Death’s Head Press
As I noted in my review of his excellent novella One for the Road, I first discovered author Wesley Southard thanks to an interview he did with veteran horror author and all-round cool guy Brian Keene, on The Horror Show with Brian Keene back in 2018. What he mentioned of his work sounded really interesting, and I was lucky enough to get a hold of a copy of One for the Road, which I discovered to be a brilliantly weird, twisted and macabre horror tale expertly blended with a heavy metal theme. I rated it as one of the best titles I’d read in all of 2019, and looked forward to the next thing that Mr Southard would have published. That eventually turned out to be Resisting Madness, a collection of his previously-published short fiction (short stories, micro-fiction and even some flash fiction) as well as a new novella written especially for the collection, published by Death’s Head Press.
I’d been looking forward to it anyway, after it had been expertly teased by author and publisher for some time on social media, but was blown away when I first saw it. There really cannot be any other word to describe my reaction to seeing the cover of the collection – and you can see why when you look at the image above. Rarely have I ever seen a cover image commissioned by a publisher that is both so richly detailed and so thoroughly embodies the stories to be found within the book itself. It’s absolutely amazing, and one of those pictures where the longer and closer you look at it, the more you see. The detail on the hands reaching out from the edges of the cover to pull and tear at the screaming face; the lurid, slightly washed-out neon colours used by artist Justin T Coons; the wonderfully faded font for the author’s name, and the slightly disturbing twisted, flesh-like font for the title; and even the work done to make the edges of the book look scuffed and torn, like a book plucked from a shelf after years of reading. It all comes together to create a genuine masterpiece, and if there was one book cover I’d have hanging on my wall from those I’d read last year, it would be this without a doubt.
There are a total of fourteen stories in Resisting Madness, and as many of them are either flash fiction or short stories, I want to avoid describing them in any great detail, as to do so would risk spoiling them comprehensively and robbing you of the brilliant writing and often cunning and unexpected twists that Southard so deftly executes, so I’ll only very briefly mention anything shorter than an actual short story. Before beginning, I’d also like to highlight another excellent quality of Resisting Madness, which is Mr Southard’s habit of placing an Afterword at the end of each story: it’s something I only see occasionally in the Horror genre (and indeed any others I’ve read in) but they are always incredibly interesting, as they give some rare and intriguing insights into working habits of a horror author, and the real-life horrors to be found in the literary world.
With Many Thanks To Newark opens the collection and while it may have been the author’s first published story, it’s still a damned good one; although perhaps not quite as polished as other stories in the collection, you can still clearly seem many of the themes and writing styles that Southard fully adopts in his later writing. Setting a horror story in an airplane is always a good choice as it’s an inherently claustrophobic and physically limiting location, and it makes for a tense atmosphere, our protagonist unable to escape from the pressurised tube hurling itself through the skies and surrounded by irritable and irritating fellow passengers. Add to that travelling as fast as possible to visit an estranged and dying father, as in the case of protagonist Tesh, and you have a potent cocktail for a horror scenario. Why are some of the passengers all smiling despite a ridiculously turbulent flight, and exhibiting weird, unsettling behaviour? And how does the crew knows Tesh’s name without seeing his tickets? It’s a slow-burning plot as chilling and worrying facts like these begin add up, supplemented by a slight element of tongue in cheek humour as Tesh a is horror writer – the first trace of the black humour to eventually be found in One for the Road, perhaps. An excellent start to the collection, and I only wish my first published story had been this good.
The tongue-twisting Arrearages is a tale of bloody vengeance that brought to mind the horror film classic Saw (the original, before the series jumped the shark and became a boring parody of itself) augmented by Southard’s vivid imagination and ability to conjure up horrifying situations. A violent, brutal and uncaring misogynist has the violence and pain he’s inflicted on the women in his life returned ten-fold on his mind and especially his body. It’s an incredibly weird and fucked-up scheme for revenge, and I adored it for its combination of ingenuity and gory, anger-tinged vengeance.
Minor Leaguer and Between Those Walls are effectively a duology, one following the other, and together form a cohesive and engaging story. Southard maintains his ability write arresting openings – here we have a man strapped naked to the goalposts on a hockey ring, while being interrogated by a man skating around him and wielding a hockey stick. A drug dealer has absconded with six figures worth of drugs, and his best friend is being interrogated by the drug lord to find out where he is. It’s a brutal, intense and memorable method of interrogation that once again demonstrates Southard’s prodigious imagination. It also makes for a fantastic introduction to the main story and protagonist Doug Brett, the aforementioned thief. What begins as something that appears to be a horror-tinged homage to The Shawshank Redemption rapidly descends into something truly twisted, as an attempted escape from prison by Doug leads to him falling foul of the prison’s Chief Warden and the unique manner in which he has escape-proofed the entire prison. In the afterword to Between These Walls Southard indicates that he’d like to expand on the Chief Warden and write more about him, and I can’t agree more – please do so, and soon!
Home Invasion was co-written with author Nikkie McKenzie, and is deftly positioned in the collection to provide a nice change of pace from the previous stories. Here we have a trucker on his final piece of luck, trying to retain his job to bring in money for his pregnant fiancée. While driving along, he and his colleague come across a weird UFO, from which emerges something green and obviously inhuman in nature. While he avoids it, his partner is far less cautious and becomes infected with something grotesque and malignant that has its own, unfriendly agenda. Simultaneously, his fiancée becomes plagued by a host of aggressive and mysterious bugs that seem to appear out of nowhere in their house. Southard and McKenzie have a complimentary and seamless writing style that means I couldn’t tell at all when one was writing or when the other was; and some of the descriptions of the bugs and their actions were downright chilling in their weirdness. Add to that the unexpectedly gory and disturbing direction that the story takes in its latter half, and it becomes clear that it’s a tribute to the King of Body Horror, Edward Lee, something confirmed in the afterword to the story. It’s a great read and collaboration by the two authors and one of the stand-out tales in the collection. Hopefully the two will work together again in the not-too distant future.
