One for the Road by Wesley Southard
Publisher: Deadite Press | Release Date: June 15, 2019 | Pages: 100
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I had high hopes for One for the Road, and Wesley Southard is an author who has been on my short list of new(ish) horror writers to check out. Before I knew anything at all about this book, I was already sold on it by that trippy, gory hellscape of a cover. I mean, good lord, look at that thing! It’s beautiful! Thankfully, One for the Road does have a pretty kick-ass premise, but, unfortunately, it’s one that did not completely gel for me nor deliver fully on its promise.
Heading back home after a cross-country tour, heavy metal band Rot in Hell wakes up to find all their instruments and equipment missing. That’s just the start of their problems, though. They had been driving through the night in the heart of the midwest, but now find themselves in the middle of a desert on the outskirts of an abandoned town. Cue up the creepiness, amplify it with the shrieks of bloody murder, and rock the hell out!! \m/
Like I said, the concept here is golden, but it didn’t take too long for some issues in the material to present themselves. First up, the band. There’s not a single likeable guy or gal to be found here, and there isn’t really enough page space devoted to fleshing them out into actual characters. Lead singer Steve is the ultimate d-bag: racist, sexist, and quick to smack around his girlfriend, Shelly. Almost as soon as some of these folks opened their mouths, I was itching for their demise. (Luckily, Southard doesn’t waste much time in getting to the carnage.) Our central protagonist, Spencer is mostly the flawed by OK-enough Everyman in the middle of it all, but he’s also the ultimate unreliable narrator.
One for the Road is presented to us as a found document, a notebook written in crayon by Spencer himself. Spencer’s story is a crazy one, chock-full of nightmarish visions, and Southard delivers a wicked Silent Hill vibe with some cool, nasty creatures that will chill you to the bone. I wanted to know more about this place and its inhabitants, and at only 100 pages, I wish the book were longer and had a lot more meat on its bones.
The most frustrating part, though, is the total ambiguity of it all. There’s reason to suspect that Spencer is telling the truth, although he is a man prone to lying, or at least not telling the whole truth. He holds his cards close to the vest, and you’re never entirely sure what hand he’s playing. Does he have a full house, or is he just bluffing? It’s hard to say, ultimately, if the band got detoured into Hell (if so, it makes their band name all the more ironic), or if this was all a hallucination built on some real-world horrors Spencer is either in denial of or struggling to cope with.
I wanted answers. I wanted more monsters. I wanted deeper characters. I might have been at least satisfied with what Southard gave me here if not for a late-stage detour into juvenile silliness. One for the Road has some excellent scenes of horror infused with a bit of bizarro, which I dug the heck out, but it spins out of control in the book’s final moments with the reveal of the Big Bad that’s been stalking the group over the course of the preceding scenes. It’s simply too ridiculous to take seriously, and the abrupt tonal shift was far too jarring for me to accept. Imagine reading Clive Barker, only to turn the page and find yourself in the middle of a Looney Tunes episode. It was a climax that reveled in ludicrousness after we’ve toiled in the dark for so long, and was simply too big of an ask for this particular reader.
Although One for the Road has a handful of positives in its favor, I was ultimately let down by its much too goofy climax and lackluster resolution. I could have handled the latter, but the former was just too corny and discordant with all that came before. Hopefully others can appreciate it more than I, and I know this book has gotten a number of terrific blurbs from other authors I admire. I am certainly game to try out other stories by Southard though. There were several monstrous and deliciously creepy elements here that I really, really liked and would have loved to have seen more of. I know Southard has a story in the Clickers Forever anthology, and I’m curious to see how he plays in the late Jesus Gonzalez’s sandbox given how much I enjoyed the majority of the creature-feature aspects here. In the end One for the Road just wasn’t for me, and it disappoints me to admit given how much I wanted to like it and, in fact, mostly did for some pretty good stretches of reading time.