From the inside cover:
Welcome to Night Vale … a friendly desert community somewhere in the America 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.
Welcome to Night Vale is a novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, set in the world of the podcast series of the same name and written by the same authors. As a fan of the podcast this novel has been on my radar for quite some time. I have a particular love for all things weird, eldritch, and vague yet menacing, so the series has been right up my alley since I heard the first episode. While the podcast has been going on for several years, with a number of live shows having been produced as well, this is the first time the series has ventured into the medium of prose.
The story follows two women: perpetually 19-year-old pawnshop owner Jackie Fierro and single mother of a shapeshifting son Diane Crayton. Jackie is in search of a man in a tan jacket carrying a deerskin briefcase, who disrupted her daily routine after giving her a slip of paper that reads “KING CITY,” which she is incapable of removing from her hand. The problem is, nobody who has met the man seems to remember anything about him.
Diane struggles with working and maintaining a relationship with her moody 15-year-old son Josh, who has been growing more and more curious about his estranged father. To make matters worse, Diane has begun seeing the boy’s father everywhere around town, looking just as he did when he left all those years ago. Their mysteries converge as Jackie and Diane endeavor to learn the nature of the mysterious KING CITY and the man in the tan jacket who seems to be at the centre of everything.
Since the series has been entirely performance-based until now, I was curious to see how Fink and Cranor would be able to transition their world into prose. For the most part it works really well. The general tone and style of writing is consistent with that of the podcast, in a way that was immediately familiar. The narration, third-person omniscient, takes full advantage of its position to disclose the colourful oddities and unusual phenomena that the town is well known for. More often than not this is done in a way that both adds character and expands upon the world in some way.
What I found to be a little irksome about these quirky oddities, however, was how out of place or forced they could be at times. This is where some friction in the transition from audio presentation to written narrative appeared for me. Like I said, most cases added something to the story, but some of them stuck out to me as more disruptive to the overall flow. A particular example that comes to mind is a paragraph dedicated to an American Express Uranium credit card. It is mentioned as something Diane has as an option to pay for something, but cannot use due to the deadly uranium. While humorous, I felt it interrupted the scene more than it added anything. Had it been a “Word from our sponsors” section of the podcast, in the context of one of Cecil’s broadcasts, it would have been more suitable for such an aside.
What changes things up in a refreshing way is the perspective we are given. For the most part, we have only known about events going on in Night Vale from Cecil, and this is done through the filter of a community radio station. While we know a lot about what goes on, we’ve never had a close look at what it’s really like to live there. Our protagonists give us unique and detailed looks into life in Night Vale. Jackie gradually gives us a look at how trapped people can be by the way natural laws do not work in this town, and Diane allows us to see how much of a struggle raising a child can be in a world that makes no sense. She does a surprisingly good job of it.
The plot, which is a mystery so I will be scarce on details, was intriguing to get through, especially if you’re familiar with Night Vale lore. The man in the tan jacket, most notably, is a character that has been recurring in the series for quite some time, yet his true nature has not been known. This novel explores who this mysterious man is, leaving me satisfied with the much anticipated conclusion. He was a figure that particularly caught my attention — which I’m sure is not uncommon among listeners — so it was nice to see him explored, rather than continuing to be an enigmatic figure who keeps popping up.
At 401 pages long, however, I do feel that the story could have done with a little trimming of the fat, so to speak. While I enjoyed my time with the characters in this world, around the midpoint of the novel things felt slowed down significantly without holding my interest in events firmly enough to justify the pace. I never found it unenjoyable, but I feel I would have been more enthralled with a more concise story.
I really liked Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel and would love to see the series expand further with more novels, but I am uncertain how much I would recommend it to someone who has never experienced any Welcome to Night Vale before. Much of what the town is like, as well as the people who reside there, are familiar to me because I have listened to the series. Without that prior experience I wonder how accessible the material would be to someone new.
On the other hand, Jackie and Diane — though they have been mentioned on the show before — have never been all that fleshed out as characters until now. We are given plenty of time to get to know who they are, their place in the world, and just what this strange world is as they move through it. Also, a lot of the bizarre aspects of life in Night Vale — like the fear of librarians — is just as vague yet understandable in the novel as it is in the podcast, meaning prior experience would leave you familiar, but not really any more informed than a newcomer.
If you’re a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, this novel is definitely required reading. If you’re new, but what you’ve heard has intrigued you, give the first episode or two a listen before you start. I don’t feel that it’s absolutely necessary, but it will help make you more familiar with the otherworldliness you’ll experience.