Does Existence Make Sense Even? Cosmic Horror, Night Vale, and the Incomprehensibility of Life

The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft - H.P. Lovecraft, Leslie S. Klinger, Alan Moore Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel - Jeffrey Cranor, Joseph Fink



"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."  Supernatural Horror in Literature by H.P. Lovecraft, 1927.


“Everything I do is for a reason, and I know none of them. Everything makes sense, and the sense is hidden from me. We live in a pattern that we’ll never detect, and that will shuffle us through invisible hierarchies to the actual death of us.” Diane Crayton, Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, 2015.


There is so much in the world we don’t fully understand, such as why some people are stricken with disease and others stay healthy, we we can’t seem to end prejudice, or why it’s 50 degrees in Minnesota in February! Two of the most common literary responses to these mysteries of reality is to laugh at them  or to demonize them. The latter is definitely true in the work of the influential 20th century horror author H.P. Lovecraft, who sublimated his xenophobic hatreds into some of the century's most influential stories of fear, drawing them away from the supernatural past and into the scientific future, forging the idea of “cosmic” horror. The former is definitely true of the writing of Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor in their breakout podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, which they have recently spun off into a novel. Night Vale, another weird world of cosmic horror where nothing makes sense, infuses these themes with a droll humor. Interestingly, both of these takes have taken deep root on the internet, which was presaged in many ways by Lovecraft and which birthed the writings of Fink and Cranor.


Recently, I completed reading the latest collection of Lovecraft’s work, The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, while listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast and reading the novel as well. After listening to Fink and Cranor speak at Talking Volumes at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul last October, I was intrigued to read more about their world and philosophies. It is very interesting to compare and contrast the ideas of these very different authors separated by a century of pop culture and the fandoms that spawn, shoggoth-like, around them.


The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, is a lovingly curated collection of some Lovecraft's most powerful and complex stories, describing all of the obscure references and nods to historical, literary, and popular culture he included in his writings. You could spend almost as much time pursuing the footnotes as reading the stories, which Klinger focuses on Lovecraft's "Arkham Country," the fictional towns he situated in Massachusetts. By keeping most of the stories grounded in New England, the collection highlights Lovecraft’s strength, his ability to draw from local history and myth.


An old fashioned New England bigot with an endearing interest in modern science and an skeptical devotion to atheism, Lovecraft himself was an intriguing, and disquieting, bundle of neurotic contradictions. With beliefs frankly extreme even for the 1920s and ‘30s, the “Nadir of Race Relations in America,” his disgusting racist and sexist views are well known and disturbing in their virulence. Yet he was also ahead of his time in many ways, in particular his desire to correspond with like minded people across the country, writing tens of thousands of letters to other writers and artists.  


For me, Lovecraft's writing creates impeccable atmosphere and, if unconventional, really draws the reader into the detached yet fraught emotional state of his typical academic narrator thrust into horrific circumstances. Most effective through the first person voice, often through journal entries or letters explaining how a character happened to go mad, this detached, academic style gives the terrible events of the stories a hint of realism, like a found document or historic account. On the other hand, some criticism of his style is understandable; Lovecraft's work is full of pages of exposition, overwrought descriptions, and he simply did not do dialogue. However, for me the style is well suited for the subject matter of totally unknown alien elements intruding on a once comfortably understood world. That this world includes deeply xenophobic undertones, equating any difference in background or heritage, whether racial or actually alien with inhuman incomprehensibility is a dark current throughout his work. Could my own personal disgust and hatred of these ideas be part of the reason why the work disturbs and resonates with me so much?


It is Lovecraft's philosophy of telling his weird tales that I most appreciate, however. Written from a materialist perspective in which the "supernatural" are simply forces in the universe that humanity does not and can not understand; no comfortably understandable depraved vampires, angry ghosts, or seductive demons here. The cosmos is infinite, cold, ancient, and totally unconnected to human emotions and ideas. This I find far more chilling than, say, serial killers. As someone who craves knowledge, I am sure that I too, like his characters,  would succumb to learning too much about our minute and tenuous place in the universe.


In stories such as "The Colour Out of Space," "The Whisperer in Darkness," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," Lovecraft's mastery of evoking dread and fear of the unknown as strange and alien influences converge horribly in small New England towns, bringing madness to unlucky folklorists, students, and artists. However, in re-reading Lovecraft's work, I definitely find myself less and less enamored of his prose and pacing.  At the Mountains of Madness, in particular, is a story I don't think I’ll ever feel the need to read again. While his ideas are quite interesting and his descriptions very evocative, his is  truly a “telling, not showing” style as the protagonists simply narrate to us the millennial long history of the Old Ones by simply describing their apparently exhaustive bas reliefs.


