Welcome to Night Vale, where a sentient Glow Cloud rains dead animals, librarians are long-taloned, carnivorous creatures, and a faceless old woman secretly lives in your home. But don’t worry: the Glow Cloud (all hail!) turns benevolent and joins the school board, the escaped librarians are recaptured, and the faceless old woman lives in everyone’s home. All is well in Night Vale, and mysterious lights continue to pass overhead as we all pretend to sleep.
That is, all is as well as anything can ever be in the fictional, vaguely southwestern American town where, co-creator Joseph Fink summarizes, “every conspiracy theory is true.”
Listeners of the hit bi-monthly podcast, “Welcome to Night Vale,” are apprised of the vagaries of Night Vale life through the mellifluous voice of Cecil Palmer (played by Cecil Baldwin), Night Vale’s cheerful community radio host. Cecil dutifully updates the public on daily happenings and news bulletins, featuring regular segments such as existentially fraught traffic reports, community calendar updates (“Wednesday has been cancelled due to a scheduling error”), the children’s fun fact science corner (“Fear the night sky, children”), and the weather, which consists of a musical interlude chosen by Fink.
Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, co-creators of “Welcome to Night Vale,” participated in a Halloween night conversation with superfan/supergeek/Supernatural actress Felicia Day at Glendale’s Alex Theater as part of Live Talks LA. The duo discussed the stratospheric popularity of “Night Vale,” the podcast and novel’s unique style, and, of course, why all community radio interns in Night Vale tend to die violently or get elected mayor.
But first, the genesis of “Night Vale”: Cranor and Fink connected in New York at a performance of Cranor’s, during which he publicly burned a book he didn’t like. (So devoted is Cranor to his performance art that he refuses to reveal the identity of the book, even years later. “I don’t want you to get interested and buy it,” he says.) Fink told him he thought the act was immoral; Cranor sort of agreed. Immediately, a friendship was struck. Soon after, the two collaborated on a play about time travel, and then talked about getting into podcasting.
When “Welcome to Night Vale” debuted in the summer of 2012, Fink reveals that their goal was to “try and have at least one person that we don’t personally know listen to it.” Thanks to a few shout-outs over the airwaves and a nod from NPR, “Night Vale” received around 8,000 downloads in its first year.
Then, in July of 2013, Tumblr happened.
“It was summertime, so there may have been that element of, well, not many new things happening…,” Cranor explains, tongue slightly in cheek. Day deadpans: “Not enough Cumberbatch gifs.”
Word of the podcast series spread like wildfire, and Cranor and Fink’s pet project shot to the number-one spot on iTunes, hitting 25 million downloads. Just this month, the podcast passed the 100 million mark, and with the recent release of the Welcome to Night Vale novel, fans are as eager as ever to show their appreciation: the book debuted at number-four on the New York Times best-seller list, having occupied the number-two spot on Amazon seven months before its release.
Fink still seems bemused by its success. “I have no other adjective to put to it but ‘weird,’” he says.
“Weird” seems to be the appropriate buzzword for the entire phenomenon that is “Welcome to Night Vale.” It’s the word I fumble over while attempting to describe the series to friends, and it’s the word that crops up repeatedly among fans I spoke to after the Live Talks event.
One attendee, dressed up as Night Vale’s precocious Summer Reading Program escapee Tamika Flynn, introduced herself as Tamika and told me what she loved most about the world of Night Vale was “the weirdness of it all.” Another young woman, Sophie, found out about the podcast from the sister of a friend who told her: “Here, listen to this weird thing.”
Jamie, decked out in her Halloween finest, expands a bit on what makes Night Vale so unique. “I love the fact that it’s unexpected,” she says. “Everything you take for granted as common tropes and storylines aren’t part of Night Vale. The storytelling is entirely new every time.”
As Felicia Day points out, the Night Vale novel is not something you can (or want to) skim. We might allow our minds to wander while reading an ordinary story because we know that even fantasy tales operate with a set structure, but the Night Vale world defies all linguistic and logical conventions. (Sample line from the novel: “Her house could easily be mistaken for any other house that happened to be identical to it.”)
“I’ve always been taken by the sound of language,” Cranor enthuses. “I just love it when words sound good together, I love it when a sentence hits a certain rhythm.” Having the velvety voiced Cecil narrate the podcast no doubt facilitates that goal.
Steering back to the novel, Day notes that the Night Vale reading experience is “like popping bubble wrap. You’re just startled!” She turns to her guests on stage. “The way you guys put together words and concepts, it’s like, wow! That felt good.” Day’s metaphor is— like many things associated with Night Vale— odd, hilarious, and completely on-point.
Cranor and Fink— both of whom have writing backgrounds— delight in subverting the expectations of audiences through language, and there is a thrill in the total uncertainty of a world in which the sun very well may refuse to rise the following day. Yet for all its bizarre surrealism, “Welcome to Night Vale” appeals to so many because at its core, it embodies a truly universal experience; namely, the always wonderful, always terrifying experience of being human.
In Night Vale, the absurdities of life are helpfully and hilariously literalized, as with the manual transmission car that requires an overwhelming amount of convoluted steps to operate, including the whispering of a secret into the cupholders every time the driver wants to shift gears. The general trauma of youth is evoked by Josh, the teenage son of one of the novel’s two protagonists, who is a shapeshifter. Sometimes Josh takes the form of a curve-billed thrasher, or a kangaroo, or a Victorian-era wardrobe, it is written. He changes his physical form constantly. In this way he is unlike most boys his age. He thinks he is several things at once, many of them contradictory. In this way he is like most boys his age.
Perhaps the most gratifying effect of Night Vale’s off-the-charts weirdness factor is that, in a town where wheat and wheat by-products tend to transmogrify into venomous snakes, no one thinks twice about the fact that Cecil has a boyfriend, not a girlfriend. “It didn’t occur to us that it was at all unusual to have a gay couple at the center of the story, and to not treat that as anything unusual,” says Fink. Cranor identifies the relationship between Cecil and Carlos the scientist as one of the main draws for early fans.
The creators’ awareness of and sensitivity to their legions of fans is a key reason for the podcast’s success. The novel takes this fourth-wall breakage further, illustrating the allure of interconnectivity in an internet age. “We tend to talk to the reader,” Cranor explains, “the way a dog will put its paw on you and be like, ‘Here. Let me tell you something.’”
Over 500 fans showed up to the Live Talks event to hear that something, and many are dressed up in Night Vale-themed regalia that was originally designed by fans on Tumblr. In that sense, the Night Vale cosmos is collaboratively imagined and sustained even outside of Cranor and Fink’s quirky minds. Sometimes, fans will nudge the Night Vale’s creators in the right direction, as with a typo in an early episode script that led to internet-wide confusion over a character’s identity, or with assistance from the audience when Fink and Cranor can’t remember which book Tamika Flynn was carrying around during her escape from the dangerous Summer Reading Program. (Answer: Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton.)
As the event winds down, the microphone is handed to a fan in one of the first few rows for the final question of the audience Q&A. The question is, fittingly enough, interactive. “I want to know,” the young woman asks, “what you all think of my Night Vale tattoo.” Day gasps in excitement. Cranor and Fink stand up without an iota of hesitation and make their way to the fan’s seat. The three of them gaze in wonder.
“Oh, it’s beautiful,” says Fink.
“It’s good,” Cranor agrees.
“It’s fantastic,” Fink adds for good measure.
From my seat, I can’t see the design of the tattoo. But it’s no matter. This is Night Vale, after all. I can only imagine.
For more on Live Talks LA as well as information on upcoming events, visit http://livetalksla.org/.