The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I almost bought this in the limited-edition numbered hardcover. Alas, I waited too long and only got the signed softcover. I regret that decision now. Really regret it, deep down in my bones. Had I known that this collection, this book was going to be so strong, I would have dropped the cash in a heartbeat. I've been reading a lot of short fiction collections lately, and this is among the best I've read in recent memory, which is saying something, as I've read some great ones. So, without further ado, let's go through the stories:
"The Mindfulness of Horror Practice" carries a lot of power in very few words. An examination of the story would take longer than the story itself, which is a sort of self-help guide to feeling horror. Thankfully, the visceral nature of the content explains itself in so few words. 5 stars, and an ideal start to this collection of horror stories. In my original notes, I wrote "I get the feeling that this will set the stage for much to come. One foot in the doorway of nihilism . . .". Oh, if I only knew!
"Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown" is terrifying for what it does not say, defining the motives for vengeance without revealing the act, and creating fear not through a sudden shock, but through a more subtle, more methodical revelation. 5 stars for this near-perfectly crafted story.
"The Indoor Swamp" speaks to our (or maybe just my) fascination with the macabre, the grotesque, and the terrifying. It's a labyrinth of the mind, fueled by morbid curiosity. 5 stars for this short, but very effective piece."
"Origami Dreams" is the type of reality-slipping unfolding I love in cosmic horror. Padgett takes the old cheap-thrill of "it was just a dream" type schlock and crafts it into something genuinely sinister, an alienation so thorough that even the narrator himself falls and breaks through layers and layers of reality. This is where the collection really takes off into the highest reaches of darkness. It is with this tale that the collection itself assumes a life of its own, where the collection begins to become more than the sum of its parts, which is what all the best collections do. It is not merely an accumulation of stories, it is an accretion of stories with themes, characters, and phrases that allude to each other, at the very least, sometimes directly, sometimes in an obtuse way that deepens the sense of "depth" even more. The perfect soundtrack to this story would be Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand". 5 stars.
"20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism" was obviously influenced by Ligotti (exact repetition of words and phrases, focused emphasis on specific words that create a sense of hopelessness, and so forth). This is probably intended. What I'm not sure is whether or not the voice was meant to sound like Steven Millhauser. But it does. And that's a good thing. 5 stars to this story, as well.
"The Infusorium" is a fantastic crawl through a polluted noir horror that is the kind of grey, burdensome, yet titillating story I always wish for when opening a volume of dark fiction, but rarely find. The procedural ends in a surprising way that, in hindsight, is the only way it could have ended. But as it's unfolding, there is a twist that throws things in an unexpected direction, only to spin right around to the ending that you might have guessed, except the twist threw you off the scent. It's an exhilarating sensation that adds to the feeling of terror. The accretion I mentioned earlier continues, like a spider web being slowly built around the reader's mind. In fact, this story would be in the thick of the web. Cross-references with other stories that might normally be obtrusive or jarring feel natural and yet continue to surprise. This is becoming a complete, complex BOOK. 5 stars.
Unfortunately, "Organ Void" was a bit of a void for me, with only a very tenuous connection with the rest of the collection. The weakest of the bunch, but still a decent enough story. 3 stars.
"The Secret of Ventriloquism" is written as stage directions and dialogue for a play. Padgett leverages the medium by using metatextual stage directions as a way to expose another layer of meaning and terror "behind" the story. This layering effect give a richness to the story that would have been compromised had these subtle elements been presented in too-straightforward of a manner. It's a lot like . . . ventriloquism. 5 stars.
"Escape to Thin Mountain," frankly, reminds me of some of my own early writing. So, yes, I do like this frenetic, manic voice that is so sing-songy and pleasant as to be absolutely horrific. I was a tiny bit disappointed that there is only a tenuous connection to the rest of the collection, which seemed to be forming such a strong book. Still, a solid 4 star story.
I won't say that the collection would have been better without "Escape to Thin Mountain" and "Organ Void," but they were both distractions from the rest of the collection, which is near perfect. And I don't use the word "perfect" to describe books very often. But this is pretty darned close.
I can't recommend this book strongly enough. I will be on the lookout for even more of Padgett's work and for whatever Dunhams Manor Press produces. Kudos all the way around!
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