We Greater Ventriloquists are catatonics, emptied of illusions of selfhood and identity.
-Jon Padgett, 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism
Reading these short stores by Jon Padgett, a self-proclaimed “professional–though lapsed–ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans with his spouse, their daughter and cat,” and the caretaker of Thomas Ligotti Online (which is how I first began to notice this young writer’s proclivities for all things dark!), has been both enjoyable and nice addition to the growing corpus of the weird. A Weird that stretches from the early Gothic to the strange and fantastic realms of our late modernist era.
Jon’s work floats between the weird and eerie in the sense that the late Mark Fisher defines it,
What the weird and the eerie have in common is a preoccupation with the strange. The strange — not the horrific. The allure that the weird and the eerie possess is not captured by the idea that we “enjoy what scares us”. It has, rather, to do with a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience. This fascination usually involves a certain apprehension, perhaps even dread — but it would be wrong to say that the weird and the eerie are necessarily terrifying. I am not here claiming that the outside is always beneficent. There are more than enough terrors to be found there; but such terrors are not all there is to the outside.1
It’s this sense of the outside, of the strangeness of – as Jon will say of it in one of his stories, our “borrowed realities” that gives his stories their unique flavor of fascination and allurement, stories that draw us in and capture our desires in such a way that we are left wondering at the world we live in. No one can walk away from such stories unchanged. Such stories weave us into the strangeness of the world itself wanting to know if we ourselves are living not only on borrowed time, but in a borrowed reality. This sense of the borderlands, of being on the hedgerow between worlds, of a borderline between the weird and eerie in which reality at any moment might give way to dream and revelation, or nightmare and entrapment. It’s this sense of movement in a world not our own, and moreover not only impossible but emptied of our human imaginings. A realm that is at once new and unknown that shifts into a transitional state of apprehension, awakening us to the powers and forces of the noumenal darkness surrounding us.
I don’t want to spoil it for those who have yet to read his new book, only to spark your interest into Jon’s stylistics, the way in which he refrains from imposing a message or a moral as is so definite in many modern fantastic or weird tales. Instead Jon allows the reader to be drawn into these borrowed realities, to measure their worth not in some normative sense but rather in the mode of existence itself – of one’s existential investment and virulent, even parasitical relation to those emotions that force us out of ourselves and into the accidental voids of life we so frequently become enmeshed in.
Against the decadent closure of so many weird tales Jon’s stories seem to flow into one another, cross the borders of their enclosures and meld with each other even as the characters enter into mellifluous fluidity and emerge from tale to tale. I’m thinking of his well known tale Infusorium which relates to a tale within a tale about a now infamous instruction manual for Ventriloquists: 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism. What appears on the surface as a simple manual for developing one’s early skills in handling manikins and puppets, wooden blocs of hollow bodies filled with gears and turnstiles, levers, and the hidden appurtenances of the Ventriloquists dummies secret life. All this ends in a movement toward a Greater Art, the art of the Greater Ventriloquists for whom the secret life of puppets is more than the hand held monstrosities of lip-synching puppetry and birthday party vocations. No, such is the Greater Art that it weaves the staid ventriloquist into a darker world where the secrets of the trade suddenly take on a sinister perspective and the practitioner becomes the thing he fears most.
There’s also the sense that in citing the text on Ventriloquism within the story of Infusorium Jon was following in part the master of citation, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft would never write the full length version of the Necromonicon, but rather would in various stories within the mythos cycle cite passages from this fabled book of shadows of the Old Ones. As Fisher comments “Lovecraft seemed to have understood the power of the citation, the way in which a text seems more real if it is cited than if it is encountered in the raw.” (Fisher, pp. 24-25) I’ll admit that having read 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism in the book just before Infusorium was partially a shock of surprise, but also of a let down. For me at least the work should have remained unwritten, and rather than allowed a full blown story we should have had just the citations scattered across various stories (or story cycle). Many metafictional writers such as Stanislaw Lem, Italo Calvino, Jorge-Luis Borges among others would do the same, producing citations that in some ways would produce the very reality they were fictionalizing. Fisher would mention the anecdote that such cited works impart the feeling that they must exist somewhere in the real world, and that people reading of such works have been known to seek them out in a library. This sense of the cross-over of the fictional into the real is part of that ancient affective region of the weird, the feeling of the Outside impinging on the real of our everyday world.
And, of course, isn’t that the point of a great tale to confront you not with what other’s fear, but rather to awaken in you that sense of one’s own dark nature, the violence and dread of one’s own inhuman core? It’s this that Jon succeeds in doing so subtly that the hook and line of the tale is suddenly passed the point of no return when one is left dangling not with the meaning of the tale but rather with the darkness of one’s own nature. “The weird and the eerie … allow us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside,” says, Mark Fisher. (p. 10) It’s this perspectival movement from inside/outside, the ironic interplay and playful instigation of such transitional states of mixed realties that is Jon’s forte.
Jon’s stories in themselves are straightforward exercises in the weird tradition, and as one is reading them one feels at home in such worlds, in the homely/unhomely sense. It isn’t till one is suddenly across the border and in-between one paragraph and the next, lost in the hidden borderlands of some “borrowed reality” that one suddenly realizes that we are no longer at home in our normal everyday world, but that we have entered a secret corridor in-between worlds, become enmeshed in realms of which we know nothing; and, not only that we know nothing, but we can know nothing forever. It’s then that one leaves the tale realizing the world around one has changed ever so slightly, imperceptibly; becoming destabilized, unanchored, leaving us drifting within the endless labyrinths of a weird tale, an alternate reality — or, some other borrowed world, a darker world from which there will be no extrication, no redemption. Have we? Even now I wonder…
Either way, don’t fret about it, read Jon’s work now… this very minute, enter the borrowed realities of his secret world: go here!
- Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie (pp. 8-9). Watkins Media. Kindle Edition.