Why did the chicken cross the road? Because on one side was everything she had ever known, and on the other side was a future, maybe. And even though she was afraid to leave everything she had ever known, she also wanted a future, maybe. And so, hesitating, and then not, and then moving quickly, running, sprinting even, desperate, she crossed and found a future. Maybe. And left behind everything she had ever known. And that is why the chicken crossed the road.
When Alice Isn’t Dead was first launched back in March, many fans of Welcome to Night Vale, myself included, did not know what to expect. A new fiction podcast written by Joseph Fink, co-author of Welcome to Night Vale, with a mysterious title and an even more intriguing trailer. We had thousands of questions. Would it be set in the same universe as Welcome to Night Vale? Would it have the same tone, tongue-in-cheek, a little bit creepy and horrifying, a lot funny and endearing? Would we get attached to the narrator the same way everyone fell in love with Cecil? After it began airing, it became instantly obvious that, though the prose of Joseph Fink is inimitable and there are many similarities between the two, Alice Isn’t Dead is very much its own independent thing that has nothing to envy from its older sibling Welcome to Night Vale.
Note before reading: this review is not spoiler-free. Alice Isn’t Dead has just completed its first season recently, with ten episodes of under half an hour, and is available for free on their website as well as pretty much anywhere you like to listen to podcasts. I strongly recommend it.
What’s the story?
“I want to start by saying that this is not a story. It’s a road trip. Which… same difference. In a good one, the start is exciting and the finish is satisfying and we end up somewhere else, somewhere a long way away from where we started.”
Alice Isn’t Dead is the recordings of a narrator (who we later learn is named Keisha − I’m going to use her name for sake of simplicity) on a search after her missing wife, Alice. After mourning her, thinking her dead, Keisha starts seeing Alice on TV during various news reports on disasters happening throughout the United States, clear evidence that her wife is alive. She quits her job to become a truck driver, going wherever Bay & Creek Shipping sends her, hoping to find Alice. What she finds instead is the Hungry Man.
Keisha sees him, this man who is not even human, a flesh-eater, a weird combination of limbs and sounds and smells, dirty and greasy, she sees him over and over again on the road, this terrifying man who she knows nothing about except that she wants to drive far away from him. She drives on and on, but even the roads start to feel like traps, with towns reappearing when she thought she’d just left them, factories with no employees except a single man whose coffin he needs help building, billboards that don’t advertise anything clear, just names, until she realizes that these names are the victims of the Hungry Man and that Alice is warning her to go home.
Together with Sylvia, a smart and determined teenager she picked up along the road, Keisha delves back into her own marriage and uncovers a secret that goes much farther than one missing wife, what with the Other Town full of Hungry Men that no one dares mention, Alice urging her not to take unnecessary risks, the power of heather oil, a broken police station, Hungry Men everywhere she goes…
Sounds interesting? One thing that can’t be transmitted in the summary, but that is overwhelmingly present throughout every episode, is the fear. This is a thriller podcast and you can feel the panic every step of the way. I can honestly say that I was breathless with terror the first time I listened to it − and the few times after that. I’ll explore how anxiety and fear are intrinsically linked to the story and the character below.
What’s great about it?
Boy, oh boy, where to start?
Alice Isn’t Dead is born out of the character that is Keisha. Even more so than Welcome to Night Vale and its narrator Cecil, the whole of the podcast is entirely comprised of Keisha’s experience and fully from her point of view and everything she is shapes the narrative intimately. Keisha is a woman, she’s black, she’s queer, she’s mentally ill. That’s a lot of filters that add to her experience.
Let’s start with the most obvious, the title of the podcast. Alice Isn’t Dead. This show was launched on March 8th of this year. To put things into a time frame, that’s five days after Lexa’s death. That’s right in the middle of the Spring Slaughter of queer women on screen. During that time, and to this day to be honest, queer women weren’t ready or willing to get attached to new characters who represented them, because we were scared to see ourselves get killed over and over again. Joseph Fink made sure to clarify where his podcast stood in the midst of all of this.
Alice Isn’t Dead is at its very core a queer narrative. A wife searching for her wife. There is nothing erased here, the relationship between Keisha and the absentee Alice is the focus of Keisha’s musings and it is explored and deepened every single episode. Once again, Joseph Fink proves that he can write queer characters perfectly (if you’re familiar with Welcome to Night Vale, you’ll know that the voice of Night Vale, Cecil Baldwin, is a gay man).
