Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
Podcasts are, to me, a difficult medium to enjoy; I can’t just sit and listen to something for a half hour, but I also get too distracted if I attempt to, say, write an article for my Tuesday deadline. But when I find something that I really enjoy listening to while driving a few hours across the state at night, I realize how incredible the narrative possibilities are. That goes doubly for horror, which—as many fans of the genre will agree—thrives when the viewer/listener gets to imagine the bulk of the terror. Thus, although I am cheating this week and not talking about a movie or show, I think that podcasts are particularly apt for not only horror, but Lovecraft’s particularly imaginative brand.
Welcome to Night Vale spurred that last thought in particular, as it is a series that might be described (and probably has been described) as what the town radio would sound like for Arkham, Massachusetts—Lovecraft’s favored setting for creepy tales. Moreover, it’s the local radio of a town that has seen horrors unimaginable, and accepts them as commonplace. The basic premise of the show is that Cecil Baldwin is the radio host for the local station in Night Vale, a place where strange is the norm; often, this is played for humor (“Listeners, we are currently fielding numerous reports that books…have stopped working”), but it is played equally well for moments that make you look over your shoulder for a tentacle monster or “a faceless old woman secretly living in your home.”
In regard to the former, even the jokes ring strikingly Lovecraftian. Often, the idea is that something unfathomably strange has happened or is happening, and the citizens/Cecil really have no idea, or—if they do—cannot do anything about it. In one episode, there is a dog park that is being built, which no one may enter or go near, and at which no dogs can play. In fact, they can’t even recognize its existence. When an intern, Dana, gets locked in there, she finds it to be vastly larger on the inside, and time seems to function differently. Most of these gags rely on the idea that a vast, uncaring set of cosmic forces function at all times, and that the people of Night Vale can either accept them or attempt to learn more, but only at the near-guarantee of their own peril. As funny as the jokes can be, they also bespeak a terrifying reality that begs us to consider what we accept as normal despite its abject malignancy.
The actual horror and drama, though, is far more effective than any movie I have thus far discussed. The faceless old woman who lives in your home, for example, manages to strike the perfect balance between creepiness and comedy; the basic premise is that, in your home, there lives a woman—without a face, if that wasn’t clear—who you never see, as she is just beyond the corner of your eye. She is always there. Somehow, this still remains eerie even when she gives a short speech (voiced by the wonderful Mara Wilson) about how she just wishes you’d tidy up a bit more, and that she wants to know your wifi password. Of course, the idea that we can never notice her because of our comprehensive limitations is notably cosmic in its ideology, but it also reflects how just a little information is what really gives us the heebie-jeebies.
Moving away from Lovecraft, I also want to take a moment to talk about the pure storytelling on the show. It is phenomenal. I remember one night, driving home from university on an empty road, I listened to an episode called “A Story About You” (downloadable for free here). Cecil, the host, narrates a story “about you. And you were pleased,” he adds, “because you always wanted to hear about yourself on the radio.” What follows is a half-hour of bizarreness that uses the second person in order to—despite probably not relating to direct details of anyone’s life—enrapture you in the story, brilliantly capturing the emotions of defiance, loneliness, heartbreak, and many more. The writing is not only precise and natural, but also daring, and there is really no better tribute to the works of Lovecraft than writers who understand his writing and continue his trend of narratively progressive work.
I find it difficult to capture Night Vale‘s brilliance in words, and I don’t necessarily intend to. Instead, I want to commend the producers, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, for creating something that is not only uniquely theirs, but also something that gives a wonderful tribute that those of us who care way too much about one author’s influence on a genre can laugh along with and shudder at. While I am disappointed that the best piece of media I have reviewed in this series is also the farthest removed from Lovecraft’s works directly, I am glad to see the clear ripples of an author whose work I love result in a creation that stands out for its humor, horror, and imagination in a time where there are so many fine examples of the three.