Interestingly, probably my favorite adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories (even more so than the stories themselves) are the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's’ 1930s-style radio-play productions of his works. I would highly recommend checking these out first for anyone intrigued by Lovecraft’s work who is not so interested in slogging through his writing. I find the audio productions from HPLS really brings out both the time period and the ideas explored in Lovecraft in a way that draws the listeners even more deeply into his disturbing world. This, I think, is a good segue into Welcome to Night Vale, another audio production that uses the medium of radio to draw listeners into an inexplicable, eerie world.


It is very interesting to compare and contrast the style and philosophy of Lovecraft with that of Fink and Cranor, and their respective writings. Fink and Cranor have gone on the record to express their dislike of Lovecraft’s work and their disgust of his personality. However, the style and themes they deal with would, I feel, be impossible without him. Without delving into an explicitly “Cthulhu Mythos” motifs, I feel that they are among the most uniquely Lovecraftian writers working today. Both deal with things we cannot comprehend, things that are inexplicable, indescribable, and vague and beyond human knowledge. Both situate these horrors in our own comfortable everyday world we think we already understand. But Night Vale brings the alien and inexplicable horrors from outside of human experience and puts it right into its heart. Where Lovecraft would evoke the visceral horrors of things from outside reaching their hideous tentacles into our comfortable worlds, Fink and Cranor express the horror of our daily lives that are already here; the madness of political elections, municipal edicts, and damaging prejudices. Both express these fears in terms of inexplicable creatures and hooded figures, but in one case they are foreign impositions (deep ones asking to mate with humankind) and in the other, they (the Glow Cloud) run the PTA. In Lovecraft, encountering these things sends humans into a spiral of existential angst as they realize how small and insignificant humankind is. In the other, people just shrug and hope to get through another day, maybe get some of Big Rico’s pizza for dinner. Fink and Cranor deal with these themes in even more explicit terms in their first novelization of Night Vale.


In the novel, Fink and Cranor continue building the world they developed in the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. An absurdist mix of cosmic horror and humane comedy, each contracting element played completely deadpan, Night Vale is a town where “every conspiracy is true” and little, if nothing, makes any sense. There is little, if any, overarching plot of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, though, within the novel, this has changed a little. Focusing in on minor characters Diane Crayton and Jackie Fierro as they begin their search for the identity of the vaguely sinister Man in the Tan Jacket Carrying a Deerskin Suitcase, a man no one can remember anything about after meeting him, some mysteries are answered, in ways that may or may not be vaguely satisfying. I have written a more detailed review of Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel on Goodreads, over here.


In spite of building on similar motifs, the writing styles of Fink and Cranor, though also heavily reliant on description, different in several ways from that of Lovecraft. They have developed a very distinctive voice that comes through clearly throughout the podcast and the novel. Whereas Lovecraft spends a lot of his work “describing the indescribable,” mentioning how something was so horrible it could not even be thought about, only to spend several paragraphs narrating exactly how bizarre this unspeakable alien thing is, Fink and Cranor are much vaguer, setting up dozens of ideas only to abandon them quickly. Characters are described as “neither tall nor short,” or as of mixed race parentage with no mention of the respective ethnicity of either of her parents. People are as difficult to define here as the vague but menacing government agencies or Yog-Sothoth. This is seen in the novel’s main mysterious figure, the Man in a Tan Jacket, a man who no one else in Night Vale can remember a thing about.  


As can be inferred from the example of the impossible to recall but definitely male and tan jacketed character above, paradoxes lurk throughout their writing. The people of Night Vale are very adept at ignoring things that exist when told to do so, whether angels named Erika or the unending horror that is life in Night Vale. Fink and Cranor use repetition intensely, both in the themes of the show and the cadences of each story, but also in their language- characters repeat themselves often for emphasis. Never, for instance, is John Peters (you know, the farmer?) mentioned without reminding the audience that he is, you know, a farmer. Never are wheat (or wheat by-products) mentioned without mentioning both wheat (and its byproducts). The basic flow of the podcast is Cecil announcing some sort of routine community news (a food product recall, an upcoming football game, or a new shop in town), only infused with some sort of horror, fantasy, or sci-fi motif. These weird juxtapositions of the commonplace and the bizarre make up the bulk of the humor in Night Vale.  


Fink and Cranor are also much more heavy on dialog, in fact, the entire podcast could be said to be dialog. So much of it is tied into the dulcet tones of narrator Cecil Baldwin as Night Vale Radio announcer Cecil Palmer, and the eerie, atmospheric music of the band, Disparition, it loses some of its impact in novelization. The novel includes a full transcript, in fact, of a typical day's radio program with Cecil, lacking only the “weather” (an interlude to some music from a new, creative, and upcoming band or musician) and the signature writing style of Fink and Cranor is recognizable immediately. It is the absurdity of these long-winded descriptions, as Cecil describes the day’s horror du jour and the people in town find themselves once again being sucked into alternate dimensions via plastic pink lawn flamingos, that accounts for the novel’s droll humor. Well, what can you do?


