A red light blinks on in the arid darkness – the pulsing signal of a radio tower, looming over the vast, unknowable desert, and the curious little town below.
Fumbling for the dial on your dashboard, tuning past the usual bird shrieks and a woman reciting numbers at random, you find him at last: the man on radio. He has a voice like warm syrup and he has been waiting for you. Specifically you. The news he delivers may not be pleasant (and what news truly is?) but tonight, like every night, you have come back for more…
Welcome to Night Vale has carved out a unique space for itself in contemporary entertainment culture. It has taken the podcast world by storm but has not lost its obscure touch in spite of its escalating popularity. Consistently a top-listed podcast on iTunes, able to contend with the mammoth This American Life, Night Vale manages to reach an enormous audience while remaining strictly cult – and that is crucial. In recent years, Night Vale has also reached beyond the airwaves, transforming into an interactive live theatre experience touring everywhere from New York to Sydney to Luftnarp.
The show has elevated series creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor to cult celebrity status – though that status has been significantly more legitimized with the release of the Welcome to Night Vale novel in October of 2015. Spending three weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers List is no small achievement, though the novel’s success comes as no surprise to longtime listeners who have been treated to Fink and Cranor’s artful scripts since the podcast first aired in June, 2012 – not to mention the hypnotic charms of the host of Night Vale, Cecil Baldwin, who also voices the audiobook.
It’s clear that Night Vale owes much of its success to its rabid fan base, which has been especially vocal on social media about its appreciation for the podcast. In particular, listeners have responded well to the show’s clever subversion of supernatural genre tropes, its hyper-literary narrative, the diversity of its cast of characters (in terms of race, gender, and sexuality), and its self-referential nature that rewards close listening and repeat enjoyment. Which brings me to this article…
This ranking of episodes isn’t intended for you newcomers to Night Vale, though you are welcome to stay – I am sure what follows will read as the ravings of a deranged madman (and really what could be more entertaining?), but this is meant as an opportunity for repeat listeners to reminisce about some of our favorite episodes… and perhaps to battle one another to the death over our arbitrary preferences, as is custom.
Feel free to peruse the list below, and if time allows, seek out and tune in to a few you might have heard before… No doubt some may have changed since you last heard them. Or perhaps it’s you who have changed.
13. ONE YEAR LATER (Ep. 25): The culmination of what might be considered the first story arc of Welcome to Night Vale, “One Year Later” pits the characters against the citizens of the miniature subterranean metropolis under lane five of the Desert Flower Bowling and Arcade Fun Complex. The episode’s title refers to both the airdate (one year on from Welcome to Night Vale’s pilot episode) as well as a commemoration of the one-year anniversary of Carlos’ arrival in town. As such, many plot points from the past year are referenced or neatly resolved, contributing to one of the podcast’s best qualities: the remarkable consistency of its sprawling narrative. It is also one of Cecil’s better acting performances, as his distress over the imagined loss of Carlos is palpable and highlights the bond that has formed between them. The episode also features the first major death in the Night Vale story – though no one really misses the Apache Tracker. He was an asshole.
12. THE MAN IN THE TAN JACKET (Ep. 14): The first episode of 2013 introduced listeners to the Man in the Tan Jacket, arguably the most terrifying specter in Night Vale’s canon of horrors. “Countless residents have seen him, but no one can seem to remember exactly what he looks like. Just that he has a tan jacket and a deerskin suitcase… No one can recall specifically where they saw him or what time of day it was… just that they saw him.” Is he a shared dream? A vexing hallucination? The Devil in the flesh? For years the Man in the Tan Jacket haunted the show, often revealed to be behind whatever the trouble in town was at the time. Though more about the Man in the Tan Jacket was revealed in the Welcome to Night Vale novel, his mystery still leaves a lasting impression of dread, particularly on this author.
11. OLD OAK DOORS PART A/PART B (Ep. 49): Despite being one of Night Vale’s infamous live shows, “Old Oak Doors” is included in the standard numbered continuity of episodes. Taking place in the aftermath of the reign of Strexcorp Synernists Inc., the antagonists of Night Vale’s second story arc, Cecil and the gang go toe to toe with Kevin and Lauren, rival radio personalities who work for the evil conglomerate. Strexcorp was previously ousted from the town of Night Vale in “Renovations,” but “Old Oak Doors” chronicles the final battle against Strex, ultimately resulting in its destruction. The narrative is exciting, action-packed, and filled with many of the enjoyable guest stars that have become staples of Night Vale’s live performances, including Hiram, Deb, the Faceless Old Woman, and John Peters – you know, the farmer.
10. [BEST OF?] (Ep. 67): An unsettling departure from the standard format, “[Best Of?]” is presented as a series of taped recordings from the radio broadcast’s varied history, including Cecil’s days as a lowly intern. The tapes chronicle the advancement of the town of Night Vale as well as the career of Cecil Palmer, highlighting moments in both Cecil and Night Vale’s origin stories that had only been vaguely referenced in the past. In a bizarre turn, the host of this “best of” reel is revealed to be Leonard Burton, the show’s previous host, whose gruesome death was alluded to in the final tape. This has led to much speculation within the fandom: Is Leonard really dead, as the tape suggests? Is Leonard a ghost? Was Cecil somehow involved in his employer’s demise? Even more chilling, a final tape click at the end of the recording suggests the entire episode itself is a recording – a veritable Russian doll of horrors.
