Sunday, October 23, 2016
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.
So about two weeks ago I found a strange object in my mailbox. At first sight, I thought it was a mold encrusted doll. Then on closer look, I thought it was a skeleton of a dead cat with lipstick smeared all over its teeth. When I brought it inside into the light it was revealed to be a book. Jon Padgett’s new collection in fact. It was titled The Secret of Ventriloquism. I put it to the side, not knowing what to make of it. But when I tried to sleep that night I kept hearing a soft voice whispering to me. I would wake up to find the book had found its way under my pillow. I figured there was only one way to stop all this madness. I read it. When I put the book down I realized it had seemingly infested my cerebral cortex. And now I must spread the disease Jon Padgett has unleashed upon this cold and dark Earth. The Secret of Ventriloquism is that rare collection of horror tales, these are tales that attack the reader. These tales want to destabilize. These tales want to corrupt your thoughts and dreams. These insidious fragments want to live inside of you. The dark whisperings never let up, in fact, they will override your own thoughts. Have you ever walked through a town filled with such a thick layer of smog that you could not make out where you were and what the dark shapes are that keep crawling around in the distance? Have you ever stopped and sat down in that smog and heard a voice, not your voice but a voice that is emanating from inside your head, telling you things that you know to be true but can not be accepted if you are to continue living your normal workaday life? Have you ever wondered if the nightmares has stopped, or do they continue, forever? Read The Secret of Ventriloquism, and maybe at least you can figure out where the nightmare ends and this book begins. That is.. if you still have a mind that you can still call your own.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
I picked up Ellen Datlow’s new anthology Children Of Lovecraft with high hopes of an amazing read. The table of contents reads like a who’s who of Weird Horror fiction. After reading it I must say I was a little disappointed. The Lovecraft homage anthology industry that sustains spots for new horror authors at Barnes and Noble seems to be running out of steam. A lot of the stories in this book were tired and read like stale rehashes of better stories. BUT. There were two stories in there that really caught my attention and are well worth the price of picking up a copy. Brian Evenson’s story Eyeglasses is hands down one of the creepiest stories I have ever read. There are images in his story that will haunt you at night when the lights are off. It’s right up there with Ligotti’s Our Temporary Supervisor and The Fifth Mask by Shamus Frazer for down the back chills. And then to end the collection is Livia Llewellyn’s Bright Crown of Joy, which I feel is Livia really bringing her A game and showing everyone why she may just be the best Weird Horror writer working in the genre right now. A mix of ‘the rise of the old ones’ panic and post humanity living on Earth, it is both breath taking in its ideas and trailblazing in its approach. Bright Crown of Joy is about finding wonder in transformation and hope beyond the human sphere. I can’t urge potential readers enough, Bright Crown of Joy is a classic. So all in all, Children Of Lovecraft isn’t the new classic I wanted it to be, but there are some stories in it that are must reads and I feel it’s worth a buy.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
“ Angels to some, Demons to others. ”
I hear a lot of talk about how Hellraiser is ‘outdated’, how S&M has become mainstream. Um, excuse me? First off, sadism and masochism as a lifestyle I find hard to believe has become mainstream, second of all, when was Hellraiser about S&M at all? It seems to me to be about more dark and philosophical concepts, like the universe being centered around pain and sexual desire, about desire even beyond death, about the infinite mutations of the flesh, about the desire to transgress past the everyday, even if it means submitting to dark and unknowable gods. In a time where A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels where the norm for horror fans looking for a fix in their local theatre, along comes this deeply perverted and weirdly romantic film that against all reason, became a mainstream hit. Hellraiser is perverse in a way that most horror films try for, and miss by miles. Hellraiser proposes a universe that is based in “ flesh, hunger, and desire”. The angels are strange and bring a dark poetry of mutilation instead of a supposed spiritual salvation. Clive Barker really attacks the viewer with some beautiful imagery, combining the beautiful and the abject, like shambling corpses in the attic, blossoming flowers, dead rats, and bloodstained skin. The composition of shots in this film is stunning. Some frames could stand by themselves as photographic art. The film is filled with lustful whispers and doom foretelling bells. The corrupt romance between Julia and Frank is the true heart of the film. Her disappointment in her husband’s white bread demeanor and lack of passion eats away at her. Frank brings passion and lust. To some Hell’s damnation is preferable to the ennui of Heaven. Hellraiser is a true dirty epic. It’s sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 is almost as good as the original, brings even more brilliant imagery and Doctor Channard is a classic creation straight out of a pervert’s nightmare. Too bad Clive’s subsequent films don’t live up to the first 2 Hellraiser films. Nightbreed was hampered by some horrible creature designs and really bad acting. Lord of Illusions was a decent film, but a film that played it mostly safe, no where near the taboo shredding standards of his early work. And now it seems he has walked away forever from the Horror genre.
