Welcome to Night Vale: a Critique

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on this blog, and I figured it was about time I did some writing that wasn’t news or music reviews. Over the past little while, I’ve been checking out the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, a 20-or-so-minute podcast that is released twice a month. For some inexplicable reason a huge fandom has grown around it and so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. The following is a critique based on my listening to the podcast.

Disclaimer: This critique was written after having listened to every episode available at the time of writing (the most current being Episode #29- “Subway”). It will include references to any episode from #1-29; therefore, if you don’t want to read spoilers, don’t read this.

Welcome to Night Vale is a peculiar podcast about a peculiar fictional town in the middle of a desert. The podcast is done in the style of a community radio show, hosted by a man named Cecil. He narrates the various news, community happenings and personal stories of the town’s various citizens. Night Vale, as you might guess by the name, is not a normal town, however. It deals with a repressive city government and paranormal activity on a day-to-day basis. Hardly an episode can go by without reference to the sheriff’s secret police, interdimensional travel, murders or disappearances, and more.

Each episode centres around a particular person or event. The second episode, for example, revolves around the Glow Cloud, a mysterious entity that appears in the town and drops animal carcasses. It recurs in the series, later appearing as the head of Night Vale’s school board. Later on there is an episode based around the appearance of a man in a tan jacket, whom no one can remember the likeness of after seeing him.

The series is fairly quick to establish recurring characters. Cecil introduces in the pilot episode Carlos, a scientist who arrives in Night Vale to investigate the paranormal activity and who is also Cecil’s love interest. There’s old woman Josie, who is apparently friends with angels. There’s Mayor Pamela Winchel (sp?) and the city council, who are often quick to quash news reports that make them look bad. There’s the Apache Tracker, a white guy (originally) who dresses in horribly racist, caricature-esque Native American clothing. There’s Steve Carlsberg, who Cecil inexplicably hates.

Every episode also features a song by an indie artist during the “weather” section. There’s no set genre boundaries, ranging from folk to hip-hop.

The series teeters between the realms of horror and absurdity, and as listeners hear more and more of these episodes, they will more than likely see more absurdity  than horror. Much of this can be found in each episode’s “word from our sponsor.” The relayed “commercial” will feature something chilling and bizarre, only for it to be a commercial for something as innocuous as Red Lobster or Home Depot.

But the horror elements do appear from time to time. One particularly frightening aspect of the series is the Dog Park, introduced in the pilot episode. It was a place where dogs, and humans, are forbidden to go. It is lined with a high, obsidian-coloured wall and inhabited by hooded figures who make sounds that resemble waves of static. A particularly creepy episode later in the series is “Faceless Old Woman,” which details an old woman without a face who lives in your home (it’s told that way exactly). This old woman rearranges your things (particularly in your refrigerator), sometimes leaves meat in your shower, and many other things.

A strong point in this series is its sense of continuity. When a show goes to such absurd heights as murderous librarians and a city of tiny people who are trying to wage war against the town, it can be quick to dismiss the series as a joke. But no incident, no matter how small, happens in a vacuum. When one of the radio station interns dies (and many of them do), a new intern is referred to in subsequent episodes. Events that happened months ago will suddenly reappear and play a significant role in present events.

Being not too familiar with community radio, I found myself questioning how accurate of a “local radio journalist” character Cecil is. I understand being the host of a radio show in Vancouver, British Columbia would be very different than being the host of a radio show in Petrolia, Ontario. In Petrolia, a radio host would probably personally know a few more people and might even let their personality slip through the cracks a bit more.

But Cecil regularly calls out various members of the city, from his irrational hatred of Steve Carlsberg to his insistence on calling the Apache Tracker a “racist embarrassment to the town.” In particular, in the case of the Apache Tracker, Cecil continues to characterize him as a racist embarrassment even when he physically turns into a Native American later in the series. In some cases, he specifically saves opinions for editorials, and he even makes the point of saying “If you’ll allow me this editorial…” But more often than not, Cecil gives these opinions without the editorial excuse.

Naturally, one could make the argument that the Steve Carlsberg hatred and Apache Tracker calling out is made for the point of an in-joke, but this argument doesn’t work as well because Cecil at several points in the series mentions the fact that he needs to stay neutral as a journalist. The openly contradictory character of Cecil is a bit frustrating.

There is also his relationship with Carlos. For the longest time his love for Carlos is unrequited, however, in Episode #25, “One Year Later,” Carlos returns his feelings, and the two’s first date is recounted two days later. Had the Night Vale fandom not inexplicably appeared in early July of this year, my suspicion is that this relationship might not have developed as much. More on the fandom later.

My main problem with the series (though some probably find this a strength) is the grandiosity with which Cecil narrates the town. This isn’t a problem in every episode, but it appears frequently enough to be a problem. Put simply, Cecil will often say in two minutes what could easily be said in 30 seconds. Often while listening, unless paying absolute attention, it’s easy to forget what it is that he’s trying to say.

This problem is at its worst during the episodes “Poetry Week,” “A Memory of Europe” and “Eternal Scouts.” This overdose of grandiosity is remedied somewhat by two very strong episodes, “The Mayor” and then “One Year Later.”

What may be the strongest episode (though technically the word should be plural) is “The Sandstorm,” which splits into episode 19A and 19B. In the episode, a major sandstorm hits Night Vale and Desert Bluffs, the nearby (and hated) town. 19A is narrated by Cecil, and he reveals that as the sandstorm begins to hit, people are suddenly confronted by their doubles. His intern, Dana, ends up in a fight with her double, and one of them dies (Cecil is not sure which). At one point, a man named Kevin appears in Cecil’s place, unsure of where he is. Cecil returns later.

19B is essentially the same episode, but narrated by Kevin (Cecil’s double), who lives in Desert Bluffs. The town at first seems like a wonderful place to live (far more normal than Night Vale, at least) but slowly its sinister underpinnings become apparent, no more so than when Cecil appears in Kevin’s place.

Despite its somewhat pompous exterior, Welcome to Night Vale is a welcome straying from the path most media take in this day and age. To strip a show with as much complexity as this into an entirely audio-dominant medium and still be as insanely popular as it is speaks to something that people find irresistible about it. It’s like a very extended version of Orson Welles’ reading of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds that alarmed the world into thinking that aliens had invaded.

The last aspect of this show I want to discuss is the fandom surrounding it. The creators of this show have no control over this aspect of the show, clearly. What is baffling about the fandom is the number of cosplays that have begun to pop up. The podcast element presents a clear challenge; there is no physical people or official drawings to base costumes off of, so fans resort to creating their own imaginary versions of the characters. I’m all for people being creative, but it doesn’t make any sense to dress as characters that don’t have an official “look to them.” It must be terribly confusing to appear at conventions as a character no one will recognize right off the bat.

Bu it’s not my place to criticize a fandom, even if Tumblr has the ability to amplify things to such an extent that they become tiresome quickly. I’m hoping that the ridiculous levels of exposure it has on Tumblr right now, and that exposure’s subsequent spinoff into off-putting inside jokes and fan art, does not put people off from listening to a very innovative take on the horror genre.

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