A Smiling, Bloody God and a Missing Voice: the State of Night Vale

Or: get your tinfoil hats, because this is a Wild Theorizing Essay.

I’ve been thinking about Kevin, internet. About the Voice of Desert Bluffs and the Voice of Night Vale. Partly as a coping mechanism for recent plot events, and partly because no mysteries are so thoroughly and deliberately obscured as the ones surrounding that abandoned-cemetery smile.

For those readers unaware, I refer to the bi-monthly podcast Welcome to Night Vale: a radio show broadcast from the titular town, where “all conspiracy theories are true” (including angels, black helicopters, the Sheriff’s Secret Police, and a dog park in which neither people nor their dogs are allowed on pain of death), and our guide is the smooth-voiced, eccentric Cecil Gershwin Palmer. If you’ve never heard it, I highly encourage you to check it out – either on iTunes or at Commonplace Books.

As a warning: if you’re just stepping into the world of Night Vale, this post will be thoroughly riddled with spoilers (and may prove to be moot point once the second anniversary rolls around). The sections for discussion are as follows:

  1. The Alleged Sandstorm
  2. Cecil and Mirrors
  3. The Smiling God
  4. The Work
  5. The Station and the Sun

The Alleged Sandstorm

So, there’s kind of that general agreement that there’s some kind of parallel world/mirror verse situation going on between Night Vale and Desert Bluffs. And while I do love all of the various headcanons for other doubles (especially Carlos, naturally), I’m increasingly suspicious of what we can assume based on Kevin and his studio. I’m not sure there are other doubles at all, or that the sandstorm wasn’t a cover-up to distract from the sudden vortex connecting Cecil and Kevin’s booths.  In particular, I’m suspicious of this:

You need a well-run private business like, say, StrexCorp, that has not only the faculties and materials to execute a massive geologic and psychedelic storm, but to do so inexpensively, and without tax dollars. (19B – The Sandstorm)

‘Psychedelic’ is an odd word to use, isn’t it? And then there’s the fact that the “doubles” first start appearing after various citizens touch the sand – and that the murdered bodies are gone the very second that the sandstorm clears. But what about Dana and Vanessa, you say? Well, we know from “The Debate” that Vanessa is dead (and has been for a long time), but Kevin continues to treat her as though she’s there. It’s also possible that Dana DID fight herself, or perhaps some kind of manifestation of Vanessa – she was in the studio with the portal, the one actual, tangible supernatural event going on (and it’s possible whoever made that portal knew the effect it would cause and created a hallucination that would mimic it, so that Cecil’s broadcast wouldn’t seem suspicious or specifically targeted). But to what end? What’s so special about Cecil, and the radio tower? We….we don’t know, but I have some theories.

Cecil and Mirrors

Something happened to the young Cecil Palmer in “Cassette.” Something that sounded an awful lot like strangulation and death (but did he die at all, or was it a symbolic ‘death’ to be reborn as the “Voice of Night Vale?”). Now, given that Kevin and Cecil are repeatedly compared as nearly identical, ‘mirrored’ images of one another, it’s not too far-fetched to wonder if the Voice of Desert Bluffs was somehow involved: young Cecil was choked, and the two announcers attempted to strangle each other upon meeting in the vortex; there was a constant flickering, possibly similar to the vortex; and there was both times a case of ‘doubling’ (Cecil and his reflection, or reading the same letter; I don’t buy for a minute that Steve actually sent that letter to Kevin – you’ll notice that it isn’t addressed in any way, and Kevin gets it from “Vanessa”). And I wonder, too, if ‘Kevin’ isn’t somewhat shaped by that tape, as well as their matching physical appearances.

 I need to get more like Leonard, with that perfect radio voice – all high-pitched and grating like sandpaper, just the way radio voices should be.

(From “Cassette”)

There’s also Kevin’s first post-Sandstorm intrusion on Cecil’s show, care of an ominous StrexCorp ad.

And what if I told you you could kill your imperfect self?
What if I told you you could achieve your fullest potential?

