The Welcome to Night Vale podcast has enjoyed incredible success, spawning several worldwide live tours, a novel, two volumes of podcast transcripts, and a ton of exciting tie-in merch on their website. I, for one, definitely want the shorts that say “creepy” on the butt. Written by the team of Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the show evolved from a creepy biweekly public affairs bulletin with monsters of the week** and a featured independent band playing the weather segment into a sprawl of ambitious storylines punctuated with monsters of the week and featured independent bands playing the weather segment. Reliably weird and ribboned with horror, it’s still a good deal sweeter*** and more life-affirming than you might expect, a comedy in the classical sense of a story where everything turns out sorta okay in the end. After years of biweekly episodes, this year they opted to begin organizing the show into seasons and take summers off, like so much Walking Dead or summat. But in that time off, they’ll also be bringing different projects to fruition under the Night Vale Presents banner.
They promise to cultivate shows from neophyte podcasters, but the first series Night Vale Presents presented was Joseph Fink’s Alice Isn’t Dead, a serial that starts as the chronicle of one woman’s search for the wife she once believed dead and quickly turns darker. It’s like Spielberg’s Duel crossed with Silent Hill 2 crossed with Twin Peaks – only Dennis Weaver and James Sunderland and Agent Cooper are all one woman and she is voiced by Fringe’s Jasika Nicole. Nicole’s narrator records messages to her not-dead wife Alice as she travels the highways and byways of the United States, working as a trucker, but covertly searching for Alice. The recordings are patchworks of travelogue musings, loving reminiscences, anxious self-talk, harrowing narratives, and live-action horror. It’s like a found footage podcast. The effect can be a little too artificial at times, bursts of static interrupting the recording at perfectly-dramatized intervals, and Nicole’s narrator, in classic epistolary novel form, is wonderfully articulate about details at times that might shock an ordinary person into silence or gibbering incoherence. But those are quibbles, easily shrugged off on her long, strange ride because the writing is beautiful and she is interesting.
America has weird things in it. It has so many miles, so much space to put the weirdness in. – Part 1, Chapter 10: Thistle
Alice Isn’t Dead, like Night Vale, is intensely American. While Night Vale’s gallows humor pulls from small town mundanity and big government conspiracies, Alice Isn’t Dead is all about wide open spaces, hidden sin, and pursuit by indefatigable bad things. It needs an open road that can promise at once freedom and convenience and dreadful isolation. Joseph Fink made a point in one of his introductions to assure listeners that you can actually drive all of the routes our narrator takes throughout the story, should you so choose. (You’ll have to provide your own cannibal pursuer and missing loved one, of course.) Certain parts do have the authentic voice of wry notes dictated into Evernote on your fourth McDonald’s pitstop when you didn’t want to stop at McDonalds again, but the Dairy Queen looked too sketchy and you really had to pee before the next cluster of franchises 30 miles down the road. While the narrator travels all over the continental U.S., describing every kind of darkness she finds along the way, it’s all familiar, no matter where you’re from. The regions are strung together like beads on a cord of highway hypnosis. And there’s something about the podcast medium, too, that marries form and function. You don’t have to listen to Alice while you drive, but you might as well for an ersatz virtual reality experience. You might start hearing strange movements in your backseat, too. There’s also the excellent, unobtrusive score by Disparition, evoking long hours of long distances better than any Foley.
Anyway, I want to start by saying that this is not a story. It’s a road trip. Which…same difference. In a good one the start is exciting, and the finish is satisfying, and we end up somewhere else…somewhere a long way away from where we started. – Part 1, Chapter 1: Omelet
Alice Isn’t Dead is weird and horrific and sometimes an uncanny love story peeks through, too, but its pulpy heart is as Gothic as it is American. At least the heroine at its heart is. There are many flavors of the Gothic, and a lot of horror dwells on transformation, but I think the secret, special power of the Gothic, in all its permutations, is exploring alternatives: transitional states, shadow selves, cleavages in the mind and society that cannot be reconciled naturally. You know something is Gothic when a situation is dark, but you don’t necessarily want to turn on the lights. The Gothic of Alice Isn’t Dead has a lot to do with how the narrator becomes powerful, and she does become powerful. She starts the story road trip seeming that way – confident, cursing, funny, angry. Then she is accosted by a man at a roadside restaurant, and she flees with understandable cowardice as this strange man – she’ll name him the Thistle Man, also come to know him as the Hungry Man — kills someone else. But it’s not just the Thistle Man she’ll need to confront and escape. The Thistle Man and Alice have separately instigated challenges for her, but she reveals in glimpses the raw, anxiety-ridden person she was before either of those terrible events happened. As it happens, fleeing inhuman serial killers is pretty good therapy.
