“Lights, seen in the sky above the Arby’s. Not the glowing sign of Arby’s, something higher, and beyond that. We know the difference. We’ve caught on to their game. We understand the ‘lights above Arby’s’ game. Invaders from another world. Ladies and gentlemen, the future is here, and it’s about a hundred feet above the Arby’s”
-Welcome to Night Vale, Episode 1, “Pilot”
You’d be hard pressed to find a quote that more perfectly encapsulates Welcome to Night Vale. While the H.P. Lovecrafts and Stephen Kings of the world are content to simply blur the line between the horrific and mundane, Night Vale takes that line and tap dances across it, creating a gleefully dark, delightfully dystopian little hamlet out in the desert. A close knit, friendly community where the sun is hot, the people are welcoming, and the dog park is populated by a cabal of mysterious hooded figures of unknowable purpose who may or may not actually exist.
The podcast’s star had been steadily rising ever since it launched back in June of last year, but it’s following has skyrocketed over the past month or so, with Tumblr and Twitter being inundated with Night Vale posts and fanworks, and the show even made it to the top spot on iTunes’ most listened to podcasts for July 2013. And once you start listening to it, it’s not hard to see why it’s gotten so popular. In creating Night Vale and its citizens, co-writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have made something special. The podcast takes the form of a 20 to 30 minute community radio show narrated by the soothing, dulcet tones of Cecil Baldwin, played by the actor of the same name. Cecil discusses everything happening around town; from local news and gossip, traffic, high school football, and even the levitating, immobile cat that’s taken up shop in the men’s room at the radio station. Cecil’s narration in particular is one of Night Vale’s strongest assets, and, quite literally, gives the show its own unique voice.
Like Portal or Futurama, much of the comedy, and in Night Vale’s case, creepiness, comes from the gulf between the bizarre, horrifying, and downright absurd.Night Vale’s weirdness, which ranges from errant pteranadons at the local PTA meeting, the addition of ranks like “Blood Scout” and “Eternal Scout” to the town’s Boy Scout hierarchy, and the arrest of an 18-foot, five headed dragon for insurance fraud by the Sherriff’s Secret Police are all delivered with the same familiar, just-another-day tone. Like Portal or Futurama, much of the comedy, and in Night Vale’s case, creepiness, comes from this gulf between the bizarre, horrifying, and downright absurd events around town and Cecil’s non-reaction to them. He doesn’t panic when a group of supernatural feral dogs swarm the town, but he does complement graffiti they use to mark their territory; the banning of wheat and wheat by-products by the nigh-omniscient City Council isn’t an issue. The presence of bread selling speakeasies, however, signals a troubling drop in the town’s moral values.
If Night Vale was nothing more than an unconnected, episodic stream of amusingly macabre news announcements, it’d still be a pretty good series. But what makes it truly worthwhile is the subtle continuity that forms as the series goes on. You go from listening for the jokes to waiting for each new episode, eager to see what the townspeople are up to. Will Hiram McDaniels’ trouble with the law (and being a five headed dragon) spell trouble for his mayoral run? Will Cecil ever get a date with Carlos the Scientist? Will the abandoned mine shaft where the Secret Police take their victims finally get HBO installed? You’re gonna have to listen to find out. Which, to be perfectly honest, isn’t a bad thing. Just be sure to avoid Lane 5 at the bowling alley. The lost civilization that’s taken root down there is getting a tiny bit antsy.