(from “Visitor”)

He would know, if it really was him strangling Cecil Palmer (he also talks about ‘mirrored teeth’). And it makes the episode’s title doubly portentous, if we think of it as a precursor to Kevin’s visit – the first time Cecils wasn’t trusted with a StrexCorp ad, and that something was sent to kill him (as something ‘killed’ him once before).

desert-bluffs

The Smiling God

Up to now we’ve made a lot of assumptions about Desert Bluffs as a whole based on Kevin and his viscera-laden recording booth. I don’t think that’s a Desert Bluffs thing. I think it’s a Kevin thing. Check out this scene:

Anyway, the boys in Sales, who are all named Sean, came by and with their help, I was able to make this studio feel a little more like home. They put up a bit of a fuss about the changes, but that’s just because no one likes change. There are some people who don’t understand progress, you know.

I’ll miss the Seans.

I’ll miss them, too. But look how much nicer this place looks! You can see the Seans contributions all over the desk!

And running down the walls! Yes! So much nicer!

(from “Company Picnic”)

Initially we might assume that Lauren is on board with the whole thing. But words alone mean nothing when it comes to StrexCorp employees. Particularly one who’s just seen their cohost murder and eviscerate three men, and who seemed rather testy with overly-friendly banter. Her voice is downright forced in its cheerfulness, overly breathy and strained. Lauren was also on the show before Kevin showed up, and didn’t make any kind of comment to Cecil about the radio equipment. I’m also fairly sure she has eyes – Cecil, who’s so intensely disturbed by Kevin’s face that he brings it up every time they meet (and even points out the all-black eyes on the StrexPet), doesn’t mention either Lauren or Daniel having anything but normal faces (motor oil aside).

So Kevin’s eyes are distinct, as is his smile. He’s also capable of seeing the Faceless Old Woman’s face, and it’s possible he truly thinks he sees Vanessa. There’s not enough information to say for certain that Kevin is StrexCorp’s “Smiling God” or its agent, but I have trouble thinking of him as anything less weighted in terms of plot. He’s too prominent in the story, too knowledgeable, too ominous. The viscera in his studio brings to mind blood sacrifice, and there is the constant refrain about ‘bountiful blessings from a smiling god.’ Whether he is the god or is honoring it, Kevin’s smile is arguably his most prominent trait.

‘The Work’

At this point we have no idea what StrexCorp wants with Night Vale, besides a simple desire to expand and consume. There are several facts that paint the possibility of Desert Bluff being a ghost town, none more prominently than “The Debate.”

Oh, dear, I’m sorry, no. Vanessa died many years ago. We’re all still very upset about it. Very upset about what we saw. Some of us never came back to work again. Some of us never left our houses again. Most of us never woke up again.

I know that I am Kevin. I know I have been in this strange studio before, with its old-timey microphones and acoustic gray foam walls. A place like this is usually covered in clumps of hair and reddish-brown hand prints streaking down the only remaining unshattered window. But they do things differently here in…where is this?

(from “The Debate”)

The viscera Cecil describes during his visit is fresh – likely no more than a few hours old, in that case. But ‘reddish-brown’ points toward old blood, probably from something traumatic or violent when coupled with the hair and shattered glass. It’s a downright post-apocalyptic scenario. And we know for certain that Kevin is still imagining Vanessa’s presence – he could well be imagining his entire broadcasting audience (we do hear about Desert Bluffs having some sports teams, but that would hardly be difficult for Strex to fund). How used to this is he?

In her other dimensional travels, Dana comes across a spiral gorge filled with orange triangles (the logo of Strex, in what I’m certain is no coincidence). It’s an empty town, with nothing left behind but the signs.

I was lost in the spiral. It was built by good people, but they were gone, taken by something larger and stronger than them. Much larger and stronger than even the masked warriors I saw before.

I worried about what– who would be taken next.

(from “WALK”)

While a lack of technology isn’t an indicator of much in the world of Night Vale, it still gives off a sense of an abandoned, ancient society – the triangle has no ‘S’ on it, suggesting that StrexCorp is actually coopting something much older than itself (the Smiling God?). There’s also the word ‘next,’ as if this is something that has come from the past rather than the future. StrexCorp is a company obsessed with the idea of the future contingent on erasing the past, and they seem awfully afraid of those doors (with the canyon and the lighthouse behind it). At another time we’ll talk about the coding of Desert Bluffs as ‘Future’ and Night Vale as ‘Past,’ but for now let us say only that the former carries a definite fear of the latter.

