‘Night Vale’ Conquers Podcasting

Conspiracy stories pack unexpected thrills

It’s a sleepy little desert town where you might see feral dogs roaming the streets, secret police enforcing suspect laws, and conspiracies around every corner. Welcome to the world of Night Vale.

The “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast proudly wears its weirdness on its sleeve. The hit show is creeping up on 100 episodes and shows no signs of interest in the fictional news program waning anytime soon.

The show will find a new audience soon courtesy of a “Night Vale” novel to be released Oct. 20. Written by podcast creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, “Welcome to Night Vale (A Novel)” instantly cracked Amazon’s bestseller lists the moment it was announced, even before it had so much as a cover.

The book promises to shed at least a little light on a podcast that is infamously, if humorously, dark. Even the slightest hints in this official synopsis have thrown fans into fits of speculation.

“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.”

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The podcast itself takes the form of a community radio news program set in a small rural town in the American Southwest. The program is hosted by the honey-throated Cecil Gershwin Palmer, who is performed by Cecil Baldwin.

The town is populated by a variety of strange denizens including Old Woman Josie, who basically runs a halfway house for angels, a five-headed dragon living under the guise of Hiram McAdams, and a visiting scientist whom Cecil quite fancies.

The show is an absurdist multimedia project that contributing artist Kate Leth once described: “It’s like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman started building a town in The Sims and then just … left it running. For years.”

Listeners never know what’s going to come out of Cecil’s mouth.

In fact, the creators had just that concept in mind when creating the podcast. Conspiracy theories are always gripping, from the JFK assassination to “The X-Files.” In a recent NPR interview, Cantor admitted that the writing duo “came up with this idea of a town in that desert where all conspiracy theories were real and we would just go from there with that understood.”

There are lots of reasons why “Welcome to Night Vale” has been consistently the No. 1 podcast on iTunes and other media networks for some time. It just doesn’t sound like anything else. While comedy podcasts are entertaining, and millions are still hooked on virtuoso audio experiments like “Serial,” “Welcome to Night Vale” leaves a distinct impression. Listeners never know what’s going to come out of Cecil’s mouth.

Major arcs have included several characters being stranded in a “Desert Otherworld,” the invasion of Night Vale by an evil corporation from an adjacent town, and elections that resulted in subsequent terrorist activities by the losing candidates.

The show even brings a musical flair to its otherworldly goings-on. Cecil ends each broadcast by pronouncing, “And now, the weather,” which is followed by a song or instrumental piece by an independent artist. Sometimes afterward, Cecil tells listeners what transpired in Night Vale — while they were listening to the song.

The novel isn’t the creators’ first foray into other media. Despite being a low-budget operation with just a handful of contributors, “Welcome to Night Vale” has been a surprisingly nimble production. Its live podcasts have featured Mara Wilson (“Mrs. Doubtfire”), Wil Wheaton (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”) and singer Andrew WK, among others.

It’s not like Night Vale didn’t warn you, as it clearly does in the opening chapters of the upcoming novel.

“Look, life is stressful,” the book reminds us. “This is true everywhere. But life in Night Vale is more stressful. There are things lurking in the shadows. Not the projections of a worried mind, but literal Things, lurking, literally, in shadows. Conspiracies are hidden in every storefront, under every street, and floating in helicopters above. And with all that there is still the bland tragedy of life.”

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