I love Night Vale. A lot. It’s one of those ideas that is eternally malleable. There’s so much that can be done with these characters and the setting and novels are a really good way for the authors to push the boundaries of the world. It’s what they did with the first two novels, Welcome to Night Vale and It Devours! and it’s obviously what they’re seeking to do here with their third, The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home. The Faceless Old Woman is the perfect character for a book devoted to her, much like the Man in the Tan Jacket was a perfect character to explore in the first novel, and the promise of finally learning her story was one that immensely interested me and got me really pumped to give this book a read. Having read it, I can safely say that it does not disappoint. For long time fans of the podcast and previous books, this one might take some getting used to, but the story it tells does complete justice to the character while still spinning a story that’s full of surprise and pathos. (Mild spoilers may follow.)
The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
In the town of Night Vale, there’s a faceless old woman who secretly lives in everyone’s home, but no one knows how she got there or where she came from…until now. Told in a series of eerie flashbacks, the story of The Faceless Old Woman goes back centuries to reveal an initially blissful and then tragic childhood on a Mediterranean Estate in the early nineteenth century, her rise in the criminal underworld of Europe, a nautical adventure with a mysterious organization of smugglers, her plot for revenge on the ones who betrayed her, and ultimately her death and its aftermath, as her spirit travels the world for decades until settling in modern-day Night Vale.
Interspersed throughout is a present-day story in Night Vale, as The Faceless Old Woman guides, haunts, and sabotages a man named Craig. In the end, her current day dealings with Craig and her swashbuckling history in nineteenth century Europe will come together in the most unexpected and horrifying way.
Part The Haunting of Hill House, part The Count of Monte Cristo, and 100% about a faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home.
The first thing I’ll say is that if you’re expecting a ghost story, this isn’t one. Sure, it kind of becomes one towards the end of the novel, but not in the way the book’s synopsis suggests. This is not a spooky, creepy ghost story. And that’s totally okay because what The Faceless Old Woman actually is is wholly enjoyable. Set throughout the entirety of the Faceless Old Woman’s life, this book explores the major moments that shaped the character – from her idyllic childhood on a Mediterranean Estate, to her swashbuckling young-adulthood, to her vengeance-filled later years, all the way to her death and afterlife spent haunting the houses of Night Vale residents – including Craig, whom the Faceless Old Woman seems to have a special affinity for. And all of this is told directly from the Faceless Old Woman’s point of view: her recollections of her past and how they inform her present.
It’s a unique take on a Night Vale book, for sure. Gone is the usual omniscient narrator found in the first two books, replaced here with a first-person narrator filled with her own biases and views. It’s a weird shift for fans of the podcast and previous novels, but it’s one that is fairly easy to go along with once you get used to the new narrative voice. While I sometimes missed some of the omniscient prose found in previous novels, it’s clear that telling this story in the first-person was the right decision. Fink and Cranor have always written the character as the kind of elderly woman who would tell a story for hours and it’s nice to finally see that in action. Fink and Cranor do a good job ensuring the prose sounds true to the Faceless Old Woman’s voice while still performing the necessary tasks which the prose of any novel must perform. It’s a really solid balancing act that Fink and Cranor do and it ensures the novel feels light and breezy for much of its page count.
There is a downside, though, and it’s the same downside that plagues nearly every novel told from the first-person point of view. There is a lot of prose and a general lack of dialogue. Of course, there’s plenty of dialogue, but much of the story is told directly from the Faceless Old Woman’s memories and, as is the case in many first-person novels, this results in a lot of conversations and events getting summarized instead of actually occurring. This isn’t necessarily a problem, though, as it’s pretty standard for books written this way, but it is different when compared to previous Night Vale books, which have cultivated a world filled with many characters who feel palpably authentic. While the side characters in The Faceless Old Woman still feel real, their voices are largely absent from the story. We don’t get any real insight about them and, as a result, they get far less development – or attention – than the Faceless Old Woman does. Again, not necessarily a problem since this is the Faceless Old Woman’s story, but it is a bit disappointing given how interesting all of the characters are. While it’s definitely a change from the usual Night Vale formula, you do get used to it after a while and it’s very easy to find yourself drawn into this world created by Fink and Cranor.
The entire novel moves at a very brisk pace. This isn’t necessarily a problem; the pacing never moves so fast that it becomes difficult to connect with the Faceless Old Woman, her friends, or the ongoing plot of the story. But it does speed through so much of her life that it often feels like we’re only getting the reader’s digest version of her life. And, sure, this might be the intended effect. After all, the whole vibe of the novel seems to be that the Faceless Old Woman is literally telling this story to Craig, so it’s only natural that she’d be condensing everything for him. But so much happens in this novel that it feels like each of the book’s five parts could have been their own 300-page novel, allowing us the opportunity to really delve into the events covered and the characters introduced. There are entire heists that are covered within one or two chapters which would have made for really compelling plots of entire books. A part of me really wishes this book had either been longer or split into multiple books because I really want to spend more time in this world. But that’s not the story we got. Still, it’s hard to deny that the plot moves really fast and it does sometimes come at the expense of some of the other characters in the story. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
While the plot is very fast-moving and always leaves you wanting to spend just a little more time with every major event and character, it does work incredibly well. The first part of the novel takes a little while to get going, but once it does you’re quickly swept off alongside the Faceless Old Woman as she goes through these various phases of her life. It’s a really great adventure story and you quickly find yourself itching to know what happens next and to see how the Faceless Old Woman will react. It’s incredibly easy to track her growth throughout the novel and it’s an utter joy to finally start to understand what made this character the way she is and what makes her tick. Then, once you reach the end of the novel, all of the seemingly-odd choices that are scattered throughout the book start to make sense and it all combines in an ending that honestly hit me really hard. While the joy of any novel is the journey it takes to get from its beginning to its ending, the genius of Faceless Old Woman only becomes apparent as you finish the novel and truly understand everything the novel has been building to. It’s the kind of ending that recontextualizes your entire understanding of the lead character. It feels entirely emotionally and narratively earned and it’s genuinely powerful. I wasn’t expecting to have such a palpable reaction as I finished this book, but man, it really hit me hard. The ending truly solidifies the novel as a great story, but the entire tale that Fink and Cranor spin is one of excitement, adventure, and emotion and it easily ranks alongside their previous works.
All in all, while I didn’t love The Faceless Old Woman quite as much as I’ve loved previous Night Vale books, it’s still extremely well-written and well-paced, adequately exploring the backstory of its title character while still spinning a surprisingly emotional tale that stands completely on its own. The marketing is a bit misleading in suggesting it’s part-The Haunting of Hill House; it’s not a horror/ghost story at all but it is a delightful, swashbuckling tale. It takes a bit of time to fully get into the style of the novel – it’s the first Night Vale novel written in the first-person and each of the novel’s five parts takes place during a different part of the Faceless Old Woman’s life. Each of those parts could easily have filled an entire book, so there are moments where it feels like the book is speeding through her life. It’s very fast-paced and leaves you wanting more but it’s never so fast that it’s frustrating or inhibits your ability to get invested in the Faceless Old Woman’s story. What really pulls the book together, though, is its ending, which completely reframes everything we know about the Faceless Old Woman and what she wants. It’s not my favorite of the Night Vale books but it’s certainly a wonderful read. It should please most fans of the podcast and is an absolute must-read.
4.5 out of 5 wands.