Hand to Mouth by Deborah Sheldon

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‘Hand to Mouth’ by Deborah Sheldon isn’t to be trusted. Well, I say that. The narrator surely isn’t. More on that in a moment.

Published by Demain Publishing, ‘Hand to Mouth’ is book 48 Demain’s Short Sharp Shocks! series. If you want horror, fantasy, and all that’s in between, then this is the series to go for. ‘Hand to Mouth’ was my first foray into the series. A toe dip into icy waters, if you will, and Sheldon had me hooked from the get-go.

There is nothing revolutionary about ‘Hand to Mouth’. It doesn’t rewrite its mesh genre –thriller come murder mystery slash sci-fi – but that’s needn’t really matter. Told from the perspective of Graham, an imprisoned father and husband, ‘Hand to Mouth’ is a novella comprised of letters that Graham is writing to his son James. In each one he tries to explain how he ended up in prison. The formula isn’t new, but Sheldon convinces throughout.

To return to my earlier point that ‘Hand to Mouth’ shouldn’t be trusted, the winner here is that Sheldon plays with the concept of the unreliable narrator. In many ways I think most stories are told from the perspective of unreliable narrators, and we too are in essence all unreliable narrators to some extent, but the way Sheldon wields the narrator allows for the story to unfold, and for the reader to be totally unsure of everything they are reading. It digs in its claws.

To summarise without giving away the ending, Graham is in prison. How he gets to that point – a car accident which results in his wife losing part of her arm, her mother, ‘Matriarch’, who pays for a new-fangled ‘fleshless’ prosthetic that fuses to the nerve endings, a series of domestic abuse attacks and well, a murder (adultery and accusations smattered in there too), lead to a novella that turns and turns and turns, and the narrator that doesn’t quit.

I wanted to know why Graham was writing, and whether I believed him. Neatly, Sheldon reveals each detail across the various letters, the prosthetic arm taking on new-found powers the more Graham writes about what happened. Does it attack him subconsciously? Has it been hacked? Has Matriarch paid the company to hurt Graham? He certainly thinks so.

It’s all going on. And the sci-fi elements both grip and convince. It made me think of Terminator 2, where Arnie cuts open his arm to reveal what lies beneath.

Throughout the prose is tidy and efficient, and whilst Graham becomes irritating – though I think that is likely the point – Sheldon executes the story with enough room to leave the reader guessing, despite the ending (which I won’t reveal). Do I believe everything Graham has said? I’m not sure. He makes a claim for his own innocence, but then again, he also states, ‘I’m as blind to my own actions as the dumbest of dumb criminals. I don’t know.’ Neither do we. And the piece is all the better for it. There are multiple conclusions, and you’re left to pick your own.

‘Hand to Mouth’ is engrossing, and if all of the Short Sharp Shocks! series is like this, then I’d gladly read each one.

Hand to Mouth is published by Demain Publishing and is available here.

Deborah Sheldon

Deborah Sheldon is an award-winning author from Melbourne, Australia. She writes short stories, novellas and novels across the darker spectrum of horror, crime and noir. Some of her titles include horror novels Body Farm Z, Contrition and Devil Dragon; the horror novella Thylacines; the romance-suspense novella The Long Shot; and collections Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories and the award-winning Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories (Australian Shadows “Best Collected Work 2017”).

Her short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines such as Quadrant, Island, Aurealis, Midnight Echo and Dimension6. Her fiction has been shortlisted for numerous Australian Shadows Awards and Aurealis Awards, long-listed for a Bram Stoker Award and included in various “best of” anthologies. She also guest-edited the 2019 edition of Midnight Echo.

Other credits include TV scripts such as Neighbours, feature articles for national magazines, non-fiction books, stage plays, and award-winning medical writing. Visit her at www.deborahsheldon.wordpress.com

Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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