Welcome to Night Vale

"Close your eyes. Let my words wash over you. You are safe now. Welcome to Night Vale."

I first heard about Welcome to Night Vale a few months ago on Facebook, but it wasn’t until I saw it mentioned a few more times on Twitter that I started paying attention and decided to investigate. Now, approximately twelve episodes into its current stable of thirty-two episodes, I’m really glad I did, and I’m surprised it took me this long to discover it. (Probably because I don’t spend much time on Tumblr.) So what is Night Vale?

In an article last August, Wired called Welcome to Night Valethe #1 podcast on iTunes you didn’t know existed.” And it’s true: Night Vale did become the most downloaded podcast on iTunes that month, surpassing even NPR’s darling This American Life, and there are still people who haven’t heard about it, though it’s been out for more than a year. It’s primarily a one-man show: a radio announcer delivering community news and updates from the fictional Southwestern town of Night Vale, which is described in the pilot episode as “a friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.” Like Eerie, Indiana, Night Vale is seemingly the center of weirdness for the entire planet. But the catch is, the strange and absurd are business as usual for Night Vale denizens, just another part of the fabric of life. And death.

Night Vale reminds me a bit of The Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks, blended up with a film you also may not have heard of, Pontypool (2009), which follows a radio anchor who keeps broadcasting through what seems to be a zombie apocalypse. Night Vale’s narrator, actor Cecil Baldwin, is riveting as he relays, comments on, and sometimes reenacts local events such as a rift in space and time opening during a PTA meeting and unleashing pterodactyls on the town.

The writing is superb: funny, witty, thoughtful, and provocative. Through two 23-minute-ish episodes each month, Night Vale comes alive, frequently building on events and references from previous episodes, developing a small, but interesting world filled with oddities like the dog park that no one is supposed to visit, or even talk about; the cat hovering near a sink in the Night Vale Radio men’s room; a glowing cloud that rains dead animals of increasing size over the town; and a sudden outbreak of deadly wheat and wheat by-products. There are parallel universes, doppelgangers, and time travel too — so of course I’m going to like that. And, like the very best fandoms, there is already a ton of fan art and fan fiction out there. The show’s creators have even been performing live episodes around the country, some of which can be seen online.

“In other health news, the Night Vale Council for Commerce reminds you to regularly consume wheat and wheat by-products. By doing so, you are directly supporting the local Night Vale farmer, as well as the local Night Vale commodities conglomerates. Looking for a snack? Try wheat, or a wheat by-product. Dinner? Wheat and/or its by-product. Trying to patch a leaky roof? We have just the thing for you, and we also have its by-products. Wheat and wheat by-products. By Americans, for Americans, in Americans, watching Americans.” — Episode 11, “Wheat & Wheat By-Products”

There’s also a growing cast of bizarre and bizarrely likeable characters, including Carlos, the stunningly beautiful scientist studying the local phenomena whom Cecil fancies and one of my favorites, John Peters, whose name is always followed by, “you know, the farmer?” (It seems other voices are heard in some of the later episodes, including Jasika Nicole, who played Astrid Farnsworth on Fringe!) But the most likeable personality of all is Cecil himself. His charming voice in your earbuds is strangely comforting, and it’s easy to relate to him. Another regular feature of the show, which is hit or miss for me, is the “weather segment” — musical selections from independent musicians.

One of the barriers to me listening to podcasts on a regular basis is that I don’t have an iPhone, and I hadn’t looked into subscription apps for my Samsung S3. But the solution seems to be Podbay for Android, which is admittedly buggy. Until I have caught up completely, it has replaced This American Life as what I listen to while walking my dog; it turns out, Welcome to Night Vale is a perfect companion on a walk in a dark, woodsy area. Just as long as you aren’t going to the dog park.

The show is written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and produced by Joseph Fink.
You can listen to Welcome to Night Vale at iTunes or via your podcatcher of choice. If you give it a chance, listen to two or three episodes; it took that long for me to get a real sense of the show and appreciate what it’s doing, and it’ll take no more time than watching the pilot for one of the new fall dramas — and frankly, it’s better than most of them.

“Now, it is dark. It is quiet. Just you and me, dear listener. Just my voice, traveling from this microphone, traveling silent and immediate across sleepy homes and lost souls to your ears. You curl under a blanket, protecting your body from the world — excepting a few clever spiders — and you are listening, hearing me.
 “Sleep heavily and know that I am here with you now. The past is gone, and cannot harm you anymore. And while the future is fast coming for you, it always flinches first, and settles in as the gentle present. This now, this us, we can cope with that. We can do this together, you and I. Drowsily, but comfortably.
 “Stay tuned now for our two-hour special, Car Alarms and Their Variations, brought to you commercial-free by Canada Dry.” — Episode 12, “The Candidate”


Unknown said...

I recommend BeyondPod for Android podcasts. I've used it on both Galaxy S3 and S4. Will have to give this a listen!

E.C. Myers said...

Thanks, Natasha! I'll download and try that one tonight.

Polter-Cow said...

I use BeyondPod too!

J.S. Davidson said...

Ah, another Night Vale fan. I found out about the podcast through Tumblr. :)

The writing is indeed superb. It was such a wonderful idea, as well, and what they've done with it is amazing.

E.C. Myers said...

Thank you again for your recommendations of BeyondPod! It's great. I'm going to upgrade to the paid version.

I'm now up to episode 21. Now after listening to every episode I think, "Wow, that's their best one yet." But I particularly loved the two-part "Sandstorm" episode.

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