Welcome to Night Vale: (Audio) Book Review
Thanks to the power of the library (beware the Librarians), mindless manual labor, and the commanding voice of Cecil Baldwin, I was able to recently finish the Welcome to Night Vale audio book. As a librarian, the chapters about the library were a particular joy…
The book is based on the podcast of the same name, which started in 2012 and has a new half-hour show twice a month, and has had several longer live shows that they have toured with – available for purchase. I’m still not caught up to the present with the show, but I hit an episode called “Epilogue” which placed the novel in the timeline of the world, so I decided it was time to seek that out. Upon hearing that the audio book was narrated by the legendary Cecil (the voice of Night Vale), I chose that option from the library.
The podcast is structured as a community radio show, with an atmospheric band playing music in the back, and with recurring features like the community radio and traffic – along with longer overarching plots (that tend to run in 10 or more episode arcs) as well as monster-of-the-week reporting. And there tends to be at least one monster a week: the world of Night Vale is based on the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. It also relies heavily on absurdism, presenting as true all conspiracy theories, post-modernism, and running jokes/ways of presenting things. It subverts tropes. It dismantles philosophies and world views. It is sometimes exceptionally genre aware, and sometimes completely genre blind.
That’s the world you’re thrust into with the book, and the feel is all totally there. However, there’s a huge difference that makes the novel a fantastic addition to the world of Night Vale: it isn’t a radio broadcast. That means, instead of reporting on things happening at a location, we’re following characters who actually go to the places (like, the library). Instead of reporting on the goings-on of individuals, or perhaps interviewing them, the various characters populate the story throughout (like John Peters – you know, the farmer).
We follow two main characters, both female, through the story. They’re not new characters, but they were never main characters previously. Having two female leads – who at points find themselves utterly exasperated by the mysteries and problems they find themselves in the middle of because of men – is one of the many storytelling inversions that you come to expect from Welcome to Night Vale.
Overall, it leads to a story that is entirely different from anything the podcast could have presented, while doing so in a manner that felt completely in line with what the podcast does. For a fan, I would say absolutely check this out.
As a standalone piece of media, however, it’s a harder call. Because it is an entirely new plot, with fully-fleshed characters for whom you don’t need to know any backstory, in that sense it seems like you could dive right in. However, because as I’ve mentioned the show in part relies on a constant stream of recurring elements, characters, and phrases that function like a running joke (if not quite a joke), there is definitely a lot to be gained by already knowing the show.
I also can’t imagine reading this. Like, in my imagination, I’m having trouble picturing what parts of this book look like on the page. Despite the fact that the book, at quite a few points, asks readers to imagine what something looks like… Anyway, I feel like someone reading the book, in particular, who has not listened to the podcast, might get lost a bit along the way. A show listener could probably brave this changing format and make it through to the other side.
A couple of examples. For one, several inanimate objects (some sentient, some not) have quite a few lines in the book. That could get confusing. For another, there are often intermissions that on audiobook at least, play like short clips out of one of the radio broadcasts, in the style of the podcast. On the audiobook, these sections were fantastic, with the band kicking in, and the narrator switching from narrating to acting. There might even be a few cameos. In the book, if I were to imagine it, these sections would read like a play, perhaps?
All in all, I think I recommend this as an audiobook over a read book, and for fans over newcomers. If you do start with the novel, and as the audiobook, I could definitely see it as a jumping on point to listen to the whole podcast as well! Or perhaps, do that whole journey the other way, and reach the book like I did, the long way around.
How about you – what do you think of the show? The book? Let me know in the comments below!