This month’s CC is a bit late, largely because I underestimated the logistical difficulties of doing something only in audio, but it’s worth it. Welcome to Night Vale, in case you don’t know, is one of the most popular podcasts ever, spawning a healthy fan community and multiple international tours. Its normal format is as the community news radio show hosted by Cecil, a charmingly sincere Night Vale native who loves his town but, nonetheless, sometimes questions the strange happenings there. It’s lovecraftian in aesthetic and cutting in its wit. The writers are clearly giant literature nerds (I sometimes want to start a book club for reading the titles that get name-checked in Night Vale episodes) and that means that once in a while, they decide to experiment with their medium. “A Story About You” is a head-trippingly successful example of one of those experiments.
“This is a story about you,” said the man on the radio, and you were pleased because you always wanted to hear about yourself on the radio.
Commentary around the episode, including from the podcast itself, indicates that the show is actually about You, a character with a confusing name. I call nonsense on that, and cite the Cecil’s opening as all the evidence you need to support my case. It doesn’t make sense if it’s about You instead of you. So we have a first-person serial story format engaging in acts of second-person. From the first line. The layers here, they are tricky. (And fun!)
You didn’t always live in Night Vale. You lived somewhere else where there were more trees, more water.
The characterization given for you in the opening does a phenomenal amount of work. It doesn’t just tell the listening who they are for the duration of the episode, but it tells them all kinds of things about Night Vale and the world at large. By the end of that sequence you know not only that you live in rather uninspiring poverty in Night Vale, and that Night Vale is probably objectively less pleasant than where you lived before, but that this is better. There’s a common device used in Night Vale episodes where they’ll present a fact or description that qualifies for, “okay, that’s quirky and weird,” then nail it home by subverting it in a way that skewers the mundane. The bit about writing direct mail campaigns where you urge people to commit suicide is the opening of that pitch. The follow up about nobody reading them clinches it. Whatever you’re doing in Night Vale, it’s not that, and also, wow is the world a depressing place.
A message that was there and then wasn’t, and that you could never quite read.
This is a super interesting line from a craft perspective. It reminds the audience that you live within sight of the radio tower, keeping the now tied to the setting description from the beginning of the story. But there were a lot of details in that setting description that could have been used and it’s the radio tower rather than the car dealership or the stars etc. Using that particular detail not only grounds you in where you are, but is a subtle reminder of the format here, e.g. a radio show. It does all that, while also adding an atmosphere of constant incomprehension. You don’t understand your surroundings, that’s normal, and you accept it as such. That blinking red light isn’t just a detail put there to fill space and help make the episode long enough, it’s asserting and reaffirming the rules at play for the story we’re hearing.
You did not order invisible pie. You hate invisible pie.
No commentary about craft here. Just wanted to call it out to say yeah, me too.
But while we’re stopped here, let’s think about the diner sequence a bit. Why is it there? Obviously time needed to pass for you so that the situation with the crate could develop, but that could have been covered with, “You played angry birds on your phone and wondered, why were the birds angry? What could appease these birds and, if nothing, how could you guard against them?” The episode has to hit a certain length and so they needed to fill time, but why do it this way? What does it contribute?
Part of the answer to that is in callbacks to characters, jokes, and plot points established in other episodes, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assert that getting another chance to call the Apache Tracker an asshole is insufficient. Yet he’s there, and you drove off to a diner and ate non-invisible pie almost entirely because the narrative wanted you to have an encounter with him. Why?
I think it’s because the encounter does an excellent job of normalizing the truly surreal and bizarre by disguising it as the mundane surreal and bizarre. It is not unheard of to have random, not-entirely-stable strangers force awkward conversations on you when you go out to diners alone at odd hours. It’s bizarre and awkward, but a part of life. Yet the Apache tracker is not your run-of-the-mill intrusive stranger, as explained when he’s introduced here. This is, once again, establishing the boundaries for normalcy inside Night Vale, with the Apache Tracker and his history firmly placed on the side of normal. And, while we’re at it, the strange sugar-packet driven restaurant economy of Night Vale. Having those boundaries defined and salient is very important to the ultimate success of the story and that, dear reader, is almost certainly why this sequence is here.
Just as the announcer says that your car radio comes alive with a pop.
Bam, and we do our first serious wall-breaking of the episode. It’s been a story about you the whole time, but now it’s a story that’s interacting with the story of you. This is where the story starts to cash in on the work done in establishing boundaries for normalcy. It’s already a second person narrative inside a first person narrative and it just blew up the fourth wall that, up to now, it pretended wasn’t there. But it was. Because even though you’ve been listening to the story of you all day, you haven’t been interacting with it, except to be happy you get to hear about yourself on the radio. In kind, it hasn’t been interacting with you. Or has it? Because there have been all sorts of choices made in how the story of you has been narrated. Could it be a coincidence that between the guy with the semaphore flags and the unparsable message from the blinking light of the radio tower, the Apache Tracker’s incomprehensible Russian, etc. etc. that there is a theme of “missed message” underpinning the choices made? A foreshadowing that could, if you were running a real time Craft Crucible on the story of you as you lived it, would prepare you for what’s to come?
(Pause to insert comment: Josie’s affiliation with angels gets super weird if you think about it in context with A Stranger in Olondria. Just saying.)
Several buildings are on fire. Crowds of people are floating in the air held aloft by beams of light and struggling feebly against power they cannot begin to understand.
I really like this line because, at this point in the story, it’s impossible to know whether or not this is inside the bounds of normal. All that work done to establish where the lines are? What it really accomplishes is teaching the audience that they don’t know. But neither do you, because remember, you aren’t a native of Night Vale. You are a long time resident, though, so you know what to do in the case of something actually weird, and you do that. Which is why you handle it with such equanimity when you realize that the part where everything you do is being broadcast on the radio has revealed you.
And why having crushing mundanity in the form of your fiancée show up becomes unquestionably weird. You don’t have much of a reaction to the strange lights and rumbling earth. You don’t question much at all. But the minute your fiancée emerges, you start noticing all sorts of things.
Could it have been last week? Or was it ten years ago?
And this transition into questioning, into awareness, is what triggers the critical moment that makes this a story, rather than a narrative stunt on a quirky podcast. Up to that point, you were sheltered inside the walls of Night Vale, but as the narrative structure has already revealed, those walls are very permeable. You knew that, and the journey you’ve been on since driving away from your life is complete now. The is why the cliffhanger at the ending isn’t a cliffhanger at all, why the ambiguity of what comes next doesn’t matter. The story put so much work into foreshadowing and highlighting the messages that weren’t understood that in that moment where “every message in this world has a meaning. It all makes sense and you are finally being punished.” Your time in Night Vale is less depressing than your time before, but this is the moment where you actually achieve happiness. This is your character arc, the story of the day you came full circle.
The choice to repeat the line about you being pleased hearing about yourself on the radio is important to solidify that, I think. It establishes that this breakthrough you had, as a character, is not small or insignificant. It, in fact, is so important that it caused a first person / second person / omniscient / fourth-wall-breaking /causality fuddling event to occur. And at the same time, that’s perfectly normal because this is Night Vale, where something as mundane as community radio does that.
Next month: Valedictorian by N.K. Jemisin
I’ll post the schedule for the next batch of stories through the Crucible before then. Drop me a line if you have requests.