Book Review: WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE

The first time I heard of Night Vale, it was early 2012 and through the posting and re-sharing magic of the internet, the great purple eye caught my attention. I listened to a couple episodes, but I didn’t really get it, and it slipped from my mind. Many months later, long after the Great Tumblr Explosion of July 2012, I had a craft project. It required both hands, and while I enjoyed the process, I wanted something else to occupy my mind beyond counting cross stitches. It occurred to me to give Night Vale another shot, and I did, and I fell in love.

In the time since then, I’ve kept up with the podcast episodes as they are released. I even attended one of their live shows in Buffalo, NY earlier this year. Welcome to Night Vale is one of the most compelling success stories of the internet–a handful of artists deciding to make a thing regardless of audience, and meeting enormous, international success.

All this is to say that I had a bit of a bias going in to reading their newest project–WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE: A NOVEL. I already like it, and am intimately familiar with their blend of the mundane and the macabre. Yet despite my love of the delightfully strange podcast, I was a titch skeptical about experiencing the world through a different medium. What would Night Vale be like not through Cecil’s lens?

I needn’t have been worried. This book is one of the best things I’ve read. One of the beauties of Night Vale is how seamlessly they transition through moods–humor to drama to philosophy to surrealism to suspense and back again. But at the heart of all the gorgeous weirdness are the stories of people. Yes, it’s a town where all conspiracy theories are real, and there are lizard people and secret police and sentient patches of haze and Glow Clouds that dump roadkill and serve on the PTA. But it’s not about all that. It’s about normal people, in a confusing and incomprehensible world. People who must try and deal with the cognitive dissonance of being alive and understand the many contradictory messages from each other and the void. Just like, you know, us.

The show is often praised for its diversity of characters, and the book takes it even further. One of the main characters is a single mother to a 15-year-old, and the scenes between her and her son are beautiful and heartbreaking. Never before have I read text that so completely captures the frustration and desperate love between a parent and a teenager testing the limits. There are many, many other brilliant character moments and searingly true philosophical asides, but the scenes with Josh and Diane stand out in their quiet, fractured elegance.

Let’s talk pacing. My readers shall note that one of my frequent issues is in books taking too much time to get somewhere. In writing advice outlets, people tend to say “get to the action” in the beginning of the book, and frankly that’s not usually the problem I see. Catch reader’s attention immediately–most people do that, at least within the first 30 pages. Authors do, however, tend to get lost/lazy/confused in the middle of their book, perhaps assuming they have us hooked, perhaps wanting to take a breath before the exciting climax. I totally understand, author, you have a lot to say, but books have to have a shape, and that shape (in my opinion) should not be saggy in the middle.

NIGHT VALE is a perfectly imperfect example of what a book SHOULD be. There’s no flash-bang. It’s a slow burn. It’s atmospheric. The text pulls the reader through like a boat on a chain, carefully drawing us to the other side.The authors also know when to dial up and down the tension, resulting in a few legitimately terrifying and yet quite simple scenes. This is art, and it is wonderful to behold.

I have one–exactly one–complaint with the book. The podcast is narrated by Night Vale Community Radio host Cecil Palmer, and (nearly) every episode ends with his sign-off “Good night, Night Vale. Good night.” The book does not. I have issue with
this for two reasons. First, the penultimate scene ends with the sign-off, and it was a lovely wrap-up–only I turned the page and suddenly there was another scene with a freaking 3-page sentence and I just don’t think it needed to be there. Secondly, in the text, one of the main characters remarks how much she enjoys Cecil’s nightly sign-off, so it would just make narrative sense. But honestly, defying expectations is how the creators of NIGHT VALE do it, down to a sentence-by-sentence level, so the off-kilter ending doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But I still don’t like it.

Night Vale is hard to pin down. When I describe it to others, I tend to say something like “if Neil Gaiman and Stephen King wrote NPR” or “if H.P. Lovecraft had a humor talk show”. Regardless of what it is really like, everyone should give it a shot. Pull the blinds, settle down with a refreshing beverage, ignore the mysterious lights that pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep, and let Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor put a little more weird in your day.

Last week the book opened at #4 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and it absolutely deserves it. Go check it out on Amazon, if only to read the hilarious reviews.

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