Rabbit Hole

Published on October 31st, 2014 | by Michael


Welcome To Night Vale

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A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful and mysterious lights pass overhead as we pretend to sleep. Welcome To Night Vale

So begins the first episode of the smash hit podcast drama Welcome To Night Vale. The series takes the form of a community radio show, delivering news to the sleepy desert town of Night Vale. The host (and in most episodes, sole voice) is the velvet-toned Cecil Palmer (played by Cecil Baldwin), a pleasant and genial chap, though one prone to occasional bouts of cruelty. Baldwin met Night Vale creators and writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor through the New York Neo-Futurists theatre group, recently seen at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Launching in the Summer of 2012, Welcome To Night Vale now numbers 56 episodes and is heading into its first break (throughout November) since its inception. The team behind the podcast produce two shows a month, each of roughly half an hour long and are also fairly prolific live performers as well as regulars at cons throughout the US. Though each episode is available for free, shows are bookended by requests for the donations that are the lifeblood of such enterprises. Along with the money from fans that keeps it going, the show offers a wide range of merchandise and  recordings of live shows that can be downloaded for a fee. In addition, the show receives the occasional boost from well-known names – podcast regular and former child actor Mara Wilson has a recurring role, Jasika Nicole (Fringe) is a semi-regular and Castle’s Molly Quinn has appeared in the tragedy tinged episode ‘Numbers’.

It is not Cecil Baldwin or the guests that are the real draw for the podcast though, it is the town itself. Inspired heavily by Lovecraft, Twin Peaks (check Cecil’s in-show surname, Palmer) and Stephen King, Night Vale is a town in the tradition of Eerie, Indiana where everything is strange, for lots of different reasons. Order is kept by the Sheriff’s Secret Police (when it isn’t under the watchful eye of ‘A vague, yet sinister government agency), the radio station is owned by faceless hooded figures who emit static when they speak and the town’s new dog park is a place everyone is forbidden from going to…or even thinking about. The town’s star Quarterback , Michael Sandero, overcame the amputation of his hand for an overdue library book. Later, he was struck by a sentient bolt of lightning and gained the strength of two jeeps and the intelligence of a heavily concussed Rene Descartes. He went on to grow a second head which speaks Russian. All of this is reported calmly and matter-of-factly by Cecil, who rarely gets flustered by the goings on in the town.

Night Vale 3

Reading is bad for you


Cecil may have accepted his hometown’s quirks, but his world is turned upside down by the arrival in the pilot of scientist with Carlos, with his perfect hair. Cecil is instantly smitten; Carlos however causes a ripple throughout town. With his outsider’s perspective and background in unspecified science, he sees the town for the oddity it is. For the first half of its run so far, Welcome To Night Vale excelled in the standard episode of the week format, though Cecil & Carlos’ budding relationship, and other threads, provided continuity and a sense of narrative. A particular highlight of this phase of the show is ‘Wheat & Wheat By-Products’, perhaps the stand-out episode so far. It starts out all well and good, Cecil delivering this message to the good folk of Night Vale;

The Night Vale Council for Commerce reminds you to regularly consume wheat and wheat by-products[…]Looking for a snack? Try wheat, or a wheat by-product. Dinner? Wheat and/or its by-product. Trying to patch a leaky roof? We have just the thing for you, and we also have its by-products.’

Sounds like a Hank Hill pitch, doesn’t it? However, being Night Vale, things go awry rather quickly.

‘An update on our previous message about wheat and wheat by-products. You should not eat wheat or wheat by-products, say several frantic scientists, waving clipboards in our studio.

As it turns out all wheat and wheat by-products, for unknown reasons, have turned into venomous snakes, which are crawling all over our small city, causing even more chaos than is normal. These snakes have been described as terrifying, loathsome, and “probably from the bowels of hell itself!” — also, green and three feet long.’

Further updates are forthcoming. Hot on the heels of this bombshell, Cecil once again takes to the airwaves to announce that

The good news is that they are no longer poisonous serpents. The bad news is that they have transformed into a particularly evil and destructive form of spirit.

The local Night Vale government are, as ever swift to react. They ask that anyone who may have been contaminated to report to the Quarantine Zone, ‘there to spend the rest of their days in quiet contemplation and weaving’. As ever with these early episodes, things eventually revert back to what passes for normal. Cecil offers a pithy summation after the crisis has passed;

This scourge, this siege upon us, this salvo of food-based warfare is finally over. Nevermore will be we threatened in our homes by this enemy or its by-products.