This is far from the adorable flirting between Cecil and Carlos, though. Alice and Keisha are given the space to have misunderstandings, lies, flaws between them. The whole story is about Keisha finding out why Alice abandoned her. Both of them are sometimes breaching boundaries that should be left intact, both can go overboard and be less than perfect partners. However, there is abounding love on both sides and the relationship feels very real, if based on shaky grounds.
“Keisha, I love you. I am your wife, and you are my wife, and I want to be with you forever. But… forever can’t start yet.”
Keisha is also a black woman and the narrative never shies away from the implications it has on her life. In episode 3 (“Nothing to See”), Keisha gets physically assaulted by the Hungry Man, who she calls the Thistle man (because he wears a polo shirt with the word Thistle on it) and a passerby calls the police. She tells the officer what happens and then:
“Is that true?” He said to the Thistle man […].
The Thistle man just laughed.
“Doesn’t sound like it’s true,” said the policeman.
I didn’t know what to do. On either side of me, the policeman and the Thistle man. Not a person in the world who would help me.
Another of her altercations with police also shows how prejudiced they are against her and Sylvia, another black woman.
There were cops everywhere, […] staring at as as we tried to casually walk by.
“Nothing casual about the two of us, I guess,” I said.
In a society that treats black women as irrelevant and inhuman, Keisha is not offered any sort of protection and certainly not by the authorities. She is a very lonely character and we get a sense that it’s not just a personal choice due to her anxieties but rather what society has forced her to resort to. It’s no coincidence that she’s all alone in her truck cab throughout most of the podcast. She’s not in a position of power; she initially has no support and no one to rely on, not even her wife, and sometimes not even herself. Of course, it’s possible for a narrative to have a white guy be a recluse from society, but the story is much more meaningful when it’s inserted into a context of oppression that makes sense of Keisha’s experience.
Finally, and I think this is the aspect that is explored with the most depth: Keisha has anxiety. In a horror story, this may seem like a given. Of course she’s anxious. She’s being chased by a horrible quasi human cannibal who knows everything about her and the one she loves. Who wouldn’t have anxiety? That’s horror 101.
But Keisha goes far deeper than that. Before anxiety is mentioned by name, she was already coded as someone with anxiety. The podcast is a long monologue addressed to Alice and as such, there are things that she doesn’t need to tell her explicitly, but they’re made clear for the listener all the same. For example, at some point, Keisha hears strange noises coming from the back of her truck and she pulls over to check what’s in there and specifically tells Alice that she “would have been so surprised, but there’s no one else to take over when I get scared.” Later she admits:
“Alice, I’m scared. You know that I get scared. It doesn’t stop me from doing what I need to get done but I’m scared pretty much all the time, just of living, of life, of going on with the day to day.”
But then comes Sylvia and Keisha gets a new sounding board who doesn’t know her like Alice does, who she has to explain things to and the diagnosis is undeniable.
“I’m real scared, too. Kind of all the time. I used to go to therapy and shit,” I said. […]
“I used to go to therapy too. Anxiety bros?” She held up a hand and we made a perfect contact high five, even though I didn’t look away from the road.
“Sure. Anxiety bros.”
But this is where Alice Isn’t Dead has an all new take on mental illness that I have found extremely empowering, as someone who struggles with an anxiety disorder. Even though at times, Keisha’s anxiety is an obstacle to getting shit done (she mentions that one thing I think most of us anxious people have experienced at some point or another of our life: sitting in a long cold shower filled with tears and terror because you can’t breath and you can’t get out) because it is after all a mental illness and not just another way of living your life, she uses it as a tool on multiple occasions. She can be extremely determined and chooses to achieve whatever goals she has (mostly just to keep going, keep moving, till she finds Alice, till she finds a real purpose) even through her anxiety.
In her earlier fight with the Thistle man that mirrors his (SPOILER alert) demise by her hands at the end of the season, she already uses all the strength inside her to fight back when he attacks her, she never gives up and kicks and screams and uses up every bit of energy she has left. She later recognizes that energy for what it is.
And through all of these thoughts, a buzzing anxiety. Anxiety like electricity. And I knew, in that moment, that anxiety is just an energy. It is an uncontrollable near-infinite energy, surging within me. And for once I stopped trying to contain it.
