Today’s Deep Cuts is “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” (at Pseudopod) by Jon Padgett. As a special treat, this is also our first audio production of a story! Not only that, but it is narrated by the author himself (truly, Padgett is a man of many talents).
The first thing you’ll notice as you listen to “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” (or “20SS,” for short) is that it’s structured as an instruction manual for mastering—what else?—ventriloquism. Relax; let Padgett’s narration and the way he uses inflection (or an intentional lack thereof) guide you deeper and deeper into the mysteries of ventriloquism. Pay attention, though, because even in those simple, early steps something more is going on. As key phrases and key ideas begin to repeat, as the steps become more and more demanding, as the lines of distinction become blurred, you could begin to hear something like static. Something deeper, darker could be moving out there in the distance . . .
If you haven’t listened to “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” yet, then this is your chance because **SPOILERS FOLLOW**
Hellnotes: Let’s start with Step 1: When and how did the concept for this story arise? In the prefatory materials on Pseudopod, the host said that this story gestated for almost two decades, undergoing numerous changes. What kind of overview can you give us of that progress?
JON PADGETT: Originally, I wrote the story in honor of Thomas Ligotti’s work. I was inspired by his fiction. My story was then entitled “The Eyes of the Master.” This was around 1994 or so, and the only element it shared with the finished product was a creepy ventriloquist dummy character. This initial incarnation also was, I learned over the course of many months, an odious, cliché-ridden bore. Several years after writing it, I mailed the story to Tom Ligotti himself, who indicated kindly but firmly that it was, to him, no more than a well-meant pastiche. As Ligotti and I became friends, I worked up the courage to ask him to send me specific notes on it, and thus began my rewrites—dozens of rewrites. I literally asked Tom to take off the kid gloves and give it to me straight.
And boy did he ever.
Not many know this about Ligotti, but he would have been a genius creative writing instructor had his career path taken him in that direction. As it is, I am one of the only lucky beneficiaries of his singular instruction. It firstly involved making me understand that I didn’t know how to write a good story. Don’t get me wrong. Tom is a kind man and generous to a fault, but about his craft he is precise and no nonsense. Ligotti explained, as he responded to each rewrite and draft, why it didn’t work and what was missing, from a big picture perspective. He annihilated my budding authorial ego again and again as the late 90s passed into the early 2000s. Sometimes as much as a year or two would pass between drafts—time in which I thought I’d never have the courage to set pen to paper again. Then the old impulse would arise. I set my sites on one goal: to write a single, good story, in spite of the frustrating fact that I was unable to write one. All the while, Ligotti encouraged me to focus on the single aspect of the original tale that was peculiar to my experience: ventriloquism. I didn’t know how to write a competent, engaging story, but I knew all about ventriloquism—having practiced it from the time I was nine years old and making money performing ventriloquist shows and birthday parties with a professional-grade dummy since I was fifteen.
So, with this advice in mind, later drafts of my story were written in the form of a memoir, drawing from my past ventriloquist and theater experience, 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 the early to mid-2000s. My final, failed outline included a somewhat expanded version of the ventriloquism steps but featured two boys attempting to solve the mystery of a dummy-haunted playhouse as well. Tom’s response: “I didn’t want to bring up the Hardy Boys, but I did think about them when reading your outline.” The Hardy Boys. That nearly ended me.
But then, late in 2004, I had an epiphany after rereading Ligotti’s “10 Steps to Thin Mountain.” My next story outline used the aforementioned “7 SIMPLE STEPS” pamphlet from my childhood as not only an inspiration but imagined within the structure and style of an instructional manual. The initial, seven steps would be close in form to the original but additional steps would slowly open the reader up to an oneiric, metaphysical, almost occult practice. For the very first time, my efforts were altogether praised by Tom who told me that the outline “could be a great story.”
In the years that followed, the tale based on that outline became the combination guidebook-manual-confession of the protagonist, an unbalanced man named Joseph Snavely. This became the most excruciating part of the process because I had to learn how to take a potentially great idea from outline to successful, final product. This is when I really had to learn how to write. Tom never let up on me with his notes but also never complained about the dozens of drafts/versions I sent his way from the mid to late 2000s. At the same time, between 2005 and 2009, I was reading and making notes on upwards of a dozen drafts of his terrifying, 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. That Ligottian voice spoke through me from the Conspiracy in the wake of the personal chaos my family and I endured following Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
By 2013, my story (then entitled “The Secret of Ventriloquism”), was over 14,000 words long. I finally had written a single, good story, complete with Ligotti’s hard-earned seal of approval. In 2011, I was invited by Joe Pulver to submit my tale 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. That’s the version that also appeared on Pseudopod in 2015 and in what would become my debut short story collection.