We also will never eat bread again, and that’s a pretty big bummer.

But this is the balance that must be made between what we desire and what we fear, between pain and pleasure, between wheat, dear listeners, and its by-products.

As I hope is clear with the above, the appeal of the show doesn’t rest solely with the oddity of Night Vale, or with the dulcet tones of the presenter. Perhaps its greatest strength is humour, in particular in its love of language. Cecil is a very loquacious presenter, prone to long, verbose soliloquies. He also has some verbal tics which help form the basis of long running jokes. Some characters are invariably referred to in the same way (even by the show’s guests), such as ‘John Peters – you know, the farmer’ and the two candidates for the Mayoral election ‘Hiram McDaniels, who is literally a five headed dragon’ and ‘The Faceless Old Woman who secretly lives in your home’. In addition, when Cecil says the name of his nemesis (and Brother-In-Law) Steve Carlsberg, he always gets across his contempt; imagine Professor Farnsworth saying ‘Wernstrom!’

The two Mayoral candidates, played by Mara Wilson (Face Old Woman) and Jackson Public (Hiram McDaniels) play and increasingly important role as the show goes on. Increasingly in recent months Welcome To Night Vale has become more story driven. As well as the election heating up, there is also unwelcome attention from big Corporation Strex, based in neighbouring town Desert Bluffs (‘just the worst’) who buy out the radio station. Strexcorp and its representatives Lauren and Kevin (who is Cecil’s Desert Bluffs/mirror world evil double) bring with them the doctrine of the ‘Smiling God’, of ‘terrible power and a ceaseless appetite’. In addition, Cecil’s friend and former radio station intern Dana Cardinal has been banished to a mysterious desert world, replete with mountains (long since thought to be a myth in Night Vale). Interns are the redshirts of the Night Vale world, frequently killed, often on their first assignment, by the town’s various anomalies. Dana survived several such encounters, so it was a real shame when she was eventually swallowed up by the mysterious Dog Park. Thankfully she survived, albeit marooned from her home. Sweetly voiced by Jaskia Nicole, it becomes clear Dana has a huge part to play in the fate of the town.

Night Vale 2

Interns – Night Vale’s very own Redshirts

Events come to a head in ‘Oak Doors’, the first live show to be included as part of the regular podcast. Teenage guerrilla Tamika Flynn (cast out of town for her unhealthy interest in books), raises an army to rid the town of the tyrannical Strex Corporation, having previously failed despite Cecil’s covert support. Meanwhile, beautiful Carlos is able to return all those townsfolk exiled to the mysterious desert, although as an outsider, he himself founds himself trapped outside of Night Vale, to Cecil’s despair. Finally, the returning Dana is announced as the town’s new Mayor, despite not having entered the election. With these matters settled, Welcome To Night Vale has returned more to the episode of the week format, something which would seem a retrograde step on television but probably suits this show more. The long form narrative is not abandoned entirely of course: Cecil must contend with his boyfriend’s absence as Carlos endeavours to find his way back, but it’s encouraging that the writers were able to bring the long running arcs to a conclusion.

Episodes are broken up by the ‘Weather’ section, a song each week by a different independent artist (though some are quite well known, like Adam Green or Waxahatchee). As well as adding to the general surreality of the show, it gives artists often much needed exposure and crucially gives the plot a chance to move on. Cecil draws attention to this on one occasion, commenting that as is so often the case ‘things moved on a lot during the weather’. Similarly, after the end of each episode, after the credits have been read, Meg Bashwiner reads a proverb, my favourite of which reads thus;

The most dangerous game in Man. The most entertaining game is Broadway puppy-ball. The most weird game is Esoteric Bear.

As you might imagine, there are now websites dedicated to the playing of Esoteric Bear, though it appears that the rules have been mind-wiped from most of the population. Additionally, music throughout the show is provided by electronic, ambient artist Disparition.

Welcome To Night Vale continues to go from strength to strength, regularly appearing in the list of top five US podcasts and has recently embarked on a sell-out UK tour, along with further European dates. Like Red Vs Blue before it, it is proof that if you put out high quality content on line, even for free, you will get noticed and you will reap your rewards. With Halloween upon us, what better time to enter the surreal, often terrifying world of Night Vale? Sit back and let Cecil’s words carry you away.

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