Jon Padgett’s The Secret of Ventriloquism (Dunhams Manor Press) hits the same nerve as the HBO mini-series Westworld as in 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 fabling (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 lend to this piercing view of humanity as Padgett often 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 disturbing 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 worm into the consciousness as if it were always a part of us.
One of the stand-out stories, ‘The Indoor Swamp’, effectively immerses the reader in the title’s fetid muck pool artfully described. It is a strange trip on a phantasmagoric lazy river. Like a bizarro Huck Finn, Padgett sets the reader adrift at the unyielding mercy of an unreliable current, a miasma of confusion warping the world and our former selves left behind. We can never stop the ride really; not any more than we can stop growing old.
There is also some terrific traditional narratives. “Origami Dreams” and “The Infusorium” are wonderfully imaginative short stories with strong character building and a great sense of setting. Whatever the story form, Padgett cleverly weaves in thematic elements, much like a behind the scenes commentary, to deliver a coherent examination of the enigmas: What is it to be human? What separates a mechanical dummy from man? Where on the spectrum of dummy and man (Padget’s animal-dummy paradox) do we cross that human/non-human line?”
Indeed, there is an entire universe based on these questions that Padgett builds and populates with each successive episode. 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 sits comfortably 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 humdrum lives.
I highly recommend this book to weird fiction aficionados as there are a number of fresh concepts and ideas that demand their own chapter in the weird literature canon. But too, the stories themselves aren’t too obtuse or convoluted to turn off the more conventional horror/dark fantasy reader. With its rich and evocative prose, the stories have great purpose and the characters are relatable, oftentimes frighteningly so. All in all, this is a wonderful book and an exciting new literary voice. Hopefully, this will be the first book of many we see from Jon Padgett.
Review by S.E. Casey.