Black Fog: An Interview with Jon Padgett
Jon Padgett’s debut collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism, was released by Dunhams Manor in late 2016, and enjoyed instant success among readers of the horrific and the weird. Padgett’s work is relentlessly creepy, exploring themes of altered realities, human simulacra, and occult conspiracy, among others. Perhaps most impressive, though, is Padgett’s ability to elevate these concerns above the usual fray of the genre, subsequently tapping into the utter strangeness of the things that lie in wait beneath the world. As the founder and longtime operator of Thomas Ligotti Online, perhaps the web’s most significant hub for the weird minded, the publication of TSoV was something of an event, selling out its initial run in hardcover, and finding additional and well-deserved success as a destined-to-be-classic audiobook.
Like Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, Ligotti’s first collection, Songs of a Dread Dreamer, or Laird Barron’s recent Swift to Chase, the whole of Padgett’s book is greater than the sum of its parts. The stories often overlap or recall one another in unexpected ways. Reading a collection from cover to cover is perhaps the litmus test for whether or not it “works,” whether or not it coheres into something with vision and voice, and where so many other collections fail, Padgett’s succeeds. This success is even more impressive once you take into consideration how fully developed and unique each individual story is. Take “Organ Void,” for instance, which seamlessly blends a Ballardian fixation on concrete overpasses and urban sprawl with “junk-sick” body horror; or “Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown,” a coming-of-age story about cruelty and the bonds of brotherhood that settles on delicate and unnerving truths; or the collection’s centerpiece, “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism,” a sublime meditation on being with a capital “B” and the illusion of human agency.
Finally, it’s worth noting that this interview was conducted via email over the course of several months. Devising the questions and waiting for answers sometimes took weeks. I believe that this is indicative of the care and attention to detail that Jon puts into his work.
David Peak: In the opening text of your collection, “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice,” you differentiate between the horrors of the organism, the mind, and being. The organism, you write, provides a wellspring of discomfort within, the mind becomes one with panic, and being draws in the “black fog,” the killing toxin that exterminates contemplation. What we’re left with is “a walking skeleton, an ambulatory miracle of meat.” It’s a wonderful way to set off the stories that follow, functioning almost as a guide to your understanding of what makes horror work. How did you land on these three categorizations of the horror practice? And did their meaning inform the other pieces in your collection?
Jon Padgett: I should begin with a little background on the opening piece of my collection. Following the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall and the psychological impact it had on me as a New Orleanian, I began listening daily to a mindfulness of breathing practice by the Buddhist practitioner and teacher, Bodhipaksa. This was my first entry into awareness of my body, my thoughts, and the stillness within and beyond both. “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice” riffs on this standard meditation practice but with an inverted goal in mind: becoming aware of the physical discomfort of being alive, the helpless panic of compulsive thought, and the cosmic dread of that eternally silent voice both within and beyond our brief existence. Only after I wrote the short piece did I realize that it would provide a suitable entryway—or gateway—into my collection, which very much concerns itself with the horrors of the body, the mind, and Being.
DP: I’m glad you mentioned the influence of Buddhism and its relation to Being. Reading through your book, I thought often of the Buddhists’ belief that no living creature possesses a “self.” A few of the pieces, namely “Origami Dreams,” “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism,” and “Organ Void,” can be read as being concerned with a horror of the self, or the consciousness of experience. As such, there is also frequently an unseen reality—a reality of unfathomable depth, as Thomas Metzinger might say—that threatens to corrupt, or perhaps claim, the identities of your characters. Is this something that arises from your background as a ventriloquist? And could you tell me a bit about your history with your craft?
