How to write a review of something whose own creator describes as “weird and impossible to describe”? At its simplest, Welcome to Night Vale, produced by Commonplace Books, is a fortnightly audio podcast in the format of a radio news broadcast from the fictional American desert town of Night Vale. However, Night Vale is not what we would recognise as an ordinary town, it is a weird and shadowy place where the laws of physics don’t always work and where behind every corner lurk eldritch abominations, ancient conspiracies and “vague yet menacing” government agencies.
This is a premise pregnant with possibilities and Welcome to Night Vale makes full use of them. While such themes are usually used in horror fiction this podcast takes the bolder step of turning them into a comedy. In a manner somewhat similar to Joss Whedon’s highly enjoyable The Cabin in the Woods the podcast takes an almost perverse pleasure in smashing together as many different horror and dark fantasy tropes as possible – deconstructing them and seeing how they interact.
Sometimes this is taken to the levels of absurdity – such as how candidates in Night Vale’s mayoral elections include “The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home” and Hiram McDaniels, who is “literally a five headed dragon”. Other times it is done far more subtly. Yet _Welcome to Night Vale _never descends into outright farce. It always manages to maintain a wonderfully unsettling and otherworldly atmosphere.
This is due, in no small part, to the podcast’s main character – wonderfully smooth voiced radio presenter Cecil Palmer. This is not because Cecil himself is in any way particularly unusual – indeed he often seems close to the perfect everyman. Yet it is precisely his normality in the face of the weirdness around him, and his instinctive acceptance that this weirdness is normal, that ultimately shows the listener how different the world of Night Vale is from our own comfortable experiences.
Initially Cecil starts out as a simple commentator on the goings on in the town. However, his personality is gradually and effectively developed. We get to see him as a complex and highly likeable character and, through his interactions with, and descriptions of, other townsfolk, we get to see them in the same way. Welcome to Night Vale manages to insert some real moments of character drama among the humour – making us really care for all these people, and entities, despite their ‘eccentricities’. It might sound that trying to do so many different things at once may end up a mess, yet this podcast somehow manages it – creating a wonderful celebration of the weird and esoteric – showing us that even that which is frightening can be beautiful.
Despite having gone on for over a year and a half now Welcome to Night Vale continues to feel fresh and innovative. The show’s creative team is not afraid to explore new format ideas and there are regular guest contributors – both to the writing and music. The podcast reminds me of other similar comedy shows of a similar format – such as Radio 4’s Bigipedia – however I have never listened to anything that was quite so imaginative and daring, both in terms of style as well as content, as Welcome to Night Vale. All of the episodes are available free online so there is no excuse for you not to check them out. With thirty nine episodes having already been released, and a companion novel on the way, there is a lot to catch up – but I can promise you that you won’t be disappointed by this unique podcast.
_See commonplacebooks.com/welcome-to-night-vale for more information and to purchase _Welcome to Night Vale merchandise. The show can be streamed, for free, from http://podbay.fm/show/536258179.