[Please note that the author kindly provided a review copy in return for an honest review of this title]
I first came across author Wesley Southard on The Horror Show with Brian Keene back in 2018, in a highly enjoyable and often frank interview about his career as an author and the influences on his writing. As I’ve never gone wrong in reading titles highlighted or recommended on Mr Keene’s podcast, I made a note to look out for Mr Southard’s work; and while I wasn’t able to read any titles previously, Mr Keene’s weekly email mentioned that Mr Southard had a book coming out in June 2019, and that ARCs were available. This seemed like the perfect opportunity, and Mr Southard was kind enough to send me an electronic ARC of One For The Road in return for an honest review.
A couple of things caught my eye right away, the first of which was the stunning piece of cover art provided by publisher Deadite Press. What at first just appears to be a (blood-soaked) forest setting gradually turns into something much more unsettling the more you stare at it; you notice the gigantic eye-stalk hovering in the background or, more worryingly, the eerie teeth-bedecked creatures that are coming out of the shadows. Then there was the cover blurb: how could I resist the tale of Spencer Hesston, a disillusioned guitarist who wants to quit the heavy metal band he’s fallen in with, only to find that quitting is far harder than he imagined when a drunken night turns into a hellish day?
Heavy metal-infused horror isn’t something that I’ve come across previously, but I’m a huge fan of that style of music, so this novella instinctively appealed to me; and as I read One For The Road, I quickly discovered that the very essence of the genre runs through the novella. When Hesston describes discovering heavy metal when he was young and describes it as “Music with style, an edge – one with a driving force that makes you think differently…” he’s mirroring my attitude exactly when I discovered it myself. That style and edge runs through the entire novella, propelling the narrative along and using it as inspiration for imagery, creatures and a general sense of atmosphere that wouldn’t look out of place in your average heavy metal music video. Hesston himself is something of a rough and ready character, open and honest with the reader and obviously a talented guitar player, but burnt out and disillusioned with touring with a band that’s never quite taken off. He has a distinctive voice and an engaging personality, something which is rarely easy to pull off when writing in the first person; and Southard deftly portrays a musically gifted but sensitive soul tired of his crass bandmates.
That portrayal extends to the other members of Rot in Hell, and one of the best parts of One For The Road are the pen portraits Southard assembles. From the charismatic but overbearing and deeply arrogant lead singer, to the weird bassist and the terrifying presence of the groupie/enforcer who looms over all of them, all six band members feel fully fleshed-out and authentic despite the relatively short length of the novella. They’re all more than a little odd, which appears to be de-rigeur for a heavy metal band, and Southard skilfully builds up the tension and atmosphere of barely-restrained desperation as they tour to increasingly miniscule crowds. The relationships between them are built up in the opening chapters, with conflict becoming all but inevitable as a split forms, personalities sparking off each other in some memorably tense scenes of verbal and near-physical sparring.
Then once that complex web of relationships, frustration and barely-concealed anger is established, Southard drops the group into a hellish landscape. The group were barely holding it together in their own reality, and when they enter a strange town whose landscape changes constantly. The horror builds up slowly as Southard ratchets up the tension, and there’s this fantastic use of noise, contrasting the constant, overbearing noise that musicians live with during their tours with the oppressive silence of the town. But when the horror starts, it really starts and Southard hits you with surreal, terrifying creatures that are some of the most disconcerting monsters I’ve ever seen described. The monsters aren’t just physically terrifying but also psychologically scarring, digging into the band member’s psyches to haunt them.
Physical horror blends with surreal imagery and psychological terror, and the already-tenuous bonds of friendship and solidarity fray apart completely as Hesston and the others desperately try and escape. At its heart One For The Road is a skilfully-orchestrated character study of what happens when a group of people are put under intense, soul-shredding pressure; and it would not work anywhere near as well if the members of Rot in Hell were not so well-developed. The novella’s pace is superbly judged, especially towards the end of the novella, and it feels like every other page has Southard introducing something deeply unsettling yet instantly memorable up as he tortures the band. There were scenes where I cringed harder than I have for a long time, and also one completely fucked-up scene involving a giant rabbit that had me simultaneously laughing and near-gagging at what Southard was depicting.
Deftly written, horrifically imaginative, and imbued with the spirit and character of the heavy metal genre that Southard then twists to his own dark ends, I’m confident in calling One For The Road an instant classic of the Horror genre that I have no doubt will stand the test of time.