(a version of this appeared in my Scrapings Etc email newsletter)
So I recently listened to the first episode of Alice Isn’t Dead, the new podcast from the Welcome to Night Vale guys.
WTNV is, in my mind, the beginning of this modern phase of audio storytelling, a collection of stories interwoven into a narrative of a town of weirdos with odd pathos that makes it connect with a wide variety of people. It’s the small-town Americana we all crave and seek out in metaphorical ways through lifelong searches for community and connections, so I think that’s a huge part of the draw of it. When I first stumbled across it, the weird spookiness of the thing was what connected me to Cecil Baldwin, local community radio host in this strange desert town. The creators have, despite the eldritch inclinations of their world, distanced themselves from the “standard” nerd weird horror callbacks to Lovecraft, but have been vocal in their influences from other non-conventional literary sources. Fink and Craynor have both mentioned Shirley Jackson, which made me giggle like an anime schoolgirl, and for that I love them.
There’s also, in a weird sense. a tie-in to another piece of “classic” American literature I love, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a loose collection of stories focusing on the denizens of the town through the lens of a single inhabitant’s life. I read it in college in one of Mark Bobrow’s English classes at Hunter (where I went to school) and I hope to one day try to teach it just as well. I’ve dipped my toes into it, just never the whole thing.
I’m rambling. Sorry.
I moved away from eventually, but have recently come back to Night Vale, catching up (literally as well as metaphorically), and that’s how I found out about Alice Isn’t Dead.
The last thing I wrote about was about mysteries, and about what it is that makes a good mystery. My belief is that sacrifice is what makes a good mystery, where something really deep and personal and important, in both a literal and metaphorical sense, needs to be given up to make the mystery work. It’s what needs to be given up to solve the mystery, so that even in the end if you win, you’ve still lost, somehow.
The driving engine of this kind of fiction is rooted in conflicts like that, where we encounter exchanges of personal elements and get to see real raw things, where the literal roots of people show us how they talk, how they interact, and how they think and love. It’s what makes the vignette aspect of WTNV so interesting, to get these brief but really intense bits off life and personhood, all vaguely connected. It’s what made Winesburg, Ohio so interesting in college.
I’m hoping it’s what makes Alice Isn’t Dead interesting as well. There’s only one episode so far, but the mysterious and weird beginning, combined with the fact that I think it’s meant to be a one-shot closed story gives us, ironically, the flexibility to go deep into the sacrifice that a good mystery requires. Unless of course the sacrifice has already been made, and the story is about the fallout. Who knows. I do know that I’m definitely tuning in.