I’ve finished reading the “Welcome to Night Vale” novel (by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor). I was a little skeptical before picking it up because after 80 plus episodes of the podcast (listen/read transcripts here), I sometimes find the “weird” a little predictable. Nevertheless, I am still such a huge fan of the calm poetic realistic horror of the podcast, the way it does intersectionality, the atmosphere, the world, the characters etc etc, that of course I was going to read the novel. I loved it because it makes the fictional little town of Night Vale so three-dimensional. It gives a new perspective on the town’s inhabitants, on Cecil, on Cecil & Carlos, on the radio show, the town, its way of life. And indirectly it speaks a lot about why Night Vale is so appealing, despite being occasionally horrific. Boiled down to two lines of dialogue from the novel, the utopian gist of Night Vale is:
“‘Thank you for keeping me company in my nightmare.’ […] ‘Nah, it’s our nightmare now.'”
I started following the podcast when there were about 40 ish episodes. A friend had pointed out on Facebook how well “Welcome to Night Vale” deals with disability-related topics, so I went and checked it out. Another thing that jumped out at me after only a few episodes was that I never saw it niched or labeled as LGBT yet a romantic relationship between two men plays a central role (“central” when it’s not currently raining dead animals from a glow cloud, of course). I did see it niched/labeled/described as “horror”, though, as “Lynchian”, as “terrifying”. I have thought about genre a lot; some say, genre depends on what the reader perceives or expects. To me, Night Vale is weirdly, contemporarily utopian in terms of what it does as a piece of fiction and in terms of the world it creates. I don’t develop huge fan-crushes very often, but currently I join those who say “‘I’m packing up and moving to Night Vale'” (e.g., a reviewer of the novel, quoted on the book’s cover), because Night Vale seems like such a safe space (despite the fact that the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home leaves her knives lying around in the kitchen). Going there for a few minutes feels like a little utopian respite from real-life right-wing political extremism, backlashes, hate crime, bullying, anxiety, ableism, and so on. But it also does not feel like escapism: Night Vale seems to be tethered to reality and it evokes this feeling of relief only because it is so different from reality and much other fiction.
The creators of the podcast have said that when thinking up Night Vale (a small desert town) they imagined a place in which all conspiracy theories were true. Before I came across that statement, I also felt that Night Vale was a place where everything that hides under your bed or in the corners of your anxious thoughts during insomnia is brought out into the open. So what’s left to hide under your bed, what’s left to worry about? Nothing really, because the whole town is in the same situation – dealing with, living with, fighting whatever might be secretly terrifying in real life. In Night Vale you may be in danger if you enter the dog park, acknowledge an angel, enter the library, attend a company picnic or intern at the radio station, but at least you’re not in danger because you’re a guy dating a guy (for example). You’re not weird – you just choose to appear in different bodies, or maybe you are a disembodied hand or sentient haze. You don’t need fixing and you can count on your fellow citizens of Night Vale to just get that.
In Night Vale there don’t seem to be any token characters – or maybe all of them are. To me, when it comes to fandom, it’s mostly a mix of “I want to be them” or “I want to be friends with them”. Here, it is similar. I want to be friends with the inhabitants of Night Vale. It feels realistic to me to be friends with them, because they are not token and because they are not the featureless inhabitants of some frightening, smooth utopia. They quarrel, discuss, fight, have barbeques and encourage each other to use their wings (if they happen to have a pair) to try flying up above the roof – like normal people.