Pop Culture Advisory: Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale is a hugely popular, twice-monthly podcast that’s best described as what you’d get if A Prairie Home Companion were reported by Shirley Jackson. It’s a community radio show, yes, but reports abound of glowing clouds and faceless old women, feral dogs, and strange happenings at the PTA meeting in the small desert town of Night Vale.

Looking for books, television, and movies to suggest for Night Vale fans yields an embarrassment of riches; “Small Town Weird” is an exceedingly rich category to mine. Twin Peaks is a natural companion to Night Vale, as is Northern Exposure. Sarah Rees Brennan’s “Lynburn Legacy” books, Unspoken and Untold, are set in the English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale where imaginary friends sometimes turn out to be real people. In Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere, the moon is pink and the abandoned observatory is extra eerie (bonus points for also having a Southwest setting).  Being John Malkovich, Donnie Darko, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and its sequel, The Magician King, along with John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, and anything Stephen King wrote before, say, 1990 all play on the tension between a real-world setting and the intrusion of an undeniable and thoroughly unsettling Otherness.

The podcast was created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, is voiced by Cecil Baldwin, and is published by Commonplace Books. The collaborative writing projects A Commonplace Book of the Weird and What It Means To Be a Grownup are also available from Commonplace.

LJ‘s associate news editor Ian Chant is a huge fan of Night Vale, and offers his own suggestions:

  • Firesign Theater, an old performance troupe that doesn’t get enough respect, is very much a spiritual predecessor to WTNV in a lot of ways. 
  • The Wicker Man–the original British version, not the recent Nic Cage travesty.
  • The X-files and Twilight Zone are both worthy recommendations as far as TV goes.
  • Book wise, I’d say it takes the most cues from the work of H.P. Lovecraft on the unspoken small town weirdness/spookiness front. For fans of WTNV who’ve never read Lovecraft, I’d say Dagon and The Colour Out of Space are particularly good stories to start from.
  • This is a little bit of a flier, but tonally, lot of it—especially the occasional dreamy, spoken-word bits – also remind me of Richard Brautigan, particularly some of his small town prose weirdness like In Watermelon Sugar and Trout Fishing in America.

Night Vale is fertile ground for programming ideas too. On October 3, Brookline Public Library held a Night Vale listening party complete with snacks and costumes that Robin Brenner, reference/teen librarian, hopes to expand to a monthly offering. Her colleague, Caroline Richardson, stayed in character as a Night Vale Public Librarian for the duration for the event. Brenner explains the significance, “In Night Vale, the librarians are constantly warned against.  At first, you mainly hear about them in terms of public services announcements about how to protect yourself against them.  It became very clear in episode 28 (“Summer Reading Program”) that they are in fact dangerous, and cause the deaths of townspeople both in the past and in the present.  The ultimate winner/survivor of the summer reading program emerges from the library holding the severed head of a librarian.” She adds, “I have a fellow librarian that has a theory that librarians are not actually so terrible, but instead the only source of free information in Night Vale (since the Sheriff’s Secret Police and the town council control the entire town) and THAT’S why they’re considered so dangerous.”


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Stephanie Klose About Stephanie Klose

Stephanie Klose (sklose@mediasourceinc.com, @sklose on Twitter) is Media Editor, Library Journal.