Podcast Corner: Welcome to Night Vale
Podcast: Welcome to Night Vale
Starring: Cecil Baldwin
Written by: Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Categories: Surreal humor, horror, fiction
First released: June 15th, 2012
A friend of mine insists that he told me about the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. The truth is that I had always been aware if it, lying dormant deep down inside my being, longing to erupt from my mind like some twisted, bloodied, many-limbed goddess: terrifying and beautiful. The truth is that it had come to me one evening while walking through a starless night, the moon crawling through the sky like a dying man in the desert, and there I saw, and there I saw... Of course, maybe my friend did tell me about the podcast. Truths, like reality, are subjective.
Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. It stars Cecil Baldwin as Night Vale's voice of Community Radio, Cecil Palmer. It has been releasing twice a month since the summer of 2012, along with live performances and three books (one fictional, two as collections of the podcast's scripts). Normally the podcast is just Cecil narrating, but there have been numerous guest-stars, including Kevin R. Free, Jasika Nicole, Mara Wilson (yes, that Mara Wilson), Jackson Publick, Retta, and Wil Wheaton. In July of 2013, it was rated second behind This American Life on iTunes' Top 10 podcasts, and awarded 7th in the AV Club's Best Podcasts of 2013.
The premise is that we, the listeners, are enjoying the local community radio show broadcast from the town of Night Vale, located somewhere in the southwestern United States. It is a world of conspiracy theories and Lovecraftian nightmares. But for the resident's, it's all routine. Make no mistake about it, this is a humorous podcast, but not one that relies on silliness or what would be considered jokes. There are moments that are creepy, or downright terrifying. But the normalcy and reaction to them gives the podcast its humor. Usually, each episode is about a specific event occurring that day, with running jokes and a growing cast of recurring characters. Welcome to Night Vale also features musical artists, with a unique song once an episode during a particular segment (which I won't spoil for you, as I laughed out loud the first time it was introduced and I'm still amused every time I hear it). Some of these songs have become instant additions to my favorite music playlists.
I said before that the horrors of the show are Lovecraftian, and I mean it. One of the primary influences is HP Lovecraft's cosmic horror genre (even if the creator admits to not having read his work). Lovecraft is the originator of the Cthulhu mythos, and along with a few other turn-of-the-20th-century writers, established a genre of "strange fiction" that relied on the use of hidden knowledge, unknowable truths, the fragility of human sanity and perception, and our species' grand irrelevance. Welcome to Night Vale is firmly cemented in this world, populated by cults, monsters, insanity, and the overwhelming strangeness of Lovecraft's weird tales. But instead of going mad from the revelation, the residents of Night Vale accept them as normal and acceptable. The dog park is forbidden. The city council always speaks as one ominous being. There is no police force, only secret police, and a vague, yet menacing, government agency. The mayor spouts arcane and mystifying statements. There is a house that doesn't exist, and yet seems like it exists. Being a librarian is akin to being a monster, and an intern position is a redshirted death sentence. There is a faceless old woman that lives in all your homes. Hiram McDaniels is an individual wanted for fraud and is, quite literally, a fire-breathing five-headed dragon. After many of Night Vale's calamities have reached their conclusions, Cecil, buoyed by soft music, soliloquies a comforting statement that usually reaffirms the answer to the question: Is there anything grander than the inconsequential human experience? Through hope and humor, Welcome to Night Vale banishes the depression that Lovecraft threaded throughout his work.
One of the joys of the podcast is discovering its creative and fervent fan base. Welcome to Night Vale shies away from giving full character descriptions, so many creative individuals have illustrated fantastic and wildly different interpretations of Cecil and the other occurring characters. Some of these fan designs have become so common in their representations that, despite not having any concrete descriptions from the podcast, they have become a short-hand for identifying the characters. At DragonCon, several people had dressed as Cecil, usually represented as a well-dressed man in a tie with glasses, a third "eye" on their forehead, and arm tattoos with symbols or tentacles. Cecil is also an openly gay character, and the show has been lauded for its diversity in race and sexual orientation.
Welcome to Night Vale is my first foray into listening to story-driven podcasts, and I have to say that it is brilliant. It's episodic nature lends itself to the quick 30-60 minute run time, and makes for great listening at work or traveling, and it's a nice change of pace from the podcasts I usually listen to. I don't think you need to be any particular individual to enjoy this podcast, but you do need to keep an open mind about the weird content: knowing what you're getting into helps ease into it if you're not used to this kind of oddity.