October Book Review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor


Welcome to Night Vale

By: Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Release Date: October 20th 2015

*Beware: Spoilers ahead!*

Official Synopsis:

Welcome to Night Vale…a friendly desert community somewhere in the American Southwest, where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while its citizens pretend to sleep.  It’s a town like any town, with a city hall, a bowling alley, a diner, a supermarket, and a community radio station reporting all the news that’s allowed to be heard.  In this ordinary little town where ghosts, angels, aliens, and government conspiracies are commonplace parts of everyday life, the lives of two women, with two mysteries, are about to converge.

Like all of Night Vale, pawnshop proprietor Jackie Fierro abides by routine.  But a crack appears in the standard order of her perpetually nineteen-year-old life when a mysterious man in a tan jacket, carrying a deerskin suitcase, gives her a slip of paper marked with two pencil-smudged words: KING CITY.  Everything about the man unsettles her, especially the paper than she cannot remove from her hand.  Yet when Jackie puts her life on hold to search for the man, no one who meets him can seem to remember anything about him.

Diane Crayton’s fifteen-year-old son, Josh, is moody and a shape-shifter.  Lately, Diane has started to see the boy’s father everywhere she goes, looking the same as he did the day he left when they were teenagers.  Josh is growing ever more curious about his estranged father—leading to a disaster Diane can see coming but is helpless to prevent.

Propelled by two words—KING CITY—Diane’s search to reconnect with her son and Jackie’s search to reclaim her routine life draw them increasingly closer to each other, and to this place that may hold the key to their mysteries and their future…if they can ever find it.

My Synopsis:

Night Vale is a town like any other, with plenty of restaurants, a local library, a large bloodstone circle, vague yet menacing government agents, and lights that sometimes hover hundreds of feet above the Arby’s.  It’s citizens are just like any other, too—people who have been nineteen for decades, beings that are definitely not angels (all named Erika, of course), axe-wielding newspaper reporters, and a completely forgettable man in a tan jacket carrying a deerskin briefcase.  It’s just a normal little desert town…if inexplicably strange was normal.  But for two women, things in Night Vale are getting even stranger.

It begins with two men. 

A man in the tan jacket sells pawnshop owner Jackie Fierro a slip of paper with two words: King City.  Nothing unusual, until she discovers that the paper won’t leave her hand, and her attempts to find out more about this mysterious place are thwarted by the fact that no one can remember anything about the man.

A blonde man has been appearing all over town, helping out here and there and wreaking havoc for Diane Crayton.  The man looks exactly like her son’s father, a man who had disappeared fifteen years ago and left Diane to raise their shape-shifting son, Josh.  As Josh becomes more curious about his missing father, Diane is helpless to stop his search before he disappears to a place called King City.

Hoping to solve the mystery of this unknown town, Jackie and Diane are forced to work together on a dangerous search that will either change their future or keep them from living long enough to have a future at all. 

My Thoughts:

When I heard that Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor were writing a book, I was beyond excited.  Their podcast, the wildly successful Welcome to Night Vale is like the ‘New from Lake Wobegon’ if Lake Wobegon was Twin Peaks or Gravity Falls (Shout-out to Alex Hirsch’s crazy show; go watch it now!).  An endless stream of strange things happen in this town: a glowing cloud raining dead animal carcasses before joining the local school board, sandstorms opening portals through time and space, the faceless old woman that secretly lives in your home teaming up with a literal five headed dragon to overthrow the mayor…

You get the idea.

The things that happen in Night Vale make absolutely no sense, which is what makes the town endlessly entertaining.  In the podcast, Night Vale Community Radio host Cecil Palmer is in charge of sharing the community announcements, and it’s his voice and his unique, albeit often biased and often hilarious, POV on the town’s stories that make Welcome to Night Vale so much fun.

Unfortunately, the magical weirdness of Night Vale fails to translate as well into a novel format.  Whatever it is that makes Night Vale Night Vale is diminished somewhat when we stop seeing it from Cecil’s perspective.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Night Vale tales told by other citizens, but I need to be able to connect with those people and their circumstances in the way I connect with Cecil.  They need to make me believe in this weird little place and its weird little experiences and feel like, underneath all the craziness, it really is a town like any other.  This format worked for the Marvel Universe with both “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Agent Carter”—ground-level POVs and more personal characters that make us root for them and their situations as they tell a small part of a larger story—but not so much for the switch here between podcast and novel.

One of my favorite things about Night Vale that did work well in the book (from here on out, referred to as WtNV), was capturing the utterly absurd concept of the town.  Because weird things are just so commonplace, Fink and Cranor can get away with making absolutely ridiculous statements without readers batting an eye (or 2 or 3 or 10, depending on your optical arrangement).  They’re just like “Today, Josh has ram horns” or “Such and such just bought 32 meat thermometers” or “I feel like my shower’s losing faith in me” and readers are fine with that.  At least readers who are used to the concept of Night Vale.  I’m not sure just how well readers who don’t also listen to the podcast will appreciate the casual strangeness.  I’m also not sure that they’ll follow the odd phrasing, with redundancies and dragging descriptions that are occasionally off-putting for even dedicated fans.  The style of writing here is a bit of an acquired taste, and I don’t feel that it came across as funny or as light-hearted when we don’t have Cecil’s tone to give us a point of reference.  New fans may find themselves pulled out of the story as they struggle to work out what’s actually being said and whether or not it’s truly important or just something thrown in to add another odd touch.

