Sunday, October 23, 2016
Interview: Jon Padgett
First off, congratulations on the new collection! How does it feel having your own book to be able to put on the bookshelf?
Thanks, Scott. It’s still a bit hard to believe, frankly. Mostly, right now, I’m feeling grateful—especially to Dunhams Manor Press and my supportive and perceptive readers.
It seems that most of the stories in The Secret of Ventriloquism take place in the same smog filled old mill town. Was it intentional to have the stories take place in a shared world? Or was that a decision to link these stories later on? Do you plan on writing more stories in the old mill town setting?
The shared world of the collection took some time to develop and was an organic, rather than a planned, process.
Back in 2002, I heard a piece on NPR called “The Killer Fog of ’52” about London’s horrific environmental disaster, which likely took the lives of some 12,000 people in the course of a few days. "Roads were littered with abandoned cars. Midday concerts were canceled due to total darkness. Archivists at the British Museum found smog lurking in the book stacks. Cattle in the city's Smithfield market were killed and thrown away before they could be slaughtered and sold — their lungs were black." That story and its horrific impact came to haunt “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” and “The Secret of Ventriloquism” as I was writing them. My research deepened and focused on temperature inversion—a meteorological condition described in the aforementioned NPR piece and a 1950 New Yorker article called “The Fog,” which describes another environmental catastrophe, this time in a Pennsylvania mill town called Donora. What’s the connection with the stories in my collection? Well, my research into the gastromantic forbears of ventriloquists kept leading me back to the Oracle at Delphi, which was guarded by a monster called The Python. The Oracle herself was high off toxic fumes from a geologic fault line under the temple. Maybe those fumes and this Python were one and the same, I mused. And perhaps this Python was the motivating power that spoke through the Delphic animal-dummies down through the ages. Thus the Black Fog was born into my work. The idea of smoggy Dunnstown (aka Foyle) itself came to me while writing “The Infusorium,” which was conceived as a kind of sequel to “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism.” I grew up in just such a mill town, which was plagued with smelly “paper mill days.” In fact, I have often visited that surreal south Alabama cityscape in my own dreams and nightmares, complete with awful ranch-style houses and paper mill stench. After I wrote about half of the pieces in the collection, I began strengthening the common elements of setting and character between them, though most of that process was an automatic one and existed almost immediately in my first story drafts.
I honestly don’t know if Dunnstown and its environs will continue to haunt my work in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
Some of your most effective stories, such as The Mindfulness of Horror Practice and 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism utilize a meta-technique of presenting fiction as if it were nonfiction, to extremely disturbing effect. It reminds me of Ligotti’s Notes on the Writing of Horror and some of Jorge Luis Borges’s writing. Is Borges an influence on your writing? What inspired the meta approach?
Thanks, Scott. That’s good to hear.
“20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” took me almost twenty years to write. Originally, I meant it as an ode to Ligotti’s work, and the first draft of the story—“The Eyes of the Master”—was an embarrassingly terrible Poe/Ligotti hybrid pastiche. I rewrote that story from scratch close to a dozen times over the years, without success. Later drafts of the story were written in the form of a memoir, drawn from my past theater experiences, with the narrator reminiscing about his fear of dolls and dummies. When I was a child, my first ventriloquist dummy came with a pamphlet entitled “7 SIMPLE STEPS TO VENTRILOQUISM,” and this manual began making an appearance in my writing attempts. In 2004, I had an epiphany, scrapped my latest draft and rewrote the thing from scratch, using that pamphlet from my childhood as a template but expanding beyond it.
In the years that followed, the tale became the combination guidebook-confession of a character named Joseph Snavely. The “final” version of the tale (then entitled “The Secret of Ventriloquism”), was over 14,000 words long. In 2011, I was invited by Joe Pulver to submit my story to his Ligotti anthology, The Grimscribe’s Puppets. I sent him the long version, but he had a 5,000 word cut off. That’s when I reimagined the story, stripping out both character and plot—all extraneous to the manual itself. What was left? A 4,500 version of my story, which I entitled “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism.” So it was out of sheer necessity that the “author” of the manual was removed, leaving the story lean and honed and even more purely metafictional in nature.
The Ligotti influence is probably mostly due to the fact that between 2005 and 2009 I read and made notes on upwards of a dozen drafts of Thomas Ligotti’s book long philosophical argument, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. There’s no doubt that Ligotti’s masterful and profoundly disturbing treatise rubbed off on my humble story—the student unconsciously acting as dummy for the master-mentor ventriloquist. If I was influenced by Borges, it was an oblique influence. Consciously, the final version of “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” was inspired by Ligotti’s vignette, “10 Steps to Thin Mountain” and the philosophical writings of Eckhart Tolle. “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice” was inspired and informed by Bodhipaksa’s recorded Mindfulness of Breathing, my mindfulness practice of choice for the last ten years or so.
On a personal level, I love successful works of metafiction—either comprehensively or selectively produced by the author. I was one of those teenagers who half-believed, for instance, that Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and all the associated mythology were based on fact. Ligotti himself once called “20 Simple Steps” “a kind of Necronomicon for ventriloquists,” so perhaps things have come full circle for me.