JP: Before I tackle the connection in my book between ventriloquism and Being, I need to talk about what (I think) makes these ventriloquist dolls frightening in the first place. Dummies are similar in shape and size to human children and appear alive via the ventriloquist’s movements and thrown voice. And when these wooden and plaster child-replicas are made to be active in such a way, a willing audience more or less believes in the dummy’s objectively reality. But it is not the dummy’s uncanny movements that are, by themselves, frightening. It is when the dummy is inert—perhaps sitting on a chair by itself after the show is over—that the real shivers begin. We know those staring, vacant dummy eyes can move back and forth. We know that still dummy head can swivel. We know that closed dummy mouth can open. We know that silent dummy can talk. What’s more, we now expect to see these signs of life even when the ventriloquist is nowhere to be found. The sight of a motionless ventriloquist dummy may drive us insane if we stare at it long enough, just as staring too long at a dead human corpse might. Somehow we are afraid (or perhaps hope) that both dummy and corpse will suddenly move again. And this fear (or desire) might make us wonder, consciously or subconsciously, whether our own animation (both physical and mental) is as artificial as the dummy’s. Ultimately, we are all doomed to be just as inert—just as empty—as they are. Ventriloquist dummies are simply too much like us, both alive and dead, and that’s what makes them terrifying. Aren’t we all terrified to one degree or another by our own inevitable dummyhood? Isn’t that both the struggle and paradox of our collective existence as sentient organisms?
As a writer, I’m not so interested in the dummy yacking it up via ventriloquist so much as I am mesmerized by that inert dummy, sans ventriloquist, just sitting there by itself in what could be said to be an ideal state of meditative emptiness—neither alive nor dead. Metzinger’s “reality of unfathomable depth” is an apt description of this paradoxically conscious vacuity.
I hope the stories in my book project the struggle between the protagonists’ unconsciously compulsive thoughts and the Emptiness that threatens to engulf and assimilate the fictional fabric of their lives. Throughout all the pieces (the ones that contain characters anyway) only stalwart Detective Tosto successfully resists the final, inevitable surrender of self and even that’s an illusory victory, lost after the reader turns the last page of the story. But is it really a matter of victory or loss? Is the waking of identity into Being negative at all, any more than the trappings of our mortal existence waking into Oblivion is? In fact, the book as a whole could be described as Transcendental Horror, with an emphasis on Transcendental. Only “The Indoor Swamp” strikes me as having an objectively “tragic” denouement, though I can certainly understand reader arguments to the contrary. The most horrific part of these tales, it seems to me, is the suffering the protagonists must endure to reach the other side—not the forced, final surrender of self.
DP: Do you believe that suffering has a purpose? What’s on the “other side”?
JP: As mortal, sentient beings, we are doomed to suffer whether we attribute it to a higher purpose or not. I spent a lot of my early adulthood wrestling with the old question of suffering and meaning and came to an inescapable (and wholly unoriginal) conclusion: I don’t know. I suspect that my identity—everything I know and value as me and mine, including my impressions of the world around me—is a purely imaginary construct. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to drive off a bridge or run around my block naked on a whim. My dreams are also imaginary, but I derive a personal sense of meaning from them, even when they involve suffering. The waking world is no different, even if it is (usually) more stable than the dream world. Most of us have hard-wired survival instincts, cultivated by both nature and nurture, and I’m no exception—dreaming or awake. Consciousness has value to me.
In my own experience, most of the suffering I’ve endured has made way for the profoundest life-changes. I’m not sure Nietzsche’s famous quote about “that which does not kill us” applies exactly. Suffering has not made me any stronger, but it has—perhaps—made me more adaptable and accepting of the inevitability of my own death.
As for the “other side,” I’m tempted to conclude that the moment of our demise is exactly like a light bulb burning out. What is left when the light goes out? Nothing? Darkness? I suspect this absence of life (and, thus, of thinking) is truly that which endures, all that could be said to be “real.” It is the stillness underneath all forms, animated or not. The big question is whether that void paradoxically embodies a higher consciousness that our living, human minds cannot comprehend or if the void is the cessation of all consciousness, higher or lower. Either way, I doubt anything we “know” of ourselves, including our personal life stories and those who seem to share it, will be recalled or saved in any way within that void. And, as difficult as it is for my own tiny consciousness to accept, I think that might be for the best.
