‘If you see something, say nothing’: Welcome to Night Vale

Carlos-Cecil fan art by fiebrre.tumblr.com

The Museum of Forbidden Technologies is proud to announce their new special exhibit: “A Startling and Highly Forbidden Piece of Technology Brought to Us by Time Travelers… or Ancient Long-Dead Aliens… or Russians… or Whatever.”

The technology will be kept in a locked vault, which itself will be wrapped in thick black bandages, with a hand-written sign taped to one side saying only:

Nope!

Your ticket includes a free audio guide, which will play a single piercing tone, designed to considerately remove you from the world of thought, and sound, and sentience.

The Museum of Forbidden Technologies. Bring your kids! Otherwise, something even worse might happen to them.

There are many excerpts I would have loved to use in my Indy piece about the podcast Welcome to Night Vale: this is one. (Also “Alligators. Can they kill your children? Yes.” and “When life seems dangerous and unmanageable, just remember that it is, and that you can’t survive forever. Denny’s Restaurants — why not?”)

Here’s the article text:

In the friendly desert community of Night Vale, a pleasant voice tells us, “the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep”. There is also a sentient glow cloud that runs the school, helicopters hover in packs over the children’s playground, and the city council issues announcements like: “If you see something, say nothing. And drink to forget.”

This is the world created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, who met as members of an experimental New York theatre company and whose podcast, Welcome To Night Vale, overtook NPR’s This American Life in July as the most downloaded audio programme in the US. Since then it has occupied the No 1 spot in nine countries, despite being recorded at home on a £40 mic and produced by Fink on free editing software.

“This was supposed to be a hobby,” Fink says from a busy Lower East Side café where he’s taking a break. “We were like, ‘Maybe, maybe in two years we’ll have 10 people that aren’t our friends listen to this’.”

Instead, tickets for a live version of the show sold out in 30 seconds, listener figures have peaked at 150,000 per episode and an earlier plan to publish a Night Vale book through Fink’s own small press has been scrapped in favour of something “a little bigger”. While they won’t talk specifics, a television show, pop-up book and feature film are mentioned, cryptically, as things “it’s hard to say we’re definitely going to do”.

Welcome To Night Vale is hard to categorise: it is full of surreal jokes, ghost-story chills, the narrative drive of old radio serials, and an undercurrent of existential horror. The language sometimes has the rhythms and repetitions of poetry, and stories take unexpected turns. One episode is told entirely in the second person, and two others have the same events narrated by different narrators in parallel universes. How on earth did it go viral?

“The one-word answer is Tumblr,” says Fink. Thousands of listeners have uploaded art and stories inspired by the show to the website: in a single week in July, 20,000 Tumblr posts about Night Vale generated 680,000 likes and reblogs. This was after an episode aired called “First Date”, in which Night Vale’s narrator Cecil becomes romantically involved with Carlos, a scientist with perfect hair and “teeth like a military cemetery”. Much of the fan art is devoted to imagining the couple.

Grateful emails have come, unexpectedly, from gay and transgender fans, and also from sufferers of anxiety. “They often say that Night Vale is a terrifying place,” Fink says, “but so is life.” Cranor agrees. “They find a real peace in it. I can’t help but be touched by that.”

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