The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (Hardcover; publisher: Harper Perennial; March 24, 2020; 384 pages)

The Welcome to Night Vale (WTNV) phenomenon is now so well known that the listeners to the podcast are actually also contributing to episodes. This means that the enterprising writing duo of Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have been able to produce four book versions of the scripts; year 1, Mostly Void, Partially Stars; year 2, The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe, year 3, The Buying of Lot 37, and year 4, Who’s a Good Boy? Following the scripts, they have also written three novels set in Night Vale, using the characters and some parts of the plots of the podcasts. These are: Welcome to Night Vale (2015), It Devours! (2017) and the latest is The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, a few months ago. As happens with all appealing constructed worlds, readers have adopted Night Vale – not in italics, referring to the fictional place not to a book title – as their own.

This assumption of ownership makes it quite tricky for an author to depart from an established formula. Fans do not like it. Some authors do not mind. Others do not risk it. Others hide away until their alien child has been born, completely formed – a fait accompli so to speak.

So, considering the state of WTNV, what would this novel with the very long name, be? Is it the same as before, or something new?

The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home (“Old Woman” for short)

The long title is sure to stand out amongst other books on the Sci-Fi shelves. The opposite technique also works – book titles that are one letter or one word long. OK, so much for that gimmick. I suspect that they chose the title to indicate that this novel is not quite a “Welcome to Night Vale Novel”, as it states on the cover. Yes, Cranor and Fink have, in my opinion, jumped ship, gone off the rails, taken a tangent and departed (mostly) the vale of Night Vale.

Welcome to Night Vale fan art – “All Hail the Glow God”, from the fan art site, Dark Owl Records on Tumblr

The Old Woman in the title is a fringe character in the Night Vale novels and scripts. She lurks about in people’s houses in Night Vale. She’s invisible, but she does things to people and their homes, she intervenes (for their own good, as she explains) and sometimes, when things get desperate, she becomes un-invisible and people can sense or hear her. Mmmm. She does rather sound like a vampire, doesn’t she?

However, though the Old Woman is a Night Vale inhabitant, this is an origin story, about how she ended up faceless and living in the home of someone called “Craig”, a rather bumbling young man who needs to toughen up and get his love life in order. So, this story has a first person narrator, the Old Woman, who tells her life story which starts in 1792, the late 18th century, on an estate on the coast of Italy, presumably – though the exact place is not specified. Given that Night Vale is set in the current time, 2020, this makes the Old Woman 228 years old. Which means that she is some kind of ghost or a zombie, or a vampire.

Did they get the history right?

Judging the story as an Historical Novel, it is actually quite a well done recreation of the post-Renaissance, Early Modern period in Italy (or the area around the Mediterranean). The Early Modern Period included the Age of Revolution, from the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries, in which a number of significant revolutionary movements took place in most of Europe and the Americas.

This being the time frame, it is acceptable for the authors to have included in their plot arms-smuggling, clans, mobs, courts, nobles, royalty, ships, pirates, etc. Italy at that time had been in involved in almost non-stop fighting with the rest of Europe since the the “Italian Wars” began in 1494. And of course Napoleon conquered most of Italy in the name of the French Revolution in 1797 to 1799 – right at the time that the Old Woman was born.

A model for the Old Woman? This depicts a real female buccaneer, “Anne Bonny”, who was part of the early eighteenth-century Caribbean piracy boom. (Illustration from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader: Plunges into History, by The Bathroom Readers’ Hysterical Society, Paperback – Unabridged, July 1, 2002)

She came into the world as the only child, raised by her father, and describes her childhood living on a wealthy estate with a view on to the Mediterranean sea, with its own pleasant cove from which to watch the passing ships, protected from the turmoil of the outside world. But where there is fighting, bandits make money.

It turns out that the Old Woman’s father is a smuggler, and, as we have learned from hundreds of films and books, schemes of ill-gotten gains all end badly. As did the Old Woman’s father, best friend and husband, and ultimately, “Edmond”, her guardian. Is there really honour amongst thieves? Apparently not. Is a bandit any different from a mercenary? From the point of the view of the girl who grows up wanting to do what her father did, it wasn’t wrong. He describes them as “honest criminals”. This hero-worship leads her to have an extreme obsession about avenging his death. “Michael Corleone” is a cool cat by comparison to this revenge-obsessed, bitter, unstoppable force. She is definitely an anti-heroine in the style of El Chapo.

