This week, we start a series of posts devoted to summertime entertainment, including delightful beach-reads, road-trip-friendly podcasts, splashy summer movies, and oh-so-binge-able tv.
Summer, for me, is an absolutely glorious time of luxuriating in free time and warm sunny days. I graduated college a few years ago and, in doing so, left behind both my way too small cinderblock dorm room and my summer breaks when I genuinely didn’t have any major responsibilities. But summer still feels like a time of excitement and potential: whether you’re excited about road trips, about catching up on all those pop culture recommendations that you’ve been writing on post-it notes all over your office, or about really getting the chance to earnestly clean your house/apartment/whimsically-named-abode, summer just crackles with expectation. The days are longer, the weather is nicer, and years and years of schooling has taught your subconscious that now it’s time for summer break. So I want to start this series of summery pop culture recommendations by encouraging you to check out the strange little podcast-that-could that’s perfect for road trips, chores, or general summer lollygagging: Welcome to Night Vale.
But Emily, you say, it’s just barely June! It won’t be summer for another two weeks! And anyway, you’re just waxing rhapsodic about summer because you’re in between grad school semesters and kind of are on summer break.
You’re not wrong, Second Person Audience Surrogate. But summer is a time of road trips and beach days and time spent away from your job and your computer, where you can relax with some longer-form media. And summer always goes by surprisingly quickly, so Kazia and I wanted to start our series of summer pop culture early, while you’re still planning all of your delightful summer activities. With that said, then, this week I want to encourage you to subscribe to this podcast emanating from the strange, fictional, desert town of Night Vale.
“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.”
Thus begins the first episode of this intensely weird and wonderful podcasting experiment in serialized narrative, speculative fiction, unreliable narrators, and weird Lovecraft references.
Basically, Welcome to Night Vale is the community radio show for Night Vale, a small desert community with a local bowling alley, a popular pizza place, some good local NPR broadcasts, a forbidden dog park, hooded figures, Cthulu-esque librarians, and angels. No wait — scratch that — the City Council would like to remind you that angels do not exist and the hierarchy of the tiered heavens is privileged information.
Through Cecil Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin), our excitable radio host, we hear about recent news events in the town of Night Vale. There’s the minor league baseball team, the Night Vale Spiderwolves, and their malevolently telepathic pitcher; the Glow Cloud that rained cats and dogs on Night Vale residents, temporarily mind-controlled them, and now serves on the PTA; and Hiram McDaniels, the literal five-headed dragon who decided to run for mayor after he was jailed on charges of insurance fraud. It’s normal small-town life, only seen through a lens of Lovecraft, Gaiman, Kafka, and every conspiracy theory you’ve ever believed.
“This free 30-day trial comes with everything you need including a free arrest, free charges, free arraignment, and free conviction: guaranteed!”
Cecil’s the heart of the show: for the first dozen or so episodes, he’s actually the only character we hear speaking. And he’s wonderful because he’s so bad at being an impartial, informative radio show host: he gets excited about cats (although, to be fair, they’re Night Vale cats, so they’re floating at fixed points in the space), he has a huge grudge against his brother-in-law, and at the start of the show he develops a massive crush on the dreamy scientist who’s just come to town, Carlos. (Yes, that’s right: the central relationship of Welcome to Night Vale is queer. It’s delightful.) He’ll report on the news, but he’ll also get distracted by voicemails from Carlos, pictures of Khoshekh the cat, and passing encounters with Steve Carlsberg. It’s a character study of Cecil as much as anything else.
“You know, they always say if you’re trying to meet someone, you may never find them, but it’s when you’re not looking, that’s when they find you. I’ve always heard this in reference to government agents, but I think it applies to dating as well.”
But there are also a fantastic cast of secondary characters, in addition to the adorable Carlos the Scientist (Dylan Marron). There’s an amazingly creeping Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home (Mara Wilson), a wonderfully annoyed Intern Maureen (played by the delightful YA author and twitter presence Maureen Johnson), and the unbelievably phantasmagoric (I’m running out of excited adjectives!) Tamika Flynn (Symphony Sanders), the teenaged reader and leader of an anti-corporate-oligarchy resistance. Despite the centrality of Cecil to the narrative and to the podcast as a whole, the lady characters are just the best.
“Get out there, Night Vale! Grab anything you can and fight! Grab a slingshot and a book, say an Amy Bender short story collection, or Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars. Or, if not a book, grab a rock. Or the throwing stars that come standard in most issues of McSweeney’s. Grab anything you can, and fight! Do not believe in heroes: believe in citizens. Be a citizen.”
Welcome to Night Vale also does some fascinating things with its narrative structure. While some episodes follow a relatively conventional set-up, development, denouement arc, some do awesome things with storytelling. An early stand-out is “A Story About You,” in which Cecil narrates a second-person story about “you.” It’s unexpected. And fab.
“‘This is a story about you,’ said the man on the radio. And you were pleased, because you always wanted to hear about yourself on the radio.”
Welcome to Night Vale isn’t just weirdness for the sake of weirdness, though: rather, it works to highlight the weirdness of normal life — even in places that seem a whole lot more “normal” than Night Vale does. A lot of the anxieties and legislations in Night Vale can be read as satires of contemporary events and worries in twenty-first century America: perhaps most notably, a recent story arc saw Night Vale taken over by a corporate dystopia that privileged efficiency and productivity and the workforce over humanity, individuality, or any sense of a meaningfully self-aware society. Welcome to Night Vale isn’t The Onion or The Colbert Report: the satire is only implied, and the stories work as autonomous aesthetic objects. But one of the preoccupations of this show is the idea that our lives are really weird and we just don’t notice it because we’ve learned to whistle past those graveyards — or, as it were, those forbidden dog parks.
At the end of the day, one of the things I love most about Night Vale is the way it embraces a sort of optimism of existential dread. It embraces just how weird and improbable and tenuous existence is: it relishes how unlikely your birth was and how tiny you are in the vast space of existence and then it suggests that maybe you should do something with your almost magically improbable existence. It asks you to not be a corporate automaton. It encourages you to pick up a book — even if you don’t literally weaponize your copy of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening — and to make something greater of yourself. Perhaps most importantly, it asks you to embrace who you are and what you can accomplish.
“Be proud of your place in the cosmos. It is small. And yet, it is. How unlikely. How fantastic. And stupid. And excellent.”
Perhaps that’s cheesy. Being disaffected is, of course, “cool,” corporate efficiency is “in,” and unbridled enthusiasm can threaten that sense of the status quo. But isn’t that the point?
Okay. So if the promise of Librarian Cthulu Monsters and weird optimism doesn’t make you want to listen to Welcome to Night Vale, this may not be the show for you. But my other favorite thing about this show is its taste in music. Each episode includes a segment in which Cecil cues “The Weather.” Weather reports in Night Vale, however, seem to be awesome indie music, and each episode includes a wonderfully random song or sample of a relatively unknown artist.
So if you’re roadtripping this summer, or have room for more podcasting in your life, I highly encourage that you check out Welcome to Night Vale. Like most scripted shows, it’s finding its feet in the first few episodes, so you might consider listening to a few early stand-outs (perhaps “A Story About You”?) to get a feel for the show, before going back to listen from the start. The show’s pretty serialized, though, so you should generally plan to start at the first episode and listen through to the present.
“There is a thin semantic line separating weird and beautiful. And that line is covered in jellyfish.”