One thing that defines the work of Cranor and Fink is their inclusivity, including roles for people of color, differently abled people, and in particular sexual orientation. In Lovecraft’s work, the protagonists are all white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men, highly educated and from wealthy backgrounds, (idealized representations of the poor, self educated Lovecraft himself) and roles for women and people of color are almost exclusively cultists and degenerates. His racist fears are evident in every story of miscegenation, primitive resurgence, and fall of a great civilization. Night Vale is an entirely different take; from Cecil’s condemnation of the “Apache Tracker,” the white guy who wears an insulting “Indian” headdress in the very first episode, and uses the talents of many people of color in the voicework. However, most people are left entirely undefined in their ethnicity, though there is a strong commitment to diversity in the names used and the stories highlighted. This is, of course, exemplified in the centerpiece of the series, the adorable relationship between Cecil and his boyfriend, the perfect scientist, Carlos. On the other hand, this could be seen as an entirely facile attempt to make a “colorblind” world, where one’s race or gender is not worthy even of discussion, a common issue in progressive circles of white liberals. Still, this opens the world up a lot more to people from many backgrounds to see themselves in the town of Night Vale.  


The one area, I feel, where Lovecraft and Night Vale are very in sync, though, is their depiction of information. In either case, I am not entirely comfortable with this depiction. Knowledge seems to be the most dangerous and horrible thing in Night Vale and in Lovecraft alike- after all, one of the first and most memorable Night Vale city advisories from the podcast is “If you see something, say nothing, and drink to forget.” This is as close to the pop cultural interpretation of Lovecraft as you can get. In Lovecraft’s words, “the most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” How can you keep on with the illusion of having a carefree life knowing all of the awful things that are happening all around you, things that you may be a part of yourself? Just by using your computer you are contributing to human slavery and to the collapse of the entire global ecosystem, so it's best not to think about that, eh? Well, of course, computer technology is utterly integral to daily life in American society, and as a librarian I know this most acutely when helping people, say, work on their taxes who don’t own a computer of their own (The IRS eliminated sending paper copies of tax forms to libraries, leaving the elderly and the poor ill equipped to complete them, after all.)


As a librarian, of course, I spread knowledge to people, both through book lending and by answering, to the best of my (and google’s) abilities, patrons’ varied questions about, well, pretty much everything. Ancient tomes in Lovecraft are dangerous, and full of ideas that could cripple your ability to function in society. Books of all sorts are all but banned in Night Vale, since knowing anything is an issue there. Nearly any institution for communication, information sharing, and learning is suspect and dangerous in Night Vale- the Town Council is an eldritch monstrosity, as are newscasters and, of course, librarians. Among the most interesting sections was Diane and Jackie’s foray into the library for knowledge, barely surviving an encounter with the ravenous, information literacy bestowing creatures. Even the laws that may or may not save you are forbidden knowledge- of course, the town council is certain to inform the citizens of their new and pointless edicts through Cecil, but with the caveat that this is forbidden knowledge that must be quickly forgotten on pain of being vanished. So, breaking any of the many arbitrary laws is illegal but so is knowing what those laws are. With Lovecraft, we can see this stemming from his deep misanthropy and belief that people “cannot handle the truth,” but why depict knowledge as so intrinsically dangerous in Night Vale? I guess, because knowledge is dangerous! If everyone knew more, one would imagine, people in power would be in a much less secure position. In Night Vale, the inexplicable authorities in charge keep the population in as much ignorance as they can, and the citizens, if there’s one thing they do know, its not to delve too much into anything.


So, we fear what we do not know, but we know so little of the universe, how it works, and even of ourselves. How can we have a fear of everything? Perhaps this brings together where both Lovecraft and Night Vale succeed in the online world of fandom. Both are deeply ingrained in “geek” circles, often among the same people. Both offer strange and indescribable worlds that can be cataloged and described by fans, adding fan theories and writing fan fiction. Lovecraft, years before the internet, through his correspondence started up a wide circle of people who wrote pastiche and imitations of his work- fan fiction, basically. Lovecraft provided the props, and Fink and Cranor took them to reflect contemporary ideas. The fans of Night Vale spend hours debating the proper artistic representation of Cecil Palmer through art and cosplay. By filling in these worlds and immersing themselves in them, are people creating a more knowable, comfortable world for themselves? Also, Night Vale, in its irreverent and In any case, both Lovecraft and Night Vale have infiltrated deeply into the consciousness of popular culture and I’m curious to see what else is inspired by their idiosyncratic, dark worlds. Don’t look for answers. Make up your own answers.