Review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

4 January, 2016 Reviews 5 comments

Review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey CranorWelcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor
Series: Standalone
Published by HarperCollins Publishers on 20th October 2015
Pages: 416
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, Horror
Format: e-Book, eBook
Source: Purchased
Amazon Good BooksBook Depository

Nineteen-year-old Night Vale pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro is given a paper marked "KING CITY" by a mysterious man in a tan jacket holding a deer skin suitcase. Everything about him and his paper unsettles her, especially the fact that she can't seem to get the paper to leave her hand, and that no one who meets this man can remember anything about him. Jackie is determined to uncover the mystery of King City and the man in the tan jacket before she herself unravels.

Night Vale PTA treasurer Diane Crayton's son, Josh, is moody and also a shape-shifter. And lately Diane's started to see her son's father everywhere she goes, looking the same as the day he left years earlier, when they were both teenagers. Josh, looking different every time Diane sees him, shows a stronger and stronger interest in his estranged father, leading to a disaster Diane can see coming, even as she is helpless to prevent it.

Diane's search to reconnect with her son and Jackie's search for her former routine life collide as they find themselves coming back to two words: "KING CITY". It is King City that holds the key to both of their mysteries, and their futures...if they can ever find it.

“‘It’s not what you think,’ the horsefly said.”

A few things to consider before you read this review:

1. This is a very biased review. And this is because…

2.Welcome to Night Vale is a companion to the podcast of the same name. I’ve been a big fan of said podcast for the last several years, so I’m not to be the most impartial reader here.

Clearly, then, the chances of me not liking this book were slim, so take my glowing rating with some caution. The big question for you at this point, of course, is this: Can I read this book even if I haven’t listened to the show?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is, well, long. See below.

“It’s a sign of a good diner to have customers who are stuck in time. A well-known rule of eating is that if there are no time-loop customers, the place probably isn’t worth even ordering a plate of fries.”

(No, that is not the long answer. That is a quote. I apologize for the confusion.)

Welcome to Night Vale (the series) is a twice-monthly broadcast narrated by Cecil Gershwin Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin), who works as the announcer of the community radio station in the fictional town of Night Vale. Each episode (released on iTunes and on the series’ official YouTube channel) finds Cecil providing updates on events happening around Night Vale, typically in the following format:

Cecil: *says something strange and vaguely unsettling*

*fun musical theme*

Cecil: *introduces episode’s primary plot*

Cecil: *takes a break from primary plot to bring back one of several recurring segments*

Cecil: *returns to primary plot, which is becoming more dramatic*

Cecil: *mentions his boyfriend*

Cecil: *visits another recurring bit*

Cecil: *has to leave the microphone temporarily because the primary plot is coming to a climax*

*show takes a break for “The Weather” (a song of any possible genre and lyrical subject played by a band that you probably haven’t heard of)*

Cecil: *returns to inform you of how everything was neatly resolved during the two-minute interlude*

Cecil: *ends with something surprisingly deep and thoughtful*

*fun musical theme*

This is probably reading more like an advertisement than a review, which is what I’m going for. I love the show dearly, and I think it’s best to give you a taste of it before I get to the book proper.

I think this because Welcome to Night Vale (the book) is probably one of the most faithful adaptations of a series being translated from one medium to another that you’re likely to find in the known universe. As such, I’d like you to take a listen to the pilot here.

I’ll wait.


Finished? Good. What did you think of it?

This could likely be a much shorter review, because all I really need to do is tell you once you’ve answered the question is this:

If you liked that first episode, you’ll like the rest. If you like the show at all, you’ll like the book. If you don’t, well, I doubt you’ll get much from any of this.

“Taupe is not an emotional catalyst. It’s practical and bland.”

If that’s good enough for you, feel free to stop reading here. If you don’t mind sticking with me for a bit longer, I’ll get a bit more detailed for you.

Welcome to Night Vale (in all of its forms) is hard to describe. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’d say that it’s something of an acquired taste. Not because it’s too “deep” and “sophisticated” for some of you to “get,” but for a simpler reason:

It’s weird. It’s really weird.

