The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home: A Welcome to Night Vale Novel
Welcome to Night Vale is a twice-monthly podcast that purports to be a local public radio broadcast from the cosmically disturbed town of Night Vale, located somewhere in the desert, somewhere in America. Night Vale is the place where all conspiracy theories are true. Mysterious hooded figures assemble at the dog park. The Sheriff’s Secret Police hover in black helicopters. Some of the children are imaginary. The walls bleed. It’s fine. It’s a nice town, except for the tiny underground civilization trying to invade the bowling alley.
The podcast has run since 2012, and as of January 2020 had some 160 episodes, more than half again the number required for television syndication. It’s undeniably a cult program, existing on the fringes of mass media, but the cult is a big one.
Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor co-created Welcome to Night Vale and have co-written most of the episodes. The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home is the third open-ended fiction book they have written within this universe. The books, like the podcast’s live shows, are intended to be comprehensible to those unfamiliar with the show’s history and lore, and this is generally fairly true. They do make sense, in and of themselves, though knowledge of the Night Vale universe adds nuance and depth.
Faceless Old Woman is and isn’t a Night Vale book, in that it largely doesn’t take place in Night Vale. Still, the titular character, the narrator and whispering terror, is one of the podcast’s best-established characters. This novel concerns her origins. The Faceless Old Woman narrates, bypassing the need for a name, and her birthplace is in southern Europe, in 1792. The entire scene is mythical, lifted from a fable: “I was born on the Mediterranean, on the water itself, in a small boat that my father was frantically rowing in order to take my mother to medical care she would never live to need. What chance did I have when my first act was to take another’s life?”
It’s an introduction worthy of a middlebrow bestseller, but Fink and Cranor’s book side-steps the popular fiction clichés that lurk at their story’s edges. Faceless Woman’s childhood is marred by the perpetually dying specter at the corners of her vision, and the mysterious pirates whose “flag was black and had an insignia of a labyrinth on it. There was no crew visible, but the deck was stacked high with crates. It passed slowly, quite close to the cliffs, but I never saw any movement on it.” That darkness drives a swashbuckling adventure story that ranges across Europe, crossing borders and decades.
Interwoven with the Faceless Old Woman’s past is the story of Craig, year by year. She addresses Craig directly, in the second person, and there’s a distinct feeling that this story is for him, if only he could focus his ears well enough to listen.
Craig is a sad man. He makes bad decisions, and he’s fundamentally lazy, but he has the additional problem that the Faceless Old Woman has taken a personal interest in him. She has decided, for instance, to intervene in his love life: “You missed your date tonight because you couldn’t find your shoes, which is why I’m telling you now that they’re on fire in a quickly melting plastic bin.” She’s damaged his car. She changes his voicemails.
The mystery of the book, which raises it from a playful but apparently basic adventure story, is the intersection between its two narratives. They take place centuries apart, and for most of the book it’s utterly unclear how one set of events could possibly connect to the other. Yet Fink and Cranor are masters of the long narrative game. They have a clear vision in mind, and every element of the book builds toward it, with emotionally devastating, sometimes brutally funny, results.
The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home is an excellent, absorbing book. For those invested in Night Vale’s history, it’s sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying. The paranoia, elegantly, is all in the details. Everything is coming, for the patient, eventually. If you didn’t expect the amount of blood, well, you should have.