Category Archives: noir

Review: 100 Episodes of Night Vale

Welcome to NightvaleFor 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.

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Radio Monash

The Monsters At 23:59:60

In the slivers of time that slip by unseen and unnoticed, they lurk.

When the world shifts, and the day hiccups, they steal atoms of time from the temporal weave of our lives, collecting them, stockpiling for the moment when they will have enough to rend the fabric of reality and invade.

At that point in time — for it will be only a single, eternal point in time — they will do everything they need to do to ensure our destruction, and everything they want to do to enjoy our agony and despair.

An eternity will pass in a sliver of time none of us even noticed missing.

In these modern times, no-one believes in the monsters in the dark…the deep dark that lacks not light, but time. Nevertheless, the monsters are there, and I can prove it.

Scientists, in their endless desire to dissect and quantify everything, fiddle with the very basis of our civilisation, time itself. Every now and then, when the whim takes them, they announce an extra second to a random day. An extra second that is not a part of time. An extra second that takes us, momentarily, out of our time stream.

You won’t notice any significant difference, for your brain will ignore anything peculiar it encounters, then overwrite it with the familiar and mundane. Most of you will be asleep.

For that second, however, and just for that second, a creepy sensation may invade your being, and in the corner of your eye you may glimpse the monstrous beings that steal and horde shards of our time. They are not patient for they do not wait for there is no time for them to wait in, but they are always there, and for this one second you may detect them.

So as this “leap second” approaches relax, let your mind wander, have a few drinks (though not too many), and roll your head, slightly and slowly. As the clock strikes 23:59:60 on the night of June 30, at the ragged edges of what you see, the edges your brain ignores, they will edge into your sight. You’ll jerk your head, an automatic and irrepressible response to better see the horrors you’ve glimpsed, but that jerk of the head will bring them directly before your eyes, and your meat-brain will steadfastly ignore their existence.

The second will pass, and you won’t see them again. You may laugh to yourself, you may chuckle at your “jumping at shadows”, and your neurons will seek to bury the memory as deep as they can.

But your soul will remember. Forever and always, your soul will remember.

Ingredients of a Noir/Punk Story

I’m exploring the x-punk genres, and one of the aspects is the noir feel of the stories. The setting is dark and foreboding, people – including the heroes – operate on the edge of the law, the endings are usually less happy than not completely depressing. So I read Bad Girls by Max Scratchmann again – it’s a collection of eight short stories written in the 1980s – and it’s got those noir aspects as well as the hyper-descriptive language that tends to be used, language that makes the reader feel the grime and the characters attitudes. As an example: “A letter had clung gastropod-like to my mat and there was something familiar, sticky-sweet and nauseating about the fawning tilt of the handwriting. Violet ink on faintly scented lilac paper.”

I noticed another aspect of the genre that I had previously missed: Abuse of power. In one of the stories there is a policewoman working as a collector for a crime gang who coerces the women she collects from to sleep with her, which is a fairly blatant abuse of power. The stories that really fit the noir feel have the same thing, some abuse of power that has to be tolerated, handled or, for reader satisfaction, punished. In x-punk stories, this tends to be someone who is so rich/powerful they can effectively ignore the law with no repercussions. In Neuromancer, for example, this is the Tessier-Ashpool family. The story I’m writing already has a rich family of inherited wealth, so it should be easy to slip in some power-abuse.