And speaking of odd, Night Vale is undoubtedly a strange place, so when its citizens decide something is weird, it has to be very, very weird.  This is what happens for Jackie and Diane (not Jack and Diane, as I kept reading whenever their names were listed together) when their normal-for-Night Vale routines are derailed and become abnormal-for-anywhere.  While I liked both women’s stories, I didn’t really connect with either character.  I did appreciate that their problems related to the mystery of the man in the tan jacket, which has been an ongoing storyline in the podcast for quite a while, and I think that the novel was well planned to explain this character.  But Jackie and Diane themselves just weren’t as relatable to me as Cecil.  Maybe it’s because I was only nineteen for a single year or because I don’t have a son, let alone one who shapeshifts, but it’s probably because in such a strange town, even with their own strange circumstances, both women felt rather ordinary.  Cecil is strange even in a strange place, so he’s as much of a mystery as the town itself.  Jackie and Diane, on the other hand, could be taken out of Night Vale and their problems would still be relevant, both struggling with their relationships with their families and the perception of those bonds.  It’s not a perfect translation, but it’s a much different situation than if we threw Cecil into the normal world.  

That would be a story I would be interested in reading.  I feel like I’d be up for stories about other characters that are more similar to Cecil—Mayor Cardinal, Old Woman Josie, Carlos, even Leann Hart; these individuals are seen as different even in a town where different is normal, even boring, and I think it was the seemingly ordinary nature of Jackie and Diane that had me keeping them at arm’s length.  Their initial animosity with one another also kept me from really liking them for a while, as it was largely unexplained and somewhat discomforting.  It wasn’t until they began working together that I really felt any sympathy or interest in them as people.

Then again, perhaps it was less Jackie and Diane themselves that I didn’t really care for and more the story itself.  The plot dragggggggged something awful in many parts, and there were a lot of plotlines that felt very scattered.  While that isn’t unusual for the podcast, a 400ish page book has a lot more room to ramble than a 30 minute podcast, and unfortunately, I felt almost every one of those 400 pages.  I got the feeling that Fink and Cranor wanted to cram in as much trademark weirdness as possible with the resulting novel being overstuffed with oddities with too little humor or action to balance it out.  Seriously, they probably could’ve cut about 100 pages and still been fine.  Most of the action was concentrated in a single scene where Jackie and Diane visit the library, and while I love the whole concept of the librarians and find it both funny and terrifying, the scene alone wasn’t enough to keep the book afloat.  (I will admit that I kept picturing the librarians as the librarian from ‘Monsters University,’ but the encounter here moved the creatures up a few rungs on my scary scale.)

But what was enough to keep me invested in WtnV was seeing a new POV on some already beloved characters.  Many well-known Night Vale citizens made cameos, including Carlos, Dana, Steve Carlsberg, the faceless old woman, and Old Woman Josie.  The depiction of Carlos—easily excited, easily distracted, and eager but mostly useless—was ridiculously precious and actually pretty accurate for most scientists.  (I’m a scientist, so I can say that with certainty.)  I was glad to see that while other people thought he was cool, it wasn’t Cecil-level adoration…except for the hair.  Everyone agrees on the perfect hair.  And I loved that we see how helpful and nice Steve Carlsberg really is.  I don’t know just what he did to make Cecil dislike him so much, but I appreciated the unbiased view of Steve.  I also loved that everyone loves Cecil and Carlos’ relationship and how everyone else in Night Vale realizes that being a Night Vale Community Radio intern is a death sentence.  Interesting that Cecil doesn’t seem to recognize this phenomenon…

WtNV is a good addition to the Night Vale universe.  Some questions are answered, more are introduced.  It’ll be interesting to see what references to the novel are made in future podcast episodes, aside from Episode 76- An Epilogue, which really is more of an epilogue than a normal episode.  The story’s a bit heavy on the weirdness, but there’s also plenty of serious and profound concepts to think about: our perception of time, relationships within families, keeping secrets versus trusting others.  And like the podcast, WtNV is overall an unusually good blend of fun and philosophy, and although it may take new fans a bit of work to get into the actual mindset of the story, long-time fans will definitely want to have this book in their collection.  I recommend buying it, if only to avoid having to face the librarians in order to check out a copy.

Favorite Lines:

  • Look, life is stressful.  This is true everywhere.  But life in Night Vale is more stressful.  There are things lurking in the shadows.  Not the projections of a worried mind, but literal Things, lurking, literally, in shadows.  
  • Some thought he had died and no one had caught the body yet.
  • None of the scientists noticed her.  They were all writing busily on clipboards and wearing lab coats.  This is called “doing an experiment.”
  • People are beautiful when they do beautiful things.
  • All information was important information, even if the reasons were not immediately apparent.

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