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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Reflections: The Success of Welcome To Night Vale

            I find it eerily appropriate that my fresh copy of the Welcome To Night Vale novel arrived at my doorstep  at the tail-end of October, right before the weather shifted into full-on Autumn mode, and we spent a week drenched in a pervasive, endless, clammy, cold fog.  Sometimes the universe (and sometimes the World Government) sends us odd signs to mark off moments in our lives. 

            It has been well over 3 years since the first episode introducing us to the bizarre world of Night Vale aired, beginning with a warning to never approach a certain Dog Park, and featuring a “weather report” by none other than Joseph Fink himself.  Since then, what began as a small passion project has grown into genuine online phenomenon, with the bi-monthly podcasts now being supplemented by a host of constantly-changing merchandise, a series of unique live shows that have toured in North America extensively and are even starting to foray into Europe and Australia, and finally now in real-live book form.  Having taken up the podcast on a whim over 2.5 years ago, right around the release of the two-part Sandstorm episode, I am now one small part of a growing (and global) fandom. 

            The fun thing about being part of this kind of cult following is that you get to sort of drift through the world with your own private love of something, encountering fellow fans only in chance or in passing.  It is not all-pervasive like Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or gaggles of mysterious Hooded Figures.  You either know WTNV or you don’t.  You are in or you are out.  No all-powerful movie franchise or Trilogy phenomenon to eternally bind together the Hardcores and the general citizenry.  Just you, the device/website you use to download each episode, and the Void.  This could very well change in the future; the writers have expressed their general openness to all sorts of Night Vale-related projects, including a possible film, so who knows what could happen?  But for now, for all the millions of downloads and all the sold-out live shows (and the fact that the novel cracked the Top 5 Best Seller’s list on Amazon when it came out), there is still a beautiful sense of quietness, of privacy, and intimacy that reigns every two weeks when you sit down to listen to each new episode.  For all the wide appeal the show has, it still feels remarkably personal in its touch. 

            Part of this is thanks the incredible number of inside jokes, quotes, and references that are so off-the-wall insane out of context that they can only possibly have meanings to fans of the series.  An example; guess what my instant reaction was when my place of work, whose corporate colors perfectly match the purple of the show’s logo, announced we were switching over to a new IT program called “The Cloud?” 

            It has also inserted itself heartily into the growing “convention culture” that has been enabled by the Internet, where fans of even the most obscure things can find ways and means to meet and connect.  The live shows have a festival-like atmosphere not unlike an anime or comic convention, with many dressing up as their favorite characters (or conscious entities, or bodies of matter).  We casually dismiss haters and sceptics as people who “just don’t get it” when they scoff at our obsession.  And, perhaps most tellingly, the growing cast of characters have developed their own fanfolk bases within our curious little community.  

            Why?  Why this show?  Is it the oddness of the writing?  Have its myriad themes and philosophical ramblings tapped into some unspoken part of the Zeitgeist?  Has StrexCorp been forcing our hands all this time?  Or is it just the sexy voice (and no shame if it is)? 

            I have often wondered if much of the show’s popularity can be tied to its embrace (at least, on a surface level) of an almost post-modern, anti-religion/philosophy/ideology view of the nature of things.  We are caught in the flux of a time of immense, global change, and as part of that so many older social, political, and cultural strictures/traditions/norms are falling away.  Old ways of thinking are inadequate for the stormy present, but no new sets of beliefs or ideologies have risen to replace them.  Cool detachment and wholesale rejection of any dogma or system of belief (and I include any here, not just religious ones) are both the order of the day.   

            While it is highly debatable whether or not this is intentional on the part of the writers, much of the content of the show speaks to this current vibe of our time.  How many lines of Cecil’s proclaim an existentially empty existence, declaring humankind’s life utterly devoid of meaning?  I’ve lost count.  Through an explosion in our development, science is fast replacing religion as the accepted source of truth, and our expanded knowledge has brought us a comprehension of our smallness that was never truly possible before.  This, too, is a constant rumination in Night Vale- the universe is vast and inimitably complex, there can be no grasping for meaning, no finding of God, perhaps no God at all, for things are simply too big for that, and we too small, and the only comfort we have is the silence of the Void.  Are people drawn to the show because we all secretly (or not so secretly) agree that all we experience is nothing, and nothing is all there is? 

            Possibly, at least for some.  Although given that no two people on the planet share the exact same beliefs about anything, I doubt it, and the show’s creators have never given any indication they are trying to form a system of thought or belief of any kind. 

