Reviewed by Jean Arboleda
By Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
368 pp. Harper Perennial.
Science. Faith. Mysterious disappearances and a strange sand creature threatening to destroy everything. Welcome, again, to Night Vale.
For the uninitiated, Welcome to Night Vale is a popular twice-monthly podcast of community radio bulletins from the small desert town of Night Vale, where every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard of comes true. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor masterfully weave unexplained phenomena and bizarre events with a dark deadpan humor. There are alien spacecraft, interdimensional travelers, and glow clouds. Angels, real angels, all of whom are named Erika, wander around town. There is a dog park, where neither dogs nor people are allowed. (In fact, forget I brought that up). Agents from a vague, yet menacing, government agency, watch your every move. Time moves differently for each person, sometimes going backward, or skipping forward, or staying still for ages.
“There was no natural way of things here, only the capricious whims of competing global conspiracies. She was no more used to it now than when she had arrived. She supposed she never would be.”
The result is charmingly absurd – strange things aren’t just normal in Night Vale, they’re actually made mundane and almost unremarkable. Think The Twilight Zone meets Shaun of the Dead meets Stranger Things, with a dash of Stephen King and Neil Gaiman thrown in.
It Devours! is the second Welcome to Night Vale novel. If you haven’t listened to the podcasts or read the first novel, worry not – it’s enjoyable even if you’re a newcomer (interloper!) to this strange town.
We follow Nilanjana Sikdar, a scientist and a Night Vale outsider, as she begins to investigate mysterious rumblings outside of town. Large pits have been appearing all over town, leading to the disappearance of some residents. Carlos, Nilanjana’s boss and the town’s top scientist, thinks it’s connected to the house – the house that looks like it exists, but doesn’t. It’s a house that also serves as an entryway to a cold and empty desert otherworld. But something (or someone!) is trying to stop him from finding out the truth.
Nilanjana’s investigation leads her to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, and to Darryl, one of its most devoted members. The more she tries to find out what’s going on, the more that she’s convinced that the Congregation is up to no good, and that they’re hiding a terrible secret that could ruin the entire town.
There’s no way to even begin to describe this novel without undermining how enjoyable absurd it is.
“The Smiling God is near. Be Devoured.”
Like the podcast, It Devours! is a bit like taking a tranquil stroll through a nightmarish world. The Smiling God is (metaphorically?) embodied by a giant centipede that emerges from an old oak door. Its power is described (and depicted in the church’s creepy illustrated pamphlets) as “the light that shines out of cupboards and basements, a cold light that sears your flesh with its coldness.” The Joyous Congregation believes that The Smiling God will take your worries and your sins and devour them.
“Everyone in this town is frightening and friendly and kind and awful. But everyone everywhere is.”
The things that happen in Night Vale are completely at odds with everything we know to be normal. But who decides what is normal, anyway? We encounter peculiar things in everyday life all the time, and we just learn to roll with it. Real life is just as terrifying in its own way, and aren’t we all just trying to find meaning in an impossible world? The residents of Night Vale wrestle with how to deal with the unknown, with the things that are shaking up their beliefs. Some, like Nilanjana and Carlos, rely on science and logic.
“Collect data. Form hypotheses. Test the hypotheses. Use what you learn to collect more data. And soon, the impossible would reveal itself to be a thin and pliable barrier.”
Others, like Darryl, cling to trust and faith, even if that trust could be misplaced or that faith could be twisted or possibly even evil.
“What use is the truth in a world where we die either way? Why flounder in the void when there is no need to do so? The story ends the same way, no matter how you choose to perceive it. Why not choose to perceive it as meaningful?”
But despite everything that happens, it turns out there’s more common ground between these two schools of thought than you would think. In the end, It Devours! is a fun ride that ends up somewhere you didn’t quite expect. Breathe in the bizarre. Soak up the strange. Let it change you.
Jean will try anything once. She has, at different points in her life, worked in government, interviewed international celebrities, and been the social media manager for several brands. On any given day, she would rather be reading, preferably surrounded by puppies. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @jeanarboleda.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]