Jon Padgett's The Secret of Ventriloquism, named the Best Fiction Book of 2016 by Rue Morgue Magazine, heralds the arrival of a significant new literary talent. With themes reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ligotti, and Bruno Schulz, but with a strikingly unique vision, Padgett's work explores the mystery of human suffering, the agony of personal existence, and the ghastly means by which someone might achieve salvation from both.
A bullied child seeks vengeance within a bed's hollow box spring. A lucid dreamer is haunted by an impossible house. A dummy reveals its own anatomy in 20 simple steps. A stuttering librarian holds the key to a mill town's unspeakable secrets. A commuter's worldview is shattered by two words printed on a cardboard sign. An aspiring ventriloquist spends a little too much time looking at himself in a mirror. And a presence speaks through them all.
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Stunning Modern Weird!
At this point after the release of Jon Padgett's debut collection it isn’t really a question of whether or not you should purchase and read a copy of The Secret of Ventriloquism. If that were a question the answer and therefore the review would be a succinct yes.
There is no such thing as a perfect book, The Secret of Ventriloquism however might be a contender for the title if there were such a thing.
Everything about Padgett’s book beckons the reader to enter it’s macabre and despairing world. The cover art by Dave Felton is truly creepy. The introduction by Matt Cardin is enticing, flattering and scholarly all at once. Most importantly the stories contained inside are truly marvelous.
I have read TheSecret of Ventriloquism about three times now, and listened to it all the way through once.
When I first discovered Padgett by reading 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism in the anthology Grimscribe's Puppets, I was immediately hooked.
It soon became apparent to me that Padgett has been quietly moving in the dark corners of the weird fiction world for some time. Running Thomas Ligotti Online, as well as appearing in the wonderful podcast Pseudopod as a narrator.
On Pseudopod he narrates both his own stories, and the stories of others. It is these episodes of the podcast that I would often return to while working at my place of employment. I work in a machine shop so Padgett’s clear annunciation, and steady pacing is appreciated because it can be heard over the din of the environment. The recording Pseudopod has of 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism is an instant classic, with record scratches and a deadpan delivery by Padgett. At times Padgett’s voice reminds me of the actor Jeffrey Combs.
Judging by the quality of his already released work it was a no brainer to pre-order of a copy Jon Padgett’s debut collection The Secret of Ventriloquism when it was announced. To those that missed out, the hardcover, illustrated edition was well worth the expense.
There is not a single weak story in The Secret of Ventriloquism, every short is a chilling invitation to temporarily inhabit Dunnstown. A bizarre city that has been intruded upon (or created by) a malignant god-like entity. All of the stories explicitly take place here except for the first two, although they could easily be part of the setting.
This review is intended to more explicitly address the audiobook version of The Secret of Ventriloquism.
Jon Padgett narrates the entire book and does an excellent job in doing so.
Just as it is a satisfying reading experience the book is a satisfying, even sublime listening experience. Different stories take on a different life while listened to as apposed to read. Thus in the different medium the strengths and weaknesses of the different tales can be observed in a new light.
When I read the book, it seemed to me like Organ Void was one of the weaker stories. I read it in a more languid, casual pace. When narrated by the author the story has a more frantic and staccato sound, and during portions of it Padgett raps the prose like a crazed beatnik.
The titular story The Secret of Ventriloquism, which is a play, is unique in a number of ways. First of all it does not stand on its own in a way that some of the other pieces do. Although it would be unnerving and surreal otherwise, the play heavily relies on the context of the other stories.
Despite this Padgett’s audio performance of The Secret of Ventriloquism is absolutely unmissable. His inflections and character voices are intense and distinct. My favorite voice he uses is that of his “dummy voice” for Reggie. Which is hilarious and frightening at the same time.
When read, the one act play hums with malice. When listened to, it sings with dark intent.
Escape to Thin Mountain also transcends the written word in the audio book. There is no way that Little Evie’s strange singing is performed by the author.
On the flip side of this coin is The Infusorium, which is one of the most important stories in the book. At times the narration becomes too quiet, and I missed scenes that I was excited to listen to.
The Secret of Ventriloquism definitely warrants more than one reading, and upon the second, or even third reading one wonders if perhaps the stories would have benefited from being arranged in a different order.
The Indoor Swamp, a masterpiece about a nightmarish landscape is well placed and lends weight to a scene in Origami Dreams. The last story in the book Escape to Thin Mountain also references The Indoor Swamp.
Origami Dreams and The Infusorium are heavily connected, and I wonder if some of the more subtle allusions in Origami Dreams would have more impact if the reader had read The Infusorium first.
20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism brought Padgett’s work to everyone’s attention, and I can envision it becoming to the author like the song Blitzkrieg Bop is to the Ramones. It is a lovely work of art, that already has a dedicated fan following and it is so sublime, and so well crafted that it informs, and at times overshadows the other stories.
Because Dunnstown’s current state, perhaps its very existence is due to the mad ventriloquist Joseph Snavely’s actions, maybe 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism should have been the third story in the book as opposed to the fifth.
Despite this nitpicking The Secret of Ventriloquism shows a dramatic and thematic unity that is extremely rare in short story collections. If you are a similar reader to me, you will become infatuated with the world of Dunnstown and your brain will stay there long after your eyes or ears have left the page.
It has been difficult to write this review because there is so much to say about this book. This book is a literary exercise in dread and divine masochism.
For everything there is to be written about The Secret of Ventriloquism, there are a thousands thoughts to be had. These musings would require a more skilled linguist than I to put into words.
The final observation I will make is that Padgett is a master of closing lines. Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown is just a grimly humorous tale until the last line in which it becomes a full blown exercise in dread. The last sentence of Origami Dreams will prick the corners of your eyes with tears out of pity for the poor narrator, especially when one listens to its delivery in the audio version.
Stop reading my ramblings! My mind is ravaged from too much time spent in Dunnstown.
Buy your ticket here so that you can join me in this tortured place. This surreal and terrible town where the Paper Mill days get longer every year.
Purchase this book and let Jon Padgett put you together.
- lightbearer, fallen