From the creators of the wildly popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast comes an imaginative mystery of appearances and disappearances that is also a poignant look at the ways in which we all struggle to find ourselves…no matter where we live.Oh my god, I’d been looking forward to this release all season you guys. I thought FOR SURE this would be a slam dunk, NO WAY the Welcome to Night Vale novel would be anything but satisfactory. A GRAND, FIRE-WORKY finale to this season’s Spooktacular slog.
Located in a nameless desert somewhere in the great American Southwest, Night Vale is a small town where ghosts, angels, aliens, and government conspiracies are all commonplace parts of everyday life. It is here that the lives of two women, with two mysteries, will converge.
Nineteen-year-old Night Vale pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro is given a paper marked “King City” by a mysterious man in a tan jacket holding a deer skin suitcase. Everything about him and his paper unsettles her, especially the fact that she can’t seem to get the paper to leave her hand, and that no one who meets this man can remember anything about him. Jackie is determined to uncover the mystery of King City and the man in the tan jacket before she herself unravels.
Night Vale PTA treasurer Diane Crayton’s son, Josh, is moody and also a shape shifter. And lately Diane’s started to see her son’s father everywhere she goes, looking the same as the day he left years earlier, when they were both teenagers. Josh, looking different every time Diane sees him, shows a stronger and stronger interest in his estranged father, leading to a disaster Diane can see coming, even as she is helpless to prevent it.
Diane’s search to reconnect with her son and Jackie’s search for her former routine life collide as they find themselves coming back to two words: “King City”. It is King City that holds the key to both of their mysteries, and their futures…if they can ever find it.
And then it was just kind of ok.
So, the thing about Night Vale as a podcast: I love it, obviously. It’s weird and fun and thoughtful and quirky and weird and sometimes creepy, but mostly it’s weird. That Night Vale style of nonsensical, nonsequitur, in-your-face quirky random storytelling is charming when it’s being delivered aurally in Cecil’s distinctive cadence for ~30 minutes twice a month. But four hundred and one straight pages of nonsensical nonsequitur quirky random storytelling? Please somebody kill me now.
I know, I know! “What did you expect? That’s literally Night Vale’s whole thing!” I know! It doesn’t bother me in the show, and I didn’t expect I’d have a problem with the book, but holy god I got like maybe four chapters in before I sat back and thought, “Wow, having to sort through all of that affected weirdness to get to the story is really annoying.”
It’s just, a lot of the weirdness doesn’t really have anything to do with furthering the plot. Sometimes I guess you could call it world-building – a bit redundant for Night Vale fans, but maybe helpful in establishing the status quo for people just coming in. I would still say that you could do all that while still making it relevant to what’s going on, but whatever.
But a lot of stuff is just…textual flavor? They’re little asides that have nothing to do with anything, recurring interruptions to the flow of the story, sometimes explicitly acknowledged as such, and I’m sitting there like “WELL IF IT DOESN’T MATTER THEN WHY DID YOU MAKE ME READ IT?”
It’s that affected quirk, you know? It’s too much all at once, like enjoying a cupcake every now and then, and then eating an entire cake expecting a similar experience. Some things are better in small doses. Apparently ~30 minutes twice a month is just the right amount of Night Vale for me.
In terms of plot, the book felt kind of needlessly drawn out. Jackie’s thread especially read more like a fan-servicey tour than an actual storyline as she went from Old Woman Josey to Carlos to Dana to John Peters to Steve Carlsberg for reasons that were often ill-defined. It took forever for either her or Diane’s plot to actually drum up any forward motion, and the first half or so of the book leveled off for me in terms of interest as it spun its wheels in a series of same-y wacky encounters. I actually got bored. With Night Vale.
Once Jackie and Diane’s storylines finally began to intersect, my interest did pick up again. The last half-to-quarter of the book was much more compelling, but goddamn did I never expect to be bored by a Night Vale novel.
While the ending itself was interesting in terms of character development and things-that-were-actually-happening, the explanation for King City, Troy, and the Man in the Tan Jacket was pretty bullshit. Night Vale bullshit, you know, in that Night Vale is just so casually weird that it’s apparently totally okay to resolve a mystery you’ve been building for four hundred pages by just shrugging and saying “Eh, Night Vale.” I guess it’s not entirely unexpected, but that doesn’t make it any more satisfying.
The strongest part of the novel, by far, were its characters. I liked both Jackie and Diane quite a bit. Individually and together, they were strong and flawed and complicated and tragic and relatable and well-developed. The arcs here were A+, far more interesting and satisfying in their resolutions than the actual plot, and maybe that was the point all along.
There were some nice moments scene to scene, certainly some darker ones than I imagined, and things that were creepy in concept, if not in execution (for me). The exploration of King City was interesting and tense, as was the library sequence. It’s the sort of thing I’d love to see on film, with audio and visual elements to add to the tension.
Anyway, the tl;dr is that this book wasn’t bad by any stretch. If you’re a fan, I’m sure you’ve already got the book and are reading it and are probably enjoying it and that’s great. If you’re not a fan and are considering buying it, I would say first, take like a half an hour out of your day to listen to the first episode of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, and then just imagine that for four hundred pages, keeping in mind the loud whimsy of the whole thing, and the tendency towards deus ex machina to overcome obstacles. If that all sounds tolerable to you, then, you know, welcome to Night Vale.
So that was this year’s Halloween Spooktacular! Nothing that knocked it completely out of the park, but some solid reads along the way. Hopefully we’ll have better luck next year!
Just a note that I’m going to be on hiatus for November, but will be coming back in December with a month – that’s right, an entire goddamn MONTH – of House of Night. Four weeks, four books, god help us all.