Review: Jon Padgett’s “The Secret of Ventriloquism”

the_secret_of_ventriloquism_by_jon_padgettThere is no shortage of good horror and weird fiction about ventriloquism, but it’s always focused on the dummies, isn’t it? Arguably the best part of Dead of Night (1945) is the segment about the ventriloquist’s dummy, Hugo, who makes his owner descend into insanity (or serves as the projection of the ventriloquist’s psychosis, an always blurry line in these stories). The Twilight Zone featured two notably creepy stories about ventriloquist’s dummies, “The Dummy” and “Caesar and Me.” Anthony Hopkins got in on the act with his dummy Fats in the movie Magic (1978). And of course, no one can forget Slappy the Dummy from the Goosebumps series. The core of the uncanniness in these stories always seems to be the recognition of life in something that shouldn’t be alive: the slow blink of wooden eyelids under their own control, the raising of a tiny tuxedoed arm with a knife in hand, and so on. These things, made in a crude resemblance of humanity, become animated under their own power, take on personality; this disturbs us, as viewers, as audience to this impromptu show. It disturbs the ventriloquist too, because they’re the dummy’s master. The uncanniness from a well-told dummy story doesn’t just come from a crude version of the Uncanny Valley, then, but also a nightmare of loss of control.

I say this because I came to Jon Padgett’s debut collection The Secret of Ventriloquism with certain expectations, in large part grounded in the body of past dummy stories, and those expectations were largely subverted and challenged, for which I am very thankful. There are strange dummies in these stories, most notably the dummy Reg in the title story, but overall Padgett is interested in looking at ventriloquism as cause for a weird occasion from a different direction altogether. His stories seem to take a step back and apply the kind of uncanny questions that we focus upon ventriloquist’s dummies, in all of their unlife, to the ventriloquists themselves, and by extension to humanity: what are we to be imbued with life and thoughts? And what are we to believe — that we’re ever acting under our own power, that we’re masters of ourselves: our bodies, our minds, our voices? And if we can be understood to be no different than dummies, then surely we are in fact being animated by voices not our own.

Padgett’s prior experience as a working ventriloquist shines through the authority in the writing of stories such as “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism,” a step-by-step guide for the reader to become first a practitioner of ventriloquism, and then a practitioner of the occult art of Greater Ventriloquism. What separates the two, you might ask? (And that is an important question, because this Greater Ventriloquism is the fictional philosophy cutting through all of the stories in this collection, giving them a much appreciated spine of intent and eerie energy.) The trick to being a Greater Ventriloquist, it seems, is to take the lessons one gains in manipulating a ventriloquist’s dummy and then realize that you can “control all the animal-dummies around you” the way one might control the non-animal variety. If the implications of that seem disturbing to you, I will not spoil the rest of the story (I wouldn’t do that anyway); suffice it to say, though, the story leaves you thinking of ventriloquism less as a stage trick or performance and more as a kind of vastation.

That sense of vastation is also something that cuts through the collection as a whole. In “Organ Void,” for instance, the protagonist encounters a homeless person on the side of a highway and makes a deal for a cardboard sign bearing the title of the story, after which they begin to be figuratively and literally emptied out. Being emptied out makes sense, of course, in the context of ventriloquism. As the cutaway diagram on the cover of Secret makes clear, dummies of all kinds are ultimately empty; all the better to be imbued with voice. “The Infusorium,” meanwhile, makes use of the other meaning of vastation, “being laid to waste,” with a story set in a decaying industrial town with strange soot soaking into everything and everyone, with horrifying consequences. In that story, it seems, the only way to solve anything is through purging by fire, but even that just contributes to the vastation of the land and the people, one way or another.

Like “20 Simple Steps,” “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice” makes key use of the imperative tense, taking the form of a mindfulness exercise that leads the reader through four stages of developing awareness of themselves. Padgett in fact excels at this kind of direct address to the reader, in a tone that reflects that of a seeming self help guru (in his introduction to the collection, Matt Cardin mentions that Padgett is influenced by, among others, Eckhart Tolle). This seems strangely appropriate at a time when readers are swamped by self help manuals and personal care how-to’s, but the goal of “Mindfulness” is a grotesque one: to gain enlightenment via revelling in the grotesquerie and transience of one’s own existence. The final stage is a kind of oblivion: “Accept as the days and nights go by that you are a walking skeleton, an ambulatory miracle of meat. New thoughts come, but they arrive from beyond the foam, beyond the foam, beyond the foamy sponge of your brain.” Of course, if these new thoughts don’t come from your disgusting, transient body, or the “foamy sponge of your brain,” then where do they come from? (A Greater Ventriloquist, as it turns out, or something even more unnerving.)

I’m loathe to go much further in identifying high points of the collection, largely because this is a collection that begs to be read as a whole, and then also to be revisited past the first reading. Stories like “Origami Dreams,” for instance, thrive via a kind of nightmare logic; characters gain and lose fingers without notable causation, houses unfold into other structures against the laws of architecture (and physics), and identities shift and lock into place outside even the barest sense of consent on the part of the persons involved. All of this provides that frisson that comes from removing the boundary between reality and fantasy, but the story can also lack a sense of purpose unless one reads it in the greater context of the collection as a whole, and the principles created and revealed therein. My recommendation for reading, then, might be to first read “20 Simple Steps” and the title story, an exceedingly strange and creepy one-act play, to get a sense of the mythos Padgett is creating, and then read the collection as a whole from there — rereading those stories again along the way, of course.

In retrospect, Padgett’s notable achievement with this collection is to thematically and philosophically explore the notion of ventriloquism in weird horror in a different way, and certainly a more contemporary way that aligns nicely with certain pessimistic strains of thought à la writers like Thomas Ligotti (who was also Padgett’s mentor; Padgett himself founded Thomas Ligotti Online, one of the most notable online venues for discussing weird horror). When we understand that we are no better than dummies — when we see the strings that move us and hear the voice that animates us — we become the uncanny object, as opposed to the dummy. Our own embodiment thus becomes a vessel for great horrors. It’s eerie enough to make one pine for the good old days as a kind of relief, when dummies were dummies, ventriloquists were ventriloquists, and the horror was only in our minds. If only that was ever the case.