“Welcome to Night Vale,” an unusual podcast about an usual town, is also unusually high on the podcast charts. Near the very top, in fact, an achievement that at first might appear to clash with its oddball, if charming, nature. The show takes the form of fictional community-radio broadcasts about the titular town, a place in which odd things happen all the time … and no one seems to care. Like the glowing cloud that slowly makes its way across the sky, for example, or the floating cat that just appears one day in the radio station’s restroom.
Yet the podcast’s creators, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, who met through experimental theater troupe the New York Neo-Futurists, are not actively trying to freak you out: “‘Night Vale’ was never creepy. It kind of surprised me when people started calling it that,” claims Fink. And despite numerous comparisons to The X-Files, H.P. Lovecraft, David Lynch, and The Twilight Zone, the minds behind “Night Vale” insist their influences are a lot less spooky.
1. Deb Olin Unferth’s Vacation
Fink: I was buying a bunch of cheap books, and it had an interesting cover and I picked it up. I read it and I immediately went back to the beginning and I read it again. It’s this book about this guy who is following his wife and discovers that she’s following another guy and ends up following the other guy out of the country to Central America. It’s a book that starts very strange and eventually by the end is basically working on dream logic. So much of the language of “Night Vale” comes directly from Deb Olin Unferth — the way she will start paragraphs and end them in a completely different place than you expected.
2. Trick ‘r Treat
Fink: There’s a movie called Trick ‘r Treat that has absolutely nothing to do with “Night Vale,” but it’s a great [horror] movie if you’re looking for one. It was one of these ones where the movie company left it on the shelf for years and then put it on a direct-to-DVD release, but it’s fantastic. It’s basically Pulp Fiction if Pulp Fiction were a silly Halloween movie that took place in Ohio. But it’s following all these different stories in this little Ohio town that kind of intertwine and it’s all told out of chronological order and there are werewolves and ghosts and vampires. I really love scary movies; I love the horror genre in general. But for me, “Night Vale” was never creepy. It kind of surprised me when people started calling it that.
3. Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai
Cranor: On a whim back in 2003, when my wife and I moved to Massachusetts and we were in a bookstore in Northhampton, I saw this book called The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt and picked it up and started skimming through it. It was around about the same time that there was an [unrelated] Tom Cruise movie by the same name, and I was sort of confused. It is one of the most terrific books I have ever read. It moves so well. Her central character is a very young boy who is a child prodigy. His mother is working from home and she’s transcribing all of these old magazine articles onto computer discs for dollars an hour — just to make money to raise this kid. He’s insatiable in his desire to learn things, so she’s constantly making him read classic literature and learn foreign languages. There’s a whole section where she’s teaching him basic Greek, and in essence, she’s teaching the reader basic Greek! And it’s fascinating because after fifteen pages of it, you’re like: “I think I understand Greek now.”
4. Stephen King
Cranor: Since my childhood, I’ve been really influenced by Stephen King. I don’t think my style of writing mirrors his at all, nor do I really write much horror.
Fink: I would actually say that a lot of the stuff that people find especially scary in “Night Vale” tend to be written by you.
Cranor: Yeah, the faceless old woman and the creepy-type horror things. Stephen King has had a large percentage of influence in my life in terms of the amount of words of his that I have read. I started reading Night Shift when I was 10 years old and Skeleton Crew and stuff like that. He has a strong voice and very clear imagery and I come back to him pretty regularly. Every now and then, I will go back and read the Dark Tower series or I will go back and pick up The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
5. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Cranor: It’s a movie that I don’t think is classified as such, but I always think of it as a great horror movie because it scared the bejesus out of me. I saw it without ever having seen Twin Peaks before, and I think for people who have never seen Twin Peaks and start with this film first, it’s so confounding and so bizarre. It works for me as a horror film because so much of what is terrifying in the world is staring at something that looks familiar, but it’s not behaving in a way that it should behave, like when you look at a shadow in a corner where it should just be a dark patch but the light isn’t hitting strongly.
6. Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds
Fink: This guy Barry Hughart, he wrote this book called Bridge of Birds back in the eighties. It’s sort of a detective story that takes place in mythological ancient China. In the way that Night Vale is a place where all conspiracies and supernatural stuff are just real and taken for granted, it takes place in ancient China and where all the myths of ancient China are just real and taken for granted. When I was in high school, I wrote Hughart a fan letter and he actually wrote back with writing advice and even gave me a writing assignment. He assigned me to rewrite the ending of Treasure Island and send it to him. I was 14 years old and I rewrote the ending of Treasure Island and sent it to him and he wrote back with notes. That was a huge experience for me.
