There should be a special word for the feeling a reading fanatic gets when she discovers a great new book…and then discovers that the same author has written a whole shelf-full of other yet-to-be-discovered delights. (And if any BHL readers happen to know that word, in any language from this planet or any other, send it my way. I’ll take very good care of it. I promise.)
This word, whatever it is, would precisely describe how I felt earlier this week, when I listened to my first episode of the podcast, Welcome to Night Vale. I listened to it more or less by happenstance, after I saw it mentioned on Facebook by Patrick Rothfuss, a favorite fantasy writer (whose work was recommended by Facebook connections as well. Go social media!). I like his books. He likes the podcast. All right, I could invest 20 minutes of winter break time on that.
I was expecting good and weird science fiction and fantasy. And I certainly got that. I was hoping for intriguing vocal stylings and maybe some fun shenanigans with the podcast format. I got that too. I was not anticipating that this Lovecraftian Lake Wobegon, narrated by the bastard child of David Byrne and Warren Zevon would also provide me with further support for one of the Arguments Sarah Keeps Having–you know, the one that goes, “Art that supports liberty is everywhere. You just have to look!”
I’m not saying that Welcome to Night Vale is libertarian. I’m delighted to say that I have no idea what the politics of the show or its creators and actors are.
I’m saying that Welcome to Night Vale is filled with funny and creepy critiques of governments, of authoritarianism, and of crony capitalism, as well as tentacles, hooded figures, and a dog park that I’m not supposed to mention.
Here’s Night Vale’s radio announcer Cecil (the podcast is Cecil’s twice-monthly broadcast of local news, weather, and so on) on a range of topics of interest to BHL readers:
..on Sundays, newspaper kiosks usually filled with important newsprint will be filled with 2% milk. When asked “Why milk?” the Journal’s publishing editor Leanne Heart said, “It is important that we maintain an unbiased approach to news reporting.”
On Civil Rights
(After the Secret Police searched the car belonging to a five-headed dragon with forged ID) Representatives from local civil rights organizations have protested that officers had no legal grounds to search the vehicle, but they ceded the point when reminded by Secret Police officials that our backwards court system will uphold any old authoritarian rule made up on the fly by unsupervised gun-carrying thugs of a shadow government.
On Crony Capitalism
This segment has been brought to us by Big Ricco’s Pizza. Listeners, we are proud to have Big Ricco’s as a sponsor of our show. You will not find a better pizza joint in all of Night Vale then Big Ricco’s. …Even the city council offers its ringing endorsement of Big Ricco’s. All Night Vale citizens are mandated to eat at Big Ricco’s once a week. It is a misdemeanor not to.
On Local Politics and Taxes
A number of elements of our modern civic process were invented in that single three-hour meeting, including the City Council membership (since unchanged), the lovably Byzantine tax system (as well as the system of brutal penalties for mistakes) and the official town song, chant, and moan.
Night Vale is…a very unusual place. But it’s not Night Vale’s tears in reality, the pterodactyl attacks, the tentacled being that runs Cecil’s radio station, or even that damn dog park that keeps me up at night.
What keeps me up at night is Cecil. And the Night Vale Boy Scouts. And the PTA (many of whom were eaten by pterodactyls). It’s all the more or less ordinary people who are trying to live ordinary lives in the madness that is Night Vale. The episode “Glow Cloud” (and it’s episode 2, so I’m not spoiling much for you, I promise) is a really good example. A mysterious glowing cloud settles over Night Vale, changing colors for each observer and making a mysterious whistling noise. Cecil assures us, though, “One death has already been attributed to the glow cloud. But listen, it’s probably nothing. If we had to shut down the town for every mysterious event that at least one death could be attributed to, we’d never have time to do anything, right? That’s what the Sherriff’s Secret Police are saying, and I agree.”
Later, when the Glow Cloud begins to drop a steady rain of dead animals on the town, Cecil is there to reassure us again:
Night Vale Animal Control Department has said that it should be a snap to clean those up. They just have to be tossed on the Eternal Animal Pyre in Mission Grove Park, so, if that’s the worst the Glow Cloud has for us, I say go ahead and do your daily errands. Just bring along a good strong umbrella capable of handling falling animals up to, say, ten pounds. More on the Glow Cloud as it continues to crawl across our sky. And hey, here’s a tip: take your kids out, and use the Cloud’s constantly mutating hue to teach him or her the names of colors. It’s fun, and it shows them the real-life applications of learning.
I tend to be a strong proponent of ignoring politics and politicians, of going about my daily business, and of trying to make change through culture and personal connections rather than through political pull.
Welcome to Night Vale makes me wonder if I’m just Cecil, trying to make the best of a bad situation, while armadillos and lizards rain from the mysterious glow cloud over head.
I don’t have an answer. I’m just thinking about it, hard. But that’s what art is supposed to make us do.
So, have a listen to the podcast. And the City Council would like me to remind you: “If you see something, say nothing, and drink to forget.”