Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism (Dunhams Manor Press) hits the same sweet spot as the HBO mini-series Westworld in that at its introspective core it asks the basic existential question: what, precisely, is it to be human?
The Secret of Ventriloquism amplifies the surreal and weird to provide not a picture of man, but an x-ray. The examination of our nature is not the virtuous and noble meta-fable (coming of age, self-sacrifice, etc) of what we want ourselves to be, but a penetrating look at man as that morally obliquitous, phenomenally ungrateful biped of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. From the first story, Padgett displays a wonderful imagination for human pathology and self-destructive compulsions.
The story structures themselves lead to this deeply piercing view of humanity as mostly Padgett dispenses with the traditional first/third person linear narrative. The story “20 Steps to Ventriloquism” reads as an instruction manual. “The Indoor Swamp” takes on the rare second person perspective. “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice” utilizes the imperative mood written in a hypnotic cadence. The titular “The Secret of Ventriloquism” is structured as a play replete with a scrawl of stage notes. Much like a ventriloquist using his dummy’s flapping lips and blinking eyes to misdirect the audience, so do these non-traditional story forms allow the dread and the uncanny to undetectably worm into the consciousness as if it were there our entire lives. Of course, there are inclusions of the straight-forward horror tale best represented by the terrifically stylish “The Infusorium”. Whatever the form, Padgett cleverly weaves in the thematic elements, much like a behind the scenes commentary, to deliver a coherent examination of those ever-present enigmas of: What is it to be human? What separates dummy from man? Where on the spectrum of dummy and man (the animal-dummy paradox) do we cross that human/non-human line?”
Indeed, there is an entire world based on this that Padgett builds and populates with each successive story. The Secret of Ventriloquism is much more a whole than a collection. And it is a satisfying place to visit, which to the author’s credit, the familiar and homey sit side by side with the sinister and strange. Whether if we have come from here, or if it is a glimpse of a certain future, there is an instinctive connection that tethers Padgett’s nightmare-scapes to our own banal humdrum lives.
Who should read this? I highly recommend it to weird fiction aficionados as there are a number of fresh concepts and ideas that demand their own entry in the weird fiction canon. But too, the stories themselves aren’t purposefully obtuse or overly bizarre to turn off the conventional horror/dark fantasy lover. With its rich and evocative prose, the stories have great purpose and the characters are relatable, oftentimes scarily so. All in all this is a wonderful book and an exciting new literary voice. Hopefully, this will be the first project of many we see from Jon Padgett.
Review by S.E. Casey.