Review: Welcome To Night Vale – A Novel

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Review: Welcome To Night Vale – A Novel

Maybe she hadn’t seen anything. Maybe she had come into existence seconds ago and made up every moment until this moment to explain how she came to be sitting in this booth in this diner.

As long-time fans of the podcast will tell you, Night Vale is a little desert town where the scenario described above isn’t just plausible, it’s probably one of the only explanations that will make any sense at all.

For people who aren’t fans of the podcast, who have never wondered about the weirdness of time, questioned the existence of angels, or imagined a town where feral used-car salesmen bay at the moon, don’t worry, you don’t need to have listened to a single episode to appreciate how gloriously weird and incomprehensible this novel can be.

Most of the time when an existing property gets converted to another medium (comic book to TV show, cartoon to live-action, etc.) I end up getting disappointed because I’m not actually looking for something new, I’m looking for the experience of seeing exactly what I’ve already seen, but for the first time again, and better. And that’s why I think the WTNV novel works so well, because this book is exactly like a podcast, only more of it, with more characters and more details about life in a place the Night Vale Tourism Board cheerfully describes as “A town full of hidden evils and the secret malevolent.” (Says so, right on the new brochures.)

So yes, loyal WTNV fans, we do get to see old favorites like Carlos and Old Woman Josie with her angels (excuse me, “angels”), and every few chapters we get The Voice of Night Vale, Cecil himself, broadcasting a whole night’s worth of news in segments, from “Hello, listeners,” all the way to “Good night, Night Vale, goodnight”.

If you see hooded figures in the Dog Park, no you didn’t.

But the podcast episodes are limited to Cecil, with all the happenings in the town filtered through news broadcasts, The Community Calendar (always one of my favorite segments), and whatever gossip Cecil finds tasty enough to spill over the radio. The Night Vale novel is our chance to see the town through other eyes, specifically single-mother Diane Crayton, her fifteen-year-old shape-changer son Josh, and the pawnshop proprietor Jackie Fierro, who’s been nineteen for several decades now, and who doesn’t appreciate it when The Man In The Tan Jacket gives her a piece of paper that drags her out of her comfortable routine.

Lenny’s will serve as a helpful new source for all needs involving landscaping and lawn-decorating materials and also as a way for the government to unload all the machines and failed tests and dangerous substances that otherwise would be wasted on things like “safe disposal” or “burying in a concrete tomb until the sun goes out.”

Those folks who are new to Night Vale may think that the book is nothing more than a collection of surreal moments and non-sequiturs. And there’s certainly a lot of that; it’s part of the charm of this little town that all conspiracy theories are real, and sentences don’t end the way you expect them to. The language wanders very close to poetry, and there’s always, always some very dark humor in every chapter, usually mixed in with commentary on the state of the world that feels just a little too close to what we’re afraid the world is really like.

What’s terrifying, I think, about the World Government is not that the world is held under an iron fist, but that the world is sand scooped up in a sieve. The people running it have no more idea than us why there are lights in the sky above the Arby’s or why there are ghost cars. Terrifying, right? I think the grand conspiracy of our world is just an argument between idiots.

But I’ve realized that it isn’t just the random strangeness that’s so appealing about Night Vale, it’s the way all of the characters react to the strangeness. Everyone in the town is used to the way things work in their reality, but they can still get freaked out by odd things that happen, and you never know until they react to it what’s considered unusual or just normal. Eating invisible pie at the Moonlight All-Nite diner is normal; a tarantula sitting in your co-worker’s hair is not. Government agents in unmarked cars outside of every business and home is normal; having two hot-milk drawers in your kitchen is not. Angels, believe it or not, are normal (although it’s illegal to admit it); Old Woman Josie scolding a dirt-covered cloth-wrapped bundle for trying to levitate off the table is not (and don’t expect an explanation about that last bit because you’re not getting one).

Welcome To Night Vale - coverFor anyone wondering if all of the hints from the podcast episode “An Epilogue” actually lead to anything in this book: yes, they really do. We find out who The Man in the Tan Jacket is, and why Josie couldn’t use her left hand for a while, and what exactly that was all about with the Barista district. In one of the best segments of the whole book we finally get to see the inside of, *gasp* the Night Vale Library! It’s everything I’d hoped it would be, terrifying and deserted and so silent, with reading-nook traps set by the librarians, and Helen Hunt’s picture coming to life in the Biography section. Almost as scary is the chapters where the characters spend some time trying to track down a loved one in an impossible town; it’s set mostly during those hours around sunset that always manage to creep me out even at the best of times.

No spoilers, but the book eventually shows the reader exactly why anyone would want to live in as charmingly deadly a place as Night Vale. And the ending is nothing more or less than a love-letter to people who have been fans of the podcast from the start, even those life-long fans who are only finding out about the podcast now.

…or something to that effect. Time is weird.