As back-to-school supplies give way to Halloween decorations in our local stores, journalists are called upon to ponder the Hudson Valley’s roots in lore of the supernatural, the gruesome and the just-plain-bizarre. The enduring legacy of Washington Irving’s writings will be cited again and again, despite the fact that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is more an account of a cruel practical joke than a ghost story. Some will note the attraction of our region as the setting for fantasy locales such as Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in the Marvel Comics Universe, or Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. Others will point to famous haunted houses or astronomically aligned stone structures of unknown ancient origin, or remind us of the proliferation of UFO sightings in the Pine Bush area. We may not be able to compete with some Southern Gothic locales or H. P. Lovecraft’s eldritch-being-infested New England seaport towns for crepuscular atmosphere, but we’re proud of our share of regional weirdness.
Jeffrey Cranor, a Texas native ensconced since 2014 north of Saugerties, looks elsewhere than occult sites for inspiration when he’s writing strange tales for Welcome to Night Vale, the wildly popular podcast series that he co-creates with Joseph Fink, who lives in Red Hook. Sometimes described as what the News from Lake Wobegon would sound like if it had been scripted by Stephen King, Night Vale uses the mundane format of a community radio station to convey its accounts of highly disquieting goings-on in a small desert town where every conspiracy theory comes true. To feed his imagination, Cranor says, he likes to “scour community calendars” in small local newspapers.
“Some of what gave rise to Night Vale was growing up in a suburb of Dallas. I got my love for small-town weirdness from that.” After moving to New York, he quickly discovered that news sources of the same type were available here: “Aside from not so much focus on football, they’re pretty similar,” he claims. Even during the years that he lived in hipster Brooklyn, Cranor says, he could find neighborhoods that were “tiny enclaves,” with listings for knitting clubs at the local library: just the sorts of places where terrifying things aren’t supposed to happen.
In Night Vale, the librarians are monsters who abduct children, giving rise to a student guerrilla movement led by a 14-year-old militant book-lover named Tamika Flynn. (More on her later.) Cranor recounts spotting a notice in an upstate paper for what turned out to be a local theater production, but all it said was a date, time, location and the words “Curtains for Myron.” “All I could think of was, ‘Poor man, what are we doing to him?’” he recalls.
Improbably, most of Cranor’s years of theatrical training came with a theater collective called the New York Neo-Futurists, whose aesthetic philosophy is based on the concept of “non-illusory theater”: “All of our characters are ourselves. All of our stories really happened…We do not aim to ‘suspend the audience’s disbelief,’ but to create a world where the stage is a continuation of daily life,” reads the Neo-Futurist’s online manifesto. Cranor has been involved with the group since 2006, regularly writing for and acting in its weekly short play series, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. It was there that he met Joseph Fink, as well as many of the actors who appear in Night Vale, including Cecil Baldwin, who portrays the show’s narrator, broadcaster Cecil Palmer.
The highly illusory Welcome to Night Vale is a different kettle of fish altogether from the Neo-Futurist approach. Set somewhere in the Southwest – presumably not far from Area 51 – the little town “exists in our own timeline in the real world, but it’s hard to get in or out,” Cranor says. (There are some exceptions, such as local celebrity Lee Marvin, who apparently never ages beyond his 30th birthday.) Night Vale has a bowling alley with a portal to a subterranean realm of tiny people beneath one of its alleys and a dog park that no one besides the ubiquitous “mysterious hooded figures” is allowed to enter. Black-ops helicopters drone overhead, a flock of angels resides with an old woman who lives on the edge of town and no one is allowed to believe that mountains exist. A terrifying Glow Cloud that once appeared over the town, raining down animal carcasses and demanding to be worshipped, was soon elected president of the Night Vale School Board. And so on.
Straddling Absurdism, horror, small-town journalism, dystopian science fiction and Americana, Cranor and Fink’s style of collaborative writing for podcast might be described as a new north-of-the-border form of magical realism, since inexplicable circumstances including mass killings by otherworldly forces are conveyed by our man Cecil with the same deadpan delivery as the local traffic report (Street-Cleaning Day is particularly lethal, as is the position of radio station intern). Sometimes it sounds like poetry. There’s plenty of satire about the modern world, science, politics and economics inserted between the lines as well, and the overall effect is grimly hilarious.
Welcome to Night Vale first aired in 2012, and new episodes are still released twice a month. The franchise has expanded into books and touring standalone live shows – five of the latter so far, the latest of which has just finished a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The newest live production, titled A Spy in the Desert and drawing on espionage-thriller tropes, had its world premiere in the Spiegeltent at Bard SummerScape last month – the co-creators’ first foray into using the cultural venue so close to Fink’s home. Cranor calls the Bard crew “delightful people to work with,” and praises the advantages of not having to travel a long way home at the end of a long day of mounting a brand-new production. The actors – who include Baldwin, Symphony Sanders as teen rebel Tamika Flynn and Meg Bashwiner as the Proverb Lady and Deb, the Sentient Patch of Haze – only had to commute back to New York City.
Now A Spy in the Desert heads out on a national tour, with stops at the Bell House in Brooklyn on September 20 and 21 and at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts on September 22. In early 2019, the crew will head off to Europe. But Cranor and Fink will keep cranking out the show every other week regardless. Let’s all go on doing our parts to keep the Hudson Valley a source of inspiration for them, as a place where being strange and inexplicable is just part of our everyday routines.