I told my heart, beat faster. I told my panicked breath, become more difficult, and I told my fear to overtake me. Make me more afraid. I am not afraid of feeling afraid. Make me more afraid! All of that energy, I turned it outward. I pushed it into my arms, my legs, my teeth. Fuck the Thistle man! When he hit me, I hit back. He was stronger than I remembered. It was like being hit by a car. Mass without pity, just brutal physics. But I was hitting, too. Pounding at his face, his chest, biting, throwing myself into him. I didn’t feel pain. I was so full of fear that there wasn’t any room for anything else. I fought using every wave of terror inside of me.
It feels good to see a piece of media acknowledge that, while mental illness is definitely hard to navigate and to deal with, it can also be a strength. I’ve often felt this way myself, like my illnesses give me a way to understand emotions on a different level. For Keisha, her anxiety gave her the strength she needed to focus completely on defeating the Hungry Man.
I won’t even linger on how inspiring and awesome Keisha is because I could go on forever and ever, but I’ll add just a mention as to how human she is scripted. It’s very easy for writers to fall into the trap of fake empowerment or harmful tropes and in Keisha’s case, I think she could have easily fallen into the Strong Black Woman, with her being mostly on her own. However, constantly, she is given layers of emotions, a space to express these, she’s allowed to be pissed at Alice for abandoning her, she’s allowed to form bonds with others while still preserving herself and her feelings, she’s allowed to have weaknesses and the narrative endorses her having and showing emotional complexity.
Finally, what inspires me and maybe what Welcome to Night Vale listeners will appreciate is the poetic value of the podcast. Think a post-weather section, but scarier. Because with all its action and thrilling passages, Alice Isn’t Dead is before all a road trip and these tend to involve a lot of driving around, of time passing so slowly you notice every second. That leaves a lot of time for reflection.
Especially through the first half of the podcast, where the road is filled with mysteries tricking Keisha, there are so many interpretations to what these things are supposed to mean. Keisha herself gives her own thoughts but I think a few episodes are meant to be more of a fleeting menace and mystery than a clear-cut strict metaphor with one meaning.
For example, in episode 2 (“Alice”), Keisha comes across the same town multiple times, a town called Charlatan. The first time, it seems like a normal, quaint little town. The second time, the town is covered in mud and people are all looking away, faces pressed into the nearest vertical surface they can find. The third time, the town is on fire. The fourth and last time, everyone in town is crying. Of course it’s possible to interpret it as Keisha’s own internal process, from a loving marriage to her wife disappearing and Keisha denying, pretending she’s dead, then her anger when she finds that Alice has been lying to her on purpose and finally the sadness of knowing they can’t be together again until the whole mess is dealt with for real. But that’s one interpretation and there are surely many more.
This is just one of the many parables contained in the podcast that are worth exploring. Since it deals with the supernatural, of course there are always different interpretations. One parallel I think was voluntary was how Keisha’s internal (anxiety) and external (the Thistle man) obstacles are described in a very similar way. Consistently, she describes her anxiety and her mourning, and therapy itself as talking about the shape of the monster devouring us, and her antagonist is literally a monster devouring people. I find it fascinating that she used her internal struggles as the weapon to strike against her external opponent, the monster inside her against the real monster.
There are only a handful of characters in the story (Keisha and Alice, Sylvia, and the Hungry Man are the only characters recurring in more than one episode), but beyond simply human (or inhuman) interaction, the atmosphere is simply set by the landscape that is America.
“I have experienced how big and spread out [America] is, the width and the length of it. We are a country defined as much by distance as by culture.”
A constant presence in Keisha’s journey, a source of calm when it’s beautiful, of anxiety when it’s disturbing, the roads of America. Every episode is intercut with descriptions of the states Keisha drives through. Most of the time, it feels empty. The whole of America has a lot of emptiness to it, and Alice Isn’t Dead chooses to fill that emptiness with horror and angst.
“Flat and grassy, I think. It’s dark now and the darkness is vast here. It really has a depth to it. Keeps going. I didn’t think that dark could have a bottom until I saw a dark that didn’t.”
These are only a few of the reasons why this podcast is completely unique and I believe groundbreaking. I might write other parts to this to praise the character that is Sylvia and the impact she had on Keisha, empowering her in a way she never could have achieved on her own. But this post is getting a bit long. In short: Alice Isn’t Dead is an excellent podcast and you should really give it a try.