Podcast Review: Welcome to Night Vale
Written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Narrated by Cecil Baldwin. Produced by Night Vale Presents. 2012-2017.
Reviewed by Joshua Pederson, Boston University
It’s hard to overestimate the uniqueness of Welcome to Night Vale, the podcast that took the world—or at least the iTunes Store—by storm a few years back. The community radio broadcast from a fictional desert berg is as thoroughly strange as it is addictive. Yet it’s easy to tease out its influences. Imagine if every episode of The Twilight Zone were set in the same city; Night Vale is that city’s radio news. Or even better, imagine if Garrison Keillor started broadcasting from Twin Peaks rather than Lake Wobegon. In either case, homespun weirdness is the goal.
A big part of the podcast’s fun comes from the huge variety of paranormal and supernatural experiences it features. Yes, there are aliens and secret government conspiracies. (Surely, creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor watched The X-Files as adolescents.) But there are also angels living in an old woman’s house on the edge of town. And mysterious hooded figures haunting a dog park. There is an underground city hidden beneath the pin retrieval area of lane five at the local bowling alley. And a cat suspended forever in space above the sink in the station bathroom. Simply put, the canny and the uncanny mix and mingle so closely in Night Vale that the line between them (as Freud once predicted) eventually just disappears. Yet Fink and Cranor play this mingling for laughs as often as they do for chills, and their knack for comedy saves the podcast from feeling cumbersome or self-serious. To their credit, the Night Vale creators never forget that science fiction and camp live just a few doors apart on the same road.
But to focus on the podcast’s pop-culture roots or its tantalizing play with genre is to miss its literary qualities. Fink and Cranor admit to being scrupulous editors of each of the hundred or so episode scripts, passing each back and forth many times during marathon editing sessions. And the voice of Night Vale (Cecil, played by Cecil Baldwin) pronounces each word with such care, such focus, that one can’t help but notice how hard the writers are trying to find the mot juste—to wrench poetry from prose. This slippage comes to a head in an early episode called “Poetry Week,” in which the sheriff’s secret police force residents to write hundreds of thousands of pages of verse in a compelled demonstration of civic pride. Some are hilarious. Some are just good. Here is a snippet of one:
On Sunday, a lambent crevice
opened up in the street outside my house.
By Tuesday, birds were flying into it.
“I probably won’t miss you,” my mother said.
“I’m only interested in the end of the world,” I replied.
Many find it difficult to breathe
without the atmosphere,
but we knew how;
we just stopped breathing. (Episode 20)
Maybe we catch a bit of Elizabeth Bishop here. Maybe Larry Levis. Yet if Night Vale has a literary father, surely it is Samuel Beckett. (Beckett too wrote radio plays—which remain some of his most under-appreciated works.) In Night Vale as in, say, Endgame, the creep of existential dread is never far off. And yet in both, our pained attempts to make meaning in a meaningless universe are often occasions for a black humor. (After all, as Beckett famously writes, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”) Here is one of those occasions, in the form of a school superintendent’s report:
The Night Vale School District announces that schools will be closed all of next week, because nothing really matters, and is anything even real? They cited the ever-widening night sky as the impetus for this decision. “How can we place any importance on something so insignificant as math or spelling or history when the void has already swallowed our tiny existence? We are ants, crushed daily by the indifferent feet of the universe, and – it’s just no good anymore! We can’t carry on like this,” the School Board said, swigging on a bottle of table wine and bobbing their heads weakly. (Episode 22)
In giving wide audience to such delectable strangeness, Cranor, Fink, and Baldwin demonstrate the alluring potential of the podcast to host more daring generic and formal experiments than we’re likely to see in other media. I for one can’t wait for the next hundred episodes.
Night Vale Presents. Welcome to Night Vale. Written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Narrated by Cecil Baldwin, 2012-2017, http://www.welcometonightvale.com/. Accessed 1 April 2017.