I regret not taking notes while reading Welcome to Night Vale. I don’t actually know if they would have helped, but I’ve tried to write this piece four times so far, and got no further than saying, in a number of different ways, that it’s an odd book. In the absence of notes that may have helped me get some sort of perspective at least, I guess I should just start with that …
Welcome to Night Vale is an odd book.
It reads a little like something by Douglas Adams, written with that same straight-faced-ness while relating wildly fantastical events. The internet and the jacket blurb tell me that it’s based on an extremely popular podcast of the same name, which naturally I knew nothing about before picking up the book, (I am deeply uncool and so far behind the curve I’m paddling about in an unmapped backwater). I didn’t really feel the lack at all. It was a good book. After hitting a bit of a reading rut a couple of weeks ago this was the perfect antidote. It was plenty funny, it had a good mystery (more X-Files than Sherlock), great characters, and a soft and chewy centre.
So, if you don’t already know, Night Vale is an American desert town in which all manner of weird things both happen and exist. It’s a pretty cool place, (not in a Ooo-let’s-move-there-and-start-a-family kind of way, more in a that-sounds-cool-as-long-as-it-never-happens-in-my-actual-life kind of way … you know, like bungee-jumping, parties, plane journeys and circuses). The book opens with an explanation of how pawning an item works in Night Vale, which is the perfect way to warn you about what you’re letting yourself in for, and from there it’s pretty much a rollercoaster of strange through to the end. After that initial introduction there’s no further exposition on the town’s rules, you just have to roll with it as the two main characters Jackie and Diane, begin their – at first separate – investigations into two strands of the same mystery. The cast of characters was almost my favourite thing about the book: Jackie, who works in the pawnshop, is nineteen, but she’s been nineteen for a very, very long time; Diane is the only person who remembers a man called Evan who used to work in her office, and her party trick is being able to accurately guess peoples passwords; Diane’s son Josh is a shape-shifter, although that doesn’t do justice to the sheer variety of forms he takes during the course of the story; old woman Josie appears to be exactly that, but she is accompanied by a number of angels, all called Erika, that do not exist; Carlos is a scientist, but the kind of science he does isn’t like anything we’d call Science; and there’s a faceless old woman living in Diane’s house who moves things around and crawls on the ceiling like something out of a Japanese horror movie.
While Jackie and Diane do not particularly like each other, they come to work together as they realise that they both hold pieces of a larger puzzle. I feel like anything I say about the mystery they’re involved in will somehow spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the book and wants to, so I’ll skirt round that, saying only that it was great fun to read and that the solution was as satisfying as the investigation. Over the course of the story Jackie and Diane make their way from a mutual grudging respect to a more genuine affection for each other that I thought was well done. They are very different people, Diane a single mom on the PTA who doesn’t break rules, and Jackie a cool, independent teen with a slightly tough-girl attitude, but they’re also both tenacious and strong, and can recognise that in each other. I basically read the book because of them, they drew me in, kept me interested and I wanted to see them both win through. I can think of tons of characters that are more exceptional, larger-than-life, and basically more ‘wow’, but Jackie and Diane are enjoyable (without once making me feel bad about myself).
My absolute favourite thing about this book though, was the Librarians. They get mentioned a few times before you actually meet them, and every time I just cracked up. The Librarians of Night Vale are dangerous, terrifying beings; a trip to the library a dangerous, terrifying prospect. (How could this not stir the heart of any library worker? To inspire such fear is something I dream about deep in my dark little heart!) I half expected it to be some sort of elaborate joke and that the Librarians would turn out to be totally inoffensive after all the hype. But no. Night Vale’s Librarians are scary. I’m not a huge fan of horror because I’m scared of enough things in real life without having to worry about all the imaginary things out there as well, but Welcome to Night Vale was really pretty darn scary. It’s a great adventure/mystery that has some surprisingly beautiful episodes surrounded by a lot of creepy ones, but that library? Scary. I’m just going to say ‘the Biography section’, and leave it at that. Make your own minds up.
“She drove home and grabbed the things she would need to check out a book: strong rope and a grappling hook, a compass, a flare gun, matches and a can of hair spray, a sharpened wooden spear, and, of course, her library card. She couldn’t remember exactly, but she made a silent prayer that she had no outstanding fines.”