A woman alone knows she is in a dangerous position, particularly traveling. Particularly traveling via a mode that remains male-dominated, that generally selects for males by its very physical demands. Dark miles between truck stops may not be truly safe for anyone traveling alone (see again Duel), but that insecurity gets magnified by gendered assumptions. The horror of the encounter at a generic rest stop is exaggerated by the assailant’s monstrousness, but otherwise very possible.
“Hope you don’t mind if I join you,” he said. Not a question or a request, but…a joke.
“I actually was hoping to eat alone,” I said.
“Good people deserve good things,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say to that. – Part 1, Chapter 1: Omelet
A lot of people, particularly a lot of women, have had encounters just like that.
Being a trucker fits badly on the narrator, but it’s purposeful. The juxtaposition is provocative, even if there weren’t plot reasons for it. Jasika Nicole’s voice is light, young, delicate. She does not sound like someone who moves freight. She sounds like a PhD student. She talks like an artist. There may be many well-read, artistic women with light, young, delicate voices who are career truckers and I, of course, mean them no offense, but this may be the first trucker Gothic heroine. She has the vocabulary, she has the troubled mind, the troubled mind that is only revealed to us gradually. She is an agent in her own liberation and/or destruction in her pursuit of Alice, as she is pursued by the Thistle Man, eventually men, all capable of literally devouring her. But she is a heroine, not a damsel. The point of taking the job hauling freight is refusing to be left behind, refusing to be helpless. She finds herself in-between states on the interstate, recording a message, but maybe just talking to herself. It’s a job she can only do on her own.
Even then, I tried to live my life. But what else could I do? I had spent years afraid that each day would be the day I die, terrified of mortality, and that had many downsides, but it did teach me how to push through fear, how to live on even as inside you are quivering. – Part 1, Chapter 9: Go Home Again
Fear has value. When we feel it, it is in our service. However, it is not often the currency we really need to survive in the modern world, and it may be disabling. The narrator understands that. I struggled with agoraphobia myself for several years, and it seemed for much of that time that the panic that would possess me then served nothing so much as its own self-perpetuation. But still, perpetuation. Fear survives. The narrator’s journey begins with scorn and devotion, but fear is what pushes her through to the end. Love does not conquer all, but fear drives her after love has been beaten into hopelessness.
And through all of these thoughts, a buzzing anxiety. Anxiety like electricity. And I knew, in that moment, that anxiety is just an energy. It is an uncontrollable near-infinite energy, surging within me. And for once I stopped trying to contain it.
I told my heart, beat faster. I told my panicked breath, become more difficult, and I told my fear to overtake me.
Make me more afraid. I am not afraid of feeling afraid. Make me more afraid! – Part 1, Chapter 10: Thistle
Joseph Fink, Jasika Nicole, and composer/producer Disparition have all promised a second season at some point, and Fink indicates there’s a much grander story planned. Given the way Night Vale unfurled in so many wonderful directions over the last few years, that’s exciting. Although I also kind of like where the story finishes, too, because the narrator completes a satisfying arc in this story.
Maybe the next arc will be Alice’s.
Alice Isn’t Dead, like Welcome to Night Vale, is available via pretty much all of your favorite podcast venues. I cannot encourage you strongly enough also to check out the Disparition website for the scores to these and other works; it’s really incredible music that will make your life more beautiful and spooky.
*Not the font.
**Usually not actual monsters, at least not traditional ones. There is at least one recurring dragon character though.
***Night Vale public radio host Cecil Palmer and scientist Carlos are probably my favorite fictional couple after Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt and my own slashfic OTP of Kirsty Cotton and the Hell Priest, aka Pinhead.
Angela also just started listening to The Black Tapes Podcast and she is very scared.