Night Vale — a fictional desert community located somewhere in the Southwestern United States — is most famous for its podcast.
Taking the form of a local radio show, Welcome to Night Vale is a 30-minute, twice-monthly dispatch full of nightmarish community news conveyed in a tranquil manner. Imagine a municipality that features a sinister, five-headed dragon and occasional rifts in space-time, but whose citizens are often more concerned about, say, the dry scones at the last PTA meeting, and you'll understand why Night Vale has been described as something akin to "if Stephen King and Neil Gaiman started a game of SIMS and then just left it running forever."
Since its launch in 2012, Welcome to Night Vale has expanded into a sprawling, frightening universe with a lot of charm. In its three-year existence, the podcast has produced 79 episodes (and counting). It's also spawned a successful live show and, as of October, a novel that debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list. Along the way, its creators have demonstrated their ability to comfortably shift mediums while building one of the most immense and compelling fictional "worlds" in recent memory.
The rise of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast
In the summer of 2012, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor started producing the Welcome to Night Vale podcast with a $25 USB microphone and a few friends — including Cecil Baldwin, the voice of the in-show Night Vale Community Radio. Slowly but surely the podcast found an audience, enjoying a steady first year of mild growth that saw bumps in listeners after a mention on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and a tweet from Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle. Then in the summer of 2013, it took off. The episodes Fink and Cranor put out in July amassed an impressive 2.5 million downloads. By August, that number had risen to 8.5 million. Welcome to Night Vale became the most downloaded podcast on iTunes — surpassing popular, established shows like Radiolab and This American Life.
Welcome to Night Vale was refreshingly unique, compiling bizarre, mythical elements into a city bulletin of everyday news. In an early episode, for example, the host of Night Vale Community Radio reported that small animals were raining from a giant glowing cloud, noting, "Fortunately, the animals appear to be dead already," and advising, "Just bring along a good strong umbrella capable of handling falling animals up to, say, 10 pounds."
The podcast typically consists of micro news bits, like traffic updates and announcements from the Town Elder Council, as well as episode-spanning reports. During the town's "poetry week" for example, the Night Vale City Council lifted its ban on writing implements and required every citizen to write poetry nonstop. In segments of anticipation, the host recalled the success of a previous year’s poetry week, when more than 800,000 poems were written by Night Vale citizens and eaten by "real live librarians who were chained to titanium posts inside double-locked steel cages."
At a recent panel event at Sixth & I in Washington, DC, NPR's Linda Holmes asked Fink and Cranor to describe their writing process; Cranor said that he tries to strike a balance between levity and gravity, explaining that he's "always trying to make sure [episodes] land in a place that people weren’t quite expecting."
While discussing Fink and Cranor's success, Holmes asked, "Is it like a dog that’s chasing a squirrel, and then it finally catches it, and it’s like, ‘What do I do now?’"
"The dog chasing the squirrel implies that the dog had the purpose of catching the squirrel," Cranor said. "[We’re] like a dog that just suddenly has a squirrel in its mouth."
"Sounds very Night Vale," Homes replied.
Making the transition to text opened up the Welcome to Night Vale universe in an surprisingly organic way
Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel is both expansive and quick on its feet. In a Whitman-esque fashion, it is large. It contains multitudes.
Fink said at Sixth & I that once they had a "popular internet thing," the Night Vale team started receiving loads of emails from companies that wanted to work with them; they were most interested in writing a book that could build on their titular town.
The resulting novel retains many touchstones from the podcast — the spooky deadpan tone, places like the Moonlite All-Nite Diner, and characters like the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home. But the book, which reframes the podcast to work as a long-form narrative, primarily follows the story of two women from Night Vale during a fraught journey to the neighboring King City.
Pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro and PTA member Diane Crayton embark on their trip when a man from Diane’s past reappears in Night Vale. Known as the Man in the Tan Jacket, he is different things to different people ... as well many different literal people. One of the prevailing conflicts of the novel is that the Night Vale native has brought too much of his hometown's weirdness to King City, where he's currently the mayor.
I’m actually making the plot sound more straightforward than it is — and less joyfully absurd. Welcome to Night Vale the novel is like The Phantom Tollbooth in its wide-eyed pursuit of logic within a mad world. But in Night Vale, logic loses.
"Okay, yes, good. There’s the map," read the directions to King City. "Head out on Route 800 and then turn here, and merge with this — But oops, we missed it. So we go back, maybe try cutting across on this little mountain road. You believe in mountains, right? Not everyone does. Either way, we end up miles away. None of the roads connect."
To describe the plot of the novel in concrete terms is to pretty quickly misrepresent it. Characters change forms, distance is imperceptible, and time doesn’t seem to exist. There is story development and progress, but also the circular, existential contemplation that has become a trademark of the podcast.
Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel is easily enjoyed on its own terms — even for those who are new to the town of Night Vale — largely because the storytelling shines so brightly on the level of its individual parts. Fink and Cranor feverishly pursue the unexpected, often to comically terrifying effect.
Night Vale is compelling because it's weird — just like our own world
Night Vale is the sort of place where unpredictable and seemingly impossible things happen constantly, and death — especially on any realistic time scale — might be waiting around any corner.
"It is just a weird place," Fink said at Sixth & I. "The real world is weird, too, and we mostly don’t know why."
That's why encounters with Welcome to Night Vale — in any of its forms — often resonate. Both the podcast and the novel glow in their expert combination of the ordinary and the surreal, in their interplay between reality and nightmare. They feel like a calm stroll through an insane world, and they're also very funny.
The absurdities of Night Vale resemble farces from our own world: A giant surveillance blimp breaks free from its military base, a television personality makes a serious run for president, evolution is in high doubt, etc. This hint of familiarity is perhaps best summarized early on in the novel, as Fink and Cranor artfully describe Night Vale's atmosphere as a home to both monsters and the mundane:
There are things lurking in the shadows. Not the projections of a worried mind, but literal Things, lurking, literally, in shadows. Conspiracies are hidden in every storefront, under every street, and floating in helicopters above. And with all that there is still the bland tragedy of life.