"Night Vale is a friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful and mysterious lights pass overhead as we all pretend to sleep." Or at least that's how Cecil, the fictional host of one of America's most popular podcasts, Welcome to Night Vale, describes his little hamlet.
Written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and voiced by Cecil Baldwin, Welcome to Night Vale is a twice-monthly podcast play, in the style of a community radio broadcast. The show reports local news, weather, and various announcements and proclamations from the small town's city council, mayoral election and sheriff's secret police. What makes the show peculiar is the strange goings-on in this little town: the moody angel population, the multiplicity of circling helicopters, the multidimensional doors to secret old houses, and the glow cloud, which tends to rain animal carcasses on the historic downtown. The show is part Lake Wobegone, part Twin Peaks, and part Twilight Zone. And Welcome to Night Vale has skyrocketed in popularity over the summer, in part due to a rising fandom on Tumblr, but also from vocal fans on Twitter, including the well followed young adult author Maureen Johnson. But what is everyone so excited about?
Well to be succinct, Night Vale feels tailor-made for right now. The ultimate genre mashup, Night Vale accepts as true any and all beliefs -- conspiracy theories to religions -- but all the horrors, and mysteries and complete unknowables experienced by the little town are held together under the umbrella of everyday "mundacity." Much like our everyday networking has led us to simply accept and deal with every weird and horrific and uncanny thing the Internet can throw at us, Night Vale accepts every hoard of faceless children and invading army born from the desert sands as natural, just something to get through until tomorrow.
It's this constant presence of the unknown, or "the Other" as it might be called in Imperialism or Gender Studies, that listeners flock to. It is an uncertainty we can at least empathize with and even, for some fans, get cathartic release from. How? Night Vale's language-only format is at odds with our own overexposed eyes. With Night Vale we can never achieve visual satisfaction, which is a sensation contrary to how we use and experience the Internet today.
But the audio-only podcast allows listeners to create their own images of Cecil and the other characters and events in the show and to share them, mostly thanks to Tumblr, with other listeners. Not only can fans create their own individual ideas about what Cecil and his small town look like, but common physical attributes have emerged out of the creative melting pot of fan art sharing sites. Characteristics never described in the show itself, like Cecil's extensive purple tattoos and a third eye, have become commonly accepted. Welcome to Night Vale's revelry in the unknown allows fans to visualize the show together.
The podcast can only describe the horrors of street cleaning day, but the fans are allowed to depict, and thus attempt to enfold the slippery, metaphor-happy anomaly of Night Vale into our present image-heavy culture. While this type of fan-only depiction essentially means there can never be a visual canon for Night Vale -- no matter how many drawings of Cecil crop up with that third eye, fans creating or even just scrolling through the hashtagged creations of others are still attempting to gain a visual record, visual confirmation, for Night Vale's strange and horrible.
So if you need a taste of the horribly mundane and exultantly moody have a listen to Welcome to Night Vale, but remember if you see something, say nothing. Everything's going to be just fine.
Welcome to Night Vale is a production of Commonplace Books. For more information, visit commonplacebooks.com.