“ You wanted to know. Now you know. “
Of course Hellraiser is not a perfect film. It suffers from two glaring flaws. First the main character Kirsty is just a boring weak character. She just goes around being shocked and disgusted by all the happenings of the film. She has no real depth. Second the end is a bit weak where she sends the Cenobites back to Hell. I’m sure this ending was forced on Clive, because every horror film needs to end with the ‘bad guys’ being defeated right? It just seems out of place in the narrative. I think the film would have been better off if after the scene Uncle Frank gets ripped apart, instead of that horrible ending, it cuts to Kirsty 10 years from then, scarred, lonely, and haunted by the tragic events in her like, sitting by herself in her empty apartment with a glass of wine, looking at the Box that she kept hidden all these years, then she leans over and picks it up and begins to unlock it, scene end.
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
There has been a lot of talk in the Weird Horror community over the past couple years about if the Weird Horror genre has entered into a sort of ‘Weird Renaissance’; the implication being that we are seeing a high point in the quality of Weird Horror literature. To quote Scott Nicolay from his essay The Expanding Borders of Area X published on Weirdfictionreview.com, “ More and better Weird Fiction writers are working at all lengths right now than ever before. “. There certainly has been an explosion of small presses publishing all manner of material: Bizzaro, Weird Horror, Lovecraftian pastiches, Dark Surrealist Erotica, etc. Jeff Vandermeer’s The Southern Reach trilogy reached mainstream sales and attention, and Thomas Ligotti’s work has been reprinted as Penguin Press classics. But does this mainstream attention and proliferation of the small presses mean that this is a golden period for Weird Horror? I would argue no.
I am going to throw the gauntlet down and say we are in fact at a rather low point in Weird Horror as an art form. I would say the birth of Weird Horror was when Poe created the horror tale with his pitch-black, dread-inducing short stories. Weird Horror reached a high point in the beginning of the 20th century with writers like Lovecraft, Machen, and Wells. But for me, the true Weird Renaissance, I believe, happened around roughly 1955 to 1985, a twenty-year period of unprecedented work in both Weird Horror fiction and film. Films like Last Year in Marienbad, Hausu, Eraserhead, The Last Wave, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Persona, Repulsion, and Night of the Living Dead come in like a nuclear bomb and destroyed all that came before, and in fiction works like The Atrocity Exhibition, with its fierce, perverse, and penetrating vision of a future psychology, getting its first run shredded and almost falling under the ban hammer most of its existence, Demons by Daylight, pushing a commitment to make its reader uneasy with its nebulous and creepy prose, I Am Legend, with its apocalyptic vision and razor-sharp social commentary, The Tenant, shredding the minds of its readers since its first printing, The Haunting of Hill House, and its deep explorations of the psyche of its characters, set the standard for writers to come. This was a time where Weird Horror had an urgency, a desire to mutate and corrupt accepted forms, to be willingly socially transgressive and artistically complex.
If anything, the Weird Horror literature community today seems content to just follow in the footsteps of Ramsey Campbell and T.E.D. Klein, kind of like how the Weird Horror film community just keeps remaking films from the 70’s grindhouse period and 80’s splatter comedy scene. Writers in 2016 seem to me to be more concerned about scene promotion and slapping oneself on the back then in doing what Weird Horror is meant to do, to be the art form that looks where no one else wants to look and say the things no one wants to say, to be purposefully subversive and not accepted by the powers that be. Where is the new John Carpenter, exposing the corrupt power systems with films like They Live and Escape from New York? Where is the new David Lynch, dissecting America like a surrealist surgeon? In a time where the United States is flirting with fascism, and the total abolition of social rights like privacy or speech seemingly welcomed, where the masses are more sheeplike and asleep than ever, where is Weird Horror to challenge and provide the voice for the outsider and the rebel? Now we get anthology after anthology with the same authors filling the table of contents, writers who are included more for their skills at social media than their skills at writing, with their stale rewrites of better works, Lovecraft tribute after stale Lovecraft tribute, and pseudo-edgy experimental fiction which tries to hide the absence of ideas or anything new or individual to say.
Regretfully in the film scene, the situation is even more dire. With the death of the independent theatre and even worse the demise of film stock as a medium, quickly made, oh so ironic horror comedies and 70’s independent horror ‘homages’ have flooded the market, and any true voice has no one to fund their film, nowhere to show their film, and no film to shoot their film on. Almost a complete crash of the Weird Horror in cinema has taken place. At most, there are maybe one or two films, mostly foreign, that demand consideration. Anti-Christ heralded the coming of the art-house horror film resurgence that has taken place recently, leading to such amazing works as Under the Skin and The Witch. Hopefully, this is the start of a new wave of Weird Horror in film.
