This is a review for the novel Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, set in the same universe as the podcast of that shares its name. This book is not yet published, although you can preorder it for when it does come out on October 20—I was lucky enough to be able to get a free ARC, or advance reader copy, when I was at Book Expo America* for work in May. I realize that this puts me in a privileged position, so I'm going to try to avoid any spoilers or proprietary information.
To start by being terribly reductionist and oversimplifying everything, I'd say my overall rating of the book would probably be four stars (on a scale of five). This book is well written, contains an interesting story, and is emblematic of a style of writing that I am already a fan of, so no big complaints there. I've been listening to the Night Vale podcast almost since it began, so I am part of the target demographic for this book; I will be very curious to hear from anyone who reads it but has not followed that podcast. I'm honestly not sure how well that would work. There's a certain amount of work that's being done to quickly familiarize the reader with the strange world of Night Vale, but there was also a fair amount of shorthand being used that directly references the podcast. Whether you would even notice that as a non-podcast-listener (or whether it would in fact feel alienating), I can't really tell. Suffice to say that I read this as someone who has a pretty thorough knowledge of the world-building that has already been done through the podcast.
There were some ways in which I enjoyed having the podcast as a reference point for the novel. The sections of the text that were written in the voice of Cecil Palmer, the main character and narrator of the podcast, were very easy to hear in my head in the familiar dulcet tones of the voice actor Cecil Baldwin (who will in fact be narrating the audiobook). The passing allusions to things that have happened on the podcast made the world of the novel feel rich and open. The whole plot of the novel actually extended and offered resolution for several storylines that the podcast had heretofore left unresolved (for a certain value of "resolution," anyway). But there were also passages in the novel that felt like first drafts of material for the podcast, things that probably would have worked much better as audio than as text. I was also initially skeptical about reading a 400-page novel based on something I'd only experienced as 30-minute podcast episodes; I wasn't sure how they would do with the longer form. For the record, I think there were definite advantages to this version of the storytelling, although I don't think it quite succeeds at being its own thing; it's sort of living between being a really long take on the podcast and being a fully realized narrative in its own right. And there were also ways in which reading the novel revealed to me some weaknesses of the podcast; things I realized I was appreciating in the story particularly because they were different from what I'd come to expect in the podcast. But these are actually some of the novel's greatest strengths.
The biggest item on that list was that the two main characters in the novel, Jackie Fierro and Diane Crayton, are pretty much new to us. Also, not unremarkably, they are female. And not just incidentally female—the gender of these characters actually informs who they are and how they experience the world of Night Vale, which means it is different from the way that Night Vale is experienced by Cecil, who is our guide to the town about 95% of the time on the podcast (despite some really lovely guest voice work by people like Mara Wilson as one of my favorite recurring characters, The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home). Almost all of what podcast listeners know about Night Vale is colored by hearing about it from Cecil's point of view. Because they've been listening to him for several years now, and because Cecil is such a likable character, with such an eminently trustable voice, I think listeners frequently forget this (and I think in the most recent series of the show, Fink and Cranor have actually had some fun playing with this), but Cecil is not objective. And I really enjoyed getting to spend some extended amounts of time with other characters in the novel. (Relatedly, this does make me just a tiny bit disappointed that Cecil will be narrating the audiobook. I mean, it is written in third person, so it makes sense to have one central narrator, but it's going to make the whole thing sound like one of his radio broadcasts, while in the novel those sections actually feel quite distinct from the rest. This feels like it might actually undermine some of what's great about the novel, and some of the ways in which it is more than just a derivative work. But I also know there'd probably be a fan mutiny if they got anyone else as narrator.)
Without going much into the actual plot—it's mostly satisfying, especially for those who know the podcast, although it takes a few weird cul-de-sacs—what I like most about Night Vale, both in the podcast and in the novel, is the style. For those who are unfamiliar, I would describe it as belonging to the genre that has been called New Weird, Speculative, or Slipstream fiction (for a helpful starter discussion on genre in these terms, try Dan Chaon's introductory essay in The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, a very excellent collection of a very excellent zine). These terms describe a kind of hybrid genre that incorporates elements of science fiction, fantasy, surrealism, and/or horror into ostensibly real-world settings while using the tone and approach of literary fiction and usually working in some solid meta-commentary on the whole thing while it's at it. Some of my favorite authors whose works fit this description at least some of the time are Italo Calvino, Kurt Vonnegut, Chris Adrian, Kate Atkinson and Kelly Link. You might also think of figures like Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami participating in this style.
What's so great about this type of writing is how the style transcends just being weird or strange or surreal and becomes, quite often, quietly profound. There are long, digressive sections in the Night Vale novel that seem a little overwrought, a little showy, a little absurd, but then they'll end by coming back from the weird, creepy places that they've gone to and connecting, strongly and unexpectedly, to just what it is to be a human person. There are tiny insights and understated moments along these lines in this novel that caught me off guard and kind of punched me in the stomach. The relationships that are formed and the exploration of human emotion is so real and raw and the surreality of the style seems the perfect vehicle for that. When the weirdness of Night Vale—the briefcases full of buzzing flies, the terror of the dog park, the unthinkable threat of librarians—are all treated as normal, the banality of our own human realities become incredibly strange and new. Love, family, home, a sense of place; these are at the heart of this novel, not a dark mystery or an unknown evil. And they are also at the heart of the best episodes of the podcast, but the podcast can't do the same extended, concentrated character development and thematic construction that the novel can (or, at least to my mind, it hasn't really; the one exception to be made is Cecil, of course, but I think we're still barely scratching the surface of that particular iceberg). So, my final verdict is that I love the style of Night Vale (as I have since the beginning) and I love what this foray into a new format allowed Fink and Cranor to do with that style. I loved getting to spend a lot of time with characters other than Cecil and I think it does good things for the world of Night Vale to open it up like that. This novel still has some weaknesses in how it relates to the existing content of the podcast, but these are nominal issues. Honestly, what this novel most made me excited for (please don't kill me, Night Vale listeners) is the day when Fink and Cranor, either together or separately, will let Welcome to Night Vale end and go on to write other stories. They have a strange, beautiful, darkly funny way of looking at the world and I'd like to hear more from beyond the borders of that friendly desert community we've come to know and love.
*Minor fangirl moment: So when I say I was able to get a free ARC, I mean that I stood in line for a short period of time and then Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor signed a copy of the novel and handed it to me. During our brief interaction, Joseph Fink also revealed, upon seeing my badge, that he and his then-fianceé, now-wife Meg Bashwiner (known to fans of the podcast as the proverbs lady) are fans of the America's Test Kitchen TV show and often fall asleep watching it. Which is kind of ridiculously charming, and also makes me think of Mallory Ortberg's sublime parody versions of Christopher Kimball's Cook's Illustrated letters, which have a surreal darkness to them that seems to share a lot of common ancestors with Welcome to Night Vale. It is occasionally kinda cool to work for a place people have actually heard of (and which they have have often strong, sometimes strange feelings about).
Welcome to Night Vale (the novel), obviously
Kelly Link's newest collection, Get In Trouble
Kate Atkinson, Not the End of the World
(I'm just now thinking about how I usually like this style of writing best when it comes in short story form...hm, I wonder if that says something about what its strengths and weaknesses are.)
This is one of my favorite songs I've ever heard on the Welcome to Night Vale weather: