Behind the Vale: An Annotated Excerpt from Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night ValeFor two years I taught students in my Intro to College Writing class about podcasts. I quickly discovered that, for whatever reason, 18-year-olds in sweatpants are just not into them. That is, except for one: Welcome to Night Vale. Every section, every semester, my students named it as the one podcast they did like, the one they regularly listened to.

I sometimes describe Welcome to Night Vale as the anti-Prairie Home Companion. Or rather, they are like each other’s reflections in a mirror. They share a lot–both feature dispatches from a small town full of teasing celebrations of community–but one trades in the conventions of horror, while the other, in comedy; one has a diverse cast of characters, the other is perhaps definitively white. Night Vale is a small southwestern town where librarians are the grotesque monsters of nightmare, miniature armies invade from beneath the local bowling alley, angels exist but are illegal to speak of, and Carlos, the scientist who dates local radio host Cecil, has just the best hair.

I saw Night Vale fan art pop up on my Tumblr dashboard within a few weeks of the first episode airing, and their popularity has only metasized since then. The podcast, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, has been downloaded more than 100 million times. It’s also spun off into an enormously successful live tour with over 100 shows in 11 countries and 35 US states. Now it’s a novel.

You can actually catch Joseph and Jeffrey talking about Welcome to Night Vale with writer Ashley Ford tonight—Thursday, November 12—at 7:30pm at St. Joseph’s College (245 Clinton Avenue). The event, organized by Greenlight Bookstore, is ticketed.

Through the graces of Harper Perennial, we’re excited to present an excerpt of the first chapter of the novel with annotations from coauthor Joseph Fink.

This page is annotated with Genius. Click the yellow highlights to read annotations from the author Joseph Fink. 

Jackie flipped the sign on the door to closed, her hand touching the window, leaving its ghost upon the glass, a hand raised to say “Stop” or “Come here” or “Hello” or “Help” or maybe only “I am here. This hand, at least, is real.”

She looked down to adjust the items on the counter, and when she looked up, the man was there.

He was wearing a tan jacket, and holding a deerskin suitcase. He had normal human features. He had arms and legs. He might have had hair, or maybe was wearing a hat. Everything was normal.

“Hello,” he said. “My name is Everett.”

Jackie screamed. The man was perfectly normal. She screamed.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Are you closed?”

“No, that’s okay, no. Can I help you?”

“Yes, I hope so,” he said. There was buzzing coming from somewhere. His mouth?

“I have an item I would very much like to pawn.”

“I . . .” she said, and waved her hand to indicate everything she might have said next. He nodded at her hand.

“Thank you for your help. Have I introduced myself?”

“No.”

“Ah, I apologize. My name is Emmett.”

They shook hands. Her hand continued to shake after he let go.

“Yes, well,” he said. “Here is the item.”

He set a small slip of paper on the counter. On it, written in dull, smeared pencil, were the words “KING CITY.” The handwriting was shaky and the pencil had been pressed down hard. She couldn’t stop staring at it, although she didn’t know what about it was interesting.

“Interesting,” she said.

“No, not very,” said the man in the tan jacket.

The man washed his hands and quietly chanted, and Jackie forced herself to lean back and put her feet on the counter. There is a way these things are done. She looked a few times at the man’s face, but she found she forgot it the moment she stopped looking.

“Eleven dollars,” she said. The man hummed, and other small voices joined him, apparently from within the deerskin suitcase.

“Where did this come from?” she asked. “Why are you offering it to me? What would I do with it?”

Her voice was high and cracked. It did not sound like her at all.

The man was now harmonizing with the voices from his suitcase. He did not seem to register her questions.

“No, no, I’m sorry,” she said, fully aware of, but unable to stop, her poor negotiating technique. “My mistake. Thirty dollars and an idea about time.”

“Done,” he said, smiling. Was that a smile?

She gave him the thirty dollars and told him her idea about time.

“That is very interesting,” he said. “I’ve never thought of it that way. Generally, I don’t think at all.”

Then he died. She usually used this time to finish up the paperwork, get the ticket ready. She did nothing. She clutched the slip of paper in her hand. He wasn’t dead anymore.

“I’m sorry. Your ticket.”

“There’s no need,” he said, still possibly smiling. She couldn’t get a good enough look at his face to tell.

“No, your ticket. There is a way these things are done.” She scrawled out a ticket, with the information tickets always had. A random number (12,739), the quality of light at time of transaction (“fine”), the general feeling of the weather outside (“looming”), her current thoughts on the future (“looming, but fine”), and a quick sketch of what she thought hearts should look like, instead of the pulsing lumps of straw and clay that grow, cancer-like, into our chests when we turn nine years old.

He took the ticket as she thrust it at him, and then, thanking her, turned to leave.

“Good-bye,” she said.

“KING CITY,” said the paper.

“Good-bye,” waved the man, saying nothing.

“Wait,” she said, “you never told me your name.”

“Oh, you’re right,” he said, hand on door. “My name is Elliott. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

The door swung open and shut. Jackie held the slip of paper in her hand, unsure for the first time in however long her life had been what to do next. She felt that her routine, unbroken for decades, had been disrupted, that something had gone differently. But she also had no idea why she felt that. It was just a slip of paper, just clutched in her hand, just that.

She finished her paperwork; on the line that said “pawned by,” she stopped. She could not remember his name. She couldn’t even remember his face. She looked down at the piece of paper. “KING CITY.” She looked up to get a glimpse of him out the window, just to jostle her stuck memory.

From the counter, she could see the man in the tan jacket outside. He was running out to the desert. She could just barely see him at the edge of the parking lot’s radius of light. His arms were swinging wildly, his suitcase swinging along. His legs were flailing, great puffs of sand kicked up behind him, his head thrown back, sweat visible running down his neck even from where she sat. The kind of run that was from something and not toward. Then he left the faint edge of the light and was gone.


Excerpt from Welcome to Night Vale.  Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Reprinted with permission from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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