Now that December has finally arrived, it’s time for last minute Christmas shopping and staring hopelessly at the sky while wondering what to get for various family members. Personally, I have a tendency to gift books more than any other item each winter, even if the recipient isn’t a particularly active reader. It might be a character flaw. To aid in the struggle against holiday shopping induced stress, I am going to attempt to post each day a potential gift, most likely a book I’ve either read recently or hold as a longtime favorite. Some of these will probably be popular books already, but maybe there will be some you want to give yourself to celebrate the holidays!
First up is Welcome to Night Vale (the book)! If you’re familiar with the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, then you know exactly what you’re getting into with this novel extension to an already novel idea. Then again, does anyone ever really know anything? Especially where librarians and the nature of pink flamingo lawn ornaments are concerned (try not to envision their many tangled limbs and terrible jaws).
For anyone not familiar with the podcast, that’s perfectly alright too. While the novel exists within the storyline and context of the show, its plot can just as easily stand alone and serve as an introduction to the exciting world of small town family struggles and community radio.
Night Vale, a town located somewhere in the desert of the American Southwest, is a town like any other, brimming with conspiracies, probably existing on an alternate plane of being, and governed by an eldritch City Council with laws enforced by the Sheriff’s Secret Police. The dog park is strictly off limits, angels are NOT REAL (but they live on the edge of town with Old Woman Josie), and literal five-headed dragon Hiram McDaniels is probably still a little bitter about not being elected Mayor. Cecil’s soothing voice on the community radio station (and whose show forms the basis for the podcast) reports events around town and is probably the most stable feature of the town.
Against this backdrop is a surprisingly moving story about family, growing up, and identity, alongside musings on the nature of themes like time and memory. The plot follows Diane Crayton, treasurer of the Night Vale PTA and mother of 15-year-old shapeshifter Josh, as she tries to simultaneously cultivate a relationship with her son and prevent him from seeking the father who left them behind. These attempts do not work overly well. The plot also follows perpetual 19-year-old Jackie Fierro, proprietor of the Night Vale pawn shop and adherent to the comfort of a routine life, as she receives a message from a mysterious man in a tan jacket and witnesses her life systematically dismantled. Happenstance and history conspire to bring them together for dangerous research missions, science, and the slow development of mutual respect!
Authors Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (podcast listeners will be hard pressed not to instinctively read parts of the narrative in Fink’s distinctive voice) craft a novel that exists, as the name Night Vale implies, in a twilight space between the absurd and reality. With the setting constantly shifting expectations and the tone morphing moments of humor to surreal horror, the incredible humanity of its characters hit harder than ever. Shapeshifter Josh is a perfect avatar for teens and young adults struggling to feel at home in their skin. Meanwhile, the rocky relationship between Diane and her son, presented from both sides, resonates with any parent-child pair that has gone head-to-head, and the interactions between Jackie and Diane are an interplay between the energy of youth and the perspective of age. Welcome to Night Vale‘s great success in its relationships, and the difficult emotions that drive them, comes from the perspective the narrative provides to both parties. Readers will naturally connect to the characters most like them; Night Vale makes it almost impossible to not also empathize with the ones unlike the reader.
Welcome to Night Vale would make an excellent gift for anyone who enjoys the bizarre and surreal, and it has a natural home on science fiction shelves. However, I’d also consider offering it to family and friends whose tastes typically veer toward the more grounded and realistic. Night Vale is a place unlike anything on the market, and it might just break the mold enough to pique their interest. Most importantly, you get to witness their confused reactions.