The most popular radio-drama series of the decade has never been on the radio. It’s a podcast, a stage-show and – as of October 2015 – a novel.
Welcome to Night Vale, a horror-comedy sitcom, has built a huge following since it first launched in 2012. Set in a community radio station in the American Midwest, the podcast has been downloaded more than 100 million times. It takes the form of an evening news broadcast from the small desert town of Night Vale, where the strange is mundane and the mundane is deadly: a five-headed dragon is running for mayor, hooded figures stalk the dog park and Lovecraftian monstrosities are waiting around each corner. It’s Twin Peaks meets Under Milk Wood, with a large dollop of Douglas Adams. Each week, the town’s inhabitants are imperilled by an eldritch threat, only to be saved at the last minute – after a brief musical interlude.
With over 400,000 subscribers, it’s not surprising that a Night Vale novel would find a readership. But even the authors were surprised when it rocketed to the top of Amazon’s bestseller chart in March, months before the book’s release date. At the time, it didn’t even have a front cover. Like The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Welcome To Night Vale could make the leap from cult success as an audio-drama to mainstream popularity as fiction; according to the New York Times, the novel’s US publishers have acquired the rights to a further three books.
For writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor – who have penned every one of the show’s 76 episodes – writing a novel was a natural step. “We’d written already two novels’ worth of material”, explains Fink. “If you look at the scripts, they wouldn’t look like scripts to you. We write them as prose, as they’re largely a single person talking”.
That person is actor Cecil Baldwin, “the voice of Night Vale”. Baldwin plays the golden-toned host of Night Vale’s evening news show, interrupting his coverage of the latest catastrophe for traffic reports and stories about his pet cat. Baldwin is generally the only performer, but the show has an ever-expanding cast of minor characters. Mara Wilson – best known for her lead role in 1996’s Matilda – plays the omnipresent “faceless old woman” who haunts the radio station. Despite their background in New York’s experimental theatre world, Fink and Cranor are surprisingly hands-off directors: “We mostly direct through casting”, says Fink. “We cast people that are exactly what we want that character to be, and then we trust them.”
Writing the novel, they faced the challenge of working without their familiar cast of voices: “I forced myself to not to think about it”, says Cranor. “In early drafts, I had a lot of longer dialogue scenes that were thought of more as stage performances.” It’s perhaps unsurprising; the Night Vale stage show has just completed a tour of the UK and Ireland. The Telegraph met the writers backstage before a sold-out London performance, the first of three nights at Islington’s 800-capacity Union Chapel. Though they’re hesitant to label the genre-pushing podcast as radio drama, Cranor admits that their live shows “are a little more radio drama-y”.
Unusually for audio drama, it has a young audience, particularly striking a chord with teenage fans. Like Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the writers contrive to make their bleak subject matter into something strangely comforting. “A few years ago, I was in a serious state of depression,” says Misha Kustov, 23. “Night Vale brought me out of it. I listen to it, and it makes me feel better.” In one sense, says Cranor, Night Vale’s strangeness makes the strangeness of real life bearable. “It’s a news programme, so it’s always going to cover deaths,” he explains. “There’s a lot of people dying every day, from completely absurd things, constantly.”
At one point in the novel, single parent Diane Crayton remembers the funeral of a friend “who had survived three UFO attacks, a year’s incarceration by the City Council for voting incorrectly in a municipal election, and a direct encounter with a pack of street cleaners, only to die of a liver cancer which had gone undiagnosed for over a year.” The world may be a terrible place, but the people of Night Vale carry on through it all.
Fink and Cranor have not only spearheaded a new wave of fiction podcasts, but inspired a new generation of listeners. Speaking to a group of young fans outside the venue, some of whom had arrived five hours early to queue, I found that none of them had ever listened to a radio play, or even heard of audio drama, before they discovered Welcome to Night Vale.
“Urgh, radio?” groans one character in that night’s stage-show: “I listen to podcasts now. They’re like radio but, you know, the future.”
Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel (Orbit, £16.99) is out now