HN: Although the structure of this story immediately sets it apart, this How-To Guide is actually a gradual progression from an instruction manual for stage ventriloquism to something much more terrible. Steps 1 through 8 are practical instructions, but Step 9 pivots and promises to teach the aspiring ventriloquist to control others (“animal dummies—human and non-human”). The truth, however, doesn’t fully emerge until Steps 19 and 20, when the aspirant is instructed to open himself up and surrender to the realization that he is merely another “trifle” moved by the Ultimate Ventriloquist. In the final steps, it seems that becoming a “Greater Ventriloquist” grants mastery over others, albeit only by recognizing that one has no real control but is a vehicle for the “perfect suffering” behind all existence. Could you elaborate a little on the progression of these steps, as well as a little of that revelation?
JP: That’s both the punchline and the catch. The long, pre-Pulver anthology version of the story clarifies the transition from the lesser ventriloquism steps to the more challenging Greater ventriloquism steps via the writer and aspiring Greater Ventriloquist, Joseph Snavely. He is revealed as the author of the Goldberger Company’s guidebook to ventriloquism, and the guidebook slowly becomes a kind of a personal testimony. As Joe’s human relationships (career and love life) begin to fall apart in the wake of his obsessive ventriloquism practice, he begins to objectify every other person in his life. Quite simply, he comes to the realization that “they’re all dummies.” At the time of writing, I was inspired by NLP (or Neuro Linguistic Programming), in which the practitioner, in part, apes another human being’s characteristic body language and speech patterns/tone in order to form a rapport with and—eventually—to gain control over the subject. Ironically, Snavely’s quest for complete control via ventriloquism over every aspect of his life leads him to eventual, ultimate surrender of his own self(or dummy)hood. So many early drafts of the story (including the very first one) contained the clichéd “evil” ventriloquist dummy, pulling the ventriloquist’s strings. But at some point, likely after I had proofread Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race for the tenth time or more, I internalized that the real horror is not the literal dummy come to life but its opposite – the ventriloquist learning S/HE, along with all other biological life on earth, are dummies being controlled by forces beyond comprehension.
HN: In addition to the How-To directions and imperatives, there are also steps that seem intended to break the aspirant down by setting up impossible tasks (Steps 10-11), imposing isolation (Steps 11-12), and even causing self-harm (Step 19). In Step 20, it is revealed that these instructions have been prepared by the Greater Ventriloquists, who are the “acolytes of the Ultimate Ventriloquist” and the transmitters and receivers of “the voice of nature making itself suffer.” With this knowledge at the end, the previous steps begin to look like another form of how the Greater Ventriloquist “pulls the levers” of an animal dummy, i.e. the aspiring ventriloquist.
Are these steps just another form of control that the Greater Ventriloquists are exercising over the “animal dummy” of the reader? Does the aspiring ventriloquist become a master by the end, or is he only “put together” like the rummy-dummy (Step 17) and the animal-dummies in the crashing plane (Step 18)? Is there a meaningful distinction between Greater Ventriloquists and victim of the Greater Ventriloquists?
JP: There is only one distinction: the Greater Ventriloquist is a regular animal-dummy only made ready by complete acceptance of his/her dummyhood via Steps 10-19. The power that it then wields is paradoxically not wielded by the GV at all. It cannot be. The Greater Ventriloquist, instead, becomes “a perfect vessel” for the voice of Being Itself. Pain and panic seem to be part and parcel of this voice, the new static with which s/he is now filled. The Greater Ventriloquist must give up everything—its volition, its very life—to be able to “do almost anything.” In the end, the only “master” is the unknowable, Ultimate Ventriloquist flexing its innumerable, jointed limbs and screaming its own name into the darkness, putting everything in existence together only to pull it all apart again.
HN: This entry is a first for Deep Cuts, since we’re also discussing the audio production of a story. You are another first, since you are not just the author, but also a voice actor and the narrator of this particular story. As a result, I imagine that—barring any acts of Greater Ventriloquism—the performance we hear is as close to what you originally intended the reader to experience as possible. Did you always plan to do an audio version and, if so, did your plans for narration impact how you wrote it, particularly with regard to certain repeated words and phrases (e.g., “put together,” “trifle”)? Do you find that having experience narrating the work of others affected your own writing of this piece?
JP: I didn’t consciously write 20SS with audio in mind. However, in addition to my own ventriloquism practice, I’ve been an actor since I was seven years old, and from that time to about age twenty-one I was almost continuously involved in one theatre production or another. I’ve said for many years that acting is what I do better than I do anything else. It’s the one thing, along with ventriloquism, that always came easily to me. My own thoughts are highly voiced and lend themselves well to dramatic monologue. All this to say that, yes, 20SS is ideally suited to vocal production—especially the final version that stripped away all vestiges of metafictional character and plot. There’s a clarity and purity in that. I think most ideally “20 Simple Steps” would be played on a series of LP records (found in an attic, basement or thrift store) or even watched on an old VHS tape, complete with stripped down visuals with tracking issues.