Turning briefly, as promised, to the flash and micro fiction, their presence in the collection demonstrates just how skilled a horror writer Southard actually is, able to dexterously move between subgenres, writing styles and viewpoints at will while still maintaining that supremely high quality and twisted imagination. Lip Service is a fantastic piece of nocturnal foot fetish supernatural horror, and help my brain didn’t think it would ever write that sentence. Actually it starts out as foot fetish horror and then becomes all-over-body horror, with an ending that’s as abrupt as it is unsettling, and once again makes me marvel at Southard’s capacity to come up with these scenarios. He Loves Me Not is just flat-out weird, and you’ll have to trust me on that one, By The Throat has a horrifying premise that had me cringing in sympathy and revulsion within just a few pages, combined with an immensely satisfying ending and some particularly good writing. In his afterword Southard says it’s his favourite story in the collection and I fully agree with that assessment, even if there’s a (literary) horror story involved with its publication.
God Bless You is a darkly hilarious and strangely all too human piece of flash fiction that stayed with me for a while afterwards, and both Confusion in Southern Illinois and King Cake are genuinely fucked-up stories that allow Southard to demonstrate the depths of his horrifying imagination, and was the point where I started to wonder aloud what pact Southard sealed to come up with such horrifying stories and then write them so brilliantly. Finally, Now You Don’t is a darkly humorous and brilliant slice of existential horror that works so well due to its unusual premise and non-human protagonist; and, well, the less said about Bust to Dust the better, apart from the fact that I can’t look at my hoover now without a mildly queasy feeling in my stomach.
And then finally, we come to the pièce de résistance that is the titular Resisting Madness, the brand-new novella that closes the collection. This is perhaps the finest piece of horror fiction that Southard has yet written, certainly rivalling One for the Road which was released back in 2019. At the heart of this novella is the fraught, complex and multi-layered relationship between a father – infamous horror director Michael Wiger – and his son Nolan, who is born with something wrong with his eyes. As the brutal and heart-wrenching opening demonstrates, anyone looking directly into Nolan’s eyes witnesses something so horrifying, so mind-shattering that they are forced to kill themselves in a spectacularly violent manner. The trials, agonies and joys of childbirth are swiftly and deftly subverted into something so terrible a father drinks to forget – and also reluctantly remember; Wiger’s memories of Nolan’s childhood, muttered into a voice recorder, form the linking elements of the narrative as the plot moves forward.
By the time Nolan is out of his first decade, Wiger is a respected horror makeup expert and film director, working to finish his final film before retirement while struggling with alcoholism caused by the memory of his son’s birth and the horrors that have resulted as his son grew up with his affliction. Nolan is possessed with what his doctors call ‘Devil Eyes’ that force him to wear special goggles his father made, and his mother’s abandonment and father’s inability to afford continuing care mean Nolan is forced out of the protected facility he’s been living in isolation and prepared to into the permanent ‘care’ of the State. That’s something that Wiger refuses to let happen, and yet things continually stack up against father and son to prevent them getting any real help.
Wiger is forced to take jobs he doesn’t really want in order to care for Nolan and get funds to fight for him, and there are some fascinating and insightful looks into the perils and machinations of the film industry, especially the sheer amount of work required to make even a relatively small movie, and also the bonds that build up between a film crew and cast that have worked together over multiple productions. But it’s also an industry where even a talented individual like Wiger has his fate finely-balanced, at the whim of uncaring studio executives and financial concerns, and his eventual fall from grace leads to a wonderfully gory and often gross-out explosion of violence as Wiger takes advantage of his sons unique curse/talent to wreak bloody vengeance on an uncaring world.
Now all of that would have made an excellent novella, but as should be clear by now, Southard doesn’t just write shallow, imaginative horror stories. His true skill, and why I firmly consider him one of the best in the genre at this time, comes from taking a key trope of the horror genre (the Devil Child) and relentlessly and unforgivingly dissecting it and repurposing it. Nolan himself isn’t evil, or bad, or demonically possessed by anything. He’s just a normal pre-pubescent kid who’s lived an unnatural life due to his death-dealing ability, and my heart broke so many times when it became clear that he had no idea of his real talents until the very end of the novella, and that instead he was just being manipulated by anyone in his life he’d even vaguely trusted – his mother, his doctors, and even his caring father. The usual malevolence found in the trope is instead placed on him by others, and he has very little agency in regards to his actions. He’s a tool – but not of the devil or god or some Lovecraftian horror from another dimension; instead he’s used by those who should have loved and protected and helped him, and to me that was the true horror at the heart of Resisting Madness, and what made it such an effective, memorable and emotionally-charged piece of horror writing.
After finishing Resisting Madness, I realised that I had once again been privileged to read something produced by an incredibly talented author, and supported by a first-rate horror publisher. Masterfully written and skilfully encompassing multiple subgenres, the stories within this collection demonstrate decisively that Wesley Southard is by far the most impressive member of the latest generation of Horror authors now being published in the genre. They demonstrate an ever-growing skill as a writer, allied with a seemingly unlimited imagination and an ability to write memorable and fully fleshed-out characters in even the shortest pieces of flash fiction, as well as an innate understanding of what makes the horror genre work. Resisting Madness is a tour-de-force of horror, and I am confident that there are many great, and indeed classic, works of horror fiction yet to come from the pen of Wesley Southard. As such, I would strongly and urgently recommend that readers get in on the ground floor in order to witness his rise to the same heights as iconic horror authors like Keene, Masterton and Lee