My introduction to Jon Padgett’s ‘The Secret of Ventriloquism’
As I have mentioned in the past, my good friend Jon Padgett’s debut horror fiction collection The Secret of Ventriloquism, featuring an introduction by me, is a very special piece of work. It has been gratifying to see how events in the several months since I last talked about it have borne this out. Rue Morgue Magazine selected it as the Best Fiction Book of 2016. Michael Calia praised it in The Wall Street Journal. It has gained additional reviews and enthusiastic endorsements from the likes of Paul Tremblay, who describes it as “a horror revelation,” and Weird Fiction Review, where reviewer Adams Mills asserts that it is “a collection that begs to be read as a whole, and then also to be revisited past the first reading.”
If this whets your appetite, be advised that right now, for a limited time, the Kindle edition can be downloaded for free. (After reading it, I think you might also find that you want to buy a physical copy.) [UPDATE 3/26/17: Alas, this offer has now expired.]
To whet your appetite even further, here’s the complete text of my introduction.
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The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett
S. T. Joshi has famously argued that the truly great authors of weird fiction have been great precisely because they use their stories as a vehicle for expressing a coherent worldview. I would here like to advance an alternative thesis. I would like to assert that one of the characteristics of great weird fiction, and most especially weird horror—not the sole characteristic, of course, since weird horror is a multifaceted jewel, but a characteristic that is crucial and irreducible in those works of the weird that lodge in the reader’s mind with unforgettable force and intensity—is a vivid and distinct authorial voice.
Can you imagine Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” without the sonorous narrative voice that speaks from the very first page in tones of absolute gloom and abject dread? Can you imagine Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” minus its voice of detached, dreamlike trepidation tinged with cosmic horror, as generated by the author’s distinctive deployment of diction and artistry of prose style? Or Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House without the striking establishment of voice in the classic opening paragraph (“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream…”), which then develops over the course of the novel into a sustained tone of mingled dread, loneliness, and melancholy? Or what about Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin” without its measured tone of fearful discovery foregrounded against an emotional backdrop of desolate inner wintriness, as delivered in the narrative voice of an unnamed social anthropologist investigating a strange clown festival in an American Midwestern town? Each of these stories would be not just diminished but fundamentally altered—neutered, hamstrung, eviscerated—by the removal of its distinctive voice, which, vitally, is not just the narrative voice of the individual story but the voice of the author expressing itself through the environment of that particular work.
The point is not, of course, that these writers always maintain the very same voice in multiple works. Poe creates many different narrative voices across the span of his complete oeuvre. But he always, on some level, sounds like Poe. The same is true of Lovecraft, Jackson, Ligotti, and the other great masters of weird and supernatural horror. Their voice is vital to their authorial selves. They don’t write in the styleless monotone of much commercial horror fiction. In their works you can hear them talking in and through the multitude of voices that make up their respective fictional worlds. It’s a special kind of literary art, this creation of a distinctive voice that speaks to the reader in unmistakable tones with a manifest force and singularity of identity.
And it is an art that Jon Padgett possesses in spades. I learned this over a span of years as I was privileged to observe, intermittently and from a distance, the germination and gestation of Jon’s authorial self. Eventually he started sending stories that fairly stunned me with the force of their philosophical-emotional impact. I remember first being affected like this by “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism,” in which—significantly—the narrative itself focuses directly on the nature and power of voice, and of one special, dreadful voice in particular, an “intangible, alien voice twisting through that throat and that mouth, telling us that you have only ever been one of its myriad, crimson arms. . . . Feel that voice that is not a voice bubbling through that mouth that is not a mouth. Let it purge you of your static. Let it fill you with its own static.” Presented in the form of a step-by-step guide to learning “the Greater Ventriloquism”—whose practitioners are “acolytes of the Ultimate Ventriloquist . . . catatonics, emptied of illusions of selfhood and identity . . . perfect receivers and transmitters of nothing with nothing to stifle the voice of our perfect suffering”—this is one of the most powerful, unsettling, disturbing, and impactful stories of its kind, or really of any kind, that I have read in the last ten years.
The same current of power winds its way through the other works gathered together here. In these eight striking stories—or, more accurately, six stories plus a one-act play and a guided meditation on experiencing the horror of conscious existence—Jon modulates the voice of his author’s self into multiple tones depending on the needs of the piece at hand. In “Organ Void” and “The Infusorium,” for example, he calibrates it with galling effectiveness to generate a tone, mood, and worldview of visceral filthiness set in a fictional realm of mounting, horrifying darkness. In “Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown” he applies it successfully to the first-person depiction of the narrator’s personal nightmare of childhood persecution, and the inner transition that leads this young protagonist to realize his power to outdo his persecutor. In “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice” (the aforementioned guided meditation), he sounds almost like one of his non-horror influences, the contemporary spiritual writer and teacher Eckhart Tolle, who speaks unfailingly in a gentle voice of detached lucidity and focused self-inquiry—and yet Jon makes this so much his own that the voice guiding the reader toward a state of liberation from, or rather within, the horrors of body, mind, and being itself is recognizable as perhaps the quintessence of the other narrative voices in the book. In all of this, one can, I think, detect traces of his longtime practice of ventriloquism, as he projects his author’s voice into each work and makes it speak convincingly through them all, even as it remains, in essence, his own.
I hope and believe that this, the first full-length book by Jon Padgett, will be remembered as an authentically significant debut collection. Along with voice, it also has vision, as may be evident from the lines I have quoted, and Jon’s rich elaboration of this vision goes a considerable distance toward establishing a coherent worldview and thus fulfilling the Joshian criterion. “We Greater Ventriloquists are acolytes of the Ultimate Ventriloquist,” announces one of his narrators at the end of twenty transformative lessons. “We Greater Ventriloquists are catatonics, emptied of illusions of selfhood and identity. . . . We are active as nature moves us to be: perfect receivers and transmitters of nothing with nothing to stifle the voice of our perfect suffering. Yes, we Greater Ventriloquists speak with the voice of nature making itself suffer.” I don’t know for sure if “the voice of nature making itself suffer” is actually, ultimately, Jon’s own voice. For his sake, I think I hope it isn’t. But I do know that it is a voice that lodges in the reader’s mind with colossal force and intensity, marking that story and this book as unforgettable.