With the coming of Thomas Ligotti and Clive Barker there was a resurgence in the genre, and following quickly after them were Caitlin Kiernan and Laird Barron. But Barker has rejected the Horror genre, Ligotti has fallen into a willful silence, Barron has almost completely left the genre to work at what I would call more of a Weird Adventure or a Pulp Weird type of fiction, and Kiernan has seemingly hit some kind of wall where passion and poetic drive have decreased noticeably in her writing, which I hope she springs back from.
I hope this not sound like all doom and gloom. I am not at all saying there is no great writing out there. Actually, there are many amazing authors toiling out there. For instance, Livia Llewellyn is maybe the most promising author in the field today, her complex and darkly erotic fever dreams are just amazing and she is sure to have a long and remarkable career. Jeff Vandermeer really set the bar high with his Weird Horror/Scifi hybrid The Southern Reach trilogy. Adam Golaski is a genius and every story he drops is a must-read. Matthew Bartlett has written an instant classic in his book Gateways to Abomination and he is definitely a writer to keep an evil eye on. Christopher Slatsky has one great collection under his belt, melding both deliriously weird horror and philosophy dense prose, and is sure to continue blowing our minds. And I think maybe the most interesting writer working in the field is Scott Nicolay, who is comfortable working in both the psychosexual drama and the socially transgressive modes of Weird Horror. What makes him such an interesting writer is he holds no allegiance to any scene and uses imagery and prose in always challenging and unexpected ways. Anytime I start a Nicolay story I have no idea what to expect and I quite enjoy that.
I guess the point of all this is that I worry that Weird Horror has kind of started getting lazy and too self-insulated, seemingly ignoring the need to react to and examine a culture in a downward spiral, and also its own birthright in being the literature of dread and delirium. I don’t think we are in a weird renaissance, but I do hope what we are seeing is the birth pains of one. Here is to Weird Horror that makes no friends and does not play safe, here is to the transgressors and poet philosophers, here is to Weird Horror that keeps blowing our minds.
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
Being a horror fan entails always searching for new strange thrills. Under the moon there are ghostly voices coming in from the static, certain fungi that only grow in shadow, and certain films that can only be appreciated in the post midnight hours. Here are some films I recommend for those looking for some good late night cinematic delirium.
Messiah of Evil - A tone poem of overlet gas stations at night and lovecraftian dread. A woman on a quest to find out what happened to her artist father in the remote town of Point Dune finds out the town hides a hideous past that can no longer be kept secret. A truly haunting film featuring a discordant synth score drifting through the hazy atmospherics of this classic.
Deathbed: The Bed that Eats - One of the most unique films you will ever see. Basically the history of a demon haunted bed, Deathbed is a fever dream that deserves to stand beside surreal classics like Eraserhead and El Topo. A bizarre mix of absurd camp and creepy fairy tale, the whole film seems to have been made in an alternate universe. A masterpiece of carnivorous beds, damned demons, and queer mood.
Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell - If Cronenberg moved to Japan and directed an alien invasion film, it would end up something like this. A plane crashes on a remote island and the survivors have to figure out how to get help, until they realize there is an even greater danger facing them. Creeping blobs and vaginal face wounds are just some of the pleasures of this film.
Tombs of the Blind Dead - A psychosexual European drama about two former females lovers running into each other when one is going on holiday with her current boyfriend. And then in the middle of the film out of nowhere, the creepiest horse riding specters, dead set on hunting down the living, all in ghostly slow motion, invade the film. And the ending stands up with the bleakest endings of a Romero or a Carpenter.
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
I have tried to get behind Nicolas Winding Fehn’s films, always being puzzled by them, but in the end, I find them a bit too fashionably abstract and recycled for my tastes. When I saw the first trailers for The Neon Demon I became excited, maybe he finally made a film that would fulfill the promise he seemed to have but was not able to fully convey ( Valhalla Rising was too comfortable with being vague with no real point behind it and Bronson was to exploitive and shallow). I have to say I was not disappointed. The most challenging film I have seen this year would without a doubt be The Neon Demon. A kind of abstracted postmodern horror film that doubles as a pervert’s guide to economics ( more on this later). No real characters. No suspense. No tragedy. Only cold, shiny surfaces devoid of emotion and blind hunger unfulfilled. There is a lot of talk about currency and the economic value of beauty, combined with the surrealist eyeball ending straight out of a Bataille novel and director Refn’s intentions become clear, The Neon Demon is a Sadean/Bataillean critique of the use of capital/human worth in this strange new era we seem to be lost in ( both de Sade and Bataille would use transgressive/perverse imagery to examine political/economic themes in their writing). Elle Fanning gives an amazing performance as a postmodern vampiric innocent turned virginal libertine. A flawed masterpiece, a little all over the place and a bit overlong, but visually stunning and bravely alienated and challenging, just the kind of film we need to counter the empty action porn of the summer blockbuster’s monopoly of our imaginations.