Originally published on Culture Shock.
Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Hardcover, 401 pages
Published October 20th 2015 by Harper Perennial
Rating 4 out of 5
One of the driving forces of the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, at least at the start, is the world’s ambiguity. While listening, you can’t really picture what’s out there nor are you supposed to. The people, the places, the beings are all described only in offhand remarks, and a Lovecraftian unknown fills the voids in your imagination. Part of the podcast’s charm comes from the fact that it then takes this unknown and makes it everyday and normal.
Translating that quality to an expanded novel format was, at least to me, a little strange. In the world of the podcast, part of that ambiguity comes from the fact that you’re only fed information through one voice, Cecil Palmer, the host of Night Vale Community Radio. Through him you learn about this strange town and all its routine terrors. While he can be omniscient at times, it is still a very limited perspective.
The novel, on the other hand, is much more all-seeing. It follows Jackie Fierro and Diane Crayton as they try to find out, separately and then eventually together, about the inexplicable King City, the ever-present Troy, and the mysteriously forgettable Man in the Tan Jacket. The novel’s unknown narrator goes deeper than Cecil, objectively diving deep into not only these characters lives and thoughts but also the world which was previously partially unknown.
It does this by acting as part fan service and part primer to the town of Night Vale. All the major characters make cameos: from Steve Carlsberg to Mayor Cardinal, from Carlos the scientist to Old Woman Josie and her (not) angels. The menacing librarians and the amalgamous being that is City Council also make appearances. The novel hits all the high notes of the town, often both retracing and expanding on the world established in the podcast. (Therefore, for avid fans, it could be both a bit redundant and enlightening.)
Descriptions in the book are much fuller, and a sense of place is more concretely established. Whereas before, Night Vale was a strange collection of people and buildings out there in the ethers of the airwaves, the book gives it roads and histories constructed out of physical pages. The novel reveals what the library looks like (inside and out), what Josie and her (not) angels do with her garden, what equipment Carlos and his team have in their lab, and more.
The world simply seems more real, less ambigious in the novel. Apparently, the more words that Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor devote to their town in the middle of the desert, the more they lose the ambiguity that made partly made Night Vale, the podcast, what it was.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? You see, in constructing a world in the podcast, Fink and Cranor have also constructed a style. They often may not explain the big things, but they always over explain the small things. For example, the meaning behind a smile is stated clearly even though it’s obvious in the subtext. (“She smiled a little, meant a lot.”) These instances are moments of intense clarity in a vague world, giving one rational pause and deeply emotional insight. It’s how they’ve created characters that people feel for and relate to.
Unlike the ambiguous quality, the nearly excessive explanatory style translates very well on the page and actually breathes and blooms with the expanded space. The descriptions of the town may have been expanded on, but the reach into minds of the characters and therefore the hearts of the readers is also greater. By peering deeper into the lives of two of Night Vale’s residents, an emotionally richer story unfolds. So while some ambiguity is lost in regards to the world, this sacrifice allows for a more complex emotional experience.
In other words, it’s well worth the read.