DP: Effective horror fiction often emphasizes place, or the spatio-temporal aspects of what is real and what is unreal. Through a sense of place we develop feelings of safety, the comfort found within, as well as feelings of danger, that which threatens from without (or vice-versa). And it’s this sense of place that physically and spiritually connects us to the past. I’m thinking of “The Indoor Swamp,” in particular, which is essentially an increasingly discomfiting guided tour—“the ride you cannot miss.” Then there’s Dunnstown and its polluting paper mill in “The Infusorium,” and the unfolding secrets of the ranch-style house in “Origami Dreams.” You touched on the fallout from Hurricane Katrina earlier. How else does New Orleans—or any other place—affect your understanding of horror?
JP: As Faulkner famously inferred, the past continuously haunts our present. Many of our compulsive thoughts are absorbed or driven by the memories of past events or our fantasies surrounding them. That’s normal. Our preoccupation with the past (or, rather, our concept of it) is the distorted lens through which we live. The shifting landscape of Dunnstown in which most of my collected work is set represents my attempt to capture a sense of that distorted reality.
I take my cue for setting from my own recurring dreams, all of which are haunted by the places I’ve lived and visited. Much of Dunnstown was inspired by the small city in which I was raised, Mobile, Alabama. In the suburban areas that make up most of the metropolitan area, ranch-style houses built in the ’60s are still the most common architectural feature. And no style of house, to me, is more disturbing or evocative. The city also features paper mills that stink it up on certain days when the wind is right. Of course, Dunnstown itself was created from various sources, inspired in no small part by the great fog disaster of Donora, PA in 1948. Similar instances of environmental horror (like the Great Smog of 1952 in London) also inspired the kind of claustrophobic, surreal setting and imagery featured in “The Indoor Swamp,” “Origami Dreams,” “The Infusorium,” and “Escape to Thin Mountain.”
In many respects, New Orleans is my haven—the only place in which I’ve ever felt truly at home. That stated, there’s no doubt that the seeping, humid atmosphere of the place has infected my writing over the years. “The Indoor Swamp” is a prime example of this influence (for obvious reasons) as is the urban overpass wasteland featured in “Organ Void.” The imagery from a disaster like Hurricane Katrina shows up in a more metaphysical sense in the book, though certainly the high-casualty airline disaster that comes up repeatedly throughout the collection mirrors how New Orleans is still haunted by the specter of Katrina.
DP: Speaking of that airline disaster, Maurice Blanchot has written, “The disaster . . . obliterates . . . our relation to the world as presence or as absence; it does not thereby free us, however, from this obsession with which is burdens us: others.” Essentially, the “disaster,” whatever that may be, is always present in its imminence, belonging both to the past and to a future that is yet to come, and ties us to those who suffer unjustly—the other. Likewise, this doomed flight seems to haunt the characters and places in your stories. How did this come about? And what do such events say about a collective—or shared—horror?
JP: This goes back to my dreams and nightmares. When I was a boy, I caught part of a horror/disaster film called The Medusa Touch at my grandmother’s house. I was just in time to watch the lead character, played by Richard Burton, bring a jet airliner down into a city skyline simply by staring at it. This sequence haunted me for decades and, of course, was horribly echoed on September 11, 2001. Airports and airplanes have for many years figured into my dreams—usually in an ominous if not disastrous sense. The worst of these dreams—and the worst of my adulthood—I had late in the process of writing what would become “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism.” The nightmare essentially was the Night Airport sequence within the titular one-act play, the one in which Mr. Vox was introduced. Joseph Snavely, our ventriloquist Everyman, increasingly believes that his fellow animal-dummies are Others, and it takes him involuntarily bringing down the plane for him to understand Mr. Vox’s ultimate lesson: there is no Other. Identity itself is illusory. “There is nothing but this pain and this panic thrown into the darkness.”
Meanwhile, back in “the real world,” major disaster is also a real eye-opener. I won’t insult the people who’ve also endured these life-changing events and their slow, painful aftermath by referring to the good that can come of them, but there’s no doubt that they result in profound destabilization of forms, physical and otherwise, both in a positive and negative sense. Significant hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, flooding, ice storms, tsunamis, all that nature throws at us and the slew of human-created disasters as well teach victims the hard way that their lives are fragile and temporally insignificant. Some take solace and motivation from this realization. Some are destroyed by it.
