by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Perhaps you’re familiar with the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, created in 2012 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, which takes the form of twice-monthly, roughly-30-minute dispatches from the community radio station in a small, exceptionally weird and yet utterly normal desert town. If you haven’t listened to the podcast, now in its seventh year, perhaps you’ve read the stand-alone novels Welcome to Night Vale or It Devours!, or you may have seen someone wearing a Night Vale Community College or Dark Owl Records t-shirt.
Whether podcasts aren’t your thing, but you’d like to discover how the Night Vale phenomenon started, or you’ve been a fan since way back when and want to read along with your favorite episodes, Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 1 (2016) and The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 2 (2016) have something for everyone looking for a little bit of paradoxical strangeness and comfort.
Episodes of Welcome to Night Vale typically follow a formula. Cecil Palmer, the host of the eponymous radio show, reads a teaser (“Trust everyone.” “Today’s air quality is mauve and speckled.” “Life is like a box of chocolates: unopened, dusty, and beginning to attract a lot of insects.”), welcomes listeners to Night Vale, and then delivers community updates and news progressing from odd to bad to horrifying, ads from sponsors (which are never what you think they’ll be), traffic reports (ditto), and the weather (a song, usually by indie artists), after which he wraps up however that day’s crisis has been either averted or pushed off until another day. Each episode ends with a proverb read by Meg Bashwiner: “Ask your doctor if right is left for you.” “What has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening? I don’t know, but I trapped it in my bedroom. Send help.” “You won’t sleep when you’re dead, either.”
Episodes which deviate from the formula are special in some way. Maybe the radio station’s been overthrown by a hostile neighboring community or a soulless corporate entity that only exists to fulfill its own extreme capitalist greed. Maybe the episode is given over to monologues read by voice actors who provide insight into other residents of Night Vale — The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your House, Cecil’s nemesis/brother-in-law Steve Carlsberg, Dark Owl Records owner Michelle Nguyen, and others. Sometimes Cecil’s broadcast is interrupted by strange transmissions, sometimes callers are featured with questions or their own commentary, and sometimes Cecil invites guests into his booth. Even if you’re reading the scripts with no audio accompaniment, the individual character voices are easily recognizable as discrete from Cecil’s, adding to the sense that this is a diverse and eccentric town.
Each episode is preceded by a short essay, typically by Fink or Cranor in an exploration of their creative process and the evolution of their podcast from barely-known project to worldwide sensation, or by Cecil Baldwin (who plays Cecil Palmer) and his evolving relationship with the show and with the character, but occasionally written by contributing writers and voice actors who want to talk about their experiences within the overall Night Vale community. The scripts themselves contain stage directions for when the speaker should pause or exit, or notes like “[Sound of predatory birds for thirty to forty-five seconds],” for example. Sometimes, there are differences between what the script dictates and what an actor actually says, evoking the ways in which performative art is a living, shifting thing that responds to an actor’s instincts or the audience’s feedback. Considering that Fink, Cranor, and Baldwin all met in the NYC theatre scene, it’s not a surprise that they would bring those sensibilities to this venture.
Additionally, each episode is beautifully illustrated by Jessica Hayworth, whose detailed pen-and-ink drawings range from something as superficially mundane as a collection of buttons, to a turkey sandwich with the word “HARLOT” written on it, to a two-headed and multi-eyed deer. Her artwork matches the appealingly off-putting sensibility of Welcome to Night Vale, which seems like it ought to be an oxymoron, and yet is the best descriptor I have of this weird, wonderful show. See more examples below.
Mostly Void, Partially Stars (with an introduction by Cory Doctorow) features the scripts for Episodes #1 through #25, along with the script for the first live show, “Condos,” first performed in 2013. I strongly recommend reading Episodes 1 – 3, “Pilot,” “Glow Cloud, and “Station Management,” in sequence, since a surprising amount of foreshadowing for later key figures and events is seeded herein: the forbidden Dog Park, the City Council, Old Woman Josie and the angels (all named Erika), the Glow Cloud, the Sherriff’s Secret Police and their hunt for fugitive and “literal five-headed dragon” Hiram McDaniels, the blood-curdling entities comprising Station Management, and so much more. These three episodes alone, with their unique combination of charm and terror that pervades the entirety of the concept that is Night Vale, are the best litmus test for whether Night Vale is right for you.
Some of my other favorite episodes to listen to while reading along with the scripts are #13, “A Story About You,” which both is and isn’t exactly what it sounds like it should be; #14, “The Man in the Tan Jacket,” in which a central figure in the Welcome to Night Vale novel makes his first (but certainly not last) appearance; and episodes #19A and #19B, “The Sandstorm,” in which Night Vale makes contact with the nearby community of Desert Bluffs and things become even stranger than they already are. It’s easy to be lulled into accepting Night Vale’s version of “normal,” a purely subjective concept on its face, and then to be confronted with Desert Bluff’s version of “normal” is … unpleasant, to say the least.
The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe (with an introduction by Maureen Johnson) features the scripts for Episodes #26 through #49, along with the script for the second live show, “The Debate,” first performed in 2013. In the second season, readers learn about the different colors of helicopters flying overhead and their significance, the numbers station endlessly broadcasting in a neutral female voice, the back-biting and underhanded dealing behind the scenes of the mayoral election, and the benefits of a young readers program at your local library. There is heartache, loss, love, revolution, reminders that “We must be the heroes we look for in others,” and exhortations to trust in the wisdom of a smiling god.
Mostly Void, Partially Stars and The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe draw readers and listeners who feel adrift in our reality into a world in which they might find a home; in which “a vague yet menacing government agency” openly observes you rather than hiding in the shadows; and invisible corn is the wave of the agricultural future. The scope of Welcome to Night Vale is wide-ranging and yet intimate, inviting people to immerse themselves in the daily happenings of this town where “conspiracy theories are real” and seemingly anything is possible (except mountains).
ALL HAIL THE GLOW CLOUD.