For four years now a surreal horror story has been broadcast over the tangled nodes of the internet. The podcast Welcome to Night Vale has appeared in twice-monthly installments since June 2012, making it one of the longest running fictional podcasts around. The 100th episode has gone live, which is a good excuse to talk about it. This show has everything: Battles, intrigue, revenge, subterfuge, love, philosophical ruminations on the nature of existence, and interns.
The genius of the show is its format. It’s presented as a radio show, which makes Welcome to Night Vale one of those rarest of fictions – a second-person format that works. As a listener, you are presumably within the isolated town of Night Vale, and affected by and involved with everything that happens there. The format lets the story wander between third-person reports of events in the town and first-person commentary by Cecil, the presenter. Although eminently likable, he is an untrustworthy narrator, projecting his emotions and judgments onto whatever he is reporting. It’s fun hearing the monologues of other people in the town and getting completely different perspectives — it’s a good storytelling technique to have people present their own versions of the truth instead of a monolithic narrative agreed to by everybody. The format also allows for repeating segments, such as the existential nihilism of Traffic and the musical tones of the Weather.
Night Vale is a Poeish and Lovecraftian place, ruled by hooded figures, terrorised by glow clouds, invaded by cities hidden under the bowling alley, and generally harassed by secret government agencies. Anything that happens in an episode, no matter how throw-away a punch-line or bizarre a revelation, is maintained throughout the show. The Faceless Old Lady Who Lives In Your Home was introduced as a creepy concept, and Hiram McDaniels, a literal five-headed dragon, was a metaphor taken literally, but they ran against each other in the Mayoral election. This is what allows the show to work – from the viciousness of librarians to the completely forbidden nature of the dog park, everything is retained and becomes a normal part of the Night Vale world.
Cecil is the announcer of Night Vale Community Radio, and it is his dulcet tones which make up the majority of the podcast. The fact that his voice is so nice to listen to is a main element of the success of the podcast. The normal manner of reporting the weird phenomenon is a sublime juxtaposition, used to great effect. He also adds the main personal element to the show, particularly through his relationship with his boyfriend, delightfully revealed in wistful digressions, interviews and phone messages. A good argument could be made that the show is love story.
Like any great fiction, a lot of meaning can be read into Welcome to Night Vale. The show satirises pretty much everything, starting with the terrifying nature of our bosses. For politics there is a huge race for mayor, complete with dirty tactics and outright threats, but the votes are ignored and the winner (spoiler alert) is ultimately decided by pulses coming from Hidden Gorge. There are arbitrary rules of society that must be followed, places that are off-limits for no explained reason, constant manipulation by secretive organisations, and the peppy evil of conglomerating corporations.
All in all, Welcome to Night Vale has a peculiar aesthetic that will enchant fans of folk horror and bizarre circuses … but beyond that it is a marvelous story, that is well-constructed and superbly performed. Start from the beginning and enjoy the show. The podcast is free, with the writers and crew earning a living by touring live shows, selling related merchandise, and soliciting donations. There’s also a book out.