In The Secret of Ventriloquism, Flight 389 hovers over Dunnstown in the semi-tangible form of the Black Fog, originally simply the description of the plane catastrophe’s aftermath. Margaret, both Joe’s ex and the former-Kroth-persona’s disappearing spouse, was deeply scarred by the disaster. In a sense, for Dunnstowners, the disaster is never-ending and ever-evolving. That’s where the environmental/climate-change element comes into play. The human race is erasing itself day by day, pouring tons of thousands of poisons into the air and water. I didn’t have to go far to recognize the relationship between my own downed-airliner obsession, the hell we’re making of our own planet, and the doomed animal-dummy Dunnstowners, at once self-destroying Others to one another and themselves—human expressions of the Black Fog.
DP: You worked on “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” for a number of years before you got it right. As such, it serves as the centerpiece of your collection, around which the other stories revolve, sharing narrative threads and themes. Did you write the subsequent stories knowing that they would one day form a collection? Or did you work on connecting them after the fact?
JP: Consciously, I only wanted to write a single, decent story for the longest time. I wrote the first draft of 20SS in 1994, and it wasn’t until mid-2011 (after the long version of the tale was finally complete) that it occurred to me that I had more stories to tell. Originally, I wanted to write a sequel-novella to 20SS, “The Infusorium,” which would lay out what might happen to a community that had experienced Greater Ventriloquism firsthand. Next came “Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown” and “The Indoor Swamp,” which I had no plans to explicitly connect to my first two stories. “The Indoor Swamp,” though, felt like it belonged in Dunnstown—all of that claustrophobia and mutated fauna and bric-a-brac. When I wrote “Organ Void,” I came to the same conclusion about setting—the wasteland under the interstate overpasses evoked the urban side of the city described in “The Infusorium.” These common elements arose organically, with no planning. The next story I wrote, however—“Origami Dreams”—was the first since “The Infusorium” that was explicitly connected to the others. It was at this point that I went back to my previous stories and began picking out and strengthening the connective tissue between them. The one-act play, “The Secret of Ventriloquism,” was written next, and that simply told the story that had originally been cut from 20SS, and in the final piece, and the last I wrote, “Escape to Thin Mountain,” I attempted to distill and synthesize and resolve the elements (thematic and narrative) with which I had been wrestling for so many years.
DP: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you feel more comfortable as a voiceover artist than you do as a writer. Matt Cardin, in his wonderful introduction to your collection, writes about the importance of authorial voice, and how this voice lays the groundwork for an author’s vision. Essentially, it’s the unique power of language that gives readers something to see, allowing us to peer into an author’s worldview. For this reason, I found listening to the audiobook version of your collection, in which you read your own stories, a fascinating experience. A few of the pieces seemed to open up in new and occasionally unexpected ways. For instance, I was particularly struck by the newly opened dimensions of cruelty and psychic pain in “Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown.” Can you touch a bit on your background with voice work? Also, how do you go about finding the voice for each story? Do you read your writing out loud as you draft? What is your process like?
JP: I have an acting background. From the time I was seven—when I auditioned for my first play, The Pied Piper of Frankfurt, and was cast as a diminutive Bürgermeister—I was involved in some theater production or other, right up through my 20s. I’ve already touched on my work as an amateur and professional ventriloquist. This experience (and, later, education) in Theater Arts led to my past and current tendency to write dramatic monologues.
I love reading fiction aloud and hearing it read. One of my proudest moments in the ’90s was recording Thomas Ligotti’s “The Tsalal” on cassette tape, sending the story to him and getting positive feedback about it. He told me that hearing my recording made him reevaluate his own story, which he had never liked before he heard me read it aloud. The spoken word is not superior to the written one, but both spoken and written formats present unique dimensions of a tale. As I was recording each story in my collection, I sought to channel that story’s specific narrator, whether from a first-, second-, or third-person perspective.