All those terrible doors that appeared a couple of weeks ago have suddenly disappeared, and no one can see the lies inside them anymore.

(from “Company Picnic”)

So there’s a history of this Smiling God creeping into and then wiping out societies – the empty city, the drying carnage and all those who “never woke up” in Desert Bluffs. And then there’s the ambiguous nature of the ‘work’ that everyone is expected to do for StrexCorp. It’s not normal business, since the whole town of Night Vale is forced to work at the company picnic. And it’s work with a definite end.

So everyone will live at the company picnic now. In between the streamers, and the balloons, and the tall, electrified metal volleyball nets. They will work there, too! They will work there until all the work is done! Until it is – all of this –finished.

(from “Company Picnic”)

I can think of very few things more ominous than the phrase “all of this,” given what we’ve learned so far. Whether it’s going to take months or weeks or mere days, Night Vale is in desperate need of a rescue.

There’s a disconnect going on with Kevin that I’m not able to come to a conclusion on, based on his available appearances – he’s quite upset about Vanessa, about the whole thing from the sound of his voice, and yet happily murders the Seans and whoever provided those entrails back home. It’s possible that there’s some overlap between the Smiling God and “Kevin” (who seems quite particular about his name as it ties to his identity – he orients himself in during the debate by saying “I know that I am Kevin,” and then there’s that magnificently infamous moment regarding “Kev”), or that there is a level of manipulation by StrexCorp going on, either through drugs or some manner of magical binding. It might be that Kevin has undergone the same avoidance of mirrors as Cecil, and thus his name serves as a totem of his identity in lieu of a concrete appearance (certainly Kevin seems uncertain of himself – he describes meeting Cecil for the first time as seeing someone with “my eyes and smile”).

The Station and the Sun

The nagging question that keeps coming back to me is what StrexCorp wants with Night Vale’s radio station. It’s their first toehold on the town, it allows them to control the flow of information, and of course there’s the fact that the format demands it. But I think it might have something to do with Cecil as well – who should have been dead or deposed a dozen times over, long before he was actually yanked from the airwaves, given the rather ruthless behavior Strex displays. And the fact that “new management” claims to hate radio shows (seriously, who is Kevin broadcasting to – is it just a tool to keep him happy?). I get the feeling there’s something older at work here.

StrexCorp is inextricably linked to the sun – it’s a comparative phrase in several of their advertisements, it’s on the poster for Desert bluffs, and it’s apparently an object of worship if Daniel and Lauren are anything to go by. And if they’re worshipping the sun, we can make an educated guess that the sun is meant to be associated with the Smiling God (see also the phrase ‘sunny disposition’ and the like, since the sun is often a metonymic device associated with smiling and a positive disposition).

nightvale

Meanwhile, there’s the very name of Night Vale. There’s the crescent moon on the town’s logo. And there’s that prominent recurrent motif, the one for which we still have no explanation – the planet lit by no sun. Cecil sees it in the condo, as part of the reality that would make him “perfect.” It appears to the subjects of both “A Story About You” and “A Story About Them,” (the only time that Cecil is not the POV character but merely “the man on the radio”), as if the planet is a sign of being under the radio’s scrutiny. Does the planet signify Cecil, the Voice of Night Vale, or Night Vale Community Radio itself? Is it a sign of lack that the planet has no sun, as if whatever powers Desert Bluffs was unnaturally separated from those of Night Vale? Or is it an omen of the future, signifying that Night Vale will be able to emerge unscathed and live without the sun (it is also telling that the last protective act the Erikas made was to hide Old Woman Josie’s house in a beam of darkness)?

If Kevin is indeed the Smiling God as well as Cecil’s double (in fact, the only double), it would point to there being something special about Cecil as well – whether he was born that way or the events of “Cassette” involved him accepting the role. As many fans have theorized, it would explain why Cecil’s opinion seems to almost uncannily mirror the views of the town at large (particularly in regard to Carlos, whose early survival rate is downright miraculous). It would explain why he has avoided being ‘re-educated’ (to our knowledge) and why he is likely alive in spite of StrexCorp’s takeover of the radio station. There are big questions yet to be answered, and mysteries we may never have answers to at all, as is in line with the series’ philosophy.

But more than anything, we’ll all be waiting for Cecil and Carlos to find each other again.

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