10 Reasons to Listen to Welcome to Night Vale
Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and produced by Commonplace Books. Each 20-30 minute long episode is narrated almost entirely by Cecil Baldwin and takes the form of “a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events.”
Often sinister, frequently funny, always brilliant and utterly unique; here are ten reasons why you should “turn on your radio and hide”:
The overall tone of the podcast is arguably its most distinctive element. Comparisons have been drawn between Welcome to Night Vale and H.P. Lovecraft, Lemony Snicket, David Lynch, and The Twilight Zone but, although similarities can be identified, no comparison comprehensively fits. Welcome to Night Vale is clever, comical, creepy, philosophical, adorable, gripping, theatrical, romantic, chilling, horrific, hilarious, minimalistic, soothing, reassuring, eccentric, and insightful – often all at the same time – and despite frequently being described as something-meets-something, is completely innovative and utterly unique. There is no single film, book, game, TV or radio show, let alone a podcast, that comes close to what Welcome to Night Vale achieves in atmosphere alone.
Welcome to Night Vale’s style of dark, witty humour is perfectly suited to Twitter’s 140 character limit, and @NightValeRadio currently has over 20,000 followers. The tweets range from puzzling to downright disturbing, curious to giggle-inducing, and are very similar in style and tone to “Today’s Proverb”, a feature of the end of every podcast episode (“A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A basilisk”, “Does the carpet match the drapes? No, it doesn’t. You’re the worst interior decorator. Please leave my home”, “If you love someone, set them free. Set them free now. This is the police, and we have you surrounded”). Each tweet is like a tiny snippet of the podcast itself and the account features such gems as these:
Welcome to Night Vale’s fan following has always been enthusiastic, creative, and devoted, but a recent surge in popularity spreading across Tumblr has resulted in a bright new Welcome to Night Vale fandom appearing.
The outpouring of recent fanart is incredible. Despite having no visual aids from the podcast itself, there is a surprising alignment in visions of what Cecil Baldwin and his love interest, Carlos the scientist, look like. Cecil is frequently white (although there are some excellent depictions of him as a person of colour) and blonde, wears glasses, a shirt and tie (many artists’ view of his attire shifted slightly with the revelation in episode 27 that he wears a “tunic and furry pants” on a first date), and often has kinetic tattoos and a third eye in the middle of his forehead. Carlos is dark-skinned, as stated by Cecil in episode 16, wears a labcoat or a plaid shirt, and his infamously “perfect hair” is generally intact following his run-in with “the barbarous barber Telly” in episode 3.
However, the fanart is not just limited to depictions of Cecil and Carlos. Work featuring recurring secondary characters such as Old Woman Josie and her angels, the Hooded Figures who lurk in the dog park (“Dogs are not allowed in the dog park. People are not allowed in the dog park. Do not approach the dog park. The dog park will not harm you”), and Khoshekh the cat, who hovers in a fixed location above the sink in the men’s bathroom at the radio station is also prevalent. One artist has even drawn up a detailed map of what the town of Night Vale could look like, using only references made in the podcast.
Music is a key feature of each Welcome to Night Vale episode. Disparition provides original instrumental music for both the theme tune and background music played in some sections of the podcast, which can be downloaded for free from their website. The theme tune, which starts during Cecil’s introductory “Welcome to Night Vale”, is suitably sinister, and the background music is remarkable for its fluidity. Whether Cecil is poetically discussing the void of the universe or cheerfully relaying a message from the radio show’s sponsors about how “the earth is eventually going to be swallowed by the sun”, the background music aptly enhances the atmosphere of the show without ever becoming intrusive.
