I’ve been listening to Welcome to Night Vale for a few years now, and it’s safe to say that I’m a fan. No, I’m not an obsessive, and no, I’m not the kind to attend the live shows – I’m determinedly casual in my fandom. But I can’t deny that I kind of love the weird, wonderful world of Night Vale, which gives us local radio broadcasts from a town that seems stuck somewhere in The Twilight Zone, or perhaps on the boundaries of Lovecraft’s strange otherworlds. Sentient haze, mind-dominating glow clouds, dog parks with no dogs (but lots of shadowy figures), malevolent and dangerous librarians – Night Vale has it all and more, delivered in 30-minute segments twice a month.
Now comes the (first) novel about the town, giving creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor a chance to tell a story that’s a little more sprawling, a little more traditionally plotted. And, for better and for worse, they carry through the spirit of the podcast in flying colors.
Let’s get that “for worse” out of the way. For much of the first half, the book mirrors the scattered nature of the podcast, packing in asides and small derails that never failed to make me laugh or shudder a bit. But while that rambling nature works well for a local radio broadcast that’s covering all of the various news of the moment, it works less well in a novel, as you’re trying to tell a single large story. Is it funny? Undoubtedly. But there are times where you feel like the novel can’t settle into a coherent shape for all the ideas and oddness it’s conveying. Maybe that’s a side effect of trying to bring in a new audience who doesn’t know much about this weird little borough; maybe it’s just figuring out a new medium.
For all of that, though, I still thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the book, even if I occasionally wondered if things would settle down. And settle down they do, eventually keeping its focus on the uneasy relationship between two women, both of whom have an interest in figuring out what’s going on with the eminently forgettable man in the tan jacket. And as the book focuses, it starts delivering some knockout setpieces, especially a raid into the library that’s every bit as effective a horror sequence as anything I’ve read in a while, all while still keeping the dark comedy bites the show is known for.
More than that, though, the book starts reminding you of the fact that the show can surprise you with its heart and soul. How else to explain the fact that the mother-son relationship is so touching, even though the son is a shape-shifting creature who sometimes appears as a horsefly? How else to explain that somehow the book takes the idea of a woman who’s eternally 19 years old and turns it into a metaphor for the frustration of being constantly dismissed as immature or too young? And how else to explain that beautiful, wonderful final chapter, which fits on a character level and yet genuinely touched me?
Welcome to Night Vale is easily accessible, even for newcomers to the show. It won’t take you long to get used to the odd asides, the strange details, the gleefully weird sense of humor. (Though longtime fans will enjoy a lot of the nods along the way, of course.) But more than that, what you’ll find is that these guys have a pretty great and unique voice, and one that grows in confidence, structure, and style as the novel goes along. It’s not without its flaws, and your feelings about those flaws will definitely vary. But for those who enjoy this oddball creation, the book is a blast – fun, funny, creepy, and surprisingly and wonderfully heartfelt when you least expect it.