Book Review : Jon Padgett - The Secret of Ventriloquism (2016)
The name Jon Padgett might be vaguely familiar to you. He became one of the most quoted people on internet a couple years ago when he called out True Detective's creator Nic Pizzolatto for plagiarizing the work of cult author Thomas Ligotti. Turned out Padgett isn't only the founder and administrator of Thomas Ligotti Online, he also writes fiction like half of the people on internet. What separates him from half of the people on internet is his debut short story collection The Secret of Ventriloquism, published by Dunhams Manor Press a couple weeks ago. Short story collections are, by trade, an unpredictable commodity but let me guarantee you one thing about Jon Padgett's writing: It will lead you outside your comfort zone like a creepy stranger leads you away from home. Padgett both knows how to tell a story and how to scare people and The Secret of Ventriloquism is an intoxicating display of these two skills.
The main reason why Jon Padgett's stories are successful is that they are well-constructed narratives. Strong short stories are constructed differently than novels. They have to pack more into less and have a restless sense of rhythm, which Padgett understands. Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown, a personal favorite in The Secret of Ventriloquism, opens up on the threat of fratricide, a potential supernatural presence and the tragedy of psychological issues packed in one paragraph. This kind of intensity is necessary to make a short story memorable. There is so little time to impress readers, you need to set a fire under them right at the start or their begins drifting off after a page or two. The best stories in The Secret of Ventriloquism all have this scorching sense of pacing; Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown, The Infusorium and 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism among others.
The Secret of Ventriloquism uses ventriloquism as an an allegory for metaphysical nihilism, the belief that physicality has no concrete ground and therefore is malleable. Padgett makes the distinction between lesser ventriloquists and Greater ventriloquists in stories such as 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism, The Infusorium and The Secret of Ventriloquism in which the latter has learned to control every form of matter. The process of enlightenment in The Secret of Ventriloquism is rooted in the awakening to the fraudulent nature of objective reality and the meditative exercise of animating an object and imbuing it with a life of its own is a required step to achieving it. Part of the collection reads like a doomsday prophecy and part of it reads like indoctrination literature, which made for part of its appeal. Jon Padgett is committed to his artistic vision and his vision feels original and threatening.
Not every story in The Secret of Ventriloquism works equally well and the reason is quite simple: Jon Padgett explores with the form so boldly that whatever story is told in a more conventional way has to go the extra mile to stand out. Stories like Origami Dreams and Organ Void were competent enough, yet couldn't stand out against fiercly original material such as The Infusorium or The Indoor Swamp. Padgett mixes traditional Gothic influences and the more contemporary nihilistic sensibilities of his mentor Thomas Ligotti and seamlessly incorporates other inspirations such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett and Japanese creator Keiichoro Toyama. If you're a fan of survival horror video game Silent Hill, you owe it to yourself to pick up The Secret of Ventriloquism for The Infusorium alone. It's a great story that nails the eerie setting of the iconic game.
I've always been critical of debut short story collections. Many authors use them as a vanity outlet and a shortcut to publishing. This is not the case here. Jon Padgett has an immense gift for storytelling and understands the proper mechanics of the form. The Secret of Ventriloquism is a short, jammed-packed collection of sometimes interconnected short stories about a hidden natural order. My favorites were Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown, The Indoor Swamp and The Infusorium, but the majority of Jon Padgett's material is worth checking out. The Secret of Ventriloquism received a lot of pre-release love and I'm here to tell you it's entirely warranted. If you've been looking for new and exciting weird fiction, look no further and pick up Jon Padgett's book. You can thank me after.