Review by Kayleigh Marie Edwards
‘The Secret of Ventriloquism’ is a debut short story collection by Jon Padgett – probably one of the best writers you might not have even heard of yet. It is fantastic; I have never been so delighted to review a collection. Let’s get into it.
Padgett has a very clear author’s ‘voice’, yet somehow manages to pull off each story (particularly those written in the first person) with the individuality of the protagonist in question. His stories, individually and as a whole, are excellently structured, and his vocabulary and use of language compliments his wonderful, fluid writing style. Each story has a theme unto itself, yet all are linked to give the sense of a grander whole, if you will. There’s the narrative in the story, and then the overarching theme of the book.
It’s as though each story is one piece of a larger whole, much like the thought processes and complexities of the human mind, and therein lies the genius of this collection. The way the book is written almost mimics the principles of ventriloquism in the way that the performer simultaneously is but is separate from his/her puppet. Everything is connected, though it seems it isn’t.
The Mindfulness of Horror Practice opens the book (after a beautiful introduction from Matt Cardin) in a way that sets the reader in a state of apprehension and dread. The tone is one of creeping horror.
Murmurs of a Voice Unknown is my favourite story in the collection, and has one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read – ‘I was seven years old the first time my brother tried to kill me’. Well, consider me intrigued, Padgett. It’s the story of a dark sibling rivalry that probes at the potential horrors that lurk within a child’s mind. I loved the chemistry between the brothers – it so reminded me of my own relationship to my sister (though the context was different!).
It was during The Indoor Swamp that it suddenly occurred to me how clever Padgett has been with the theme of ventriloquism in this collection. This story was entirely different from the last, and yet there was this underlying link concerning the mind, that creeped me out. I opened this book expecting a variety of tales about haunted ventriloquist’s dummies, or creepy ventriloquists who have gone mad. That’s not what I got, and it was so refreshing. However, this is a horror collection, and one that reached into my brain with long, cold fingers and poked at the dark places I try to ignore.
Origami Dreams made me go “…is he nuts then or.. what… no hang on.. HANG ON A MINUTE…” Never have a read such an eloquently written journey of madness, and the confusion that goes with it. I empathised with the protagonist in ways I never imagined I could, because the descriptions of his predicament and the way it was mapped out were So. Damn. Good.
20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism is one I adored. It’s structured like a self-teaching manual and this works so well. Up to this point in the book, we’ve enjoyed a variety of shorts; one very short, some a bit longer, all told from different perspectives. It made me wonder if Padgett deliberately played with the form of each story – the constant change in form gives the impression that the book is evolving as you go along, especially since you notice the ever-increasing number of references to the previous stories in the next. There’s an order to it, as if it’s all heading somewhere, and this, I think, is very clever. It’s like the creation of a hive-mind.
It’s worth mentioning that Padgett’s opening lines are all excellent at reeling you in to the story, and all of his endings perfectly wrap up the narratives. I don’t want to give more detail on the stories themselves (and quite frankly, I doubt I could do them justice if I tried), as I really do recommend you read this collection.
I could rave all day about The Secret of Ventriloquism but I suppose I need to start wrapping this review up. So how on earth do I summarise?
This collection is the work of an extremely talented and very intelligent writer who, as a writer myself, made me jealous. His use of his theme is remarkable, unique, and thought provoking. He brings horror to you in ways you don’t expect, but will be thrilled by. He has an ability to build tension on several different levels all at once, which sometimes disorientates you, but it’s too well written to mistake that as anything other than intentional.
This isn’t a collection for someone who wants an ‘easy’ read – you need to pay attention because these stories require you to think and assess for yourself. It is a collection for those who want to be intellectually stimulated and I’ve every confidence that you’ll be as impressed as I was by it. Sometimes, you can judge a book by its (excellent) cover.
So, in short, I loved it. Jon Padgett… I LOVE this collection. I can’t wait to read the next thing you write. I sincerely take my hat off to you, writer to writer, for the most fantastic, wonderful, weird debut collection I have ever had the pleasure to review.
THE SECRET OF VENTRILOQUISM BY JON PADGETT
With themes reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ligotti, and Bruno Shulz, but with a strikingly unique vision, Jon Padgett's The Secret of Ventriloquism heralds the arrival of a significant new literary talent. 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 who seeks vengeance within a bed's hollow box spring; a lucid dreamer haunted by an impossible house; a dummy that reveals its own anatomy in 20 simple steps; a stuttering librarian who holds the key to a mill town's unspeakable secrets; a commuter whose worldview is shattered by two words printed on a cardboard sign; an aspiring ventriloquist who spends a little too much time looking at himself in a mirror. And the presence that speaks through them all.