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The scripts work – does the novel? Night Vale – A Novel, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

“Welcome to Night Vale – A Novel”, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (Hardcover; publisher: Harper Perennial; Oct. 20, 2015, 416 pages)

Can the same subjects, settings and characters be successfully used in a podcast, and in published script format, and in a published novel? Take Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor: It is their first novel based on their podcast series, Night Vale. But before that, they had collected the Night Vale podcast scripts in two volumes, the first called Mostly Void, Partially Stars, published in 2016. Having read the pod-cast script collections, in which they combine decidedly freaky ideas with excellent audio scripts, written perfectly to form, I wanted to see whether their writing would be as good in a full-length novel. Because that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

I wanted to see whether they could cope with the demands of the form of the novel – the form being the challenge, rather than the subject or material. Radio or podcast scripts do not require a plot that builds consistently over hundreds of pages, nor multiple, structured developments and climaxes, nor much character development to complement the plot. Radio scripts are short and sweet, since people cannot “re-hear” what they missed, whereas with a printed book you can page back to check.

I think they succeeded – I think it works. I enjoyed reading it and found that, apart from successfully embroidering on “Night Vale” and its peculiarities, and rounding off the characters who live there (giving them past lives, etc.), the authors also came up with another intriguing idea: “King City”, the place you need to get to but you can’t.

King City is Night Vale’s neighbouring town. “Night Valers” feel about King City the same way that the people of “Dog River” feel about “Wullerton” in the Corner Gas TV show. (The rivalry is so intense that whenever anyone in Dog River mentions the name “Wullerton”, they instinctively spit on the ground.) In Corner Gas, the people of Wullerton turn out to be quite normal, but in Welcome to Night Vale, the people of King City go from bad to worse to totally bat-poo crazy to probably being from another planet. That is, if you can get to the city to see for yourself.

Strange parents and strange children

Welcome to Night Vale is Sci-Fi, with all the fantastical and mind-bending moments that you would expect from the authors. But it is also about parental love and what parents would do to keep their children safe – even if the parent is strange and tries to help their child in the wrong way. One of the parents is “Diane Crayton” who works in a strange office with people who occasionally disappear and a boss who has a tarantula living on her desk, and sometimes, on her. Diane’s teenage son, “Josh”, whose biological father, “Troy”, disappeared long ago, keeps changing shape and she finds communication with him difficult. Because he is a teenager but also because he sometimes doesn’t have ears. And sometimes no lips either.

Then there is the pawn-shop owner, “Jackie Fierro”, who starts the whole adventure when a stranger gives her a little piece of paper with “KING CITY” written on it. Try as she might, she cannot get rid of it. (Eventually almost everyone in Night Vale is stuck with a slip of paper like that.) Jackie goes to her mother, “Lucinda”, for advice, but she cannot remember her mother, or her childhood, and her mother won’t tell her who her father is. Jackie and Diane think the answer to their problems is in King City, but don’t know how to get there.

A sticky situation

The slip of paper that won’t go away reminded me of the running joke about “Captain Haddock”, in the Tintin books by Hergé, being unable to rid himself of a piece of sticking plaster. The piece of paper is like that mental itch that you can’t stop and you can’t scratch. In this case, it is King City and what effects its inhabitants are having on Night Vale.

“Captain Haddock” and “Tintin” and the piece of sticky plaster in “The Calculus Affair”, by Hergé. “Szplug!”

The “sticky situation” is a familiar comedy trope in which someone comes in contact with something sticky (flypaper, glue, gum, molasses, tape, tar, wallpaper paste, etc.) and they can’t get it to stop sticking to them. However, in Night Vale, those sticky papers aren’t funny – they’re threatening.

The closed circle

Cranor and Fink use another familiar device, that of being trapped in a closed circle, in a place with only one exit that works (the rest all going back to the place that you leave from). It gives the novel a definite ominous, nightmarish tone. That too, is an established plot device, used for instance in the 1998 film The Truman Show, which was based on a speculative screenplay by Andrew Niccol, which, in turn, has similarities to, amongst many others, Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia.

In this case, however, not only can they not get out of Night Vale, they cannot get into King City. Both places seem to have invisible borders that buses, cars and trains cannot cross.

“There was a sign that said KING CITY with an arrow pointing at an exit looping away from the highway out into the sand.
‘I guess we take that.’
Jackie pulled the car onto the exit. As she did, she felt her stomach start to rise, like she was being carried.
‘Do you feel that?’
‘Yes, something’s not right.’
The exit loop kept turning. She couldn’t see how the loop could possibly be that long. The curve just wouldn’t end. They went and went. For ten minutes they did a long, slow curve along the exit loop.
‘This isn’t good,’ said Jackie.
‘Well it’s not great.’
Jackie started to wonder if she would be turning the car in to the gentle curve for the rest of her life, and just as she started to wonder that, the road straightened them out and spat them out on a highway. They drove past a house sagged into itself, an unmaintained heap of wood barely holding the shape of a house.
‘Oh goddammit.’”(p.317)

Where’s the magic?

Any novel has to have something that grabs you or some aspect that is really well done, in order for it to work.

Some novelists write clearly and fluently, others write beautifully. Some have tremendous powers of imagination and write great descriptions. Others get the voices of the characters just right and have a knack for dialogue. Yet others specialize in depicting something difficult or complicated – death, the far future, people on narcotics, making music, flying without wings…

As I pointed out in my previous review, there are many elements familiar to horror and B-movie Schi-Fi thrillers in Cranor and Fink’s work. But they combine and use them in an original and entertaining way. And Cranor and Fink’s particular knack seems to be a gift for creating the world of Night Vale in the finest detail. Every sentence has something that adds to this picture – something unexpected, trilling or amusing, or something expected (from the other books) but nevertheless pleasing.

A world to love

If you like the world of Night Vale, with its roads that go around and back home, you’ll like all the books featuring it, same as when you like “Arrakis” created by Frank Herbert, “Middle Earth” by J.R.R. Tolkien, “Bas-Lag” by China Miéville, “The Culture” by Iain M. Banks, “Westeros” by George R.R. Martin, or “Panem” by Suzanne Collins.

The authors were required to extend their descriptions to be fully comprehensive and finely detailed over hundreds of pages. A random selection of pages shows that almost every line builds on the image of the town and its people:

  • rumours of benefits from the secretive services of the town’s doctors, who no-one ever goes to (p.50)
  • a boy walking upright, with non-oozing legs, and hands with human palms and fingers (p.68)
  • an office worker called “Evan” who probably never existed (p.113)
  • the same people, at the same booths, working on the same plates, always in the “Moonlite All-Nite” diner (p.179)
  • pink plastic flamingos that make people disappear and do time travel if they touch them (p.231)

There is not a page without an oddity, and they’re all neatly woven together so that the madness makes sense. And yes, there is still “Cecil” reporting all the goings-on on “Night Vale Community Radio”, and I was hoping he would say; “Good night, Night Vale. Good night.” And he did, finally, on p. 393.

So if you love Night Vale, and you want much more, read this. You will love it. Good night, Night Vale. Good night Cecil and all. See you all in the next book, which I must now read.

About the header

The landscape in the picture is the Karoo, a semi-desert region in the  Eastern, Northern and Western Cape provinces of South Africa – very hot, very dry. Are those mountains? No, they’re figments of your imagination.

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