Tag Archives: peculiar

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: 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.

Are All The Men You’ve Loved Before Living In Your Brain?

The idea that a person can be invaded by other human cells, which then go on to live and probably reproduce in the host body, following their own hidden agenda, is a reasonably disconcerting one. However, we’ve known for a long time this happens, and not just freak accidents like a twin getting absorbed in the womb; fetus cells often cross the placenta and take up residence in their mother’s bodies, and remain there for the life of the mother.

The easiest way to detect this is to look for y-chromosomes in women – if there is one, it’s due to microchimerism, where there are some male cells living in the female body. But now there’s this: Male microchimerism in women without sons: quantitative assessment and correlation with pregnancy history. This study found that one in five women were male microchimeric, which is a huge figure even if it’s skewed by women who had induced abortions (where one in two are male microchimeric).

chimeraWe can infer some things from this. First, total microchimerism is probably double that reported, since there’s no real reason to assume that male cells are better at colonising a mother’s body than female cells, they’re just easier to detect. If we assume there is no greater tendency to abort male fetuses than female fetuses, we can also infer than effectively everyone who had an induced abortion is microchimeric and carries with them the cells of the fetus. This is the sort of creepy detail that can lead to b-grade horror sci-fi stories, but it can also be considered beautiful and romantic: No fetus really dies, it lives on within the mother. There’s also a high chance that any dead child continues to live in the body of its mother. I guess it depends on your point of view.

However, perhaps the most interesting result from the study was that of the women who had only had daughters 8% were male microchimeric, and the nulligravid (never-pregnant women) had a rate of 10% of male microchimerism. There are two ways to look at this. The first:

Sperm is alive. It is living cells. When it is injected into you it swims and attaches and burrows into your flesh. If its in your mouth it swims and climbs into your nasal passages, inner ear, and behind your eyes. Then digs in. It enters your blood stream and collects in your brain and spine. Like something out of a sci-fi movie.

This rather frenzied interpretation is the result of the conclusion stating: “Besides known pregnancies, other possible sources of male microchimerism include unrecognized spontaneous abortion, vanished male twin, an older brother transferred by the maternal circulation, or sexual intercourse.” Again, some people may consider it romantic that women carry around the living cells of the men they sleep with, and it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “he got under my skin”. However, I think it unlikely that sperm manage to invade and survive in a woman’s body considering that: a) It’s a very hostile environment for sperm, and b) If the sperm don’t join with an egg cell they die in a few days. They can’t reproduce on their own because they only have one set of chromosomes.

So the second point of view is that all of those “freak accidents” that cause microchimerism that we think are so rare, like a vanished twin or maternal circulation, are actually far more common than we thought. Not just in women, either – a lot of these can apply to men too.

If you’re sitting around a campfire late at night this might raise other questions as well, such as: What does it mean for how we view an organism? Does it change our sense of self? Does it count as “consuming human flesh”?

(Here’s a story about Evil Sperm)