Jon Padgett narrates Thomas Ligotti’s nightmares in ‘Gas Station Carnivals’

Tales from the crypt

Jon Padgett narrates Thomas Ligotti’s nightmares in ‘Gas Station Carnivals’
photo courtesy of Jon Padgett

Thomas Ligotti has a special plan for this world. For over 30 years, Jon Padgett has been carrying it out.

It began as these things often do, or as they would if they often happened. But the odds of what occurred on that fateful day in the spring of 1991 were, quite literally, one in a million. A college student at the time, Padgett found himself browsing the shelves at a Books-A-Million in Birmingham, Alabama, when one of the books caught his eye.

Immediately struck by its cover — an illustration of a despondent girl in a fetal position, her curled limbs merging into a mountain — and title, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Padgett was sold on Ligotti's debut story collection as soon as he read its now-famous Washington Post blurb, which instructed him to "Put this volume on the shelf between H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, where it belongs."

And so he did.

It didn't take long for Padgett to fall in love with Ligotti's craft. Several stories into the collection, he had an epiphany: "I knew that I had found my writer."

Then something strange happened. "My hands started tingling as if there was an electrical current running through them," he recalls. "It felt almost like Ligotti shared all my private fears and obsessions — even the ones I wasn't consciously aware of — and was able to artistically project them through his stories."

Mesmerized by tales which were "like nothing else [he'd] ever experienced as a reader," Padgett couldn't wait for the book to reach his shelf. "I was so entranced when I started reading it in the bookstore, I continued reading it while I was driving home to my dorm room," he says with a laugh. "I realize now that if I had had a fatal accident, that would have certainly been ironic."

Thankfully, fate had other plans. Shortly after discovering Ligotti's work, Padgett began trying to pull other people in. "I started annoying [my friends] by forcing them to listen to me read this story or that story by Ligotti," he says. "But nobody was really into it like I was, and I wanted more people to read his work."

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE FELTON
illustration by Dave Felton

Several years later, he had a breakthrough. In 1997, Padgett created the first version of Thomas Ligotti Online (ligotti.net), a website where he published a number of Ligotti stories, including the corporate horror novella My Work Is Not Yet Done and "Crampton," the original unfilmed X-Files screenplay co-written by Ligotti and Brandon Trenz. At 24 years and counting, ligotti.net has now been online "slightly longer than Google has, by some months."

In addition to being a place for Ligotti readers to chat and share their thoughts, TLO has grown far beyond its initial purpose as the primary source for Ligotti-related news. Padgett fondly recalls how Ligotti once said that what he likes most about the site is "the idea of people who appreciate [my] horror stories talking about stuff that has nothing to do with [my] horror stories."

Little did Padgett know the role his site would play in the master plan. After sending Ligotti an email he never thought would be answered, he was pleasantly surprised to receive a reply within hours. "[Ligotti] wrote back this long, generous email saying he had actually been following my work trying to promote his writing online." The two quickly bonded and have corresponded regularly ever since.

"I consider Tom my closest, best friend," Padgett says, "as well as my authorial mentor."

In the beginning of their friendship, Padgett proposed the idea of publishing a deluxe collection of Ligotti's work. "Then he told me how much money a book would cost to make, and I realized I was utterly incapable of such a thing."

Still, Padgett says, "these early ideas planted a seed." As a grad student in the '90s, he recorded himself narrating Ligotti's stories on tape so he could listen to them in his car — certainly a safer alternative to reading while driving.

Padgett later sent the tapes to Ligotti, who was "always very praising and grateful for [them]" and "extremely supportive of [his] voice-over work."

He recalls one story in particular which Ligotti always considered to be "a complete failure" until he heard Padgett read it aloud. "He told me it was like a different story, and a successful one. It changed the way he thought about that story completely, and that to me was the ultimate compliment."

In 2015, a musician and visual artist named Jonathan Dennison approached Ligotti about recording a story for his newly founded "spoken arts" label, Cadabra Records. Ligotti responded with a link to a podcast episode in which Padgett read his own recently published story, "20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism," and the rest became history.

Released on vinyl in 2018, The Bungalow House — the first of Cadabra's (so far) seven Ligotti albums, all read by Padgett and scored by composer Chris Bozzone — turned out to be "a beautiful, artistic success from top to bottom."

A few months later, 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism also received the vinyl treatment from Cadabra, complete with a foreword from Ligotti.

That same year, Padgett launched Vastarien — a literary journal named after the final story in Songs of a Dead Dreamer — through his publishing imprint, Grimscribe Press, which takes its name from Ligotti's second story collection.

Ligotti also had a noteworthy 2015, becoming one of 10 living authors included in the Penguin Classics series when Songs and Grimscribe were published together in a single-volume edition.

The latest chapter in Ligotti's legacy — which includes, in addition to the aforementioned titles, the short fiction collections Noctuary, The Nightmare Factory and Teatro Grottesco, as well as the highly acclaimed nonfiction work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race — took the form of a limited-edition chapbook entitled Paradoxes From Hell. Published by Cadabra's literary offshoot, Chiroptera Press, the collection rescued from obscurity two out-of-print poems and the titular short story — all of which have been revised by Ligotti for a hand-numbered edition featuring Dennison's illustrations.

To commemorate the chapbook's release, Jon Padgett will join musician Chris Bozzone for a live performance of both poems — "I Have a Special Plan for This World" and "This Degenerate Little Town" — and the stories "Gas Station Carnivals" and "The Red Tower." The one-off event, dubbed "Gas Station Carnivals," visits the Abbey this Saturday for an evening of "art-magic" guaranteed to fuel your nightmares. Plan accordingly.

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