Welcome to Night Vale is a cult multimedia phenomenon. It started life as a podcast, taking the form of broadcasts from a small and isolated American town’s community radio station. Its presenter, Cecil, charts the dramas of Night Vale. The town is full of strange goings on and surreal happenings: part Lovecraftian weirdness and part gothic horror, heavily seasoned with humour. Over time, the podcast has built a complex, multi-layered narrative full of wit, romance and wry observation. And a lot of in-jokes. It has also spawned a stage show, several albums, and now a novel (published today by Orbit, who were kind enough to give me a review copy through NetGalley).
I must admit, I was very apprehensive about the idea of a novelisation of Night Vale. The podcast works because we hear about events in Night Vale from Cecil himself, in short bursts. The actor, Cecil Baldwin, is a major part of the podcast’s success. He has helped to create a very compelling character that we trust and feel great affection for, and has a wonderful storytelling voice. The podcast format enables the writers to play with traditional narrative forms in a very fresh way. I couldn’t see how that would translate to a more traditional prose novel.
But I had no reason to be apprehensive. Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel works incredibly well. The novel steps out of the community radio station, telling the story of Diane, her son Josh and Jackie, a young woman who has been 19 years old for as long as she can remember. It’s a remarkably traditional story given its pedigree. It’s primarily a coming of age story playing out across a mystery that can only be solved by Diane and Jackie. Against the backdrop of an increasingly distanced relationship with her teenage son, Diane seeks to solve the mystery of a disappearing colleague and the reappearance of her son’s father. Jackie, like so many other Night Vale residents, has found herself struck by a mysterious condition: she must perpetually carry around a piece of paper bearing the name of a neighbouring town called King City. The piece of paper cannot be put down or destroyed without reappearing in her hand, and the only words she can write are “King City”. These things are inevitably connected.
There is much here for fans, with plenty of references to events from the podcast, such as the secret city underneath the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. Night Vale is still wheat-free and there is a strong presence from both the Sheriff’s Secret Police and agents from a vague yet menacing government agency. Favourite characters abound, with cameos from Old Woman Josie, Carlos and former radio station intern Dana. Together, Diane and Jackie unravel the mystery of the man in the tan jacket with the deerskin suitcase. And I defy anyone to read the novel without hearing Cecil’s distinctive voice in their heads.
But prior knowledge of the world of Night Vale is not necessary to understand and enjoy the novel. The story makes sense (insofar as anything relating to Night Vale ever makes sense) and flows well. Like everything relating to the town, Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel is strange, unsettling but at the same time beautiful and offering amazingly profound insights into the human condition.
All hail the Glow Cloud.
Goodreads rating: 5*