Saturday 16 December 2017

The creepy podcast giving us a scare before bedtime

The brainchild of a group of frustrated New York actors, 'Welcome To Night Vale' is Dublin-bound

Welcome to the Night Vale is coming to the Olympia.
Welcome to the Night Vale is coming to the Olympia.
Ed Power

Ed Power

If you enjoy a scare before bedtime, you really ought to be listening to Welcome To Night Vale, one of the world's creepiest and most popular podcasts. Started as a lark by a group of frustrated avant-garde theatre enthusiasts in New York, this twice-monthly dispatch has become a surprise phenomenon, with hundreds of thousands of fans enthusiastically downloading every episode. Now the series is going on the road, with a Night Vale live show en route to Dublin.

"Our first year was reasonably successful but when things truly took off, it was quite sudden," says Joseph Fink, who began Welcome To Night Vale the show with friend Jeffrey Cranor in June 2012.

"In our entire first year we had in the region of 150,000 downloads. The month after our first anniversary, we got something like nine million. It was very exciting and very scary."

In the town of Night Vale the supernatural literally walk among us, clanking chains and howling at the moon. Hooded figures traverse main street; after sundown strange lights glimmer in the sky. Such happenings are relayed matter-of-factly by local radio announcer Cecil, alongside weather snippets and sports results. The Irish equivalent would be an episode of Nationwide narrated by Boris Karloff.

Night Vale is described as a tiny desert settlement somewhere in the American south west. One of the reasons audiences have responded to the podcast, it might be argued, is because, for all the uncanniness, it speaks to a fundamental truth about small towns - that they are among the strangest places on earth.

Horror doyen Stephen King understands this, which is why most of his novels are set in eerie rural hamlets in deepest Maine. Trafficking in a similar sensibility is David Lynch, whose cult television series Twin Peaks delved into the wickedness and degeneracy that can lie behind twitching curtains and picket fence normality.

In Night Vale's case, the cosmic horror is offset by pitch-perfect humour. Here, much of the credit must go to host Cecil Gershwin Palmer - aka New York theatre actor Cecil Baldwin (his first name is pronounced 'see-sil'). Blessed with a slithering, unnerving diction, Baldwin moved in the same New York theatre circles as Fink and Cranor and, when the idea for Night Vale was initially floated, was the first person they reached out to.

"Night Vale grew out of a desire to make a podcast," explains Fink. "The urge to have a podcast came before the concept of the show. What I love about podcasting is that the barriers for entry are so low.

"We still make Night Vale in our apartments, with cheap mics and free audio-editing software. There's not much more to it on the technical side.

"Getting hosted on the popular podcasting sites costs around $5 a month. Distribution is easy. And, as with any new medium, there is an opportunity to try something no one else is."

From obscure origins, podcasting has become a high-growth, increasingly lucrative medium. Last year the true crime series Serial, a spin-off of radio show This American Life, was arguably the genre's first blockbuster, with five million downloads.

Fink and Cranor worked dreary day jobs when Night Vale launched. They'd talked for years about packing in their 9-5 gigs and instead earning a living in the arts. It seemed an impossible pipe-dream.

But as the podcast gained rapidly in popularity, they took a chance and turned pro (Night Vale does not accept sponsorship and survives largely on fan donations).

"With the live show, last year we spent six months of the year on the road," says Fink.

"If you think about that, it's pretty extraordinary. On the other hand, it's become quite routine, because we do it so frequently. Both Jeffrey and I were interested in writing plays for years. To tour the world and give sold-out shows is an opportunity not many writers get."

Night Vale is generally perceived as operating in the slipstream of Twin Peaks and of 1920s horror writer HP Lovecraft. The creators are reasonably comfortable with the David Lynch comparison. However, Fink recoils at the idea that he is indebted to Lovecraft, a purveyor of deep-fried prose with some quite disgusting racial views.

"In general, my feelings about Lovecraft are based on the attention he gets, which is kind of unwarranted. He is a bad writer and, I think, a bad person. There have been other writers who have done more with the same ideas. They don't get the same credit. "

"Both Jeffrey and I grew up in what might be described as medium-sized suburbs - Los Angeles for me, Dallas for him," says Fink. "They weren't big cities by any standards, though not what I would call the classic American small town. We weren't writing Night Vale with any comparisons in mind.

"People have a hard time describing something new - they are always going to compare it to what they know.

"If you write anything weird and set it in America, you are obviously going to be likened to the last person working in roughly the same area. The truth is we have all sorts of influences.

"What's interesting to me is that, since Night Vale, there have been hundreds of other serial story-telling podcasts. I still see new ones coming out and think 'oh, that's an idea I've never seen before'. There are not many areas where you are able to be original in that fashion."

'Welcome To Night Vale' is at the Olympia, Dublin, September 19

Irish Independent

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