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Night Vale strangeness cloaks internal logic and metaphor

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The just-published novel Welcome to Night Vale¸ written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor who created the wildly popular podcast of the same name, begins this way.

Pawnshops in Night Vale work like this.
First you need an item to pawn.
To get this, you need a lot of time behind you, years spent living and existing, until you’ve reached a point where you believe that you exist, and that a physical item exists, and that the concept of ownership exists, and that, improbable as all those are, these absurd beliefs line up in a way that results in you owning an item.
Good job. Nicely done.
Second, once you believe you own an item, you must reach a point where you need money more than you need the item. This is the easiest step. Just own an item and own a body with needs, and wait.

I’m a long-time fan of the creepy-yet-adorable weirdness that is the Welcome to Nightvale podcast, which I often describe to people as Prairie Home Companion as written by H. P. Lovecraft. Part of the fun, as so nicely demonstrated in the passage above, is the way that Fink and Cranor consistently find ways to take the most ordinary parts of our lives, crack them open, and find the weirdness within.

Looked at through Fink and Cranor’s eldritch prism, Street Cleaning Day is a day of blood and horror, as all bits of trash—human and otherwise—are cleansed from the city.

Valentine’s Day is similarly dire: “And, of course, there is the sad fate of those chosen to be another person’s Valentine. Little can be said to help the families of those unfortunates except that the process is, while exactly as ghastly and excruciating as feared, apparently not as horribly slow and drawn out as it appears to outside observers.”

Libraries and librarians contain unimaginable danger and violence. Mayors are “chosen by counting, and interpreting, the loud pulses coming out of Hidden Gorge. That’s still how it will be done, but we thought we’d offer a chance for citizens to hear from the candidates they’ll have no impact on electing.”

Night Vale is, in other words, really strange.

But for me, at least, part of the fun is figuring out the ways in which the strangenesses of Night Vale have their own internal logic. The more you think about it, the more that passage about the pawn shop is one way of understanding exchange. The more you consider what it really means to be someone’s beloved—to be fully and completely committed—the more you understand why Valentine’s Day probably should be terrifying. And if books and knowledge are as important and powerful as we say they are, libraries and their guardians really are pretty scary

As for elections in Night Vale? Fink and Cranor may have to work a little harder to make them weirder than North American elections already are.

Sometimes their permutations on reality are more than just fun. In the new novel, the 15-year-old Josh Crayton is able to metamorphose instantly into any shape he wants. Sometimes he’s a wolf-spider. Sometimes he’s a floor lamp. From one day to the next, even one moment to the next, his mother never knows what he will look like or who he will be. It’s a literary allusion, I think, to Alice’s struggle with her size and identity as she travels in Wonderland. It’s also a perfect metaphor for the challenges of being a teen or parenting one. It’s elegantly and carefully done.

Night Vale—by novel or podcast—is a “friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.”

It’s a lot like here. Except more so. Consider dropping by for a visit some time.


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