Welcome to Night Vale

I have a theory about human nature. When it comes to the strange, confusing or taboo, we have only three possible responses. We can be disgusted, which prompts us to avoid whatever it is. If that avoidance isn’t allowed, our other options are fear and humor. This makes comedy and horror oddly companionable. Though externally they seem extremely different, they have the potential to explore similar topics, and many stories successfully combine them; the Scream franchise, The Cabin in the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Shaun of the Dead, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so on. Sometimes the comedy is dominant, sometimes the terror. Where the subject of my final October review falls may be up to the individual.

Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast (and as of a couple weeks ago, a novel) about a small desert community where Lovecraftian terrors are just part of the everyday backdrop. In Night Vale, time only flows in a linear progression when it feels like it, street cleaners and librarians are everyone’s worst nightmare, city council is some sort of eldritch flesh-eating hive mind, and the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home is really more of a petty trickster than an actual threat. Unless you’ve recently beaten her in a mayoral election, of course. Everyone is used to this and accepts it, running their everyday lives as best as possible around all the weirdness, experiencing the same hopes, fears and heartbreaks as humans everywhere.

The podcast is narrated by Cecil, host of Night Vale Community Radio. He brings us community news, the weather, updates on the struggle against the latest unearthly horror to terrorize the town, and of course traffic. There’s a strong element of unreliable narrator to the show. Is Cecil saying what he thinks, or what the Secret Police insist that he says? Is his information accurate, or biased by his status as a devout mountain unbeliever? Are we, the non-Night Valian audience, simply misunderstanding him because we didn’t realize antiques have tails? Despite Cecil’s fallibility, it’s hard not to trust him; not in the simple sense of believing everything he says, but in the deeper sense. When Cecil talks, you can hear his love for his town. I always get the sense that, in all the chaos, it’s Cecil who really binds Night Vale together. He might not always be factually accurate, but he can hear and diagnose the heartbeat of Night Vale.
The novel is more straightforward. As it’s so recent, this will be a brief and spoiler-free review. It follows two citizens of Night Vale, who are seeking to unravel a puzzle that is less apocalyptic, more personal. I loved it, and I don’t think you need to have listened to the podcast to enjoy it. It’s highly recommended, especially if you like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the Discworld books. As those were to space opera/fantasy, this is to horror.
Night Vale, to me, isn’t scariest when the space-time fabric rips open and tentacled monsters invade. That is so everyday it is hardly worth mentioning. It’s scariest when there is a small, personal threat; anything to do with Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend, makes me hold my breath a little. This is a common element of life in Night Vale. The town can weather any number of injustices and catastrophes, then go back to school and work the next morning. This is also a common aspect of human nature. We acclimate, even to things that sound horrific.

There are upsides to this, and downsides. One of the negatives is that we can accept things that we really shouldn’t, just because that’s the way they are; slavery comes to mind. Another is that, even as we acclimate, wounds can build up under the surface and reveal themselves later, like a soldier gallows-humoring through combat only to develop a bad drinking problem back home. The positive is that, well, without that ability we could never survive in an imperfect world. Sitting around and waiting for life to become safe, or refusing to participate in a world that fails to be perfectly just, both end in sitting alone until you die. Life in Night Vale is about finding a balance between complacency and paralyzing terror. So is life everywhere else.

Happy Halloween, everyone! Stay safe, and have fun.
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