Guest Book Review by S.E. Casey
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 question of man: What, precisely, is it to be human?
Named the Best Fiction Book of 2016 by Rue Morgue Magazine, The Secret of Ventriloquism amplifies the surreal and weird to provide not a hi-def picture of man, but an x-ray. This deep examination of our nature is not the virtuous, noble meta-fabling of many other books (the coming of age/self-sacrifice/Cinderella tropes) 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 man’s obsessive pathologies and his near endless self-destructive compulsions.
The individual story structures themselves lend to this 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, effectively immersing the reader in that fetid muck pool he so gracefully describes. ‘The Mindfulness of Horror Practice’ utilizes an imperative mood written in a mesmeric cadence. It really could be a suggestive speech delivered by some wicked, pernicious hypnotist. 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 uncanny to worm into the consciousness as if it were always there, always a part of us. And it is, isn’t it?
There are too the more classically structured horror tales as represented by the terrifically stylish ‘The Infusorium’ and (one of my favorites) the mind-bendy ‘Origami Dreams’. Whatever the form, Padgett cleverly weaves in the thematic elements, much like a behind the scenes running commentary, to deliver a coherent examination of the ever-present existential questions: What is it to be human? What separates dummy from man? Where on the spectrum of dummy and man (Padgett’s animal-dummy paradox) do we cross that human/non-human line?
Indeed, there is an entire world based on this domain of ventriloquism 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 comfortably sits side by side with the sinister and eerie. 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 that is fiendishly addicting.
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 into the weird fiction canon. But too, the stories themselves aren’t obtuse or overly bizarre to turn off the those who enjoy more conventional horror/dark fantasy. Part body horror and psychological horror, with its rich and evocative prose, the stories are delivered with great purpose with characters who are relatable, oftentimes frighteningly so. Highly recommended to all, The Secret of Ventriloquism is a wonderful book and Padgett an exciting new literary voice in the horror-weird wilderness.
Hopefully, this will be the first project of many we see from Jon Padgett.
About our Guest Reviewer
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