One for the Road by Wesley Southard (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

One+for+the+Road_Wesley+SouthardSpencer Hesston is the guitarist for Rot in Hell, a ramshackle metal band in the early stages of its career. He spends his time on the road with his cohorts: drummer Vinnie, a close friend of his; bassist Les, a spoilt snob; Steve, the band’s boorish frontman; Shelly, Steve’s girlfriend; and D-Rail, an aloof and intimidating individual who acts as their driver.

Steve has high hopes for the band, and is arranging their first European tour. Spencer and Vinnie, meanwhile, are tired of the abusive Steve and night after night spent sleeping in the band’s trailer. They want to escape Rot in Hell and start their own band.

But just as these tensions are bubbling to the surface, something inexplicable happens. After a night of booze and weed at a Missouri bar, the band wake up in their trailer to find their possessions – from their instruments down to their van’s ignition key – mysteriously absent. Moreover, they appear to have been transported from Missouri to a southwestern desert. This is just the beginning of their troubles: as the world continues to warp around them and all manner of bizarre creatures begin crawling through the cracks in reality, the members of Rot in Hell start to fear that their name has taken on a more literal meaning.

Although the cover suggests a throwback to the era of eighties horror paperbacks, One for the Road is really more of a bizarro story. Once the fantasy element comes into play, reality itself breaks down in ways that alternate between the unsettling and the cartoonishly absurd. A face appears on a wall to utter cryptic warnings; Steve’s tattoo of a priapic duck comes to life; and a swarm of tarantulas with human fingers for legs inject their victims with a venom that makes them turn purple and explode.

There is little discernible logic to be seen here: once the band members have entered the fantasy world, literally anything can happen, with almost no structure or reason. The one thing that prevents One for the Road from collapsing into inconsequential nonsense is the solid grounding granted by its love and respect for heavy metal culture.

The novella opens with Spencer narrating his musically-oriented life story, introducing us to his love for metal and his still greater love for classic rock – the latter an adulterous relationship that he keeps a secret from his metal-faithful bandmates. The emotions here are palpable: Spencer’s youthful passion and hopes of becoming the next metal icon, followed by his frustration and disappointment with the way things turned out, will be eminently relatable to any of us who dreamed big when we were young.

The character relationships – Spencer’s friendship with Vinnie, the mix of sexual desire and general disinterest he feels for Shelly, and contempt for the other band members – are similarly convincing. Admittedly, it is a little hard to swallow when the band members continue petty personal disputes even after slipping into a hellscape, but this can be forgiven when the story comes to derive most of its forward momentum from the ways in which the character conflicts are exaggerated by their weird predicament. At times we even see glimpses of Spencer’s familial anxieties turning up in the bizarro world, like a twisted Wizard of Oz – rare cases of the novella’s fantasy showing internal logic:

Hundreds of shapes stepped out from the rim of the jungle into the sunlight of the meadow. Though they walked sluggishly they did so with purpose. Right toward me.
Each one of them was my dad.
“We’re all dead, son.”
Like his face in the phone, they were all chanting in their two toned voice, and like the van they too were liquefying. Skin and organs shook and bounced with their uneven steps, and when they gave away they hit the large blades of grass with a sickening splash. As they got closer to me, their bones began to reach the surface. Yet they kept coming.
“We’re all dead, son.”

The combination of an emotionally sincere, warts-and-all portrait of band life with a willingness to fling hallucinatory weirdness onto the page with little regard for coherence seems apt to frustrate as many readers as it charms – but then, bizarro fiction has never aimed for universal appeal. To fans of the genre, One for the Road should make for an entertainingly idiosyncratic addition to the field, one with some feelings to go with the strangeness.

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