– reviewed by James Webster –
So, what’s all this fuss about Night Vale?
You’ve probably heard of Welcome to Night Vale. You’ve probably listened to Welcome to Night Vale. You probably love Welcome to Night Vale. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you probably don’t live on the internet (like some of us could be accused of), so here’s what it’s all about…
Night Vale is a fictional radio broadcast in a fictional small American town that’s populated by handsome scientists, hooded figures, radio interns with short life expectancies, vague-yet-menacing government agencies, angels named Erika and much more (no mountains, though, mountains aren’t real). They are the strangest characters you will ever love with all your heart.
To put it more succinctly: it’s a podcast (created by Joseph Finch and Jeffrey Cranor). A podcast that, over the past couple of years, has grown to become one of the go-to purveyors of internet-based weird fiction. It exists in the gap between radio sit-com, serialised short horror fiction, and internet whimsy, and over the last two years it’s spread its spider-like reach gradually and surreptitiously across the interwebs, becoming one of the best examples of how to tell a story on an almost-entirely digital platform.
The ‘almost-entirely’ is where this review comes in, as I recently attended one of Welcome to Night Vale‘s live shows (they’re currently on a European tour), where the podcast format was turned into a live storytelling event. Night Vale experienced live is a superb example of both live and indie literature, an excitingly odd package filled with familiar-yet-alien ideas and wrapped in warm-but-weirdass voices.
The wonders of live radio/performance…
Walking into the Union Chapel in Islington, there was already an atmosphere of magic and creepiness – there’s just something about the huge and somewhat gothic church-space filled with smoke and bright lights, the cross-hatching of sombre and glam that evokes an air of paranoid wonder. Already a good start. What followed was a forty-minute self-contained slice of heightening fear, tinged with superbly surreal humour, which gradually invited the audience deeper and deeper into the story.
The stagecraft was handled with a deft touch – while the conceit was that the narration was supposedly broadcast live on radio, but the cast would occasionally cast a glance, or a few lines directly to audience members (a real highlight were the absurdly entertaining horoscopes, each one addressed to the most prominent/loudest person of each star sign). Then building to bigger set pieces that included at least one moment of severely charming and cleverly engineered interactions between audience member, plus one particular sequence that must have thoroughly freaked out the vast majority of the audience.
The voices that make it real…
Of course, a podcast is made or broken by the voices behind the microphone and Night Vale has assembled a recurring cast that oozes with talent. From the mile-a-minute, hyper-hipster voice of Michelle Nguyen (Kate Jones) that drips with barely concealed condescension, to the brash superiority of Pamela Winchell and the winsome earnestness of the special guest star, *NAME REDACTED*.
But the voice that really makes the show, the one most often describes as ‘the voice of Night Vale’, belongs to Cecil Palmer (as played by Cecil Baldwin). He fills the performance with a warmth and friendliness that draws the audience in, adding just the right amount of musical whimsy, and allowing a little gruff foreboding to creep in around the edges. It’s his voice that makes the strange and magical seem pleasantly mundane and makes the near-mundane so terrifyingly strange. He also really sells the emotional dynamics between characters, like, seriously, that voice makes me feel feelings.
Basically, listening to Baldwin’s voice is like being wrapped up in the world’s warmest and most disconcerting hug.
A fan-created experience…
One of the most striking things about the event was the sheer level of involvement and sense of community from the fans. This level of engagement (and sheer number of people in attendance) was one I’ve almost never seen at more traditional live literature events, with audience members arriving in Night Vale themed costumes and trading running jokes across the auditorium (including one dedicated fan dressing as recurring character ‘the Glow Cloud’ and being greeted by the crowd with a loud ‘All Hail!’).
It was an event that made you feel part of a community of fiction enthusiasts. An event that made you feel part of the show. There are still a few tickets left for the live show in London at the Shepherd’s Bush O2 on the 9th of November. You don’t have to be a fan of the show to enjoy the event and if your taste in fiction strays towards the weird, funny and adorably odd then I advise you to get along.