9. THE SEPTEMBER MONOLOGUES (Ep. 53): “It is September and something is different. It is September and the days have gone sinister… It is September and so, listeners, dear listeners, Night Vale Public Radio is proud to introduce the September monologues…” Another episode with an atypical format, “The September Monologues” offers us three point of view pieces from the unlikely trio of The Faceless Old Woman, Michelle Nguyen of Dark Owl Records, and Steve Carlsberg. The episode is both refreshing and enlightening, allowing us a glimpse into characters we wouldn’t otherwise experience as intimately. In particular, Steve Carlsberg’s segment offers some insight as to why Cecil dislikes him so vehemently: despite being annoying, Steve Carlsberg might be the only sane man in town
8. WALK (Ep. 41): The episode’s title is derived from both the malfunctioning “Walk” signals in town as well as the experiences of intern Dana Cardinal in the desert otherworld – the long walk of her arduous journey. Much of the episode is told in monologue form, with Dana (voiced by the superb Jasika Nicole) in uncertain peril. Listeners had developed a strong relationship with Dana over past episodes, originating from her first appearance in “Sandstorm,” a classic episode that unfortunately did not make this list! Dana finally reaches the lighthouse in the desert otherworld, bringing her one step closer to returning home. The episode is notable for its development of Dana, a character who is interesting because of her intelligence, articulation, and more obvious vulnerability. If I can offer one criticism of Welcome to Night Vale, it is that its stakes are occasionally too low – but Dana’s story here reminded listeners of the very real danger to her as well as the dangers to come.
7. THROUGH THE NARROW PLACE (Ep. 75): Full of ominous imagery, including the first mention of the Distant Prince, “Through The Narrow Place” tells listeners about events pertinent to Night Vale’s annual marathon. The supporting commentary is well-written and interesting, including a brief correspondence with someone who may or may not be Chad the Summoner (here identified as “Terrified in Shambling Orphan”). The real payoff of episode 75 is the post-weather segment, wherein Cecil’s jarring shift in tone (coupled with terrific sound design) sells the Lovecraftian narrative with rich, nightmarish horror. The episode also features my favorite sign off: “…Stay tuned next for a different you, and a different you, and a different you again… Each you denying their multiple nature. And from The Narrow Place, where we wear black coats and have never existed – Goodnight, Night Vale. Goodnight.”
5. CASSETTE (Ep. 33): Night Vale is at its best when it’s on the scarier side and you’d be hard pressed to find a more darkly intriguing episode than “Cassette.” In this installment, Cecil invites the listeners to enjoy his early radio tapes – a pubescent attempt to emulate Leonard Burton, Welcome to Night Vale’s former host, as well as some of his recorded work as a station intern. Again, the writing is especially good here and the humor strikes a tone consistent with the grainy horror and suspense of Cecil’s cassette. The jarring snap at the end of the final recording resonates long after the episode’s close, as does Cecil’s commentary about self-reflection and the act of evaluating our past selves.
4. TRIPTYCH (Ep. 73): Using the convention of a technical malfunction, “Triptych” offers Cecil the opportunity to communicate with archrival Kevin at three different points in Kevin’s life: the past, before Kevin’s involvement with the villainous Strexcorp; the more recent past, after Kevin has been altered by Strexcorp’s vile conditioning; and the more distant (and likely alternate) future, wherein Kevin is a ruined shell of a man – merely a ghost on the radio. The episode is uncharacteristically sad but fraught with deeper contemplation. After the weather report, Cecil is offered a final wistful look at Kevin’s past and ruminates on the bitterness of nostalgia. “I wish things could have gone differently, obviously. That is obviously what I wish. But they didn’t. What is the use of nostalgia for what didn’t happen when we have to live with what did?” Indeed.
3. HOMECOMING (Ep. 56): Despite the fact that Cecil is Night Vale’s protagonist, we don’t always get to see his more personal side outside of his relationship with Carlos. In “Homecoming,” we get to see a side of Cecil that shows us that a lot is on the line for him, notably a reunion with his deceased mother. Episode 56 is also the first appearance of Wil Wheaton as the voice of Earl Harlan – easily my favorite of Night Vale’s many guest stars (“Cooking Stuff: Thanksgiving Special” (Ep. 78) very nearly made this list). The episode’s ending is dream-like, somber, and deeply satisfying – despite the homecoming game that never was.
2. PILOT (Ep. 1): It’s hard to argue that Welcome to Night Vale’s pilot episode isn’t among the best of the bunch. In under twenty minutes it perfectly establishes the mood and tone of the show: a creepy blend of mystery, humor, broadcast news, and what Stephen King might have written down in a dream journal. The pilot also establishes many of the story threads that will continue to unravel over the next few years, among them: the arrival of Carlos the scientist, Old Woman Josie and her angelic tenants, the hooded figures in the dog park, the rivalry with the neighboring town of Desert Bluffs, and the agents from a vague yet menacing government agency. Many would argue that “Pilot” is ranked too highly on this list – but the weight of Night Vale’s legacy is owed to its existence and the episode is thoroughly enjoyable even after repeated listening.
1. A STORY ABOUT YOU (Ep. 13): For many “A Story About You” was the moment the podcast jumped from curiosity to high art. Told entirely in the immersive second person, Cecil spins a yarn about you – you the listener – and how you came to Night Vale. Many interpret the existential break in form as a thinly veiled metaphor for how the podcast’s listeners depart their own ordinary lives to visit Night Vale – and how once there they remain forever. The use of music by Disparition is particularly evocative in this episode, even beautiful. And the bits about the dark planet – be they metaphor or intended reality – are the best of any of the show’s written material. I am sure there are many days when we have all looked up at that monster in the sky – and heard it calling us home.