7. New Paradise Laboratories’ “The Fab 4 Reach the Pearly Gates”
Cranor: I was at a conference in Philadelphia and a group of us went to go see the show, and it was in an old elementary school lunchroom auditorium-type venue where they set up bleachers. It was mostly non-verbal, and the words that they did have in the show were repetitive. Four men dressed like the Beatles, early-to-mid-sixties Beatles, with a dance chorus of women dressed in Go-Go outfits. And it was just a maddening dance piece that used repetition and humor and communication through bodily movement that I just hadn’t, until that point, ever seen before. It used movement to express things without being on the nose about it, or without the physicality reflecting the music. There was a lot of clowning to it, a lot of mime work, but ultimately it was people using surreal body movements to tell a really funny and bizarre story. When I write for “Night Vale,” I write a lot of things in first person, so for me, doing dance, and working on dance shows and seeing dance is a really important thing. It’s like going to yoga because I have a desk job. It’s just really important to exercise something else.
Fink: The whole experimental off-off-Broadway theater scene as a whole is influential to “Night Vale.” We have seen a lot of small, strange shows in New York City. Just the ability to make new worlds or new experiences or new moments out of almost nothing is definitely something that applies to “Night Vale” because it’s like, Okay, we have no budget, we just have sound. Let’s see what we can make with this.
9. The Mountain Goats
Fink: I don’t listen to music generally when I write; I find it distracting. But I would say that my favorite music by far is the Mountain Goats. He’s probably the most talented songwriter working today and the fact that he’s actually a fan of “Night Vale” is one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened to me. Also, lyrically, he is an incredibly succinct and talented storyteller. In just a couple of verses, he can create such a compelling and real human being. He has this ability to sketch out people that seem real and multifaceted in just a few lines.
10. Sports Talk Radio
Cranor: I usually listen to radio, talk radio, or podcasts while I’m writing. I like the din of noise, especially if it’s something that I don’t know that I’m interested in. I’ll have sports radio playing while I’m writing or editing. The thing about sports radio is that it’s dumb. For the most part, they’re repeating the same stuff that, if you’re a real sports fan, you already know. They’re using the trick that talk radio uses, which is you want to troll and bait your callers into calling in and having really hot opinions about something that didn’t exist before you baited them into having that hot opinion. The rhythm is very familiar to me. There’s kind of a give and take of energy that comes up and down for each segment. Also, being a Red Sox fan and listening to a lot of WEEI, there’s a comfort to knowing what’s coming up next. It works in this real strange way like classical music for some people who don’t know classical music. For me, I can just let it roll over me because I don’t have to pay attention to what’s happening. The ups and downs of sports talk radio are predictable and comforting.
11. Thomas Pynchon
Fink: I love his use of conspiracies that go nowhere and directionless paranoia and building these hidden bureaucracies that don’t actually mean anything as a way of reflecting the kind of confusing and meaningless nature of the world. It’s a way of making a joke out of it in a very smart way. I think a lot of the meaningless conspiracies and bureaucracies in “Night Vale” for me come from Thomas Pynchon.
12. Nowhere Man
Fink: When I was a child or a young teenager, I watched every episode. I tried rewatching a couple of episodes [recently] and they weren’t very good at all. So I won’t say it’s a good television show, but when I was quite young, I was obsessed with it. It’s a story of this guy whose entire family and identity disappear and he just wanders around the country trying to figure out what happened to him. It was a ridiculous show, but it was a show about weird Americana and this hidden conspiracy below everything. There was this one episode I remember where he was trapped in this strange neighborhood in the city and everyone was listening to the same, very strange jazz radio station and everyone had it on all the time and he couldn’t figure out how to get out of the neighborhood, and then finally he found the radio station and it was completely empty inside.
13. That scene in Sleepless in Seattle with Rita Wilson and An Affair to Remember
Cranor: It’s a film where you have people trying to recount a film within a film, and that film is about that other film. I love the meta level of it. The way that it is about a person trying to think of a familiar story, and the story is very familiar to her, she knows exactly what the story is about and it makes a ton of sense in her head, but as she tries to recount it, you watch her memory fail in such an entertaining sort of way. This is not necessarily exactly how people talk, but in a movie, this is how people naturally talk. I just always think about that scene and how perfectly written it is. It’s not a scene that’s groundbreaking and it’s not a scene that’s so unique, I just think that it’s perfectly done and I like the idea of how memory plays out when you try to say it all in words.