All Hail The Glow Cloud: 'Night Vale' Welcomes Readers
Welcome to Night Vale
Hardcover, 401 pages |purchase
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In Night Vale, time is out of joint, memories are unreliable, and pink flamingo garden ornaments might do you serious harm. Cecil Palmer, the honey-voiced host of the community radio program, is as likely to begin narrating your every action as he is to inform you about the community calendar or the mind-controlling Glow Cloud (ALL HAIL) who's now a member of the PTA. The dog park is forbidden, the existence of mountains is deeply controversial, and teenagers can be 19 for decades. But people also raise children, go to work, tend their farms, fall in love, all under the watchful gaze of a government agency as vague as it is menacing.
In Night Vale, people experience several realities at once — and so do I, writing this review with a strange sort of triple vision. On the one hand, I want to speak as a fan of the extraordinarily popular podcast, so beloved that its listeners catapulted the novel into Amazon's #2 spot seven months before its release; on the other hand I want to explain Night Vale to people who may not have yet encountered it; on the third, vestigial hand I want to look at Welcome to Night Vale as a stand-alone novel, and try to see it from the perspective of someone who isn't already in love with the recurring characters, locations, and spatio-temporal anomalies of the podcast.
(If you had to imagine eyes in my palms to make those metaphors cohere, all the better. This is Night Vale, after all.) I loved it on all fronts, myself. But I think it's worth thinking about how to approach it — as is appropriate when encountering any new and enigmatically purple thing.
Jackie Fierro runs Night Vale's pawn shop. She can't remember a time before she ran the pawn shop, and doesn't think about a time beyond the time when she runs the pawn shop. But one day a man in a tan jacket carrying a deerskin suitcase hands her a piece of paper that says KING CITY, which never leaves her person no matter how much she tries to remove or destroy it. She can't remember anything about the man besides those details, and nor can anyone else — except Diane Crayton, single mother to Josh, a fifteen year old boy prone to changing his shape and asking uncomfortable questions about his long absent father, Troy, whom Diane has recently begun to glimpse all over Night Vale. As their respective mysteries draw them together, Diane and Jackie resolve to find King City — but leaving Night Vale, like so many things about the little desert town, is complicated.
For people who've never listened to the podcast or encountered one of its tremendously successful live shows: This is a splendid, weird, moving novel about families, the difficulties of growing up and the deep-seated vulnerabilities involved in raising children. It centers fantastic, flawed, very real women arguing with and struggling to understand each other, before seeking each other out as friends. It's a novel that really loves its characters even while inflicting upon them such horrors as librarians and invisible pie. It manages beautifully that trick of embracing the surreal in order to underscore and emphasise the real — not as allegory, but as affirmation of emotional truths that don't conform to the neat and tidy boxes in which we're encouraged to house them.
For fans of the podcast: I wonder what you'll make of it. Because the podcast is so thoroughly mediated through Cecil's voice and perspective, it's disorienting, at first, to see Night Vale without his narration (though I imagine the audiobook will be delicious). Instead, the novel uses his voice to interrupt and comment on the main body of the story, which gives us Jackie and Diane's perspectives on Cecil, his boyfriend Carlos, and the radio show in ways that are sometimes unflattering and sharp (for all that they're utterly fair). This is Night Vale looking at itself in new and often uncomfortable ways — but it dazzles me to see how versatile this concept is, how it bends and stretches into interactive live shows, nightmarish Twitter feeds and now this novel-length mystery adventure.
Ultimately, my triple-hand-vision synchronises and coheres, grants me depth perception in multiple dimensions and lets me see in the dark (though grasping cutlery remains awkward). Welcome to Night Vale more than lives up to expectation, and I can't wait for everyone to read it.
Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.