Tag Archives: magical surrealism

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

Review: Candy Girl

Candy Girl by Chikodili Emelumadu is the other story I am to review for my writing course, and I didn’t like it nearly as much as We’ll Be Together Forever. It deals with much the same subject matter in much the same way, and the writing is poetic enough, so it took me a while to work out why I didn’t really like it. After my first reading I could only say that it seemed less believable – which is an odd criticism for stories about functioning magic – but on rereading it I realised the problem was the characters.

The main man in the story, Paul, the villain, does not seem like a real person. He has a long list of negative qualities – weak, obedient, obsequious, self-serving, tries to force his way into another culture, arrogant, entitled – and absolutely zero positive qualities, except maybe attractive toes. Personality-wise, he is more like a puppy that no-one finds cute than a human. He certainly does things that a puppy would do but no man would do.

The other characters are also cookie-cutter characters but less fleshed out. What we know of the main character Muna (not really the protagonist, she doesn’t do much) is that she can’t tell the difference between zombies and mummies, even when the name of one of them is in the movie she’s referencing, and is apparently stupid enough to date a man with every type of patheticness and absolutely no redeeming qualities.

Her cousin, Ginika, is only slightly better. We know she’s hyper-violent, visits Nigeria a lot, and is smart enough to get a scholarship to a posh school. Then there’s the magic-user Ozulu, who is a generic magic-user who despises those who don’t understand the forces they’re playing with.

Bearing all this in mind, particularly that the most fleshed-out character was Paul, the story reads as nothing more than an attack on the kinds of men the author doesn’t like, all wrapped up into a single character. I suspect it was published because the setting is exotic; the descriptions of the Nigerian town are beautiful and evocative.

To be fair, it’s possible I may have found the plot more interesting if I hadn’t just read another story with basically the same plot. If I’d read Candy Girl first I may have been less interested in We’ll Be Together Forever, but it wouldn’t change the fact that I find the characters in the latter far more believable than the characters here.

Review: We’ll Be Together Forever

I’ll start by saying that We’ll Be Together Forever by Joseph Allen Hill is the best story I can remember reading in Lightspeed Magazine*. It’s a magical surrealist story looking at the way two people relate to each other in a relationship that probably should have ended a fair while before the story starts.

The characters and their relationship are fleshed out in the first tenth of the story: The man who wants to push the relationship to the next level irrespective of the wishes of the woman, who has inferiority issues; the woman who is passive-aggressive and doesn’t seem to really care about the man but is to lazy to end the relationship and strike out on her own. The relationship is basically the man nagging the woman into having the deeper relationship he wants while the woman distances herself from the man to keep the relationship shallow, the way she wants.

The story could be read as an allegory for the most likely outcome if these people stay together – he absorbs her completely so she no longer appears to exist, but she controls him from inside the relationship so he never really does what he wants to do.

It’s the magical surrealism of the story that kept me hooked. The absurd and peculiar turns the story takes, getting creepier and more disturbing, until finally the end arrives with the promise that, for the characters, the horrorshow will continue for the rest of their lives.


*There probably have been others – I have a hard time remembering what magazine my favourite short stories were in – but the preferences of John Joseph Adams often don’t mesh with my own.