The Most Scientifically Interesting Community in the U.S.: Welcome to Night Vale

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at the first episode of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor and voiced by Cecil Baldwin, first broadcast on March 15 2015 through Commonplace Books. Spoilers ahead.

“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.”

Anne’s Summary

Unlike Ruthanna, I was a Night Vale virgin, wandering innocent and vulnerable into its many-layered mysteries. So I took some friends with me. En route, we stopped at a cantina in the middle of nowhere (everything in the vicinity of Night Vale being in the middle of nowhere. Interesting phenomenon, this multiple-maybe-infinite middleness of nowhere. Howard would have loved it.) Anyhow, I met this five-headed dragon named Hiram and we got to discussing the relative merits of hemotoxic versus neurotoxic venoms and doing tequila shots and I ended up too hung over to write. Luckily we had a highly competent journalist in our party…

From the notes of Carl Kolchak, scribbled somewhere in the American southwest:

All the dragon could tell us was Night Vale was kind of hard to find, just listen for its radio station. When it’s the only one we can get, we’ll be close. Finally, in the middle of the middle of nowhere, we started picking up a honey-rich male voice doling out marvels like weekday white toast, slightly limp.

  • Starts out with city council announcement about new dog park where they don’t allow dogs. Or people. Could see hooded figures in there. Don’t approach them. Don’t look at them too long. Fence is electrified. Still, dog park won’t harm you.
  • Some old woman Josie claims that angels (radiant, ten-feet-tall, one black) revealed themselves to her and did household chores. The black one changed a porch lightbulb. She’d be willing to sell the used angel-touched lightbulb.
  • New guy in town with perfect hair. Claims he’s a scientist. Rented a lab next to Rico’s pizza joint.
  • PSA: Parents, if you’re taking the kids to play in the scrublands and sand wastes, watch out for the color of the helicopters. Black ones = world government, probably not a good place to play that day. Blue ones = Sheriff’s secret police, okay to play, they hardly ever take a child. Ones painted like birds of prey, return home, lock doors, cover ears against screaming.
  • Vanished airliner reappeared for split-second in high school gym, disrupting basketball practice before disappearing for good. Probably the work of rival team, Desert Bluffs Cacti.
  • New guy’s name is Carlos. At a town meeting, he says Night Vale is the most scientifically interesting town in the US, and he’s there to figure out what’s going on. Mysterious government agents from a vague agency lurk in back, being mysterious and vague.
  • Wishful thinking segment: According to the Business Association, the Nightvale Harbor and Waterfront will be a big success, despite fronting only sagebrush and rock; local NRA chapter proclaims that guns don’t kill people because people have become miraculously invincible to bullets.
  • Carlos and his team of scientists say that one of the houses in the new Desert Creek development actually doesn’t exist. Scientists daring each other to go in.
  • A howling was heard coming from the Post Office. Passersby described it as the sound of a soul being destroyed by black magic. Self-described “Indian tracker” (totally Caucasian) guy who wears offensively stereotypical headdress claims he can see tracks on asphalt and will get to truth of the matter.
  • There are lights in the sky above Arby’s. Not the Arby’s sign. The lights are higher up, alien lights. We know the difference.
  • Carlos and his team report seismic readings indicating catastrophic earthquakes are occurring under Nightvale, even though no one can feel them. Put in insurance claims anyway, can’t hurt to try.
  • Traffic report: Police warn motorists about ghost cars that appear in the distance moving unimaginably fast. Trying to match their speed won’t be considered “going with the flow of traffic.” However, matching the speed of the lights in the sky is allowed, since their drivers appear safety-minded.
  • Carlos and his team report that the sun set ten minutes later than it should have this evening. They have no explanation for this and can only sit in a circle around a clock, at which they murmur and coo.
  • The city council reminds residents that the structure of Heaven and the tiers of Angels are privileged information—things man isn’t allowed to know. Residents should not speak to Angels they may meet at the store or bowling alley as Angels lie and do not exist.
  • Another PSA: Can alligators kill your children? Yes.
  • The owner of the Desert Flower Bowling Alley discovered a subterranean city nestled in a vast cavern beneath the pin retrieval area of Lane Five. He could see strange spires and broad avenues and hear the voices of a crowd, but he hasn’t explored the new world yet. A bowling ball fell down into the city, he noted, so its inhabitants must be aware of us too, now. Oh goody.
  • Carlos visited the radio studio with a strange device. He said he was testing for “materials.” The device burst into frenzied birdsong when it neared the microphone, and Carlos left in a hurry. He advised us to evacuate, but then who would speak sweetly to radio listeners through the night?
  • Good night, listeners. Good night.

What’s Cyclopean: Probably the Vast Underground City.

The Degenerate Dutch: The Indian Tracker appears to be of Slavic origin, and wears a headdress “out of some racist cartoon.” It’s hard to take him seriously in that headdress. One of Old Woman Josie’s angels is black. The one who changed her light bulb, in fact, if that has any impact on whether you’d like to buy the old bulb.

Mythos Making: Night Vale has fungous roots in Lovecraft, from mysterious underground cities to houses of dubious existence. More modern touchstones include the Illuminatus Trilogy, and similar stories that add human absurdity and conspiracy to the cosmic—I think we all know where the Unmarked Helicopters and the Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency come from.

Libronomicon: Not in this episode, but Night Vale’s library has a fatality rate well above the national average. The librarians are fearsome creatures.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Cecil appears perfectly sane, but then how would you know?