HN: I’d like to talk further about the performance style you used in the audio production. In any narration, there is an obvious need for clarity and enunciation, but could you talk about the particular performance decisions that you’ve made here? Although there are later steps where the narrative voice almost seemed to become conspiratorial, for the most part the voice maintains a manufactured calm throughout, even as the instructions become more gruesome and the revelations become more horrifying. What was your thinking in keeping the narration steady, rather than trying to ratchet up the tension by changing your delivery? Also, were those whispers of static intentional production elements (because they were subtle but creeped me out by the end)?
JP: Both the narrative voice and the literal record scratching evolving into a growing static were the brilliant brainchild of Pseudopod’s co-editor, Shawn Garrett. Here are his initial notes:
I imagine the story being read by a somewhat soothing, instructional record voice – even keeled, buttoned down, in control, enthusiastic but in that tutorial way – starting like this and perhaps slipping more into a meditational tape type voice, slightly flatter, slightly more hypnotic, as the piece proceeds. The asterixed words or sections, which I’m presuming to be italicized in print – strike me as being almost the opposite of the usual approach to such words in reading out loud – that is to say, instead of *stressing* these words and phrases, the reading would actually slip more into a flattened, affectless, hypnotist’s or hypnotized voice for that word or phrase (ie: *the dummy is a trifle*) – I think this would create a very creepy effect for the podcast listener.
Production: I think a slightly dulled maybe staticy filter should be used for the entirety of the production, along with a very low/soft background loop of either a rhythmic hiss or a needle pop/crackle (very long interval, though, so as not be too annoying – I actually have some run out groove samples that might be perfect if slowed down) to replicate the feel of listening to this on an old worn-out cassette or on an old album.
I don’t think that needs further elaboration other than to say that I’m eternally grateful to Shawn for picking the story up and for his incredible notes and production work.
HN: You’re also the creator of Thomas Ligotti Online, a forum devoted to discussing the eponymous author (and which was one of my own personal gateways into weird and dark literature). While there seem to be some clear Ligottian nods in this story—his preoccupation with puppets and your use of the dummy being the most direct—are there other ways that you see his influence in this story? Is that something that you deliberately sought to invoke when you first conceived of this story, or is it more that you are a fan of Mr. Ligotti because you were already predisposed to certain tastes?
JP: So probably my answer to your first question covers most of this. I’ll summarize and add a bit:
- Reading Ligotti’s stories in the early to mid-nineties compelled me to try my hand at writing creatively in the first place, partially because he was writing work from a kind of ecstatic melancholy and panic that I understood all too well.
- Tom taught me how to write competent stories, full stop.
- When I had my breakthrough in 2004 and decided to incorporate the steps to ventriloquism as both highlight and foundation of my story, I was also positively influenced by the form of Ligotti’s short short, “Ten Steps to Thin Mountain.”
- Proofreading and making notes on multiple versions of Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race while writing 20SS undoubtedly had a profound effect on the philosophical underpinnings of my story.
- All this stated, I only succeeded in writing that “single, good story” by finding my own authorial voice, which is nothing like Tom’s. I’m not nearly the writer he is, and I never will be. And that is as it should be.
HN: Finally, for readers who are new to your work, which other story or stories of yours should they look for if they want to read something similar?What about if they want something completely different?
JP: Well, I’m glad you asked (and thanks so much for all of these insightful and well-wrought questions)!
A natural companion piece to 20SS, “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice,” is available here in audio format. It’ll only take about eight and a half minutes of your time.
A mood piece, “The Indoor Swamp,” also a second person narrative, is available for listening here, and it’s only a few minutes longer than “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice.”
For something quite different, try “Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown,” on Pseudopod, a tale of sibling rivalry and revenge.
Finally, it just so happens that my debut collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism, is available in trade paperback, Kindle and audio format (recorded and produced by me). If you liked 20SS and want to know more, this collection is the way to go, as the story we’ve been discussing is the hub around which all the connected short stories revolve. The pieces in the book are connected by theme, characters, and plot elements, and are—I think—quite rewarding when taken as a whole. The collection has generally received very positive praise from critics and readers alike and was recently selected by Rue Morgue Magazine as the Best Fiction Book of 2016.
Jon Padgett is a professional—though lapsed—ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans with his spouse, their daughter, and cat. Padgett is the founder and longtime administrator of Thomas Ligotti Online, and has been the first publisher for a number of Ligotti’s prose works, including My Work is Not Yet Done and Crampton. Padgett has work out or forthcoming in Pseudopod, Lovecraft eZine, Xnoybis, and Pseudopod’s first print anthology, For Mortal Things Unsung. His first short story collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism with Introduction by Matt Cardin, is also available from Dunhams Manor Press.