            Another possibility- is Night Vale merely riding the new wave of acceptance of the fluid nature of human identity sweeping much of the West?  Cecil himself comes out as gay not more than 5 minutes into the very first episode, and his ongoing relationship with Carlos has been a staple of the Night Vale universe for years without ever being overly emphasized.  It’s never been hammered into listeners as THIS IS SOMETHING MEANT TO MAKE A POINT.  It is simply accepted by everyone in the show, and by all of us as well, as something perfectly normal.  Many of the episodes deal with the illusion of physical differences, and while trans, queer, gender, or racial topics are only sometimes, if ever, addressed directly or by name, there are clear parallels in many episodic stories, describing a world that is open, inclusive, and representative. 

            The new novel has a prime example of this- the struggles of Diane Crayton’s emotionally normal teenage son Josh with just about every aspect of his physical, mental, and emotional identity is made explicit in how his physical body literally changes form, shape, and size almost every time she looks at him.  It makes the show a particularly refreshing escape from our own world, where we still have so much to work on before these issues cease to be seen as problems or “not normal.”  The world of Night Vale is inclusive, in ways, that, for the foreseeable future, ours can only dream of being.  And if that is not precisely the sort of escapism the realms of sci-fi and fantasy are meant to provide us, what is? 

            All of these are points in the show’s favor, and all are probably core aspects of its success (that, and the generous funding the writers secretly receive from the Apache Tracker).  But in my opinion, there’s another, less conscious reason why we have fallen for this show; WTNV, and other recent works like it in the booming podcast market, have become the conduit for us Millenials to uncover, in our own way, the joys and artistic power of spoken-word storytelling. 

            This despite past predictions to the contrary; the growing pervasiveness of camera phones of various stripes, laptops, and the rising cultural presence of gaming and online video were, until recently, taken as signs that my generation and those following us would be increasingly visual-oriented in our outlook on the world.  Pictures, short texts/memes, and videos have rapidly grown into the hottest forms of global communication, and this convinced many that industries like radio, as well as older oral traditions, would fall by the wayside, dying and forgotten as the world hurtles forward towards God knows what. 

            In one sense, this is not entirely untrue- the traditional forms of radio no longer hold the place they used to (no President, for example, will ever again think of using fireside chats as a way to plug policy ideas), and the possibilities for video art and general communication enabled by the internet are only just beginning.  Plus, the spread of technology (and a certain level of accompanying cultural homogenization) means that many oral traditions, some tens of thousands of years old, are becoming harder and harder to maintain, and many will inevitably die out. 

            But none of this means that simple speaking can’t still have force in our world.  Quite the opposite, in fact, and WTNV is proof.  We are animals that can never be solely visual.  In much the same way that music lovers and producers (regardless of age) are rediscovering the beauties of analog recordings amidst a torrent of digitalization, and certain stalwarts in the film industry fight to maintain use of old-school film, the spread of shows and podcasts like this one makes it clear that the incredible effect of listening to a tale woven with just sound can’t be erased from the world, or entirely forgotten, no matter how marginalized it might become.  There is remarkable power to be found in using nothing but our words and our attached collective meanings for them to create something both communally enjoyable and intimately personal.  Joseph Fink gives us words.  From them, we each weave our own, unlimited galaxies into existence. 

            The show’s deliberate play on language is not just a part of its trademark, bizarre humor, but rather its key feature- all the words it uses are real, English words in our world, but many of them have entirely different meanings and connotations in the universe of Night Vale than they do here (“librarian,” “antique,” and the concept of what closing up a shop entails spring to mind, to provide just a few examples).  It’s a hilarious, conscious, and brilliantly-executed play on the collective meanings of language, and the various social constructs we create for ourselves and unquestioningly accept as “the way things are.”  Cecil starts talking about something that we have one set of associations with in our world, but in bits and pieces (or sometimes all at once) we learn that the topic or word means something completely different over there. 

            And that is the primary reason why the world of Night Vale is best conveyed through spoken (and now also written) word, and not images- part of the excitement is listening for what surprises lie in store for us, what literally unimaginable aspects of the world are waiting for us to uncover in this week’s episode.  If the show were a film or TV or Youtube series, the oddities and differences would all be immediately visually apparent, and it would be that much harder and more complicated to create the never-ending cascade of surprises to our mental and imaginative senses that make the show so much damn fun to listen to. 

            I suppose I didn’t accomplish what I sent out to do with this post.  I’ve rambled on like a drunken Five-Headed Dragon, and I fear am no closer to understanding why Welcome To Night Vale is as beloved as it is.  Perhaps there is no one reason.  We are all here, together, in this metaphysical space of endless imagination, for different reasons and ends, and we arrived here along radically different paths.  But here we are, and here I very much hope we remain for a while yet.  Night Vale might be dangerous, and very often deadly (especially if you’re planning an intern anytime soon), but there is something compulsive and compelling about its characters and its strangeness, and the magnetic force of the words it’s built upon, that make me confident it will stand for some time to come.  Until, at the latest, the end of all things, whatever form that may take. 

-Noah Franc 

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