Ruthanna’s Commentary

I was last caught up on Welcome To Night Vale three and a half years ago, the day before my youngest kid (so far uneaten by alligators) was born. Listening to the first episode I’m reminded both of how much I like the show, and how much better it got as the initial jokes and catch phrases developed into richer plot and character development. I’ll have to do some catching up, if only in order to learn the latest coding of the unmarked helicopters. In the mean time, I’ll do my best not to turn this commentary into a series of quotes or an undifferentiated swoon over Cecil’s voice.

Welcome to Night Vale is a cross between “All Things Considered,” the original “War of the Worlds,” and the late news-and-gossip show on your hyperlocal indie radio station. Hyperlocal is in this case Night Vale, a small desert town in a cosmic horror universe. Mysterious phenomena shape the fates of the inhabitants. These phenomena kill dozens at random at unpredictable intervals, leaving the survivors with no explanation for why such atrocities take place. For the most part, Night Valers take these dangers for granted, wrap themselves in reassuring platitudes when the dust clears, and try not to think about them too hard when not in the midst of hiding behind their desks.

So basically—I’m forced to conclude every time I do think about it too hard—much like our world, except that one of the unreasonably dangerous and poorly-paid jobs is “radio station intern.” And then there are the places where Night Vale is very like our world. I still have some of those bumper stickers (though not on my car).

For me, one of the sweet spots for cosmic horror is this perfect mix of familiar and strange, disturbing and reassuring, seen through eyes that don’t quite agree with mine about which is which. It’s a rare thing. “A Study in Emerald” is my go-to example of a story that nails it. Night Vale does too. Sometimes I’ll catch myself wishing I could visit. Then I catch myself wondering why I’d want to do such an idiot thing. And then I realize that it’s because I just want a vacation from terrors grown too familiar, even if only to someone else’s imperceptible-earthquake-prone home ground.

Cecil’s iconic voice, simultaneously reassuring and ominous, is the heart of the podcast. He describes the surreal and inexplicable in measured announcements. He mixes the world-shaking, trivial, and deeply personal without apparent self-consciousness. He looks for ways to game the absurd system—don’t forget to file that insurance claim. But then, the whole town is like that. Poor Carlos the Scientist has a lot to get used to. (And he will, and his slow-burn romance with Cecil is one of the show’s many pleasures.)

This first episode is a series of brief sketches and introductions, with Carlos’s arrival as a very light throughline. Most of these will eventually grow into important plot components. The dog park! Old Women Josie’s angels! The vast underground city under the bowling complex! Carlos’s perfect hair! The rivalry with Desert Bluffs! For now, they give hints of the surreality of life in Night Vale—and maybe in other places too.

Good night, Tor.com. Good night.

Anne’s Commentary

Well, they would be Anne’s comments, except she’s still curled up in the rear of the SUV, sleeping off her conversation with Hiram at the Cantina of Lost Souls and Unexpectedly Excellent Enchiladas. Still Carl reporting in her place, while riding shotgun. At the wheel is Professor Afua Benetutti. You last heard of the two of us in connection with the ill-fated Miskatonic-Saudi-World Health Organization (Paranormal Division) expedition into the Rub-al-Khalie. Yeah, I know. Has there ever been a Miskatonic expedition that wasn’t ill-fated? Those guys can’t go out to lunch without waking aeons-quiescent evil. That must be why I hang out with them.

The demons of the Arabian desert were too much for everyone but me and Afua. She’s says that’s because she’s trained for years with the Order of Alhazred to withstand exopsychic influences. As for me, she speculates that I’ve gotten too cynical for the seductions of mere succubi to have any effect. Damn straight, I guess. Anyhow, before the Saudi party broke up, she read something in the wind-scripted sands that she knew would interest her friend Professor Winslow. Professor Audrey Winslow. Who had made the luggage-strewn seat behind us into a couch for the queen of cats, as she was. Could be I wasn’t cynical enough yet to withstand every feminine power in the cosmos.

As the Night Vale announcer’s voice faded into faintly weird music of indeterminate genre, Afua said, “As we were speculating, before that very interesting program shut us up, Alhazred’s retreat in the Empty Quarter was a planar nexus point of considerable complexity, hence all the activity he—and our party—experienced. But if I read the sands right, the maps they drew, the planar nexus in our own American empty quarter should be much more complex.”

“‘Where the worlds meet, where the songs and the stories come together,’ ” Audrey quoted Afua’s sands. If you didn’t know how to listen to it, you’d say her voice was lazy. I knew enough to hear the underhum of her excitement.

“If that broadcast was for real,” I said, “Night Vale’s your nexus, all right. Talk about stories, come on! That sounded like every idea Lovecraft ever got and used, or got and never used, ended up in this gods-forsook burg, only for real.”

“In which case,” Audrey drawled, “Night Vale wouldn’t be gods-forsook at all. Just the opposite.”

Afua braked, not too hard. Not the way she’d brake to avoid squashing a rattlesnake, because Yig, remember. “There they are,” she said.

I swiveled forward in my seat. Audrey sat up and leaned between me and Afua. The groans and struggle in the way back signaled that even Anne was stirring.

The “they” Afua meant were the lights. The lights above the Arby’s, which establishment had the biggest, brightest signage in the dark huddle of town at the end of our road. The radio announcer hadn’t lied. There were lights above the sign lights, which weren’t any kind of Arby’s lights, or any kind of man-made lights at all.

They were alien lights. I was no Night Valer, but I too knew the difference.

Summer vacation is coming! Cue ominous music, and join us next week for Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People.”

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots (available July 10th, 2018). Her neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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