The Infusorium, by Jon Padgett

“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.”

51B6pV2-YfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]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. smokestacks-sunset[1]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.

dark skeleton.jpgFor 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.

image_286359db-0dc8-49df-90e3-46e80fa46295_grande[1].pngPadgett’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 Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar

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.

Stabilimentum, by Livia Llewellyn

“She only noticed it later, as she was getting ready to leave for work—looking up as she struggled with her hair, she spied a large brown spider trembling on invisible strands, high up in the far corner over her bathtub. Thalia stared, momentarily slack-jawed, as the creature seemingly floated through thick circles and curves of a white spiral pattern within the invisible rest of the web, its pace furious in tempo and intent.”

When I lived in Chicago, I had a small, second floor apartment in an eight-unit building, each unit having exterior doors. Outside our doors on the second floor was a wrought iron, scroll work guard rail. It wasn’t until my first summer there that I discovered just how perfect that scroll work was for spiders to spin their webs. Almost overnight, as if a signal had gone out when the temperature rose to a certain degree, the spiders showed up. And I mean showed up en masse. Heavy, fat bastards, too; none of these wimpy, spindly types. I cannot impress upon you enough, gentle reader, the sheer number of spiders that invaded. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. That first evening, when I got home from work, I discovered why they were there. The lights. The lights outside each door attracted an equally enormous amount of flies, and by the later evening, each of the thousand, thousand webs was laden with gift-wrapped future meals. It was a perfect micro-ecosystem.

This is a story about spiders.

51FJMdhTYzL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Livia Llewellyn is an author who has made her name by writing stories that ask the questions, “What if desire were not absent from Lovecraft’s stories? What does cosmic horror look like if the erotic were present?” Well, that in addition to being a damn fine writer. This story is found in her second collection, called “Furnace,” which was brought to my attention recently in an interview I heard with Laird Barron over at This Is Horror. It was published two days after Valentine’s Day 2016 by the excellent group at Word Horde. I’ve read a number of stories in this collection now and they are mostly all fantastic. They call to mind the aesthetic and style of fantasist K.J. Parker in many ways: fantastic urban environs falling apart, strange societies almost like our own, and particularly in both her use of language and how she names her characters. The main character in this story is called Thalia, a name deriving from a Greek origin and meaning “to blossom or flourish.” You’ll shudder more knowing that after you read this story.

A ‘stabilimentum” is, according to wikipedia, “a conspicuous silk structure included in the webs of some species of orb-web spider. Its function is a subject of debate.


Now you know. As our story opens, Thalia is residing in an apartment on the 37th floor of a downtown New York building. While getting ready for work she sees a large spider in the corner of her shower, spinning a web complete with one of these stabilimenta. Like me, Thalia’s not ready a spider person, and so immediately goes after it with a can of insect spray. She suffers a small bout of vertigo as she prepares to destroy the arachnid,  “always the sensation that she was rising, rushing upward into the clouds.” It will be a recurring theme. Remember that for when you get to the end. When she returns home from work, she is horrified to encounter three more fat spiders furiously spinning their webs in the same corner of the bathroom. She goes at them with hairspray—“Screw the ozone layer. She had spiders to kill, and an apartment to protect.”—having blown all her insect spray that morning.

Back in Chicago at my former apartment building, I remember that first week of the summer of spiders. I grew more and more disgusted with each passing day. I tired of dodging stray strands of webbing. I had nightmares about the spiders getting inside. When I could stand it no more, I took up arms—a broom—and knocked down the webs. I was a god among mortals. The spiders tried to scamper away, furious at the invasion. My boots crushed them as they scampered, popping their fat bodies like a kid with bubble wrap covered in corn flakes. When I had done my worst, I sprayed the area down with Raid and declared victory.

Things get worse for dear Thalia. As she sleeps, a blossoming takes place. And when she awakes, “Over the bathtub, a black mass writhed around a giant, white-webbed X.” She has absolutely had enough. Her neighbors, a gay couple, invite her to stay with them until the problem can be resolved. Maintenance is called in and an arachnid abatement protocol is enacted. As you might guess, it doesn’t work. She tries to break her lease, but that would mean financial ruin. And then shit gets really weird. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you at all because it’s pure, Lovecraftian awesomeness. I’ll just end with one quote as a teaser. She calls maintenance again in a fit of fury. (Recall her vertigo.) When she gives her 37th floor apartment number there is some confusion, “My switchboard says you’re calling from the three hundred and seventieth floor.”

It only took a few days after the slaughter of the spiders for me to realize my mistake in Chicago. The flies. Their predators annihilated, they spawned and spawned and spawned. And whereas the spiders were content to stay outdoors, the flies came inside,  black, whirling dervishes that tormented my sleep and disturbed my leisure. I could not get rid of them. Winter finally accomplished what I could not, and when summer came again and the webs went up again, I left them alone. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than to see those buzzing bitches caught and silk-wrapped. The spiders and I reached a truce; we left each other alone, so long as they stayed outdoors. With no flies in the apartment that summer, that wasn’t a problem. To this day, I leave spiders alone. Thalia should have, too. And maybe you should consider it.

I loved this story. By the way, if audio books are your thing, this story has received the Pseudopod treatment for your listening pleasure. Check it out here! Stabilimentum doesn’t have the hallmark eroticism Llewellyn is known for, and so if you’re looking for that (and you should), you’ll have to pick a different story, probably the final one in this collection, The Unattainable. But this one was fantastic, Lovecraftian, creepy, and crawly. All things that set my teeth chattering. Her writing, as I’ve tried to demonstrate, is evocative and puts you right in the story with ease. This is a quality present in almost all of her stories that I’ve read. (I keep hedging those kind of statements because I really just didn’t like Wasp & Snake.) The presence of sexual desire in her stories really sets her apart. Lovecraft detested sexuality, and so there is simply none of it in his stories. I don’t buy into the theories of latent homoeroticism present in such stories as The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Thing on the Doorstep, or The Dunwich Horror. I know others will point to other stories, too, like Hypnos. And it’s true, Lovecraft may have been gay, but it is my belief that even if he were, he was above that, asexual. In Hypnos the possibly sexual is described in ways that indicate HPL was disgusted, “It was like the others, yet incalculably denser; a sticky, clammy mass, if such terms can be applied to analogous qualities in a non-material sphere.” What Llewellyn is able to do so well is to bring both the immediacy and the beauty of human sexuality to the fore in her writing. You owe it to yourself to check out this fantastic author! Only, just in other stories, not this one. This is a story about spiders. In bathrooms.


That about does it here, fellow arachnophobes (-philes???). Naturally, this review was composed while listening to a Spotify playlist of my own creation called “Crooner Christmas.”

Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nug and Yeb,
~The Bibliothecar