Book/Author and Year Published: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (2015)
Age/Genre: Horror/Fantasy/Paranormal Fiction, Podcast-based Novel
Preferred Reading Environment: Somewhere you feel safe, like a lawn with no flamingos present or in your house, close to where the Secret Police poorly hid their microphone in case you feel the need to call them for help.
Reading Accoutrements: Warm milk and cookies!
Content Notes: Parental abandonment, some mild gore, moments of intense suspense
Today is International Podcast Day! I don’t listen to a ton of podcasts, but I did know that there are several podcasts that are based on books, have books based on them, or talk about book-related topics.
Welcome to Night Vale is based on the podcast of the same name that was originally released in 2012 and is still going. The book was written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of the podcast, so this isn’t fan-fiction – it’s just fiction. It’s fantasy/paranormal fiction, which is usually right up my alley. But it’s also horror fiction, which I really should have thought about before I started reading…Horror is not my favorite genre. I really prefer fast-paced action/suspense thrillers to the horror genre as a whole, probably because horror moves slower to build suspense and usually leaves you with unanswered questions that niggle at you for days, years, and decades later…*shudders*
Jeriann: Coincidentally, that is exactly what I love about horror.
The format of the podcast is a radio show with a single host – Cecil Gershwin Palmer – who delivers the traffic, weather, and news bulletins for the fictional desert town of Night Vale, where strange events are always occurring. The podcast uses longform story-telling techniques, so characters and their arcs develop over extended periods of time. Individual episodes of the podcast come across like a community radio station, with small and seemingly inconsequential news shared every episode, so that you have to listen for a while to discover the overarching plot.
The book, by necessity, takes a different approach to storytelling. The narrative is delivered by a third person narrator, who follows characters one at a time – with occasional radio scripts interspersed to provide context about the town. The narrator primarily follows two women: a perpetually 19-year-old pawn shop owner (Jackie) and a working-but-isolated single mother of a shape shifting teenage boy (Diane). While the two have nothing in common and, in fact, do not get along very well, their lives become entwined when they are (separately) visited by a mysterious man in a tan jacket carrying a deer skin briefcase. Because the novel is comprised of two dissimilar characters on converging plot paths, it occasionally rewinds and retells an event from a different perspective, which was pretty confusing at first.
I was super confused by the pawn shop owner’s “age.” The narrator says that Jackie is 19, she was 19 when she took over running the pawn shop, and has been 19 for many, many years. In fact, one of her high school friends (who aged normally and was in her late-50s at the time) once asked her if she’d ever thought of just turning 20. But later in the book, it is evident that Jackie’s parents have not aged. The narrator uses the fact that Jackie “cannot remember” specifics – like when she doesn’t recognize her mother or her childhood home – to mask the details, so it is unclear what her real age is. Jackie continuously talks about the fact that she has been 19 for many decades, yet contextually, it seems like very little time has actually passed between Jackie taking over the pawn shop and the events of this book. HOW OLD IS SHE, REALLY??? I still don’t know. I guess that’s just another weird thing about Night Vale…time doesn’t exactly work.
As I mentioned before, the town of Night Vale is…odd…to put it mildly. There is a Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, a being who simultaneously lives in every house in Night Vale. Librarians are violent beings that makes a trip to the library a bit like a visit to a cyclops’s lair to retrieve a golden fleece. There is a glowing cloud that hypnotizes the town. People have warm milk drawers in their kitchens (yes, they are drawers that are full of warm milk. I know, I think it sounds gross, too). All of this is conveyed to us by a matter-of-fact narrator as if we should already know and understand what is happening and why. Night Vale seems to be located somewhere in the southwestern United States, although it is definitely located in some alternate dimension; there is a World Government and while every other city is, apparently, “normal,” it is an open secret that Night Vale is weird. Vague, but menacing government agencies watch the citizens. Usually, when I read a book that takes place in such a disparate universe, I have very little trouble accepting the “new reality” and enjoying the plot. But Night Vale has a few aspects that exist in our reality but have been changed for the purpose of making Night Vale strange and they. bugged. me. Here they are:
- Scientists in Night Vale are very unscientific by our standards. Their scientific methods consist of hooking odd items up to computers and then writing stuff (usually unrelated) on clipboards until the computer spits out a card with information on it. I guess things in Night Vale don’t fit into the mould of the world we live in, but this is kind of a mean depiction of scientists. I know I have a soft spot for scientists because my family is full of them. I do enjoy some depictions of “bad” scientists, like Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb. He obviously doesn’t test his theories with the scientific process, but Phineas and Ferb counter that behavior with good practices (mostly, it is a children’s show, after all). The depiction in this book just seems to dismiss science in general, and that’s why it bugs me.
- As bad as the universe of Night Vale makes scientists seem, librarians are worse. All I could think was, “What the heck do the creators of this podcast/book have against librarians? What happened to them as children? Did they have a bad date with a librarian once? It’s like the creators of Night Vale hate all sources of knowledge…” As I spoke to Jeriann about my feelings, she mentioned that a common horror trick is to make the scariest stuff come from seemingly safe places or people. She said that librarians are likely scary in Night Vale because the creators see libraries as safe places, which makes sense. I just wish the creators hadn’t thrown in jokes calling book-readers crazy and stupid.
As I prepared for this review, I read several reviews from a couple of different sources. A lot of the reception was positive, but I noticed that there were quite a few negative reviews. What I found odd was the very different audiences who read and did not like Welcome to Night Vale. It didn’t matter if the reviewer was an avid listener of the podcast or had never listened to the podcast before, if they liked paranormal things or didn’t usually, etc., the review ended in, “This was not a good book.” Several people thought that the book had no point and went nowhere. Conversely, there was a niche of readers – many fans of the podcast and people who had never listened to the podcast before reading the book – thought that it was good. Surprisingly, I fell into the latter category.
I have already mentioned that I am not a fan of horror; I did not begin this book believing that I would love it. At the beginning, the slow build of the characters had me bouncing off the walls and wondering where it was going. Once the problem was (partially) introduced, I was intrigued by the uniqueness of the situation and I kept reading. But the middle had me slogging. Suddenly, the pace slowed and I was struggling to convince myself to keep going. I might have given up if I wasn’t determined to write this blog post. This is the primary complaint I saw in the reviews I read – that you get a certain distance into the book and the momentum comes to a hard stop.
The end of the book actually shocked me. If you are a fan of horror, you might find the ending a bit of a drag. The best way I can describe Welcome to Night Vale without giving anything away is to say that it is about normal people with normal problems who are surrounded by – and immersed in – weirdness. Paranormal-, fantasy-, and horror-specific events occur around the town and, meanwhile, completely normal people live their lives never questioning the oddities that surround them.
This book would appeal to a very niche market of people who like paranormal, fantasy, or horror fiction that resolves personal conflicts but doesn’t give answers to the mysteries of the universe. I was surprised to be a member of that niche.
Have you ever been surprised to like a book in a genre you don’t normally enjoy?