Night Vale Presents, the network behind podcasts like Within the Wires, Alice Isn’t Dead, and of course, Welcome to Night Vale, has grown substantially over the last few years. Its newest addition, Dreamboy, feels precisely within Night Vale Presents’s aesthetic and goals while carving out its niche as something new, strange, and completely its own. I received the first three episodes in advance for review, and while Dreamboy has its flaws, it’s become one of the most intriguing listens this season.
Someone is changing all the streetlights in Pepper Heights, Cleveland. The color of nighttime is shifting. Everyone thinks they know what happened at the Pepper Heights Zoo… But do they, really?
Dane, a spun-out musician spending the winter in Cleveland, Ohio, has two main goals: keeping his job at the Pepper Heights Zoo and trying not to waste all his time on Grindr. What he doesn’t expect is to get swept into a story about dreams, about forevers, about flickering lights, about unexplained deaths, about relentless change, and about the parts of ourselves that we wish other people knew to look for. Oh, and also a murderous zebra.
Dreamboy follows the story of Dane, a musician who left the exhausting New York to find some solace and creativity in Cleveland. As the first episode opens, the listener is immediately hit with a fittingly dreamlike score that helps punctuate the narration. As Dane’s narration weaves the history and details of Cleveland, the cinematic strings, timpani, and choir weave around his words so closely that they feel just as much a part of the music as the instruments. The score is aggressively whimsical, something that might be at home in an offbeat children’s film like Coraline or Paddington.
Music is integral to Dreamboy. Each scene’s feeling is established largely by the score, whether it’s the sweeping whimsy of the opening song or a vintage sci-fi synth droning along to the more ominous scenes. The narration follows the tempo and feeling of the score, which follow the rhythm and feeling of the words, wrapping everything up into something that feels just as much like a piece of music as it does a work of prose.
Music is also integral to the plot though, too: Dane’s desire to be the musician he wants to be is a central focus, even if he spends most of his time working, looking for hookups on Grindr, or daydreaming. In the third episode, the music becomes diegetic when Dane goes to a drag show and music foreshadows and emphasizes the plot.
And, of course, so is the dream logic that surrounds the writing.
Everything in the world of Dreamboy is surreal, but not quite surreal enough to feel too threatening. Dane works at a zoo where the star zebra, Zoe, is going to be euthanized for mauling a child because the zoo won’t pay the legal fees to defend her. Dane works at a sci-fi dark ride/roller coaster hybrid with heavy themeing that seems like a strange fit for a zoo. His boss is overly enthusiastic in a way that seems inhuman, but that could just be Dane’s interpretation of him. There’s a late-night radio show that plays classical music and implores listeners to imitate the sound of an orchid.
Most ominous is probably the group of kids on a mission to save Zoe. Dane initially thinks they’re girl scouts, as they’re all wearing matching uniforms and patches, but then realizes that’s not quite right. The kids assert that saving Zoe isn’t about money, but about something greater. They’re especially furious with the new exhibit getting all of the zoo’s funds, “The Forgotten Sea.” In the words of one of the kids, “How can you forget an entire sea?!”
And, of course, there are the actual dreams Dane discusses. His common recurring dream is floating in body-temperature water that becomes cold, at which point Dane realizes something huge is moving underneath him (these dreams, and the podcast as a whole, often get sexually explicit as a warning).
The narration moves quickly between the dreams and reality, making the two sound blended even if you listen closely. This leads to one of Dreamboy‘s greatest flaws and weaknesses: it’s a podcast that takes very sharp attention and/or multiple listens. Dreamboy uses its rhythm, music, and strangeness to lull you. It wants to feel like a dream, and it accomplishes the goal almost too perfectly. The moment you find your brain sinking into the feeling of the podcast instead of its words, you’ll be completely thrown off by whatever you hear when you tune back in. It’s a design choice that is purposeful and accomplishes its goal, but it can be difficult to fight against what the design of the podcast wants you to do in order to follow along with the story the podcast is trying to tell.
Luckily, this feeling settles in between the second and third episodes. Only the first episode has been released as of writing this review (10/26/2018), so if you feel like you want to enjoy Dreamboy but are having a hard time concentrating, stick with it at least until the third episode has been released. As the episodes progress, it feels like there’s less a need to assert their aesthetic to the listener, and instead focus more closely on the narrative.
In its first three episodes, Dreamboy feels like such a natural addition to the Night Vale Presents canon. It’s bizarre but relatable; it both uses familiar forms and breaks them; it blends sincerity, absurdity, humor, and suspense together each episode. Like most Night Vale Presents productions, Dreamboy is not going to be a fit for every listener, but it’s going to be the perfect fit for plenty.