The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor is the third standalone novel set in the world of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast series created and written by the authors. The Faceless Old Woman is a mysterious, spectral figure who has haunted the homes of Night Vale in the series for years now. Often menacing, yet sometimes obtusely helpful, who she might have been and where she came from had always been an unknown. Narrated by the Faceless Old Woman herself, this novel tells her entire life story, from her birth in the Mediterranean in the early 19th century all the way to how she first came to Night Vale, intercut throughout with her meddling in the life of Craig, a young man living in Night Vale in the 2010s.
I look forward to all Welcome to Night Vale novels, but despite how much I like this character and love how she is performed by Mara Wilson, the premise of this novel inspired a lot of misgivings. Part of what makes the Faceless Old Woman so interesting and creepy as a character in the series, when used sparingly, is her mystique. We never knew how or why she was living in everybody’s homes, and we didn’t need to know. Giving an extensive look at who this character was, what she is, where she came from, and why she is in Night Vale ran the risk of making her too familiar and no longer creepy. While your mileage may vary with how deeply they do delve into her history, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they struck a superb balance between revealing her history and keeping her the eerie spectre that we all love to fear.
The interludes with Craig are comfortingly familiar, with one of them opening the novel and affirming where fans and newcomers alike should be at with understanding the character. She’s creepy, she secretly lives in your home, and she might set your shoes on fire for her own amusement. As we delve into her past, I was struck by how unlike the world of Night Vale the story felt, in a way that was quite refreshing. She grows up in a fairly secluded estate on the coast of the Mediterranean with her father, a loving man who does the best he can for her. Though there are a few particular odd anomalies that crop up throughout her life, there’s nothing especially surreal or uncanny about her upbringing. I liked how this highlighted that while the world outside of Night Vale may still be a little different from our own, the weirdness of that town is fairly unique to it.
There’s an idyllic warmth to her childhood that I loved for how starkly in contrasted with what we know she becomes. There are especially evocative passages where she reflects upon her childhood with more olfactory descriptions that really stuck with me, taking what might otherwise just be window-dressing about where she grew up and giving the reader a more sensory understanding. As she gets older, she learns that her father’s business is a little left of the law, which pique’s her interest as she shows a natural talent for it. She begins to learn how to handle herself in the face of danger, but things take a turn for the worse, as they do, and her father is killed by much bigger fish in the criminal world. Surviving such a loss, her complete descent into the world of thievery, piracy, and swashbuckling adventure begins.
She rises in the criminal underworld of Europe, becoming quite rich off of her growing skills, but her true desire is revenge. She was left in the hands of Edmond, her father’s friend and business partner, who sees her like a daughter, but he cannot douse her burning to desire for vengeance against the organization that killed her father. So, with Edmond’s guidance and the help of her own motely crew of thieves, she endeavours upon a long campaign to see her own form of justice served. There are a lot of ups and downs on this journey, with many successes and failures. Despite seeming very rote as a plotline, it had a surprising amount of twists and turns. Just when I thought I had certain paths figured out, a curveball would be thrown my way to keep me guessing.
Her compatriots were all appreciable characters too, fitting into colourful yet recognizable archetypes that supplemented her story well. There’s the strongwoman, the charismatic charmer, and the master of disguise, which evoke plenty of ideas on their own, but each have their own little idiosyncrasies that endeared them to me. Their presence breathed a sense of variety into the story without feeling like they were distracting from the Faceless Old Woman’s story (she is left unnamed). I especially liked Rebekah, the master of disguise, whose skills are rather poignant in how she cannot feel comfortable in an identity that is not fabricated.
I ended up loving the origin story this novel gave the Faceless Old Woman because as everything started coming together toward the end the truth of just how dour and tragic her history is became crushingly apparent. There’s an eerie whimsy to the way she narrates throughout that helps to offset an overwhelming sense of negativity, but nevertheless a dominant theme in the story is how destructive the pursuit of revenge can be, and in this respect the novel pulls very few punches.
In terms of what she becomes, the authors did a great job by leaving the answer to that up to inferences made by the reader, rather than an explicit explanation. And by the final page of the story, with all her supposed history laid bare, I couldn’t be upset with all that I’d learned because I was left with such a distinct and compelling sense of disquiet. In the past she’s been a textbook unreliable narrator; by the way she speaks and conducts herself in everyone’s homes there’s a clash of nakedly honest observation and manipulation that cannot be trusted. Despite this, the creepiest thing about the book, especially when I take stock of who she is narrating to, is that I believe her.
The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home has become my favourite Welcome to Night Vale novel. I liked the others quite a bit, but they were also a little rough around the edges in spots. The only thing that sticks out in this book, keeping it from getting full marks, is the protracted amount of time she spent planning her revenge in some parts. A degree if impatience would have made much more sense to me, especially since the older she gets the harder it would be for her to succeed. It felt more like the character was aged so much over the course of the novel simply to satisfy the fact she becomes the Faceless Old Woman. I would have preferred it feel more organic, but it’s a minor bump that comes with working backwards, I’m sure. It’s still an excellent novel worth checking out for fans and newcomers.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5