As for my writing process specifically, I would say that it has varied quite a bit from very carefully plotted out work like “The Infusorium” to stream-of-consciousness writing without much in the way of plan or outline, as in “Organ Void” or “Escape to Thin Mountain.” The time spent on each piece varies widely, as well. As you know, “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” took me a couple of decades to get right, and “The Infusorium” took several years itself, but the aforementioned “Escape to Thin Mountain” was largely written in one sitting, and other pieces have taken weeks to months of consistent writing and editing to complete.
I tend to write when I can in the course of a day, stealing a lunch hour here or a break there. The planning or brainstorming process for a particular piece often unfolds gradually over weeks, months, or even years. I’m only now reaching the end of ideas for stories I conceived of from 2008–10. Once I start writing a story in earnest, I like to let it take over and drive itself at a certain point, more or less within the parameters I’ve set up from the outset. Sometimes, of course, a piece wheels completely out of control and goes in a different direction than I originally intended. I like that feeling of channeling a creativity that seems to come from elsewhere. Suddenly, I feel confident and relaxed. Everything comes easily. This doesn’t happen nearly as much as I’d like.
Post-creation editing is, to me, the second most enjoyable part of the process. I can’t tell you how much I dug stripping “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” from 14,000 to 4,500 words—honing it down to its essential elements. To me, a single piece of writing is never finished, never sacrosanct. It can always be tightened, improved. This belief was, I’m sure, incredibly frustrating for my publisher in the lead up to the book launch.
DP: It’s frequently said that we’re experiencing something of a weird-fiction renaissance. Additionally, I’ve written that the publication of Ligotti’s first two collections by Penguin Classics can be interpreted as contemporary horror’s acceptance as so-called serious literature. As the founder of Thomas Ligotti Online, and as a long-time champion of Ligotti’s work, it’s fair to say that you’ve had a direct hand in these developments. Where do you see weird fiction and horror going from here? And who do you believe is leading the way?
JP: I don’t know if we’re experiencing a weird-fiction renaissance or not, because it’s hard to objectively identify such a thing from the inside out. I know quite a few readers who feel just the opposite, in fact—that the golden age of weird fiction, and literature in general, is long gone, and that we’re living in a kind of bleak hell in which reading is held in contempt by barely literate troglodytes. I disagree. There is little real evidence to support this idea and others of its kind, which smacks of literary snobbery. Certain readers of this kind in each generation from time immemorial have bemoaned the lack of quality art in (what was to them) contemporary times. The truth is that all literary periods—including our own—have included creative work that is either terrible, exceptional, or just okay. The latter group usually predominates.
However, it’s hard to (reasonably) deny the sheer volume of unusual, quality work that has risen to the top of the genre over the past few years. I like to think that the recent cultural acknowledgment of Ligotti’s work has something to do with like-minded authors writing work that is being accepted by like-minded publishers (presses such as Dim Shores and Dunhams Manor and Word Horde are increasingly being noticed and rewarded by readers). I am still shocked at the amount of interest shown in my own modest debut collection, which I sincerely thought would come and go with little if any fanfare.
Aside from the recent rediscovery of Ligotti’s work, when I think of the beginnings of this new interest in and evaluation of weird fiction, it’s hard for me to ignore Laird Barron’s first collection, The Imago Sequence, which melds cosmic horror, Noir, and the bizarre in equal measures. While beautifully crafted and extraordinary, these Barron stories are also readable and entertaining. This first Barron collection made for an effective gateway from the literary to conventional horror/adventure to weird fiction. Also, Barron’s collected stories then and now are often connected by more than theme—almost evoking an internal mythos in themselves—making short story collections like The Imago Sequence and his most recent, Swift to Chase, seem at times more like a hybrid novels than anything. And, of course, novels are more palatable to readers than short stories.
If Barron opened the door in the early 2000s, writers like S. P. Miskowski, Simon Strantzas, Gemma Files, Paul Tremblay, John Langan, and others nailed it to the wall in the years that followed. As for other stars that I see leading the way, Matthew M. Bartlett, Christopher Slatsky, Kristi DeMeester, and Nicole Cushing immediately come to mind, though I could also mention at least a dozen more authors. Again, I’m looking from the inside out right now, and we’ll be able to evaluate this potential “weird renaissance” more clearly twenty years down the road with the clarity of hindsight.