Indie musicians are also regularly featured on Welcome to Night Vale. Towards the end of each episode, Cecil announces “The Weather” but, instead of the expected weather forecast, a song such as A Little Irony by Tom Milsom or Those Days Are Gone And My Heart Is Breaking by Barton Carroll plays. These songs, aside from being great music in and of themselves, contribute somewhat towards the narrative of the podcast; they always fit with the tone of the episode, often right down to seguing out of the previous spoken segment, and create a sense of familiarity in their regular appearance in amongst a story world full of the strange and unfamiliar, in which even Cecil’s voice is not a guaranteed constant (see episodes 19a and 19b).
6. Recurring Characters
The recurring characters of Welcome to Night Vale are perhaps even more intriguing than Cecil himself. Occasionally, another character’s voice is featured on the show, such as when Cecil plays a series of voicemails from Carlos in episode 16, or the Faceless Old Woman who lives in your home releases a series of statements in episode 26. Often, Cecil will quote directly from another character but, aside from these occurrences, the listener’s only experience of the other citizens of Night Vale is through Cecil’s reports of their actions. Through these, we learn that many of them have supernatural tendencies that Cecil so far seems not to possess.
There’s Old Woman Josie out near the car lot and the angels who change her porch light (she offers “to sell the old light bulb, which has been touched by an angel”). There are the interns at the radio station, all of whom die or disappear at some point. There’s Mayor Winchell and her impromptu press conferences, which often involve her “pounding the podium with her bleeding fists” or “vibrating slightly and staring at the sun for five straight minutes”. There’s Hiram McDaniels, a fugitive who “has previously announced interest in becoming mayor of Night Vale and is a thirty-six hundred pound five-headed dragon”.
The less supernatural-orientated characters are no less entertaining. Big Rico and his pizza place are mentioned in many episodes, Cecil’s vehement dislike of Steve Carlsberg results in occasional outbursts of “you don’t do anything except bring unacceptably dry scones to PTA meetings. Get it together, Steve”, and fifty-year-old Jeremy Godfrey is understandably upset when “the sound of chanting and machinery from under the pin retrieval area of lane five” at the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex interrupt his birthday party.
5. The Supernatural
It is perhaps the way in which the supernatural leaks almost imperceptivity into the realistic, until lines are blurred to the point of being indistinguishable, that makes Welcome to Night Vale so gripping. In the town of Night Vale, memories can vanish with no subsequent alarm, the sky can be described as “turquoise”, “taupe”, “robin’s egg”, “turquoise-taupe”, “coal dust”, “coal dust with chances of indigo in the late afternoon”, and simply “void”, and the community calendar can feature updates like “Saturday: the public library will be unknowable”, “Monday will not harm you”, and “Wednesday has been cancelled due to a scheduling error”.
The sinister side of the supernatural activities prevalent in the town of Night Vale becomes truly apparent in episode 16, when Carlos’s voice is heard through voicemails he has left Cecil. As he describes “a man in a jacket holding a leather suitcase outside [his] door […] just standing in front of [his] door”, Carlos sounds clearly panicked, but Cecil, who was born and raised in Night Vale, is completely unperturbed. It is the first time since beginning to listen themselves that listeners are alerted to the fact that Night Vale is an arbitrarily and indiscriminately dangerous place to be. It may be charming, but it is certainly also terrible. In the safety provided by its fictionality, terrible is alluring.
In amongst all the humour, there is a delightful level of intelligence and insight to be found in Welcome to Night Vale. It takes great skill just to turn phrases the way Fink and Cranor do, and then to also keep an audience, many of whom didn’t grow up listening to the radio, not only interested but also entertained and often downright hooked without any kind of visual aid, with just one man’s voice and an engaging narrative, signifies remarkable talent. Welcome to Night Vale often has the feel of an audiobook of a novel because of this.
The podcast is often intriguingly metafictional: the character of Cecil Baldwin is actually voiced by an actor called Cecil Baldwin, there is an entire episode spoken in second person (titled A Story About You), and the listener is situated as a citizen of Night Vale themselves, allowing for full immersion in the often jarringly bizarre story world.
