Have you ever looked into the mirror for too long? Not at a mirror, you understand. No. Into it. Into it so far that you, like Alice trembling before the rabbit hole, teeter on the edge of all that you know, and just as you want to look away, you see what you were looking for all along. Strings. Little threads of red leading into the back of your eye. And when you look hard enough, you can follow it from your head to your neck, and then to your hands. Look at them now! How those strange strings thicken and lengthen, wrap themselves around the frail bones of your hand, squirming under the flesh. If you’ve gotten this far, then you might just make it as a Lesser Ventriloquist.
Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism is a fast-track course in realising the one thing we all come to realise eventually, whether or not we look into the mirror. It’s a way of realising that we are unwanted guests in these bodies of ours. Ghosts moaning through the long, empty corridors of this castle of flesh. And sooner or later, we will want nothing but for that exorcism, that expulsion from the house we once thought as home. We will want nothing but for our strings to be cut.
BEHIND THE PEN
Jon Padgett is not only a fantastic writer who’s been published in The Lovecraft eZine and Psuedopod, with many, many more sales under his belt, he’s also an amazing narrator (check out the audiobook of this collection!) who runs Grimscribe, which publishes Vastarien: A Literary Journal.
The Secret of Ventriloquism is Padgett’s first collection of short stories, and already he has carved himself a niche in the world of weird horror. There is an eponymously-titled play (which works to Padgett’s favour as a narrator, and as someone who was once a Ventriloquist), and there are longer, more experimentally structured pieces, stories that fold in on themselves like “Origami Dreams”.
A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY
Padgett offers so much: self-help stories that guide the reader through their empty shells, grizzled detectives trying to uncover town secrets locked away in dilapidated factories, a play about how we’re all dummies, and demented dreams that seem to never end.
VOICES FROM WITHIN
One of the first things to emerge when reading the collection was just how dense it was, and HOWLers found themselves enjoying the unpacking of Padgett’s work. One HOWLer remarked that the story Origami Dreams was “one of the best horror shorts I’ve ever read in my life. An absolute metaphysical masterpiece.” Another found that the collection had much of the same logic that an “album” or “poem” might, arguing that “each story builds on the previous one,” with “sweeping themes that return over and over.” And unpacking these stories always came with some reward. One HOWLer wrote: “Nothing turns me on like reminders that my free will is an illusion, that the blob of meat in my head is concocting a story to veil my physical life in some coherent narrative.” Ah. To be told I don’t exist. What a darling little dream.
Which leads us, then, to our next point, that Many HOWLers loved Padgett’s engagement with self-help literature and with higher ideas of transcendence and meditation. One HOWLer noted that some stories were a kind of “hilarious and twisted self-help, nirvana-esque transcendence tale,” where Padgett, working in particular with literature like The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, explored the horror of what it truly means to, well, be empty. Of what it means to know you are a ghost haunting your own home.
Not everyone connected to these stories, however. At times, HOWLers thought that some of the more stylistic stories were lost on them. One HOWLer wrote that while they “liked these middle [stories] largely because I am interested in the mechanics of what Padgett’s doing, like Ligotti, I don’t really connect with his Vibe™” (A couple weeks prior, the group read Thomas Ligotti’s Teatro Grotesco collection, which was a love it or hate it book for most.) Another wrote similarly that while they “admire what Padgett is doing, it’s impressive, it’s smart,” they just “don’t really feel much about most of the stories.” But those very same reasons for why people sometimes didn’t connect to the book was often why someone did. One HOWLer said that this was their “favourite HOWLS read of the year so far,” and that one story in particular was “Gloriously nasty.” For another HOWLer, there wasn’t a bad story; for them, “The Padge don’t miss.”
WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
- Creepy, trippy, and somehow dazzling – Padgett takes the style of Ligotti to another level!
- Each story—while completely unique in its delivery—provides a consistent visceral feeling, whether that’s revulsion, terror, grief, or amusement. This collection leaves you feeling slightly mad. If you’re so inclined, listen to the audiobook! Padgett himself provides excellent narration with musical stylings that will chill you to your misshapen bones!
- Incredibly well-written, nightmare-inspired, surrealistic set-pieces throughout a variety of genres. Padgett’s command of form is remarkably varied, yet the tone is consistent throughout. A wonderfully disturbing read. Absolutely loved it.
- Jon Padgett writes stories that fold into themselves, that collapse and reconfigure and connect in new and interesting ways. His collection is unsettling, indebted to masters like Ligotti, while asserting himself as a peer. The Secret of Ventriloquism is a work of modern Weird genius.
The Secret of Ventriloquism is a tour de force that never stops. Even when people found themselves not entirely connected with the text, they found themselves praising it for its intelligence, its horror, and its heart, its want to do more and be more. Very rarely are there collections so well weaved and interconnected as this, and even more rarely is there a collection that does it so superbly well. Padgett writes nightmarish dreams that nestle in the folds of our sad fleshy meat-sacks that squelches in the socket of our skull, and if you love losing sight of who you are and what your purpose is, then this collection is a must read.
HOWLS SCORE: BARK! (4/5)
@drthoss loves anything that distracts him from The Thing That Haunts Us All and is from Liverpool. He is an aspiring writer that hopes one day art will be made for the hell of it. He goes by @RSLjnr on Twitter, where he complains about money a lot.