The stories in “The Secret of Ventriloquism” seem to utilize a kind of Ligottian mythos in the same way Leiber and Campbell used a kind of Lovecraftian mythos. What does Ligotti’s writings mean to you as an author and reader?
Ligotti is my favorite prose writer, living or dead—the one fiction author, more than any other before or since, that speaks to and for me. His fiction nearly always transports my imagination and—paradoxically
considering the subject matter—produces a great sense of well-being, relief and calm in me. To quote Ligotti's “The Cocoons,” when I read Tom's stories I feel a “...great sense of escape from the poles of fear and madness ...as if I could exist serenely outside the grotesque ultimatums of creation, an entranced spectator casting a clinical gaze at the chaotic tumult both around and within him.” I invariably leave those tales feeling calm and aware and even ecstatic. Ligotti's stories are like Transcendental Meditation for me, which probably explains at least in part my obsession with the horror of compulsive thinking and its cure via a Ligottian shattering of identity.
In The Secret to Ventriloquism, I’ve concentrated on what Ligotti has called a “salvation by way of meticulous derangement.” I’m interested in the idea of redemption/epiphany through horror. In my collection, anyway, that’s the flavor of choice. I have no idea if this element will remain in my future work or if the writing of The Secret of Ventriloquism has exorcised it from my imagination.
Being the main entity behind Thomas Ligotti Online, you have been involved with the horror community for a long time, what are your views on where the horror fiction scene is right now?
It’s humbling and frankly hard to believe that we’re about to move into the nineteenth year of Thomas Ligotti Online’s existence. What began as a simple fan site I created in 1998 has transformed into a robust online community with thousands of members. That never would’ve happened without my co-conspirator and fellow administrator, Brian Poe.
In terms of the horror fiction scene… There are remarkable works of horror fiction being produced by authors such as the magnificently original Livia Llewellyn, the incredible prose craftsmen, Laird Barron and John Langan, the bizarre and wonderful Jordan Krall, and Ligottian standouts Nicole Cushing and Mark Samuels. There are, of course, many other exceptional horror authors, but these are some of the very best. My favorite of the exceptional new crop of horror authors is Christopher Slatsky, whose debut collection, Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales, knocked me off my feet and who continues to write some of the most affecting and powerful weird tales in the business.
All that stated, I believe it’s all too easy (and inaccurate) to claim that we’re in any kind of creative Golden Age. Mainstream horror continues to be too generic, too easy, and—honestly—too lazy. The weird and speculative small press world is consistently outclassing most of the big bestselling publishers, but plenty of mediocre writing and cut corners are present there as well.
In a sense, though, it’s the same as it ever was. Exceptional, well-crafted writing is never the norm in the publishing world.
Reading your stories in The Secret of Ventriloquism, I must say most of them leave the reader with the same feeling as if they had just ingested some bad hallucinogens, what do you feel the role of delirium and unease are in horror?
I’d say that the production of unease is key to effective horror, and delirium is an effective (though optional) element in that production. The more authentic the distillation of unease, the more powerful the horror story. That’s why Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” and Ligotti’s “The Red Tower” always rank high when assessing both writers’ oeuvre. Derangement of what we consider “the natural order of
things” awakens the reader to an alternate reality behind the compulsive day to day thought-creations that we call normal living. Unease and delirium in an effective horror story leads to lingering awareness—the more troubling, the better. For me, as a reader, it’s equivalent to our subconscious minds working out waking world troubles via surreal, dread-filled nightmares. Mindfully experienced, these can be transformative experiences.
The Halloween season is upon us, do you have any go to favorite horror films that you watch this time of year?
I honestly don’t watch horror films on a seasonal basis—I watch them all year round as the mood strikes me. I’ll dispense with the usual list of horror film favorites and speak only of a couple of less popular and more unusual ones. Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is an unsung Lovecraftian classic that gets too little respect. And one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen (speaking of an atmosphere of unease) is the magnificently filmed and written Session 9.
What are some horror fiction collections that inspired you to try your hand at creating one?
Christopher Slatsky’s aforementioned collection, Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales, was a tremendous inspiration. It gave me confidence that a newer writer on the scene could produce truly strange and memorable and distinctive work. Ligotti’s Grimscribe influenced me most. Specifically, those stories (and the characters within them) are closely linked to one another and seem to exist in the same dread-filled and oneiric world. The publisher wanted a novel from Ligotti, and these stories were Tom’s solution—the closest thing to a novel he was interested in writing at the time. Grimscribe gave me permission to write my collection my own way.
I was hoping to produce both the weird, fragment derangement of a horror collection along with some measure of novelistic world-immersion.
What’s next from Jon Padgett? Any new work coming you can talk about? And where do you want to go with your writing?
I wrote the final story for The Secret of Ventriloquism literally three weeks ago, so I’m still kind of lost in the collection.
I’m a professional voiceover artist as well as a writer (and ventriloquist), so the next step is to produce an audio version of the book. I hope to have it complete and ready for purchase alongside the hardcopy and digital versions by mid-November.
Where do I go from here as an author? I’m honestly leaving concerns about that to my future self. But I have no doubt that more stories will come. And this time they won’t take twenty years for me to write.