Queer Quest: Welcome to Night Vale (No, seriously, you’re actually welcome)

By Ashley R. Lierman

At the beginning of this month, we linked on this blog to the Advocate’s piece on the podcast Welcome to Night Vale.  As I’m beginning this column in October, though, and because Night Vale is near and dear to me personally, I thought I might start with a more in-depth discussion of the show and why I think it’s so important.

So one more time, in case you missed it: Welcome to Night Vale is a bi-monthly, independent podcast created by writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, styled as a community radio program reporting on a very strange little desert town that thinks of itself as perfectly ordinary. I’ve heard it described as “the news from Lake Wobegon as seen through the eyes of Stephen King,” while my wife prefers “local radio in Twin Peaks,” but ultimately the note it hits is unique and entirely its own: blasé acceptance of the bizarre and horrific, strong emotions about the ordinary and banal, a pervasive comic bleakness punctuated by the occasional profoundly uplifting climax. Cecil Palmer, the host and voice of Night Vale (played by Cecil Baldwin), reports interdimensional dinosaur attacks as matter-of-factly as PTA meetings, but can’t tolerate his brother-in-law’s poor upkeep of his car; the mysterious abductions of townspeople by divine beings results in a curiously affecting moment of togetherness among the bystanders – and a triumphant plot twist further down the road. It’s hard to explain Night Vale well just because there is nothing really like it. It’s funny, unsettling, bizarre, cynical, gentle, creepy, smart, and sweet all at once. And if that isn’t enough, each episode features a report on the “weather,” which is actually a musical interlude from one of a wide range of independent artists – both helping to introduce fans to great new performers and exposing new performers to a broader audience than they might have otherwise had.

Night Vale‘s well-deserved big break in popular culture, however, came in large part from another element entirely: the same-sex romance at its heart. Throughout the show’s first “season,” a main running subplot was Cecil’s crush on the visiting scientist Carlos, and in the one-year anniversary episode the feeling was finally shown to be mutual. The two became a couple – and Night Vale‘s popularity exploded online, seemingly overnight. The majority of this influx of followers seems to have come simply from online word-of-mouth between fans. Listeners were so excited – and so starved – for a central romance between two characters of the same sex in a piece of genre fiction that they told everybody they knew. And they told everybody they knew. And so on, and so on, until not only were interviews and reviews starting to appear in the mainstream press – but between new merchandise, new live shows, and donations, Night Vale had gone from a tiny labor of love to actually something of a money-making proposition.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I’ve been a fan of the show since the first few months it was available on iTunes, and I actually had the honor of being invited to co-write two guest episodes: most recently #50, “Capital Campaign,” and before that #28, “Summer Reading Program.” (I feel proud to say that I think the latter actually helped to boost the show’s already-considerable popularity with librarians. Part of Night Vale‘s mythos is that librarians are eldritch, terrifying, dangerous creatures that can smell fear, which I think has a certain perverse appeal for a lot of us in the profession. If you missed it, in fact, Night Vale was the theme of this year’s ALA Play, which should tell you something about how thoroughly it’s been embraced.) Among other things, this put me in the curious position of being one of a relatively small subset of people who were actually around for the development of Cecil and Carlos’s relationship in the show, long before it was ever even hinted that it might become anything but one-sided. And being in this position, I think, has helped lead me to believe so strongly in the show’s importance.

I’ve discussed this with various queer-identified friends who were also listeners early in Night Vale‘s history, and found (anecdotally) that we all had one odd experience in common. Namely: it took us a really weirdly long time to realize that Cecil was actually supposed to be in love with Carlos. It’s weird because the show does anything but make a secret of it: in the first episode, for heaven’s sake, Cecil not only refers to him as “perfect” and “beautiful,” but flat-out says that when Carlos smiled, he “fell in love instantly.”  Pretty unambiguous, right? And yet, I – and most everyone I know who was listening at the time! – just slid right by those lines. We heard them, we were charmed and amused, but we understood that “I” as though it were Cecil speaking as the voice of the town: that this was just another odd thing about Night Vale, that a scientist visiting from parts unknown would turn out to have a magical and universal appeal on the sole basis of his perfect hair and teeth. It wasn’t until much later, in fact until Cecil spoke of the idea of going on a “date” with Carlos in episode 16, that it finally began to dawn on us that this was actually something perfectly ordinary in all Night Vale’s strangeness: just a man attracted to another man.

In part, I imagine this experience was related to the general ethic of the show, blending the weird and the normal so closely that my friends and I weren’t sure what was supposed to be funny and strange and what wasn’t. But I believe the greater part was that it was what we’ve been conditioned to expect, by almost every other experience of media in our lives. That this was one of many odd quirks about a bizarre town seemed to make more sense than that it was a same-sex attraction, presented as unremarkable, in a piece of media that didn’t declare itself “gay fiction.”  The fantastical elements of Night Vale were far easier to accept at face value, even as queer-identifying people ourselves, than the idea that we were hearing a gay man’s voice as the voice of an everyman.

Even as LGBT characters have slowly become more prominent in mainstream fiction, they’re still most commonly seen from outside: secondary characters who are observed and interacted with by main characters, but not main characters themselves. Outside of explicitly gay fiction, it’s still extremely uncommon for fiction to have a queer “voice,” a queer character just narrating and speaking for themselves, let alone being the POV character with whom the audience is expected to identify. Obviously, it was certainly the last thing I or my friends expected from Night Vale, but it was what Night Vale delivered: for the vast majority of the show, Cecil’s voice is the only voice listeners hear, and that voice is a queer one. I don’t think the significance of that can be overstated.

Of course, lack of representation is hardly a problem that only queer folks have; distressingly enough, it’s still similarly unusual even for women and people of color to have a “voice” in mainstream fiction, and not in media specifically made for those voices. Night Vale, however, has proven just as standout on that front, and very intentionally so.  In the early days of the series, Carlos was played for a brief appearance by Jeffrey Cranor, out of necessity. With the series’ increase in popularity, however, and the increasing number of live shows with more varied voice casts than just Baldwin, Fink and Cranor felt strongly that they should hire a gay Latino actor to play a gay Latino character, now that they had the means to do so. As such, Dylan Marron became the voice of Carlos going forward. When Night Vale has featured additional voices, furthermore, they have also included those of Mara Wilson,  Jasika Nicole, Symphony Sanders, Lauren Sharpe, and Molly Quinn, among others. (Wilson’s recent writing on her OCD has made her participation even more important to me and others who also suffer from the same disorder; we’re also a group of people who don’t get to hear our voices in media much, unless it’s as the butt of a joke.) Even details like the names of minor townspeople indicate how much the show embraces the diversity of real people.  As Baldwin says in his interview with the Advocate, “It’s important to remember [Night Vale] is an American community that has many different kinds of different people. Why call a character David Jones when you can call him Nazr al-Mujaheed?”

As unfortunate as it is, what Night Vale does is rare – rare enough to take even those who are looking for it by surprise. That makes the show important, and its popularity maybe even more so. If nothing else, it sends a message to other creators and producers that not only can these voices be accepted, they are wanted. And that’s a very big deal to all those of us, queer and otherwise, who don’t normally get to hear ourselves think.

So by way of conclusion, I encourage you to keep the ball rolling by checking it out, if you haven’t already. I hope you’ll understand it in the full spirit of the show if I say that, as scary, weird, and occasionally awful as the town of Night Vale might be, it’s at least a place where, whoever you are, you can trust that you actually will be welcome.

And where the voice you hear might be your own.

Queer Quest is a biweekly column by Ashley Lierman on LGBT+ issues in geeky media.

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