This week as part of my Throwback Thursday articles I let my eternally awesome editor/wife, Alex, reveal what weirdness she has been reading lately with a guest review of two very fun, if odd, books. Fans of this blog may remember that Alex has previously provided some insightful guest reviews for The Power (soon to be a television series), The Testaments, The Fowl Twins, Pan’s Labyrinth and the latest audiobook versions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. For this latest guest review, Alex dives into the audiobook versions of the tie-in novels associated with the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, written by Joseph Frink and Jeffrey Cranor. Now, I have to admit that despite Alex’s love of Welcome to Night Vale, I honestly do not know much about it, and I was intrigued to see what stories these books featured. If her review of the first two books are anything to go by, I am missing out on some crazy, crazy things by not listening to this podcast.
Alex’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Welcome to Night Vale is a long-running sci-fi podcast that publishes new episodes twice a month. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have been writing the show together for just over 10 years now, and have so far published three books in the canon. I recently found myself in need of some audio entertainment to accompany some long drives, and I decided the soothing baritone of Cecil Baldwin was just the thing I needed, so I started with the first two books, Welcome to Night Vale and It Devours!
Regular listeners of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast will know exactly what to expect from these books. New fans will need to strap in for some weirdness, ranging from the merely strange, like invisible pie and the Glow Cloud (ALL HAIL), to the truly terrifying, like throat spiders and librarians. Time doesn’t work in Night Vale. Angels are real, but it is illegal to acknowledge them (and certainly don’t lend them any spare change when they ask for it). Mountains are real, but not everyone believes in them. There is a faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home, but she’s not usually violent. The best advice I can give is to simply accept everything the narrative tells you, as any law-abiding Night Vale citizen would do.
The Welcome to Night Vale book chiefly follows the adventures of three such Night Vale citizens. Josh Crayton is able to change his form at will, sometimes appearing as an insect or a sentient patch of haze, sometimes sporting huge antlers or the legs of an octopus. Like all teenagers, he’s just trying to learn how to feel comfortable in his body and figure out who he is—and who his father is. His mother, Diane Crayton, is just trying to protect and connect with her son; it’s not easy being a mother in a town so strange and dangerous. But she also finds herself transfixed by the mystery of a newcomer to town, a strange man in a tan jacket, whose name and face you forget as soon as you look away. The man in the tan jacket has also caught the attention of Jackie Fierro, the pawn shop owner, who has been 19 years old for as long as she or anyone can remember—decades or perhaps even centuries. When things are strange enough even for Night Vale locals to take note, you know that very strange things indeed are afoot.
It Devours! introduces Nilanjana, a scientist who is investigating a series of terrible, massive sinkholes which have started appearing all over town. Nilanjana is a newcomer to Night Vale, and unsurprisingly she hasn’t found it easy to join the community. The other major character, Darryl, is a member of the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, a cult-like religion mostly made up of expats from the nearby town of Desert Bluffs. This pair encapsulate the themes of belonging that are so prevalent in this book—the need to belong to a community, even one as strange as Night Vale or as sinister as the Joyous Congregation—as well as the friction between science and religion.
I found that the real treat of these books is that they give you an insight into the internal lives of Night Vale citizens. Since the podcast is almost exclusively presented from the perspective of journalist and community radio host Cecil, a sometimes unreliable narrator, the audience gets only second-hand knowledge of other characters. But since the books take on a more traditional, omniscient style of storytelling, we are treated to a much fuller view of the day-to-day lives and struggles of the people living in this strange town. As such, they very much operate as a character study (especially Welcome to Night Vale, since its protagonists are all pre-existing characters) but there’s also plenty of action to keep the stories moving.
Alex’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Fink and Cranor take care to liberally sprinkle in cameos and references to delight podcast listeners whilst also giving new readers (and those of us who haven’t caught up on the podcast in a while) enough information to go on. At one point in Welcome to Night Vale Carlos the scientist makes an offhand comment about his extensive experience of other worlds, but that he doesn’t like to talk about it. New fans can enjoy this throwaway line as yet another deadpan non-sequitur, but regular listeners will know this refers to a long-running, heartbreaking arc in which Carlos spent a year trapped and isolated in a desert otherworld. It can be hard to tell which elements are simply weird worldbuilding and which are important clues that will assist the characters in their investigations, so the books are full of surprises. The books are also very suspenseful, with the characters facing some kind of peril—physical or psychological—on a regular basis. At one point while listening on a drive, I sat in the carpark for an extra 10 minutes after reaching my destination just to make sure Jackie and Diane made it out of the library alive.
On a similar note, another upshot of the novel format is that the payoff comes much quicker than podcast listeners may be accustomed to. With episodes only released every few weeks, it’s not unusual to have to wait months or even years for some elements to reach a resolution. Here we get a much tighter narrative that arises and resolves itself in a few hundred pages. I would say that It Devours! is the far stronger of the two books, as Fink and Cranor seem to have gotten a better handle on adapting their usual style to the novel format.
Of course the only appropriate narrator for these audiobooks is Cecil Baldwin, who in the podcast portrays Cecil Palmer, the presenter of the community radio show which is the format of most episodes. The books are written in a more traditional novel format but still with the usual Night Vale cadence; when I read the paperback editions when they were first published, I found myself “hearing” Cecil’s voice as I read, so it was a real treat to listen to the audiobooks properly. I also appreciated the use of Disparition’s eerie background music during the chapter interludes, making them feel like they’d been lifted right out of an episode of the podcast.
Overall I really enjoyed the first two Night Vale books, especially It Devours!, but I definitely had the advantage of a fair bit of familiarity with the Night Vale world already. I’m now especially looking forward to finally catching up on the third book, The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home, narrated by my childhood idol Mara Wilson.