Resisting Madness is a collection of stories by Wesley Southard, whose novella One for the Road is also up for a Splatterpunk Award. As is to be expected from a collection that stretches back into the author’s early days, the book gets off to a shaky start. It opens with Southard’s first published story, “With Many Thanks to Newark”, in which a horror writer (a fairly transparent self-insertion) ends up on a plane filled with vampires: individual scenes have merit, but the overall plot is weak. Next is “Arrearages”, about an abusive man who wakes to find that the various women he has wronged are calling him via mobile phones that they implanted in his body. This is more effective but, like many EC Comics-style horror stories of ironic revenge, falls apart once the reader starts thinking about it – just how did they insert those telephones without him noticing?
After these early, rougher stories, we see Southard becoming more confident in his work while maintaining his fondness for absurd scenarios, sick jokes and broadly-rendered protagonists. “Minor Leaguer” is about a man tied to a goal in an ice-rink, where an unhinged hockey layer tries to torture answers out of him. “Between Those Walls” is a jailbreak story that segues into horror when the prison turns out to have a macabre secret. “King Cake”, which sees a group of bickering siblings get together to honour their departed mother only to find an unpleasant surprise in the cake, is an example of Southard’s skill at sketching out his characters.
The situations in the stories grow stranger as the collection progresses. “Now You Don’t” is written from the perspective of a family dog confronted with a series of weird disappearances, while “Lip Service” is about a lonely college student who wakes every night to feel his toes being sucked by invisible lips – a phenomenon that comes to consume his waking thoughts.
A number of the stories are brief pieces written as sick jokes. In “By the Throat” a man who has a phobia of being touched resulting from childhood trauma has to deal with his frustrated wife – and to say more would be to give away the punchline. “He Loves Me Not” is written from the perspective of a cannibal with a clingy personality. In “God Bless You” a woman is chased by a serial killer, with a chance sneeze taking things in an unexpected direction. “Confusion in Southern Illinois” is about a seemingly normal man whose house turns out to have a dark secret. Meanwhile, “Bust to Dust” introduces us to a deeply religious man and his guilt-laden sexual relationship with a vacuum cleaner.
Perhaps the most memorable story in the collection is “Home Invasion”, about a trucker on the road and his wife at home each getting caught in an alien invasion. The story is a collaboration, Southard writing the sequences with the male characters and co-writer Nikki McKenzie providing the scenes with female characters, and ends up as a successful mingling of weird body horror and Edward Lee-style cartoonish gross-out.
Resisting Madness requires a little patience due to the roughness of the earliest stories, but a more indulgent reader will find this part of the appeal: the collection is itself the story of a new author moving away from clichés and developing his own voice. At his best, he reaches an enjoyable oddness that bodes well for future endeavours.