Theater of the mind
BY: BRANDI JOHNSON
American is dotted with small, quaint and altogether boring towns in the middle of nowhere. Whether they be in the desert, the mountains, or the plains of the American “Heartland”, there are more backwater towns than bustling cities. The fictional Night Vale is one such town. Everyone knows each other, people all listen to the local community radio station, and PTA meetings are a big deal. However, in Night Vale, a glowing cloud that rains animal corpses of various sizes and controls people’s minds is a member of the school board; there are alien lights above the Arby’s at night; everyone has their own blood stone circle for chanting and sacrifices, and if you work at Night Vale Community Radio, you could very well be killed during contract re-negotiation season.
"Welcome to Night Vale" is a semimonthly podcast that tells the story of the weirdest little desert town in America (and possibly anywhere else).
The podcast is a production of the independent publishing company Commonplace Books and is just over a year old. Thanks to fan on social media, particularly Tumblr, the podcast has experienced a huge recent increase in popularity.
The duo behind Commonplace Books, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, are also the ones who write and produce the show, and their writing is excellent. There is a dark humor and sharp wit at the core of the show, with jokes like, “Come see scenic Radon Canyon! The view is literally breathtaking!” (radon is known to cause lung cancer) or, “Today’s sponsor is Subway. Subway: Devour Your Own Empty Heart!”
Another interesting touch is that the Night Vale weather reports are not weather at all. They’re music. Each episode, Cecil will throw to “the weather” and listeners get to hear a widely varied mix of music by bands they’ve probably never heard of, whether it be a rap about how late the bus is or acoustic, Dylan-esque existentialism. Musicians can send their songs in to be played on the show, though at the moment they’re booked up a year out and aren’t taking any further requests.
Cranor and Fink have found the perfect voice for Night Vale in Cecil, the show’s narrator. Played by voice actor Cecil Baldwin, his smooth and sonorous radio voice is our guide through this place that makes Area 51 look like the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese.
Instead of delivering his lines with an abject terror, (as you might expect of someone who lives in a town where all wheat by-products spontaneously turn to venomous snakes without warning) Cecil is all business.
Calm and collected, he delivers reports of new construction projects in town and news of people being kidnapped and held in an abandoned mineshaft by the City Council with equal reserve. Yes, Night Vale is strange, horrendous even, but the people there like it that way.
In a time when even refrigerators have screens you can post to Twitter from, its interesting to see what basically amounts to a sci-fi/horror/comedy radio show gain such popularity. Available for free on iTunes, it’s readily accessible and keeps gaining new followers. The fact that the show is now 31 episodes in doesn’t stop new fans from marathoningthe entire thing in a few days, then creating fan art to post on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.
In the same way as books and classic radio shows, the podcast leaves a lot to the listener’s imagination, and therein lies its eerie charm.
Physical descriptions are avoided when they don’t serve a joke or to drive home the weirdness of the show (like the five-headed dragon posing as an insurance salesman). Because of that, we don’t have concrete descriptions of what Cecil or the townspeople regularly mentioned on the podcast look like.
This is probably at least a small part of what has motivated so much fan art on social media, which arouses curiosity about the show, and the cycle continues. Intriguingly, a lot of fans do tend to draw Cecil in roughly the same way: as a 20/30-something blonde white guy with glasses and tattooed forearms. A third eye in the middle of his forehead is also often added, which might be because the logo for "Welcome to Night Vale" shows a silhouette of the town at night with a large eye over it in the sky.
Whatever the reason for the recent uptick in fans, Cranor and Fink are grateful for it, and see no end in sight for the show. Live episodes will be taped in Los Angeles, Santa Monica and New York this coming October, all with similar formats.
In Los Angeles, Cecil will read a broadcast at Largo with special musical guest Sara Watkins. The duo will also be at Santa Monica, where the podcast will be at the L.A. Podcast Festival to perform a live show. Co-writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor will also be at the fest for a panel.
In New York, Cecil will be accompanied by musician Disparition, whose music is a fixture of "Welcome to Night Vale." Guest appearances by Mara Wilson and others are scheduled for the reading.
Proceeds will support the podcast, along with sales from their fledgling merchandise store where you can buy yourself a Night Vale Community Radio mug or Weird Scout patch, among other things. A Night Vale book is also in the works.
So if you’re feeling brave, pop in some ear buds and take a trip to Night Vale. Old Woman Josie can introduce you to her friends, the Angels. You may catch a glimpse of a hooded figure in the new dog park. Take a trip out to the sand wastes at the edge of town (just watch out for government helicopters) or visit the abandoned mineshaft, now equipped with HBO! Maybe take a stroll down to the waterfront pier area in the middle of the desert or the drawbridge to nowhere. Whatever you do, its bound to be memorable in a way that’s irreparably scarred into the deepest recesses of your mind. While you’re there, remember Cecil’s advice: “If you see something, say nothing, and drink to forget.”