Imagine Stephen King and Terry Pratchett’s collective bibliographies turned into a single, lengthy audiobook. Or, if you prefer a more visual comparison, think Gravity Falls-meets-30 Rock-meets-Adventure Time. Or maybe Tim Burton-meets-Scott Pilgrim vs. the World-meets-Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

“He thought he looked cool driving a car as a wolf spider. He did look cool, although it was difficult to control the car.”

In any case, it’s all over the place, thematically speaking. I like to think of the show’s general format as a controlled sort of chaos: taken in individual episodes, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (both of whom wrote the novel as well as the majority of the podcast’s past installments) seem to do nothing but throw whatever they can possibly think of into the mix and hope that it works. This is a town where anything and everything can (and likely will) exist and/or happen. This includes:

•suspiciously crunchy enchiladas
•time travel
•a vague, yet menacing, government agency
•feral librarians
•dangerous wheat (and wheat by-products)
•bloodstone circles
•an underground city
•smiling gods (is that a smile?)
•space wars

…among many other things. As a result, the tone fluctuates wildly, from outright horror to comedy to heartwarming drama. It’s all held together, however, by a remarkably cohesive sense of continuity. Bits of story that are initially introduced as one-off scenes and minor background characters will come back months later as major storylines and recurring cast members, or at least be routinely mentioned in ongoing sub-plots. Each “season” (as I consider them, as there is a definite break between batches of episodes every year) ultimately culminates in a multi-part finale that brings several recurring events to a head, and usually has a notable impact on the status quo of the following year.

So there is, in fact, continuity. It’s just jumbled up with hooded figures and angels named Erika (who do not technically exist) and the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home.

“‘The search for truth takes us to dangerous places,’ said Old Woman Josie. ‘Often it takes us to that most dangerous place: the library. You know who said that? No? George Washington did. Minutes before librarians ate him.'”

Still with me? Thanks for sticking around. I suppose it’s time to get to the book proper, then.

Welcome to Night Vale (the one in print, which incidentally makes it illegal in Night Vale) takes place between episodes 75 (“Through the Narrow Place”) and 76 (“An Epilogue”). The latter story, in fact, has that particular title for a good reason: it’s a follow-up on the events of the novel. As is typical for the show, though, it was released prior to the book, so we got to hear about “what happens after” before the original “what”.

Rather than being told from Cecil’s perspective, it instead alternates between two characters who have been poking around the edges of the series for a while: Jackie Fierro (who runs the local pawn shop, and who has been nineteen years old for quite some time now) and Diane Crayton (the treasurer for the Night Vale PTA who has a shape-shifting son). The two are brought together when their respective routines are interrupted by outside forces that aren’t quite as unrelated as they initially appear. For Jackie, this is the appearance of the Man in the Tan Jacket, who pawns to her a piece of paper with the words “KING CITY” that she can’t seem to rid herself of. For Diane, it’s the reappearance of her son’s father, who is somehow everywhere in town at once. Sprinkled throughout are short interludes with Cecil, which are essentially abbreviated transcripts of your typical podcast episode and keep things from getting too linear.

To return to the big question: Can you read this story without having listened to the podcast? The long answer (here it is, at last) is that, yes, you can, but your experience with it is going to be a different one. As with most of the podcast’s episodes, the novel is for the most part a self-contained plot (aside from its implications in “An Epilogue”), but also contains a lot of nods and references to the show’s past. I’m in fact a bit annoyed at Fink and Cranor for including as many as they did, because most of them are accompanied by brief explanations and so rob me of being able to be clever and slip in-jokes into this review. So I could still mention Cecil’s scientist boyfriend Carlos (and his perfect hair), the Glow Cloud (ALL HAIL), John Peters (you know, the farmer?), and Hiram McDaniels (a literal five-headed dragon), but what’s the point? At least there are a few references (Lee Marvin, some framed photographs of lighthouses) that are left to be appreciated by those “in the know.”

“The avocado was, of course, fake, as all avocados are.”

Really, Welcome to Night Vale (the collection of paper with ink on it) reads like a greatest hits collection of the series. It manages to tell a much lengthier, more cohesive story than the show is capable of while at least mentioning just about every major piece of worldbuilding and development that said show has introduced and expanded upon over the years. It’s not the most complicated or elaborate of tales because of this, but it’s like to (pleasantly) confuse and engage you anyway.

