Writing a second novel set in the weird world of Welcome to Night Vale was something of a litmus test for authors Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, reached by Kirkus separately by phone on the eve of their European tour. The new novel, It Devours! follows up their debut novel Welcome to Night Vale; it’s a thriller that Kirkus calls “a confident supernatural comedy from writers who can turn from laughter to tears on a dime.”
Admittedly, Night Vale is a strange creation by anyone’s standards. It started in 2014 as a podcast that soon blew up to thousands, not dozens, of listeners. It later evolved into a live touring show that traverses the globe with shows like the most recent All Hail, and the quiet sadness of Ghost Stories. Dispatched as community radio broadcasts from a town where all conspiracies are true, it quickly became a phenomenon. But writing a second, different novel brought up questions.
Could they write another novel that wasn’t centered by narrator Cecil Baldwin’s dulcet tones? Could they write a story that takes place from the point of view of characters who barely exist in the podcast? And could they write a story that’s able to make sense for stand-alone readers and still bring the podcast audience to rapture? The answer is, sure, why not?
“The first thing we want to do is challenge ourselves as writers,” says Fink. “It makes the work more interesting and the book gets better. Once we were done with the first book, the challenge was whether we could write a page-turning thriller that is set in the same world. With the first one, we were exploring in an unhurried way. It’s far more interesting for us to bring up these characters that are in the background of the podcast, because these stories are entirely new even to longtime listeners.”
As part of the plot, the book pits scientists Carlos and Nilanjana against a shadowy religious organization, the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, in a conflict where the entire town’s fate lays in the balance, and Carlos’ confidence is shaken to the core. But it’s an interesting space for the duo to consider, given that Fink was a religious studies major raised in the Jewish faith.
“It’s two systems of thought that are often put at war with each other,” Fink explains. “They’re thought of as a zero-sum game. I really think that they are two modes of thought that can really complement each other and kind of complete each other.”
There’s a shocking amount of reality in Night Vale, given that it’s populated by a floating cat named Khoshekh, a five-headed dragon and a 17-year-old bloodied warrior who happens to sit on the city council. Fink says that finding continuity among these things is important.
“I’m very interested in realism, which sounds weird from someone who writes Welcome to Night Vale, but for all of Night Vale’s oddities and science fiction and horror elements and magic—which a lot of times is done to be humorous—the people are very normal,” says Cranor. “Hiram McDaniel is literally a five-headed dragon but he’s also a person with a lot of different aspects that are vocalized in him. It’s the same thing with Cecil and Carlos’ relationship and ultimately marriage. These are real people who have a real relationship and it’s not up to us to put it on some kind of social pedestal. They’re two people in a relationship and they’re going to have ups and downs and it’s interesting to explore these things.”
“Most of it is gut,” Fink says of finding all these diverse voices. “You write a thing and you try to create an emotional arc that makes sense to you. No matter what you’re doing, you always want a balance, even if you’re writing a flat-out comedy. A flat-out comedy is boring if it doesn’t have some element of emotion, and the saddest tragedy is hard to take if it doesn’t have comedy. That balance is always going to be there. A lot of it is just writing is and seeing if it makes sense.”
“We didn’t want to set up Night Vale as a mystery to be solved,” says Cranor of the arc of this strange town in the desert southwest. “It wasn’t about finding an ending. The people in the town have their own personal mysteries to solve, but it’s an ongoing serial and it’s news from a town that keeps going. We wanted our characters to grow up, and change, and go through different things at different times. It’s just so rich because it’s a neighborhood drama and a community’s story and there are just so many characters to build and explore.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Monterey, California.