Welcome to Night Vale is also surprisingly philosophical at times. There are blunt discussions of immortality (“We all want to live forever, right? Wrong”), poignant statements about love (“Night Vale, my sweet and only Night Vale, may you find love. May you find it wherever it’s been hidden. May you find who’s been hiding it and exact revenge upon them”), and eloquent speeches about the insignificance of humanity (“A tiny flurry of human activity against the impeccable backdrop of stars and void”).
Welcome to Night Vale, for all its dark charm, is also startlingly funny. Even the most sinister of events are somehow comical when relayed by Cecil, often simply because of their surrealism or because of his tone of voice. There is also humour to be found in Cecil himself, such as in his unreasonable anger at Telly the barber, just because he cut Carlos’s “perfect hair”, or in his endearingly overwhelming crush on the scientist, which Cecil often discusses at length instead of reporting the news, much to the anger of Station Management (who “stays inside their office at all times, only communicating […] through sealed envelopes that are spat out from under the door like a sunflower shell through teeth”).
There is also something funny about the sheer transparency of the dictatorship government ruling Night Vale. Cecil’s statements about the government are somewhat a parody of authority; authority figures are rendered downright ridiculous through what Cecil relays of their behaviour (“our backwards court system will uphold any old authoritarian rule made up on the fly by unsupervised, gun-carrying thugs of a shadow government”) and through how Cecil relays their behaviour (“The sheriff’s secret police then ethically kettled the pool of reporters, gently coercing them with pepper spray. Most were taken away peacefully, in handcuffs and black hoods”). Even the way in which some authority figures are identified, such as the “government agents from a vague yet menacing agency”, is funny in an absurd sort of way. Authority in Night Vale is ultimately represented as being downright ridiculous through the way in which it is rendered utterly useless in a town where the supernatural prevails.
Welcome to Night Vale is fantastic in terms of diverse representation in the characters of Cecil and Carlos alone. Carlos is a person of colour, and Cecil and Carlos are a canonically gay couple. Furthermore, their relationship is portrayed in a healthy way – Cecil’s crush on Carlos is one of the only normalities in a town full of the unimaginably surreal – and Cecil is able to speak openly on public radio about their steadily growing relationship. Science fiction so often creates alternate universes in which anything and everything is possible – except the non-existence of homophobia, and it is so refreshing for a work of fiction to finally, truly imagine a society in which homophobia seemingly and simply does not exist. In Night Vale, everyone is in danger.
On top of this, Welcome to Night Vale also dismantles cultural appropriation within the first ten minutes of the first episode (a white man who “wears an Indian headdress out of some racist cartoon” isn’t taken seriously and is later frequently called a “jerk” because of his cultural appropriation), and does not always conform to the gender binary, with things like announcements beginning with “Ladies and gentlemen and those of you not clearly falling into either category” instead of just “Ladies and gentlemen” increasing in frequency.
1. Cecil Baldwin
The voice of Cecil Baldwin is the voice of Night Vale and the voice of Night Vale. Cecil both carries the show and defines the show. It is hard to imagine the podcast working without him.
Cecil Baldwin the voice actor is exceptionally talented and astonishingly versatile. Naturally, his voice is calm, his measured pace soothing, his accent all-American. But, without hesitation, his voice can also appear dark, deep and sinister when discussing the supernaturally unknown, or light, lilting and buoyant when relaying Cecil’s conversations with Carlos, and then every shade and tone in between at different times. It is simultaneously unique and distinct, recognisable and impossible to place; it can be reassuringly familiar or disturbingly unrecognisable. It brings the already fantastic scripts to life, makes it possible to imagine and relate to even the strangest happenings in Night Vale, and stays with you long after you’ve finished listening.
In many ways, Cecil’s evocative, driving voice reflects the multi-faceted and impossible to describe atmosphere of the podcast itself.
You just have to hear it all for yourself: Subscribe to Welcome to Night Vale via iTunes or listen for free online here.
What do you think? Leave a comment.