Book review: Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

I don’t listen to podcasts. I don’t really process aural media, and it’s not my preferred mode of presenting information, although I know that podcasts are extremely popular and I’m pleased that other people get mileage out of them. They just aren’t my bag. People have tried to convert me, are constantly pushing podcasts on me, are shocked that I don’t listen to Serial or Planet Money, but I just don’t.

With one notable exception: Welcome to Night ValeDespite the fact that it follows the podcast format, it appeals in a deep and visceral way. Something about it reminds me intensely of home; the format, for those unfamiliar, is that of a late-night broadcast at a community radio station. There are community updates, of course, but also rambling thoughts from the announcer, music, and comments on society in general. Except that in Night Vale, things are not ordinary. At all. In a plot that slowly builds on itself over the course of the show — though listeners can drop in at any time — a cast of characters and settings develop, and it becomes even more baroque with each episode. Hooded figures. Bloodstone circles. Librarians. A dog park that no one enters. An abundance of Erikas.

This is by way of saying that I don’t listen to podcasts, but I highly recommend Welcome to Night Vale, which I believe is saying something.

So and thus. With the announcement of a companion novel, I along with the rest of the known Night Vale universe was unspeakably excited. I was hoping to get my hot little hands on a copy at BEA/Book Con, but the crowds proved too much for my fragile sensibilities so I had to wait until one showed up at the bookstore and Emily Lloyd-Jones kindly lent it after waving it over my head and cackling with glee. I promptly sank into it like a stone into a well, soaring high over its gloriousness like an eagle over a mountain (something that is, of course, impossible, because mountains do not exist).

It’s everything you’d expect from the minds behind WTNV. It’s completely Dadaesque and bizarre and nonsensical, but also lyrical and really elegantly crafted, carefully structured and thoughtfully put together. This is a book that feels delicious to roll around in your mouth, and it manages to feel organic rather than pretentious. Fun and whimsical rather than forced. That can be tough with a book that takes place in a fantastical world and one that revolves around a completely absurd environment.

The book is theoretically a standalone, following the adventures of pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro when she falls in with a bad deal, so to speak. It follows her as she tries to unravel a mystery and also tracks other residents of Night Vale in parallel, exploring their own lives and their role in the story Fierro is attempting to figure out. Meanwhile, PTA Treasurer Diane Crayton is trying to salvage her relationship with her son, and she senses a disaster on the way, but she’s powerless to stop it. All of this takes place against the glorious American Gothic backdrop of Night Vale, which delves deep into the most twisted depths of the imagination to turn up the strange, the bizarre, the eerie, the creepy. This is not horror or simplistic spookiness, but a slowly hair-raising way of telling stories that can be decidedly chilling at times while provoking barking laughter at others.

One thing that concerns me about Welcome to Night Vale is how accessible it will be to people who don’t follow the podcast. I loved all the nods, inside jokes, and references to established Night Vale canon and lore as I delved into the book, but I’m not sure non-Night Vale listeners would be able to follow them. It’s hard to tell if they would just slip right by, or if they would lead to a sense of irritation or mystification on the part of readers struggling to keep up and not understanding repeated references to things they don’t know about. Much as it’s annoying when your friends all titter over something at the lunch table and you have no idea what they’re talking about, it’s irritating to read books where you feel like there’s some big secret that you’re not a part of.

I really hope that readers don’t come away feeling this way — and the book is strongly aimed at fans of the podcast, rather than being designed as a hook to draw new listeners in. That said, I want my friends who aren’t listeners to read it simply because it’s a fun book, and also because I hope it gets them to listen to Night Vale so we have another great piece of media to talk about. I’m curious to start seeing reviews from people who don’t listen to the podcast to get their impressions, as this is going to be a huge factor in how well the book succeeds.

For the time being, go read this book. In fact, consider listening to it, because the audiobook performance is amazing, and you shouldn’t expect any less from a book based on what is very much a listening experience. Let the gentle tones of Cecil Baldwin help you understand why so many people are going gaga over this podcast, and then hie thee to the nearest podcast dispensary, where you can download almost the entire body of work for free — with the exception of some live broadcasts, offered at pay-what-you-can prices.