The smell of oranges, the sea and blood

The authors have an unexpected lyrical style in places, which supplants the deadpan descriptions of Night Vale which are so well known that they are anticipated by the reader. Repeated descriptions of smells evoke the child’s home environment, and her growing awareness:

“Here is what the sea smells like. It is more texture than scent. [The sea smells like old wood and wet leaves. Like cold mud and warm stone. Like every creature that has ever lived in it, a churning graveyard and nursery.” (p.29)

“Here is what a wet dog smells like. A wet dog smells like everywhere the dog has been. Grass and leaves and dirt and stones, mud and rainwater and smoke and garbage. Like everything the dog has done. It smells like saliva and adrenaline, the the furious joy of hunting smaller animals and the cringing confusion of being threatened by larger animals, or loud sounds, or a passing storm. A little like ripe fruit.” (p.45)

“Here is what my father’s death smelled like. It smelled like blood, which smelled like metal and panic.We have evolved to find the scent of the inside of our bodies upsetting […] But a smell like blood goes further than that. In this much quantity, where it fills the air, the smell floods us with adrenaline, and it is not so much a smell as an experience of the flesh. My father’s death smelled like blood and so it smelled like tingling hands and a dry mouth and a scalp two sizes too small and a skin that twitched. My father’s death smelled like smoke, which, combined with the blood, almost smelled like the preparation of a meal. […] My father’s death smelled much like his life. It smelled like his clothes, and it smelled like his skin, which smelled exactly like his skin when he was alive.” (p.59)

Historical and imagined places

Like the unspecified location of her family home, the authors also mention one of the oddities in the Night Vale world, like the mid-European country called “Svitz”. There is no such place, but to “schvitz” in Yiddish means to sweat, and that is indeed what people do during the murder, battles and mind-games that take place in Svitz and its main city “Luftnarp”, home of “King Torrid IV”. But they also set the action in actual places like Hamburg, Paris, Morocco, Dubrovnik, and the Pale of Settlement in Russia.

Fan art of “Svitz“, from the community of Night Vale supporters.

These historical facts are blended with fiction, for instance the two Costra Nostra-like criminal organizations that dominate the area; the mysterious, black-sailed ships of the “Sign of the Labyrinth”, and the “Duke’s Own”, a criminal organization known for murder, banditry, slavery, etc. The Old Woman’s father keeps refusing to join them, whereas Edmond thinks it is the safest option and that being an independent smuggler isn’t a good strategy.

The theme – Revenge served hot is a bad dish

Like Craig, the man whose house she lives in, and whose life she interferes with to make sure he marries who she wants him to marry, the Old Woman’s father died when she was a child, and her whole life evolves around that.

“Your father’s early death haunts you, I’m sure. That’s normal. And I’m glad you are health-conscious because of it. Your father’s body was filled with so many artificial chemicals and carcinogens over the years, his cancers (and there were many) were a product of personal choices, not genetics. I’m old. Older than you can imagine. Probably older than I can imagine, and I have met nearly everyone in your family tree, going back well over a century. There’s very little cancer there, rest assured.” 

And this is where the reader starts to get a sneaking suspicion that all is not going to end well for Craig. And that the Old Woman’s actions with him are not merely mischievous or playful. She is ruining his life, and it has something to do with her past, her becoming a sort of ghost, and her lifelong mania for revenge.

Following in her father’s footsteps, the girl becomes a sailor and a criminal, with a special skill in knife-throwing, and gathers around her a few brave and faithful friends who follow her on her misadventures. And misadventures they are indeed, since the Old Woman is ultimately betrayed in the worst way. How and why, and which dangerous plots and fights she gets involved in, makes for entertaining reading, but that is not the theme of the novel.

For both her and her nemesis, the first lesson is that revenge is a dish best served cold. And, it is a bad idea to focus your life and your beliefs on one enemy and getting rid of that one enemy. Also, it’s a bad idea to make yourself into judge, jury and executioner when you are not aware of all the facts. The description of the Old Woman’s ultimate fight is set out on the page like a whirlpool of words, explaining the state she assumes afterwards:

Page from The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

A nightmare that endures over centuries

Along with the horror of the death of her father and the ruination of their estate, the Old Woman is haunted by a mysterious, lurching, blood-covered man, who mutters “Why? Why?”. Who is this? What does it mean? Using foreshadowing, the authors make this spectre, and the Old Woman herself, the primary elements of the supernatural in the novel.