In that vein, I suppose it makes for a good starting point for newcomers.

There is, however, something to be said for having more context going in. Sure, just about everything that is important to the plot is accompanied with necessary background information, but it’s also very rewarding to have characters and mysteries that listeners have known about for months being given a chance to be more fully explored and resolved here. The Man in the Tan Jacket, for instance, has been a piece of strangeness in Night Vale since episode 14, and so having his particular set of conundrums finally explained (though of course left to some degree still unclear) is going to be more satisfying (if a bit bittersweet, since not knowing is oftentimes more fun than, well, knowing)to those who aren’t just learning about his person now.

Chances are that, regardless of your experience with Night Vale, you’re going to be confused about some (all right, many) things, particularly so far as questions of “how?” and“why?” are concerned. That’s to be expected. Keep in mind that, if you’re new to the series, you’re no worse off than us veterans are when it comes to being bewildered by Cecil and company. Following Night Vale in its audio format doesn’t so much help you better understand its eccentricity as it just teaches you to roll with the surprises. You do your best to piece it all together into something resembling sense, and call it a day.

“When her body won the race to womanhood against her person, Diane began to hear that she was tall, short, fat, skinny, ugly, sexy, smiled too much, smiled too little, had bad hair, had beautiful hair, had something in her teeth, dressed nice, dressed cheap, had duck feet, had elegant feet. She was too dark. She was too pale. She heard a lot of different descriptions of her, and she took them all as truth.”

But Fink and Cranor have proven that they are just as adept at capturing the real heart, soul, liver, and unidentifiable alien organs of their world in book form as they are in their radio show. Because while the outlandishness and humor (as well as their remarkable talent at using the unique properties of the novel as a storytelling device to create things that would be all but impossible to recreate in a more visual medium) are very well and good, it’s their ability to accompany it at unexpected moments with bits of real, powerful emotion and real-life ideals that makes Night Vale so special. Descriptions of sentient houses and scenes with tentacled librarians are interspersed with reflections on growing up, mortality, depression, family, and body image. Characters of color and of different sexual orientations are included and not made a fuss of or treated as token minorities, but are instead allowed to simply exist and be accepted. For a show that delights in being as apart from our everyday reality as it can be, it can sometimes be very real and very important.

And meta-referential. And unsettling. And ridiculous. But you couldn’t expect much else from such a quiet little town.

“Look, life is stressful. This is true everywhere. But life in Night Vale is more stressful.”

Six stars, then, for being everything that I could want from a Welcome to Night Vale book, minus one for a bit of discontinuity (since when is Jerry’s Tacos no longer a nine-meter-tall black monolith?) and the fact that it didn’t include a few of my favorite characters, such as Deb (a spokesbeing for various companies who is also a sentient patch of haze) or Dr. Sarah Sultan (the president of Night Vale Community College who is also a smooth, fist-sized river rock).

Still, I’m glad to see that everything is more or less going well in town. Now to do something with the book before the Sheriff’s Secret Police have me arrested.

A reader who doesn't pick up his books nearly as often as he should, but who would like to offer the occasional review when he can nonetheless. Find me on Goodreads here.

5 Responses to “Review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor”

  1. Leslie S.

    THANK YOU for reviewing this book. It’s sitting on my wishlist and just yesterday I was tempted to order it. I’ve been worried that it won’t be able to hold a candle to the podcasts. But, now that I know what it’s like…it’s definitely getting purchased!

  2. Hannah

    I adore the podcast. ADORE IT. But somehow, the book just didn’t work for me. I felt the narrative style was much better suited to audio than the written medium. But hey, I’m really glad it worked for you!

  3. Shannelle

    First of all, thank you so much for a wonderful, cohesive review. I’m still in episode 30 because I don’t want to ever run of out of episodes, but I guess I’ll have to speed up and reach those episodes if I want to be delighted by all those Easter eggs. I love the podcast, and I think I might just get the audiobook for this one.
    Shannelle recently posted…2016 Goals + A Free Goals Checklist Printable!My Profile

  4. Precious

    This is one of my most anticipated reads ever! Thank you for the beautiful and thorough review. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy! 🙂

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