Greetings from the Ether,
We are excited to present our review of Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism, which follows our previous review of his chilling novella The Infusorium, which can be read here. These journeys through the eerie and macabre will culminate into one final exploration of Jon Padgett’s mind via an interview that the author has graciously agreed to. We couldn’t be more thrilled to investigate from where, and how, one of the most unique collections in recent memory came to fruition.
Alas, without further ado, let us begin!
Every living organism is sustained and controlled by a series of systems: nervous, circulatory, etc. These systems are what create and maintain life, what decides every intricate detail and genetic physicality of each organic being. Is it too far-fetched to say that a collection of stories can be as intricate, as specifically designed, sculptured, and crafted for one deliberate purpose: life? The life of The Secret of Ventriloquism is not beating with warmth, but rather spiraling rhythmically into a fathomless abyss of hallucinatory oddities. If each tale can be traced like a nervous system, every nerve-ending in Padgett’s debut collection is one of another journey, another meticulous detail to keep the reader off guard, to keep them anticipating the unknown, and the uncanny.
Jon Padgett has done something phenomenal, and quite unbelievable with The Secret of Ventriloquism. This is not just a collection of short stories, or a series of dark adventures; the book is more than that. Each tale intersects and combines into one living, breathing universe. The stories feel deliberately intertwined, their placements intended, their themes related, just like the bouncing neurons within our brains. When Padgett tells us to jump, we leap. When he says to listen, we isolate our auditory senses. When he says to plunge into the depths, we are already halfway down the pit.
The hypnotic series of tales begins with “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice.” A short story that commands the reader to obey Padgett’s mantras, to tune into his frequency. If you, the reader, focus, and let Padgett dictate your consciousness, this tale is terrifying in how it aims to prepare you for what’s ahead, a siren at sea luring the weary to her call.
We follow with “Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown,” which, yet again, opens with an eye-catching, head-scratching first line. If the opening tale broke your will to resist Padgett’s call, “Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown” will anchor you to the ocean floor. We explore the evil of children, and the wrath that vengeance evokes with the imagination of a young boy at its helm.
“The Indoor Swamp” snaps tight the locks of the cage, dunking the reader further into a mind that it as graceful as it is demented. From here on out, the imagery and disturbing flow of detail will defeat your attempts at waking from a nightmare unlike any other. The progression in “The Indoor Swamp” shifts quickly. What was at first an innocent tale quickly embarks upon the trajectory of a dream that then evolves into a nightmarish wonderland, snatching the rug from under your feet and propelling you further into the catacombs.
One of the best stories of the collection, one that stuck with us for days, was the next tale in this haunting soliloquy. “Origami Dreams” is where the work’s nervous system truly starts to assemble into something grotesquely beautiful. Interconnected themes and concepts taking different shapes and forms, combining into a tale that questions your judgement of reality and the fray that lies between madness and sanity. The finger exercise will inspire nightmares for the rest of your days, while tempting you to perform the method on yourself whenever things may seem a bit too strange to be real. With an ending line that sends shivers down your spine, “Origami Dreams” is a masterpiece that begs to not only be read, but digested and integrated into your own organic matter.
“20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” is where we begin to realize that Padgett’s talents ascend majestic prose and unorthodox ideas. The experimental nature of the story alone is enough to set it apart from anything else you’ve ever read. A normal manual at first, the guide quickly takes a turn similar to “The Indoor Swamp,” innocence turned to madness once more. Padgett catches you off guard, right when you suspect where the story is going. As your assumptions are thrown out the window, you are thrown into the ether of this collection once again.
Next on the hallucinogenic table is a dish of “The Infusorium,” which we reviewed in full here. Padgett once more illustrates a dreadful universe in which all his tales call home. Where one might think that this means every character and concept remains concurrent with each tale, this is not the case. While Padgett connects his tales in a singular, morose canvas, they embody different essences. As if each tale is another dream, another perpetuated vision that recalls vague memories from separate experiences and pieces them together in the best way the consciousness is able. The Secret of Ventriloquism is an organic mass, a living nervous system. It is also a being that finds its existence in a plane of nightmares and dreams.
“Organ Void” follows the novella, descending us into another strange, dreamy haze much like that of “Origami Dreams.” Here we find a calm, but apparent, visceral horror. A drifting of conscious thought and a journey into the unknown that beckons the consistent expert quality of the collection to remain steadfast.
We find ourselves reading the eponymous story next, “The Secret of Ventriloquism.” Padgett continues to prove his versatility and unorthodox narrative voices as he bids us welcome to a theatrical play of a ventriloquist and his journey to mastering his art. The play twists and turns, keeping our knuckles white along the corners of the book, and surprising the reader at every turn of the page. It is this experimental nature, this brave innovation, that not only makes the collection impossible to put down, but one that will be engraved into our minds for years to come.
The collection closes with “Escape to Thin Mountain.” A calmer, but no less disturbing tale, that eases our passage at the end of what is indeed a one-of-a-kind journey. We explore hidden places, mythical concepts and dreamy settings. Padgett knows by this point that we are tight within his grasp. Instead of allowing us to succumb to madness, he instead grants us flight, an escape that serves as a new and profound experience notched onto our belt.
Finalizing our statement at the beginning of this review, concerning the organic nature of this collection, the most interesting and perhaps even immortal aspect of Padgett’s debut is that this living essence of the tales animates a collection. It fits in the exact way that a ventriloquist animates his doll. This is the genius of what Padgett has done, the simple but impossible feat he has accomplished. In so many ways, the author has paralleled his themes, duplicated recurring mythos into a single, living incarnation of his imagination. It is in a way ironic, but completely unexpected, that the author discovered a method to breathe life into pages the same way a ventriloquist breathes life into a doll. The systems within a body grant mobility, movement, sentience, speech, emotion, etc. The ventriloquist bestows all these gifts upon their dummy. Padgett breathes these vitalities into his collection.
Padgett is not the heir to Ligotti’s legacy…
He is the firstborn of his own weird dynasty.
Or maybe, it’s a trick. Maybe Padgett has found a way to truly, psychologically convince us of these notions. But that may just be the hand hovering above our back that’s making us type this review. The same hand that will guide you, the reader, if you so choose to embrace The Secret of Ventriloquism.
Jon Padgett is a professional– though lapsed –ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans with his spouse, their daughter, and a rescue dog and cat. He is the Co-Editor-In-Chief of Vastarien, a source of critical study and creative response to the work of Thomas Ligotti. Padgett’s first short story collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism, was named the Best Fiction Book of 2016 by Rue Morgue Magazine. He has work out or forthcoming in Weird Fiction Review,PseudoPod, Lovecraft eZine, Xnoybis, and the anthologies A Walk on the Weird Side, Wound of Wounds, Phantasm/Chimera, and For Mortal Things Unsung.
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