Many strange beings lurk in the fictional town of Night Vale: hooded figures who maintain a forbidden dog park, helicopters painted with birds of prey that steal children and an omniscient glowing cloud that serves as president of school council. Yet the most confusing and paradoxical product of the biweekly podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” may be Night Vale writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s new novel of the same title.
The “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast offers listeners a 30-minute weekly briefing on the latest news from Night Vale, a sandy suburban community overrun by the occult, Eldritch horrors and a web of lies that even 90s conspiracy theorists couldn’t untangle. Guided by radio host Cecil Palmer, listeners are given a hearty dose of both absurd humor and cosmic existentialism. The show has made a strong name for itself since its launch in 2012, hitting the top of iTunes audio podcast lists and expanding to traveling live shows.
Fink and Cranor’s novel takes a more traditional approach to the town through the use of third-person narration that reads almost the same as the podcast. This choice is the most unsettling aspect of the adaptation, which not only begs to be listened to in audio book form, but also completely rewritten as a script for the show.
Perhaps recognizing that a Cecil-centered novel would only further the longing for a recorded performance, Fink and Cranor center their plot on two new Night Vale citizens whose quests for truth become intertwined. Jackie Fierro, a pawn shop owner who has been stuck as a 19-year-old for longer than she can remember, has her never-changing daily routine disrupted when series regular Man-in-the-Tan-Jacket hands her a note with the words “King City.” Diane Crayton is a single mother who simply hopes to rekindle the failing relationship with her rebellious teenage son who can shapeshift.
Diane and Jackie are enjoyable characters and the leisurely pace of the novel allows Fink and Cranor to explore them in a much more nuanced manner than in their podcast. Whereas most Night Vale characters are boiled down to single traits to assist joke delivery, the two women and their relationships with the town are given an excellent amount of time to develop. It’s a refreshing change of pace to see Night Vale characters with agency, although they could still use a little more depth.
Readers hoping to hear more from smooth-talking Cecil will find the offerings few and far between here. A transcript of his show makes brief appearances between the alternating Jackie and Diane chapters, detailing a parallel plot thread that plays a minor role in the greater story. These two- to four-page interludes are the highlight of the novel and will leave most readers longing for more.
While both leads have run-ins with fan-favorite characters, they feel routine and formulaic. In many cases, they do little to assist the plot progression or even basic character development.
In fact, the character of Night Vale as a whole seems to suffer from the lengthy 400 pages of exposition. The rambling narration works well for describing the unseen city in the podcast but is ineffective in the novel. Thanks to the babbling description in writing, the mood is less like seeing slight glints of light in the darkness and more like turning on floodlights in a haunted house. Only when Jackie and Diane venture to another town does the old horror flavor return due to the fresher nature of the new locale.
“Night Vale” has traditionally struggled with proper conflict and resolution, which shows even more noticeably in book form. In the podcast, the plot typically climaxes and Cecil announces the weather segment — a short independent band song, during which Night Vale’s heebie jeebies resolve themselves. It’s an ingenious solution for hiding the show’s flaws, but the novel cannot rely on the same crutch. Unfortunately, the conflict ends unsatisfactorily and feels rushed, which will leave some fans wishing an indie band would just perform a mediocre cover to fix everything instead.
Likewise, the traditional Night Vale humor suffers from being stretched so thin. There are some great laughs hidden in Night Vale’s shadowy alleys, but it often feels like Fink and Cranor have forgotten that absurdity and oddity lose their effect in abundance. The long-winded descriptions of Night Vale’s not-so-morbid curiosities often have no payoff. It’s painful to admit, but sometimes the novel is simply unfunny.
Contributing to that effect is an overreliance on self-referential humor and call-backs to specific episodes. Most of these references have no punch line and are the equivalent of an inside joke; they’re only funny if you’ve tuned in for more than 70 episodes. Newcomers to “Night Vale” are better off listening to the podcast because so many jokes, regardless of quality, are reliant on series-wide knowledge.
Particularly disappointing is how Fink and Cranor handle the romance between Cecil and out-of-town scientist Carlos. While their relationship had been an excellent example of the normality of gay relationships, it now overpowers both Cecil’s broadcast sections and Night Vale’s foggy mood. Their flirtation is portrayed in a way that not only distracts from the plot and stereotypes gay men, but also ruins Carlos position as Night Vale’s only comedic straight man in a town full of over-the-top characters.
To be fair, these problems are not exclusive to the book. They are symptomatic of the series’ greater flaws, both novel and podcast. “Night Vale” feels lost. Its core values have always been a chill on the spine and with a ghastly touch of progressive values. Recently, it has started catering directly to its online social media demographic, which prefers quirk over deadpan humor and social progressivism for progressivism’s sake. It’s understandable that Fink and Cranor would try to appease the fans who help keep Night Vale’s lights on (or rather, off). However, the donations shouldn’t come at the expense of the show’s quality.
Like the town it describes, the “Welcome to Night Vale” novel is an enigma. It doesn’t give any particularly terrific laughs or convey the spookiness of Night Vale’s atmosphere. Nor does it help newcomers find a foothold in the long-running series. Caught in between a podcast and a novel, it struggles to make an identity for itself. It’s an enjoyable companion piece but nothing more.
The “Welcome to Night Vale” novel exists for a very dedicated but small portion of the fans who consume any and all things related to the cursed town. If Night Vale continues to focus on this crowd, it may just leave its larger audience in the dark — and not in a good way.