Review: A Look at the Welcome to Night Vale Novel

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I finally got my copy of the Night Vale novel after a lot frustration with the Barnes and Noble website a good week after it came out. By then, I had a lot of pent-up enthusiasm that I used to dive into the book right away.

The first bit was a little slow, but that was just because I’d already heard it at BookCon. The next few chapters were alright, just a little same-y. And maybe I couldn’t keep my eyes open around page 100, but I was probably just tired from my busy day, right? It wasn’t until the second time that I fell asleep while reading the Night Vale novel that I realized it wasn’t my fault. The book was kind of dull.

The trouble is, the podcast comes in a few flavors, and the book mainly has one. Sometimes Cecil is dark and mysterious, sometimes he’s glib or cheerful, and other times he muses abstractly about the delicate nature of life and the ways people connect to each other, and he just goes on and on, and you start looking at the clock wondering when on Earth he’ll get back to the plot. This book is almost entirely in that last tone. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor decided to write a book about their bizarre, scary, hilarious world and spent most their time writing a Deep Coming-of-Age Story.

The book focuses on two minor characters from the podcast: Diane Crayton and Jackie Fierro. Diane is a member of the local PTA as well as a single mother struggling to emotionally connect with her teenage son, Josh (who is a shape-shifter). Jackie is a nineteen-year-old girl who runs Night Vale’s pawn shop. She has been working there at her current age for decades now, despite pressure from her now middle-aged friends to start aging again.

Both Diane and Jackie are living with problems based in stasis. They both need to change their lives but don’t know how (or, in Jackie’s case, even want to).

Trouble starts for Diane when one of her coworkers goes missing at the same time that the long-lost father of her son shows up back in town. Jackie’s problems begin when she accepts a mysterious piece of paper from the Man in the Tan Jacket. It takes a while for the women to realize how their problems are connected, but when they do, they unite to face some of Night Vale’s greatest dangers and deepest mysteries, including the true identity of the Man in the Tan Jacket.

Alright, typing it up like that makes the story sound kind of awesome; I admit that there are some pretty cool elements to the book. There were cameos from a lot of popular characters; we got to see Night Vale from a different perspective than Cecil’s for once, and we even got to know more about what things are like in the Night Vale Public Library. It’s just that, well, it took a long time for the book to establish that there was a main plot. Around page 150, I realized that a lot of Stuff had happened, but it all felt either random or gratuitous. Jackie visited Old Woman Josie, Carlos, and Mayor Dana Cardinal to try and learn about the Man in the Tan Jacket, but none of them could tell her anything helpful. Diane had numerous conversations with her son, but they were all similar and did little to advance the plot. I felt like I was just reading scenes for a long time without any sense of overarching story.

Things finally began to settle into place about halfway through, and there were definitely some very compelling scenes. I really loved Jackie and Diane fighting their way through the library. I liked the odd and creepy nature of the blond man who showed up everywhere. I liked Diane’s conversations with televisions as well as her logical but thwarted plans for getting to the mysterious King City. I don’t want to make it seem like this book was an awful experience; I just think, based on the quality of the show, it could have been better.

As a contrast, there are a number of snippets from Cecil’s show throughout the book. There’s always some element to them that advances or comments on some aspect of the story, but the writing in them is just so much better. It’s lively, it’s funny, and it reminds me why I’m such a fan of Welcome to Night Vale. It also showed me a glimpse of the type of book I wished I were reading.

But of course, the real place to judge a novel is at the end, when every plot thread is resolved. Read on at your own risk, because this is where the MAJOR SPOILERS start.

So, the big draw of this book for me was the promise that we would finally get some resolution to one of Welcome to Night Vale’s longest-running mysteries: the truth about the Man in the Tan Jacket. Sadly, I felt this resolution was not only disappointing but also didn’t make much sense.

The Man in the Tan Jacket turns out to be a surprisingly normal person. Diane’s ex, a man named Troy, left Night Vale years ago and began replicating himself in another town called King City. As a result, the people in King City started losing their memories (don’t ask) and their mayor became someone it was impossible to remember. That mayor then went to Night Vale and started trying to get anyone there to help him. He also wore a tan jacket if I need to connect the dots for anyone.

Okay … but then why did the angels not like him when he came to town? Why did they say he was from below the Earth and then distract Josie from learning any more about him? Why was he working with the Apache Tracker to save Carlos from the tiny civilization under the bowling alley? Why did he and the Apache Tracker kidnap Mayor Pamela Winchell and take her to a place where she was convinced to step down as mayor?

The Man in the Tan Jacket has had a lot implied about him over the years. Yes, it was suggested that he had a home that was in danger, but he also spent a lot of time getting involved in the secrets of Night Vale and trying to protect it from unknown horrors. The backstory the book finally gives us feels incomplete and makes the Man in the Tan Jacket seem more selfish and also duller than I ever expected. In the end, he wants Diane to leave her son in King City, which will somehow contain the duplicating Troys. It turns out that Jackie can be substituted for Josh, and the last we see of the Man in the Tan Jacket is him yelling for Diane and Jackie to decide who is going to stay behind. Too bad the drama of that moment is completely undercut when the women decide to just yell at Troy to stop being so irresponsible and come home already.

The story arcs with Diane and Jackie fell a little flat for me. Jackie eventually starts to remember her childhood and matures enough to get a little older, but she never really confronts the other issues that came up with her. Is she going to try to make a relationship with her absent father? What does she want to do with her life if not what she’s always been doing? Still, I found her to be a likable character, and I was glad she got some peace at the end.

With Diane, I got a little more frustrated. Her problem was that her son was her whole life though she couldn’t really connect with him, yet by the end of the book, I still had very little idea of who Josh was as a character. He was just a “confused teenager” archetype. Even at the climax of the story, Diane was still interrupting him and not letting him process his emotions. It was really frustrating to read, because it felt like Diane didn’t actually become a better mother by the end of the story.

So, overall, the Welcome to Night Vale novel wasn’t what I was hoping it would be as fan and as a general lover of books. I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me (the Amazon reviews are certainly looking great), and that’s fine. I’m happy for any fan or newcomer who gets something out of this story. As for me, I think I’ll stick to listening to Cecil.

Alex Townsend is freelance writer, a cool person, and really into gender studies and superheroes. It’s a magical day when all these things come together. You can follow her on her tumblr and see her comments on silver age comics. Happy reading!

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