Abigail Brady would like to talk to you about Welcome to Night Vale.
Have you listened to Welcome to Night Vale? It’s a podcast. That doesn’t explain it. Podcasts are usually chat shows – Night Vale is a dramatic presentation, in the form of a talk radio show, presented by a chap we eventually find out is called Cecil Palmer (played by Cecil Baldwin). It is set in a small desert town called Night Vale, a place where every conspiracy theory is openly acknowledged to be true. I tried to condense it to a two-word pitch the other day, and the best I could come up with with was “Innsmouth FM”. A four-word pitch would be “Innsmouth FM. With jokes.” Mind, they distance themselves from Lovecraft, pointing at plenty of other contemporaneous weird fiction authors, who are less massive racists, as influences. As a writer, what I admire most about it is its ability to change tones so rapidly and yet so completely, between the comedy and the horror, without either undermining the other. It has a highly enthusiastic and growing fanbase, gained through word-of-mouth rather than any marketing-led push. A lot of it is that it it’s an ideal fit for tumblr’s combination of humour and politics. But it still seems pretty amazing for it to go from nothing to a small media franchise just through personal recommendations. Even more amazing for this to happen in a format – the audio drama – that is new to most of the listeners. It really is that good.
I asked several people who attended the October London shows how exactly they go into Night Vale, and nobody could really remember. I mean, I can’t even really remember how I got into it. My only hard date is that I nominated episodes for the 2014 Hugo Awards, so that’s certainly by the end of January 2014. Night Vale fandom this time wasn’t organised enough to get an episode on the ballot. “The Sandstorm” (a two-parter with a season-finale feel that I didn’t think to put down) picked up 30 nominations, only eight fewer than “The Name of the Doctor”. Maybe next year the second anniversary episode, “Old Oak Doors”, will make it through. Guys, let’s remember that, yeah?
“Old Oak Doors” was exceptional, and not just in its the way it used its status as a season finale to kick you in as more teeth than Buffy’s “Becoming” did. It was a two-parter, at the end of the second year of the podcast, it was recorded live in New York in June 2014. And I have to confess, I found that… it didn’t entirely work recorded? Particularly the bits where it is obvious Cecil or someone is doing something funny on stage, but we don’t get the joke because we can’t see him but we have to listen to the crowd laugh anyway. Night Vale live is a different thing to the podcast. Podcasts are typically a solitary listening experience. How you engage with the material is entirely up to you. If you want to treat Night Vale as purely horrific, without seeing the funny side, without laughing at the jokes, you can. If there aren’t any bits you see as serious, you can laugh all the way through. In an audience it’s much more difficult to interpret it like that. If people are laughing, then it’s supposed to be funny material. If people aren’t laughing, then, well, maybe it is supposed to be funny and it failed. But more likely, it’s one of the spooky bits and you should shush during it. A lot of that depends upon delivery and tone (Meg’s “today’s proverb” is an instant crowd-shutter-upper), but I saw the same show on two consecutive nights, and the audience reacted to it differently.
So, coming out of that show on the 20th, what do we think? Universal excitement, obviously. It’s not so much a play as a gig by a band we really like. They didn’t play many of the radio hits – there was no Intern Dana, no Khoshekh, and very sadly, no Carlos (not in person, anyway). But we’re here, right, we are fans. And we’re not just any fans but we are the fans from the first London date. The one that sold out first in all of Europe. The one that several groups of people I know were at, because several of my friends had filled their boots with Night Vale tickets and tried to get rid of them. The one where I couldn’t possibly catch up with everyone I knew was going, let alone everyone I bumped into. It was an exceptionally good night, and Cecil tweeted about it, not in a “I bet you say that to all the audiences” way, but in a properly superlative way that means he might just mean it.
“The Librarian”, which they’ve been touring since January, is a fairly standard-format show, compared to “Old Oak Doors”, and “The Debate”. We set up a crisis in the first segment, we go away to jokes and spooky bits, we have a guest appearance or two (this is an addition to the setup – for maybe half a year the only on-air voice was Cecil himself), we cut back to the main event a couple of times, and then on the last of these the crisis worsens and we go to the weather. (The weather is a song.) When we get back from the weather Cecil fills us in on how the crisis has been resolved. That’s the default setup for a Night Vale episode. That’s how you’d write a Night Vale spec script. It’s a very modular show. The version I saw had, apart from Pamela Winchell, Deb, an Intern, (on the 21st) Louie Blascoe, Michelle Nguyen. Dublin lacked Michelle and Pamela. The Internet tells me that “The Librarian” has also seen appearances by Tamika Flynn, Carlos, The Faceless Old Woman, Steve Carlsberg, and Molly Quinn, although not necessarily at the same time.
But normal in form is not normal in content. The early horoscopes section certainly violated the literal fourth wall, as Cecil starts pointing at individual audience members, and it stops being a twisted live theatrical reading and turns into geek panto. This bit was the first where the contrast between the audiences became apparent. The crowd on the Tuesday took a bit of warming up before they were whooping loudly at particular star signs and getting Cecil to focus his attention on them. Monday’s lot, they were right there already, drunk on anticipation and beer.
This was a practice run for the main set piece, which I shall be deliberately vague about, which used the audience and the theatre space in a pretty astonishing you-had-to-be-there-way.
They asked people not to record video, and I dutifully didn’t, but a bit of me hopes that someone did. Partly because of the ever changing nature of the show – the Louie Blascoe bit appeared to be making its debut on the 21st, for example, but because the version they’ll tape in New York in January 2015 will be playing to the listeners, and for this show, the thing that made it magic for me was the connections we formed. In the queue, partly, but Cecil’s body language, seeing him silence a hall with just a finger and a change in tone; and hiding under your seat while keeping half an eye on the rest of the audience to check they are doing the same thing (they were).
This interactivity is the ultimate form of what was already a very tight feedback loop. I wouldn’t want to speculate about how much buffer they have, but it would certainly be feasible for them to not have any, for each episode to be recorded after the release of the last. There aren’t many dramatic media like that – some sitcoms, perhaps, and some webcomics. You can see the show evolve from its early days. Every so often I make a new person listen to the first episode, “Pilot”, just to try end hook them, and I don’t think it’s very represntative of the show now. That first episode is a piece of performance poetry, tight, but not what it will become. The chief thing they got right was the casting. The casting and the setting. And the medium.
Audio is perfect for Night Vale. You can do so many rug pulls. The very conceit of this show is one – that Librarians in Night Vale are strange horrific insectoid beasts, is one. “Condos”, which was their previous touring show, does another, as it turns out that means something very different in Night Vale. They are forever subverting our mental imagery. You couldn’t do that on telly or film, you can’t retcon in the weird by suddenly revealing that there had never been any books in town. You couldn’t do it in comics, either. You could perhaps do it in prose.
They are writing a novel. I’ll be reading it, obviously. What I am most interested about it right now is not what the plot will be or whether it will be canon, but what sort of narrative voice it will be. Night Vale episodes are structured as broadcasts. Will the novel take the approach that most Night Vale fanfics I’ve seen use, of just writing third person narrative following a mixed cast around? I sort of hope not. I’d love to see it be an epistolary novel mostly in the voice of Carlos. Or something radically experimental that I would have a hope of thinking of because Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor are geniuses.
If you get a chance to go to this show, do it. They’ll retire it after New York and replace it with another, and after then you’ll have missed your chance to meet Amanda. And listening to us lot meet Amanda don’t be quite the same.