NEW YORK • One afternoon late this summer, Cecil Baldwin was hunched over a microphone in his living room in Brooklyn, New York, recording a community radio show.
In a soothing baritone, he read off a mix of local news - statements from the mayor's office and the city council, the weather report and some community calendar announcements about an ice cream social and a day of free opera.
But things immediately started to seem sinister. The free opera was being broadcast from loudspeakers on every residential block and inside homes. The ice cream social would be held in an underground bunker and was open only to members of the Illuminati, a secret sect.
Before signing off, Baldwin urged his audience to "stay tuned next for the sound of human breathing, which is probably just your own breathing. Probably".
Baldwin is the hypnotic, beguiling voice behind Welcome To Night Vale, a popular podcast set in a fictional south-western town where aliens, angels and ghostly apparitions are as commonplace as PTA meetings and yard sales.
With its uncanny blend of the macabre and the mundane, the news out of Night Vale sounds like what might occur if Stephen King or David Lynch was a guest producer at the local public radio station. Since it began in 2012, the show has been downloaded more than 100 million times.
Now, the creators of the podcast are extending their brand of bizarre storytelling into print, with a 401-page novel that expands on the show's eerie existential themes (which could be crudely summarised as, "Don't panic, but we're all going to die").
Its publisher, Harper Perennial, has printed just over 100,000 copies of the novel, Welcome To Night Vale, which comes out on Tuesday.
If the Night Vale novel succeeds, it could inspire more podcast- to-book projects as publishers search for new mediums to mine.
A handful of books based on some of the most popular shows are already in the works, including The WTF Oral History, based on the comedian Marc Maron's podcast, and Adnan's Story, a book by Rabia Chaudry that is based on the murder case that inspired the wildly successful podcast Serial.
Serial will contain new information about the case and will be published by St. Martin's Press.
Harper Perennial has acquired three more books from the Night Vale creators, including illustrated scripts of the show's first two seasons and another Night Vale novel.
With its surreal premise, Welcome To Night Vale stands out in a medium dominated by non- fiction.
And while most free podcasts rely on corporate sponsors, the Night Vale creators - the experimental playwrights, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor - have shunned advertisers. Instead, they take in money through live performances, donations and merchandise, such as Night Vale mugs, posters and T-shirts.
Fink, 29, says he was drawn to the format because he felt it offered creative avenues, and the barrier to entry was low, requiring little more than a microphone.
"There was still a chance to do something new with it," he said. "I came up with this town where every conspiracy theory was true."
The Night Vale headquarters is a sunny apartment decorated with quirky fan art. The space is surprisingly cheerful, apart from its murder-themed bathroom, which has blood-red handprints on the shower curtain.
Sitting across from Cranor, Fink described how he came up with the concept after a family tragedy.
Six months before he had the idea for Night Vale, his father died of complications from heart surgery, a condition that he had lived with for years.
"You have this town where death is common and there are terrifying things that are coming at every second and everybody is okay with it and gets on with their lives," he said. "In Night Vale, it's aliens, and in real life, it's cancer."
He found eager collaborators in Cranor and Baldwin, who plays the deadpan narrator, Cecil Gershwin Palmer.
Both were writers and performers in an experimental theatre group, the New York Neo-Futurists, with Meg Bash- winer, who is married to Fink.
He and Cranor had written a play together about time travel and shared a wry, offbeat sense of humour.
When the first episodes were posted in June 2012, they barely generated a ripple.
"At the time, I don't think I could even get my mum to listen to the podcast," Baldwin said. "She was like, 'Oh, another non-paying job, that's great, sweetie.'"
They kept at it, posting a new 25-minute episode every other week. Over the next year, the show was downloaded about 150,000 times.
Then, for reasons its creators still cannot fully explain, the audience exploded overnight.
In July 2013, the show was downloaded 2.5 million times. It shot to the No. 1 spot on iTunes, surging ahead of popular programmes such as This American Life and Radiolab. That August, it was downloaded 8.5 million times.
Rabid fans were obsessively dissecting each episode on sites such as Reddit and Tumblr.
"The Internet wouldn't stop talking about it," said Ransom Riggs, author of the best-selling novel Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children, who became a fan of the podcast after seeing repeated references on Twitter. "It's got a War Of The Worlds thing going on where if you didn't know anything about it, you might think you stumbled on an actual small town radio station."
Fink and Cranor were besieged with offers from TV producers, filmmakers and publishers seeking spin-off projects.
Audiences flocked to their live shows.
"It was like, 'Oh, you take us seriously as writers,' " Cranor said.
Cranor and Fink worked together on an outline, then alternated writing chapters of the novel, a process that took about eight months.
The story centres on two Night Vale residents, a pawnshop owner named Jackie who does not age, and a single mother named Diane, whose shape-shifting teenage son, Josh, disappears.
The women set out to find him, a journey that leads them to a mysterious and dangerous neighbouring town called King City.
The ending was especially tricky. Finally, Fink settled on something that would be almost impossible to pull off on the radio: a single, punctuation-free sentence that stretches on for nearly four pages. The project has given him a deeper appreciation for the challenges of writing long-form fiction.
"You want to go up to every person who has written a novel and go, 'Good job,'" he said.
NEW YORK TIMES
- Welcome To Night Vale is available from amazon.com at US$12.22.