I’ve recently written about excellent weird fiction short story collection Teatro Grottesco written by Thomas Ligotti, whereas this time I decided to take a closer look at Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism. Is it really a must-have for any fan of the genre? Let’s find out.
I think that before we move on to the short stories included in The Secret of Ventriloquism, the author himself deserves a few words. Jon Padgett, a rising start of weird fiction literature, is also the creator of a popular website dedicated to Thoms Ligotti and an editor of “Vastarien” magazine. Also, it’s worth to mention that the writer has experience in ventriloquism, which is one of the main topics of this short story collection. You can learn more about Jon Padgett’s works and inspirations in a fascinating introduction by another well-known writer – Matt Cardin.
Horror of ventriloquism
Finding examples of haunted dolls in pop-culture, especially when it comes to horror is a fairly simple task. For instance, The Conjuring series in cinemas, LORE Podcast and its great episode Unboxed or Goosebumps’ classic cycle The Night of The Living Dummy. The time I’ve watched Child’s Play without my parents’ permission is probably the biggest trauma of my childhood. But why is this kind of toy such a great material for horror producers?
The order of things in relationship with a doll is, or at least should be, pretty simple – we are the ones who give it name, character etc. However, the horror occurs, when these roles are reversed. In such a case, we are confronted with some unknown power, something which just doesn’t fit the reality as we know it. I have to admit that I expected a similar approach from the short story collection The Secret of Ventriloquism. I couldn’t be more wrong though – Jon Padgett followed completely different and surprising path.
In the stories written by the American author, dolls are shown in their original role – props, and the ventriloquism itself becomes the true source of horror. The author repeatedly draws our attention to the similarities between the toy and its owner, suggesting, that in fact, maybe we are also not fully responsible for our actions. This way, Jon Padgett breaks the boundaries that usually exist between a human and a doll, but instead of giving life to the latter, he questions our free will. What if there is some mysterious power behind our actions? Some peculiar ventriloquist controlling human dummies?
Accept as the days and nights go by that you are a walking skeleton, an ambulatory miracle of meat. New thoughts come, but they arrive from beyond the foam, beyond the foamy sponge of your brain. Now open your eyes.
Like some of the best writers of weird fiction genre, Jon Padgett also managed to find his original style. Thanks to which it would be difficult to confuse his works with those of some other artists.
The Secret of Ventriloquism
Now let’s take a closer look at the stories presented in JonPadgett’s short story collection The Secret of Ventriloquism. The first – The Mindfulness of Horror Practice is a disturbing instruction to guided meditation. It was inspired by Bodhipaksa’s Mindfulness of Breathing sessions. However, the conclusion here is surprising, in a dark way.
After this kind of preparation for further reading, we can move on to Murmurs of Voice Foreknown. Interestingly the title comes from the poem Warning written by another weird fiction classic – Clark Ashton Smith. In the story, we get to know two brothers. The older boy constantly abuses the younger one mentally, threatening him with an unsettling vision of a weird entity called Sam, who wants to over the child’s body. What’s more, the whole family seems to be hiding a secret. The story focuses on the personal nightmare of the younger brother and how it affects him. If you like this story, I recommend you also reading Sredni Vashtar by British writer Saki – the atmosphere there is pretty similar to Murmurs of Voice Foreknown.
Next, we can read The Indoor Swamp, which is a description of a bizarre attraction straight from some nightmarish amusement park. The thing is though, that even though no one wants to visit it, in the end everyone gets there – It’s a ride you can’t miss… no matter how terribly you wish you could. The fake, disturbing world created by Jon Padgett resembles a nightmare from some of David Lynch’s works. Great short story.
Everything that makes the world like it is now will be gone. We’ll have new rules and new ways of living. Maybe there’ll be a law not to live in houses, so then no one can hide from anyone else… – we can read this quote by Shirley Jackson at the beginning of the story Origami Dreams, and it fits the text perfectly. The narrator finds mysterious notes describing someone’s bizarre dream, or at least that’s what he wants to believe. Similarly to The Town Manager by Thomas Ligotti, also in Origami Dreams the nightmare logic of the events is the true source of horror. In this short story, we also get to know the town of Dunnstown, which will also appear in the next texts.
The instruction attached to the dummy Jon Padgett got in childhood was the inspiration for the 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism – although it had only seven steps and they were rather harmless. The first eight of them are just useful tips for anyone who would like to become a ventriloquist. Then the author gives us a choice – stop reading with basic knowledge of the art or try to explore its dark side and become so-called Greater Ventriloquist. It’s worth to mention that the manuscript of 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism will play a major role in the next texts.
Although I liked all the stories included in The Secret of Ventriloquism, The Infusorium is, without a doubt, my favorite. The description of the fallen city of Dunnstown, most of the time covered in black fog is a true weird fiction masterpiece. The protagonist here of the story is detective Tosto, who begins an investigation concerning strange events, which took place on the premises of the factory, which was closed for years. The story was inspired by the book When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and The Battle Against Pollution by Devra Davis and Berton Rouche’s article The Fog – both worth reading. The Infusorium is even more terrifying when we realize that the nightmarish black fog harassing Dunnstown is not just a literary fiction.
Organ Void, the next text included in The Secret of Ventriloquism, tells the story of a woman, who decided to buy a cardboard sign from a homeless person, having no idea what terrible consequences this decision would have. Quotes mentioned there usually come from the lecture of Eckhart Tolle, whose work had a significant impact on Jon Padgett’s book.
Now it’s time for one more weird fiction gem – The Secret of Ventriloquism itself. The story is a theater play, neatly linking all other stories together. The main character decides to use 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism and become a Greater Ventriloquist. It’s definitely one of the most unsettling texts I have ever read, and I’m sure that no weird fiction fan will be disappointed with it. The next story, inspired by one of Thomas Ligotti’s works, Escape to Thin Mountain gracefully closes the whole book.
I think that to fully appreciate The Secret of Ventriloquism, you should consider reading it once again, already knowing the connections between the elements of the world masterfully created by Jon Padgett. As with Gene Wolfe’s Peace – it’s worth the effort.
The Secret of Ventriloquism is a real gem of weird fiction genre. The constant feeling of anxiety accompanying the reader throughout the whole book and unique description of the fallen Dunnstown will surely stay in the readers” memory long after putting the short story collection back on the shelf. I must admit that Jon Padgett joined my favorite weird fiction authors, and I’m looking forward to read his next works.
Have you read The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett? Which short story is favorite? Please let me know in the comments.