The novel is not really Science fiction, nor is it Fantasy. It is more like Magic Realism in Historical Fiction, like the books by Isabel Allende or Alice Hoffman, because the adventures of the Old Woman in the Age of Revolution is not unusual for the period. The convoluted subterfuge of which she is the victim is another element which takes some suspension of disbelief, but even so, the details of the ships and ports where the action takes place are quite plausible.

By around page 213, the Old Woman shifts her focus from a criminal organization to one man. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but her invisibility, facelessness, the horror people feel when they sense her, her roaming the world for centuries, and her undoubtedly very dangerous, vicious, manipulative acts in the lives of the people whose houses she shares are all related to this change in target.

It all ends in misery, as expected

Is hers a final act? It doesn’t look like it. In a creepy way, as life goes on, generation after generation, the children of her victims will become the next victims of the Old Woman. As she says to Craig: “I will be with you for the rest of your life. Don’t worry. That won’t be much longer now.”

Well, “sins of the fathers” is a classic, frequent theme in Literature, but it is a strong one which the authors will be able to spin out in more books. On the final few pages, readers will find the confirmation of their growing suspicions about what is actually going on. It is a very eerie chapter. To have her say this in so many words to a chubby, orphaned baby – while making cootchie-cooing baby sounds, is darkly portentous. This is not going end well, ever.

Is it any good?

What is my rating for The Old Woman? It is enjoyable to read, well structured, and well written. I missed the expected elements of Cecil, his boyfriend, the town, the aliens, and the familiar people. But I suppose the authors cannot keep churning out books with exactly the same parameters.

The town of Night Vale created by Fink and Cranor appears to be normal, but in every respect it is not. It is weird and funny in a deadpan, ironic way. Like all good Science Fiction, it is a satire of today’s culture, politics, and social systems. And this is what I missed in this novel. It is not funny. It is not very weird, nor is it satirical. It is, for the most part, a straight-forward historical adventure.

I asked the question at the start of this write-up – did I think it was a good idea for Cranor and Fink to depart from the Night Vale formula? I think Night Vale fans may be tolerant of this creation, but it will not satisfy them. Other readers, who have yet to experience the full, mind-boggling strangeness of the Night Vale world, would enjoy it and be intrigued by the chapters in which the Old Woman interacts with Craig. I’m beginning to feel about Night Vale the way I do about Henning Mankell’s Wallander and the Ystad that Mankell had imagined: I want more, but Mankell is dead, and imitations will simply not do. Oh, well, better go back to the podcasts.

PS – Do we find out what the Old Woman’s name is? No. I guess if you are faceless your name does not matter.


For newcomers to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast

As you can see by the screen shot, above, the Welcome to Night Vale (WTNV) podcast on YouTube has at the time of writing this, Oct. 11, 2020, more than 170 episodes, 175 to be exact, and 213,000 subscribers.

WTNV is a twice-monthly podcast (voice only), not a video series. The very first WTNV episode was broadcast on June 15, 2012, and has had 1,726,487 “views”, or rather, “listens”. Every episode is a scripted radio performance by a skilled voice cast, relating another happening in the ongoing saga of the fictional town of Night Vale, the strangest town in the world.

Welcome to Night Vale is written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, produced by Joseph Fink, and narrated mainly by the real actor Cecil Baldwin – whose character is also called “Cecil”. Music is by Disparition, and there is a different song in every episode when the radio broadcast is supposed to be about the weather, traffic or something mundane. But then, not much of the “Night Vale” broadcasts follow the normal format, what with cats appearing out of nothing and floating around in the washroom of the radio station, the interns dying mysteriously, and the officials in the town – including the station management – going off on rants, raves, threats, and excessive grunting and growling.

Welcome to Night Vale is a production of Night Vale Presents, an independent podcast network from co-creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. It is one of many (see below), all with absorbing titles. If I had the time I wouldn’t mind finding out what I Only Listen to Mountain Goats is like.

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