What with Welcome to Night Vale recently celebrating its 2-year anniversary and fiftieth episode, it occurred to me that a lot of people are still unfamiliar with what it is and what it’s about. So, in the interest of getting more people acquainted with one of the best things the internet has ever introduced me to, I’ve put together a list of reasons why more people should get involved with this wonderfully bizarre narrative.
The basic premise of Welcome to Night Vale is it’s a community radio show, giving news updates to the small desert town of Night Vale, in which the radio station interns have a habit of dying so often they’ve kind of become the equivalent of the red shirts in Star Trek, and nightmarish things like hooded figures that steal babies, floating cats, visits from angels and dragons running for mayor are all accepted as everyday occurrences.
It’s so bizarre, there really is nothing like it. A lot of comparisons have been made to Lemony Snicket, David Lynch and H.P. Lovecraft, and while the unfinished story ideas of the latter provide a basis for some of the earlier episodes, it still has an atmosphere to it that is very much all its own. There really is nothing else that quite fits the mould—it’s a unique approach to storytelling that takes some getting used to at first but is really effective.
There are all sorts of little plot strands that take a long time to build and intertwine – you barely even realise there is a plot until the episodes reach double figures and things start to add up. And even then, it never goes the way you expect it. When the starting point is something so completely out of the ordinary, it’s hard to predict where it’s going to go next… and yet it rarely disappoints.
Cecil is the voice of Night Vale Community Radio, and as leading characters go, he’s fantastic. Acting as a crossbreed between protagonist and narrator, his descriptions of the insanity taking place in the small town can be funny or foreboding, adorable or downright nightmare-inducingly terrifying. Cecil Baldwin, the voice actor, does an excellent job.
He ranges from sinister, looming twilight zone style narrator to squealing teenage fangirl zomg-so-cute-lol… the latter, particularly when Cecil (the character, not the actor) is obsessing over Carlos, his in-series boyfriend. Which brings me on to my next point…
This show has LGBT representation right in the foreground. Not just queer baiting to get ratings and misplaced teenage hopes up – side eyeing you big time, Sherlock and Supernatural – an out-and-out gay couple as the romantic leads. And it’s done so, so excellently. It’s not overplayed, they don’t make a big deal or expect a cookie and a pat on the back for filling the diversity quota, but it’s not glossed over or watered down either. It’s played like a romance should be—their relationship is adorable, but has its problems. They’re wrapped up in each other, but they have other defining characteristics, obligations and plot points too. It’s a lovely little section of normality within the absolute batshit insanity of the series as a whole.
Not only that, but Carlos is also canonically a man of colour, and stands beside some kick-ass WOC characters like Intern Dana and Tamika Flynn who, like him, are core characters with well-rounded personalities. In fact, not only are they integral to the plot, but they can stand up for themselves and others arguably better than the majority of the male characters. It goes against the trope (that appears so often in sci-fi and fantasy) in which a narrative can contain all sorts of fantastical elements like demons and monsters, but a cast of anything but predominantly straight white people is suddenly too far a stretch of the imagination.
An adorable take by one artist featuring an all-POC cast. From left to right: Carlos, Cecil, Dana, Old Woman Josie, an angel, and Tamika Flynn.
Having said that Tamika and Dana are women of colour, that isn’t something that’s mentioned in the script– I’m going by the generally accepted fan idea of what they look like. The voice actresses are both women of colour, and so in the vast majority of the art produced by the fandom, they appear as such.
What with Welcome to Night Vale being an audio series, the appearances of the characters are left up to the individual imagination. If you wanted, you could imagine all of the characters looking like their voice actors – which for the main characters, is more or less fine.
Carlos is generally drawn looking something like Dylan Marron, and even though Cecil’s physical appearance is kept deliberately ambiguous so that the fans can imagine him however they want (the only description of him in the script is “neither short nor tall, fat or thin”), most people tend to assume that like Baldwin, he’s Caucasian and skinny. However he’s often drawn with blonde hair, and one thing that tends to carry through almost every interpretation of him are his bizarre sleeve tattoos, and/or a third eye (sometimes a tattoo as well, sometimes an actual eye). These too are never mentioned in the series— it’s just one of the many ideas suggested by a single fan that quickly gained popularity.
However, for some of the other characters, it’s not as easy as that. Twelve-year-old Tamika Flynn is voiced by twenty-something Symphony Sanders, and then you have characters like the five-headed dragon Hiram McDaniels voiced by Jackson Publick, or the Faceless Old Woman Who Lives In Your Home voiced by Mara Wilson, who most people probably know as the kid from Matilda, A Simple Wish or Mrs Doubtfire. I’d recommend looking her up online, ‘cause she grew up awesome.
Anyway, the series has a tendency to bring out a lot of creativity in its fans. There are some fantastic alternative designs out there for not only the mythical creatures like the angels, but also the human characters.
The way in which Jeffrey Cranor, Joseph Fink and all the other creators of Welcome to Night Vale interact with their fans is fantastic, and really constructive. They encourage the fan art and often share and promote the work of artists whose interpretations of the characters they particularly like. They also offer an opportunity for listeners to actually BE on the show. There’s a running joke/rule on the show that instead of the weather report, Cecil just plays music. It’s never explained, it’s just… a thing. But in that slot, listeners can submit their own music and get a chance to become a part of the show themselves—and I’ll be honest, the weather slot has introduced me to some of the best and weirdest music I’ve ever heard… like this hot slice of crazy.
They also run live shows, with episodes exclusively for the stage, and also some podcast and script-writing workshops… and in fact this October they’re doing a tour for those of us across the pond in the UK and Europe which has already sold out in several places despite tickets only being available for five days (I was a smidge too late to get any. Boo.)
The show runs on donations from fans, and those who donate a little more get a special audio thank-you from Cecil himself. There’s plenty of merchandise you can buy, too, created by tumblr artists like Kate or Die, the proceeds of which go towards funding more episodes.
They run a Twitter account, too, and the variety of strange little mini-narratives that often crop up in between the major plot points are perfect for the Twitter format. It runs the gambit from comedic to creepy to weirdly philosophical to a combination of the three—just as the show itself does.
Welcome to Night Vale is available completely free, either to listen to online or to download from iTunes. If you like what you hear, why not make a small donation via their website.
P.S: I was going to make a video about this instead, but I scrapped it. Well, all but twelve seconds of it.