It’s Wednesday morning, and the local radio announcer is reading the news: Crews from the Department of Public Safety will be repainting highway lane markers this week, and the high school football team is gearing up for the big game with Desert Bluffs. Meanwhile, faceless children have appeared throughout town to explain the new subway system, and there’s a glowing cloud raining dead animals all over the downtown business district. Welcome to Night Vale.
For the uninitiated, Welcome to Night Vale is an independently produced podcast that shot to the #1 spot on iTunes last month, past the likes of Radiolab and This American Life , a weird-fiction serial framed as a radio news show from a small desert town where, in the words of writer Joseph Fink, “every conspiracy you’ve heard of is true.”
The elevator pitch is along the lines of “NPR from the Twilight Zone,” or “Lake Wobegone by David Lynch. What sets Night Vale apart, though, is its casual approach to the supernatural and horrific. In the Twilight Zone or Twin Peaks , the strangeness lurks in the background, fueling paranoia until it emerges as a surprise twist. In Night Vale , the strangeness is business as usual, and paranoia is nothing more than good old-fashioned common sense.
“[In Night Vale ], things like ghosts and aliens and angels are ordinary parts of life,” explained Fink, who writes the show with co-creator Jeffrey Cranor. “Not only is it a small desert town where everything’s weird, but the weirdness is just part of day-to-day life. It’s not weird for the people who live there.”
In fact, a lot of Night Vale ‘s charm comes from the matter-of-factness with which it occupies the intersection between small-town slice-of-life and deep weirdness. In the first episode, Cecil—the anchor at Night Vale Community Radio— goes from cautioning parents that water, not Gatorade, is the key to keeping their kids hydrated to explaining which of the three varieties of unmarked helicopters hovering over the scrublands are most likely to spirit youngsters away.
Like Night Vale itself, the fictional Cecil straddles the line between small-town charm and weird horror as he reads news of city-council elections and five-headed dragons posing as traveling salesmen, negotiates with the unseen horrors who manage the radio station, and editorializes about his neighbors’ late-night chanting habits. Listeners have also been privy to Cecil’s growing infatuation with a visiting scientist named Carlos, which likewise ranges from the sweetly giddy to the unsettlingly intense; in one memorable episode, Cecil urges townsfolk to vigilante action against the barber who dared to take shears to Carlos’ previously perfect hair.
Cecil is the core of the show, and it’s only through his eyes that we see the events unfolding around him. “It’s the tyranny of having a first-person narrator,” actor Cecil Baldwin, who voices Night Vale ‘s Cecil, told WIRED. “The character is a fallible person, and it’s the world of Night Vale filtered through his eyes.” Cecil’s perspective humanizes the strangeness, and gives both narrative shape and emotional resonance to what might otherwise quickly begin to read as self-consciously kooky. The show’s context and color comes from the strange town where it’s set, but Cecil himself is at the heart of its enduring appeal.
He’s also the focus of the show’s avid fan following, which has latched particularly enthusiastically to his nascent romance with Carlos the scientist. Night Vale has been on the air for just over a year, but this summer, it spread like wildfire through first Twitter, then Tumblr; now, both are awash with fan art , fiction . No one’s quite sure what set it off. Writer Jeffrey Cranor has hypothesized that the show might have attracted the attention of Hannibal fans between seasons of the NBC serial killer show, but admits he’s got no real evidence beyond a hunch.
Whatever their origin, fans of the podcast are aggressively evangelical, prolific, and creative. In addition to detailed analyses of episodes, Night Vale fans have produced a small library’s worth of fanfiction, and there are over forty Tumblrs set in the fictional town, more than a dozen purporting to be (fictional) Cecil’s. “All three of us have had people that like our work,” said Fink, “but none of us have ever had a fanbase , which we definitely now have, and that’s a very different experience.”
While there’s no official description of Cecil — the closest we’ve come is “not tall or short, not thin or fat” — fandom has reached an astonishingly specific consensus as to his appearance: a neatly-dressed blonde in his 20s or 30s, sleeves rolled up to reveal intricately tattooed forearms. He often wears a sweater vest, usually sports thick glasses and, for reasons no one can quite seem to pin down, almost always has a third eye in the middle of his forehead.
Over the phone, Baldwin sounds a lot like the fictional Cecil — a little less clipped, a little more conversational, but the same deep voice with radio-perfect pronunciation that brings listeners the news from the fictional desert town of Night Vale. It’s not the only place where the line between the two Cecils blurs.
“A lot of people have very definitive ideas of who the character Cecil is, and what he looks like and behaves like,” Baldwin told WIRED, “and a lot of people are starting to incorporate the idea of me as a person into the character, so it’s all being folded in together.”
It’s a fitting transition: Cecil really is something of a fusion between the fictional character and the real-life actor. Fink and Cranor provide text, but little by way of direction, so Baldwin has had the opportunity to flesh out the character on his own, drawing on his experience with New York’s Neo-Futurist experimental theater company, as well as his Shakespearean background. “It was said that Elizabethans wouldn’t go see a play; they’d go listen to a play. And so I try to pick up in Joseph and Jeffrey’s writing the turns of phrases, the alliteration, the things that color the language and make it sound interesting to someone who doesn’t have a video to go along with it.”
Fink and Cranor’s influences influences span a similarly wide range. Some, like Shirley Jackson, have clear genre ties to the podcast, but others are less obvious. “The language of Night Vale comes from writers who aren’t necessarily known for doing horror or science fiction,” said Fink. For him, the most significant influences have been the works of novelist Deb Olin Unferth and playwright Will Eno. While Cranor hasn’t written for radio or podcast before, he grew up listening to radio, and he credits his theater background — like Baldwin, he’s a member of the Neo-Futurists — with teaching him to write with performance in mind.
Night Vale has always been a collaborative project, but this larger audience has also opened doors to new collaborators, including writer and actress Mara Wilson ( Matilda ), who voiced a character on a recent episode, and Venture Brothers ‘ Jackson Publick, who will appear in an upcoming episode. Another collaboration may also finally the question of how the characters look: Fink revealed to WIRED that a Night Vale comic book is “in the area of extremely likely.”
For now, they’re focusing on the show: finishing an upcoming episode that delves into Cecil’s teen years, and preparing for October, when they’ll record live for the first time with a handful of guest stars including Publick, Wilson, and musician Jason Webley.
“That’s been a really wonderful thing,” says Fink, “meeting amazingly talented people, and getting to talk to them as peers.”