“There is a thin semantic line separating weird and beautiful, and that line is covered in jellyfish.” – Episode 22, Welcome to Night Vale
It’s a fitting quote, I think, not only about those wayward sea creatures both beautiful and weird, but also for Welcome to Night Vale itself. Perhaps, dear reader, you have heard of this podcast, written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. There is a thin semantic line separating weird from haunting, haunting from terrifying, and terrifying from heartbreaking, and back around again. Welcome to Night Vale tap dances around this spiderweb of feelings, and does so admirably.
Welcome to Night Vale is a short podcast, ranging between 20 minutes to a half an hour, especially in the later episodes. It’s incredibly fictional- or one could argue incredibly real- and formats itself in the style of regular radio updates from the friendly desert town of Night Vale. Of course, the sleepy town is not what it seems on the outside, sporting hooded figures, strange lights in the sky over the local Arby’s, a floating cat trapped in the radio station bathroom and a dog park that you may never enter.
Seriously. Do not enter the dog park.
Narrated by the smooth-talking Cecil Baldwin (playing a character also named Cecil Baldwin), a certain level of the mundane is added to the fantastic nature of this singular town. The main plot itself is tough to describe, because, by the nature of the show, it seems nearly impossible to see who exactly is the main character. Is it Cecil, the radio announcer who is steadfast in his loyalty to the government? Is it Carlos, the scientist arriving in Night Vale in the pilot episode and Cecil’s object of affection? I, for one, prefer to believe that it is neither, instead choosing to think that the main protagonist of the podcast is the listener. While taken literally in a few of the episodes (most notably, “A Story About You”), every bit of Welcome to Night Vale, from the town ordinances to the advertisements, all move to make you truly feel like a resident in this strange and wonderful town. This does not just immerse you into the town, but stoke your imagination in order to fill the narrative with your own adventures.
Once each episode reaches a crescendo, and usually a particularly creepy one, the podcast invariably cuts to “the weather”, featured songs by independent musicians that range from anything to western- inspired fare to German rap music. This “weather” is sometimes jarring, and sometimes disappointing due to the desire to continue with the storyline, but often builds up the suspense in a particularly terrific way.
Subplots abound, this is truly one of the few instances of fiction that truly treat a homosexual love story with the same unflinching look that most heterosexual fictional couples take for granted. We watch the unfolding of the relationship between Cecil and Carlos with bated breath, but never feel as though they are being exploited or stereotyped. They never come off as a “gay love story”, they are simply a love story, and that in itself is extraordinary.
While binge listening can give you a bit of shtick fatigue, the bi-monthly update schedule and current low podcast count (27 episodes as of this writing) makes it easy to catch up to the most current episode. While only less than a year old, Welcome to Night Vale has a terrific sense of self-reflexivity. Episodes can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, or Feedburner, and are well worth a look.
– By Catherine Kovach