe, whether that’s through science or religion.
The novel’s nuance, such as it is, comes from its refusal to land on either side, its ultimate point being that trying to understand the universe through any one limited set of values is at best futile and at worst actively dangerous. Of course, Night Vale’s scientists look precisely nothing like any scientist you might find in the real world: the life’s work of one of Nilanjana’s colleagues involves repeatedly admonishing potatoes to see how it affects them. But then the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God looks very little like the kind of religious congregation you’d expect to find in real life (as opposed to in popular media). The very fact of reducing the values of these groups down to the point of absurdity, removing them from the sphere of realism, reframes the debate: this isn’t a novel retreading the hoary old arguments pitting science against religion, though it may look like one. Instead, it asks us to think beyond that traditional binary and consider the universe as radically inexplicable by either method.
To a point, anyway. It’s a thoughtful novel, surprisingly so for a media spin-off, but it is not particularly complex. Its plot structure is solidly built and satisfying, but a little too…schematic for a novel about the randomness of existence. It’s got a good heart, though, and that is not something to be sneezed at.