“I turned my flashlight beam —wavy with those black, floating motes—onto the body. Something like the skeletons we had dug up recently. But far more hideous than any of them. It appeared to be fresher. The remains of the thing’s yellowed, shriveled skin cracked across its face like desiccated sand. Its mouth hung open to reveal a single line of small, dark teeth. The hair was black and slick, almost as if painted high on its head, giving the illusion of premature balding.”
Part of the skeletal frame of Jon Padgett’s eerie debut collection, “The Secret of Ventriloquism,” is discipleship. Infused throughout this delightfully odd little book, published in 2016 by Dunhams Manor Press, are themes of masters imparting knowledge to students (willing or by happenstance), or a student seeking out that hidden knowledge. In fact, the collection opens with a meditation of sorts, the likes of which you might find in a yoga studio or a church (though it would be a singular example of either that used this particular meditation), and the central sphere around which all the other stories orbit is a tale written as an instruction manual. It is fitting that Jon Padgett has been driven by this theme for his initial collection as he himself is one of the horror communities most noted disciples of one of the most noted horror writers, Thomas Ligotti. Years ago Padgett began an online community dedicated to the critical analysis and interpretation of Ligotti’s fiction and non-fiction called Thomas Ligotti Online. These days, Padgett and Ligotti are on a first name basis with each other, and Ligotti helped Padgett substantially with his writing once their relationship developed to the point where Ligotti could “take the kid gloves off” as Padgett related in an interview on the This Is Horror podcast. I can’t help but think that many of these stories, or at the very least their backbones, grew out of a macabre coupling of Padgett’s passion for ventriloquism and this master/disciple relationship. That, by itself, is enough to make me want to read them.
It’s hard to write about a single story in this collection, and if you’ve already read it you know why, but they all interact with each other. They all inhabit the same literary universe, but more than that, they abide with one another, occasionally reaching between the pages to touch one another in unsettling ways. However, as soon as I read The Infusorium, I knew that I had to tell you about it my fellow ventriloquism aficionados. One part buddy cop story, one part “The Fog,” one part weird cult, The Infusiorium is a story that took hold from the very first sentence and never let go. I’m being very serious when I say that I hope someone, somewhere, options this story for a film, because it would be fantastic. It takes place in the paper mill town of Dunnstown, and in its encroaching outskirts of Treasure Forest. The long silent paper mill still somehow pollutes the area with a noxious fog, choking life and desire from its inhabitants. Oddly, the townsfolk just seem to deal with it. But something else is afoot, too: a series of grisly discoveries. Absurdly elongated skeletal corpses have been turning up in the forest, buried standing up, with only their skulls above ground, screaming towards the blocked out sun. Our protagonist, Detective Raphaella Tosto, is assigned to investigate a possible connection between these grotesque corpses and an annual letter received by the police department going back ten years warning of just such a discovery.
For it’s first half, the story is pretty on the level. Creepy, but on the level. Once Detective Tosto and her partner, Detective Guidry, get into the field around the paper mill, it gets pretty topsy-turvy in all the right, mind-bending ways. “…the skeletons’ resemblance to human ones began and ended with the skulls themselves. The blackened skeletal remains gave the impression they had expanded below the dirt, outwards and downwards. And everything about the skeletons underground was elongated. Limbs, digits, even ribs and backbone just as described, terminating in crablike claws or the jointed, thin legs of an insect.” Ghastly discoveries and dark connections pile up creating an oppressive atmosphere of dread that neatly mimics the physical atmosphere of the town Padgett describes. It is in this layering that we can most clearly discern Ligotti’s tutelage; Padgett has been an apt student.
The story winds you down a putrid path ending in explosive violence, and if you read only this story, it will definitely satisfy. However, the real joy in this whole collection is in observing the connections the tales have, one to another. You begin to want to go back to previous stories to check out some detail or some specific wording you feel like you’ve read before. It connects, but always slightly off, like a puzzle put together with pieces from different editions. It matches up, mostly, but it is in the cracks where the oddities thrive. Padgett’s real success is not just this entertaining horror story so much as it is the unit as a whole. You must read this collection in the order in which it is printed first, and then skip around in your re-read if you like. That’s the only way you’ll appreciate the tapestry being woven here.
Most of the stories I’ve reviewed here have had a straightforward connection to Mr. Lovecraft, but this one’s relationship to HPL is slightly more evanescent. The old gent was certainly an influence on the work of Thomas Ligotti, who is the primary influence on Jon Padgett, so it’s definitely in there, just more in the background rather than the fore. Here you’ll find no Mi-Go’s, no Deep Ones, neither any Necronomicons (though a forbidden/gnostic text does play a central role), nor any Elder Gods (though a malevolent force does appear to be worshiped). There are, however, cultists operating behind the scenes, driving some of the action. Lovecraft loved the idea of cultists, though here they are put to slightly different literary use. Lovecraft is directly mentioned several times in the introduction by Matt Cardin, but he plays a far less central role here tah in other weird tales I’ve discussed. That’s fine for me because it’s a darn good story, but if you’re looking for something much more essentially Lovecraftian, you’ll not find it here save in whispers and surreptitious nods.
Padgett’s writing is often dreamlike, floating between perceived realities and unwanted assumptions. You don’t want to go where you feel he is taking you. It unsettles you, it makes you wish that weren’t happening, and it likely will drag up an unpleasant memory from the depths of your own psyche from time to time. This is successful horror writing for more reasons that just the skeletons on the page. Like the malevolent air, it gets inside you and suffuses you with its poison. However, in one or two places, I was taken out of the story by what I felt was poor word choice (“…the blood of the non-killed* pollutant victim…”). I also have to say, I was a little skeptical to read a whole collection ostensibly about ventriloquism. I mean, those dummies are creepy sure, but a whole bunch of stories about them? Well, rest assured this collection is far more than that. There is a depth here that makes me excited to see what Padgett can do in the future when he is not writing about his favorite past-time.
That about wraps it up for this review, fellow dummies, so thanks for checking it out. It was composed while listening to soundtrack master Piero Umilani’s “Storia e Preistoria.” That would also be fine listening while you read this collection.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
From Step 9 in “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism”: “Just remind yourself that the ventriloquist dummy, your pets, your family and friends all have one thing in common with each other: they are dummies. With practice, you will be amazed at how they will dance to the tune of your voice.”
* – In a subsequent communication with Mr. Padgett, after he read this review, he clarified this usage: “The “non-killed” adjective…was used by a resident to describe some suffering inhabitants of an actual mill town catastrophe in the 50s. I thought it would be a neat peculiarity for Kroth to use.”