Short Sharp Shocks! #48
Deborah Sheldon: Hand To Mouth
Reviewed By Richard Bell
“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic god.” Sigmund Freud.
Hand to Mouth by Deborah Sheldon, for A Short Sharp Shocks! series published by Demain, is a decent little chiller with a sucker punch at the end.
I have a healthy respect for antipodean horror.
It has yielded some beautifully grotesque creations and enjoys pressing the squirm button with abandon.
The story, without giving too much away, centres around an incarcerated University professor accused of murder. His succession of appeals for forgiveness, in letter form, doles out the plot rather like alligators being fed chicken, one raw piece at a time.
The supernatural or sci-fi side to this story, a sentient prosthetic arm gone rogue, is a familiar tale from an unusual perspective.
Deborah seems to capture that repressed sense of guilt, paranoia, cathartic release and exasperated hopelessness with aplomb.
It is a swift journey to the satisfying pay off and bodes well for other stories in this series.
If this is the standard of tale for the Short Sharp Shock series, then I’ll be back to read more.
See what I did there?
Hand To Mouth
“When the truth doesn’t satisfy, people make up stories.”
An imprisoned man writes letters to his son, trying to explain the bizarre circumstances that led to his incarceration. But can his son believe him?
Award-winning author Deborah Sheldon keeps you guessing with this novelette of secrets, lies, conspiracies and paranoia.
Deborah Sheldon: The Kendall Reviews Interview
KR: Could you tell me a little about yourself please?
I live in Melbourne, Australia, and I’ve been a professional writer for 34 years. I’ve written across a range of media from TV scripts to non-fiction books to medical writing to most forms of fiction. I’m married and we have a teenaged son, a talkative budgerigar, and a tankful of freshwater tropical fish.
KR: What do you like to do when not writing?
Most of my interests are related to writing in some way, such as reading, watching films, disappearing down an Internet rabbit-hole, or relaxing with a cryptic crossword. Otherwise, I like to spend time with my family, try out new foods and restaurants, and occasionally make cheese. (Over the Christmas break, my husband and I made a batch of goat-milk feta. Delicious! But laborious and time-consuming; not a hobby you’d want to do all the time.)
KR: What is your favourite childhood book?
The Australian classic series, The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs. Presented in a single volume, the books follow the adventures of two gumnut babies who get lost in the bush and must contend with various bad guys including the Banksia Men. Enthralling stuff: heart-warming, magical and suspenseful. It was one of the first books I bought for our son, and I can still remember reading it to him at bed-time, and him begging for “just one more chapter”. May Gibbs certainly knew how to write a page-turner.
KR: What is your favourite album, and does music play any role in your writing?
My taste in music is eclectic, but I have a special fondness for seventies rock. My favourite songs come from groups such as Bad Company, Free, Robin Trower, Skyhooks and Dragon. There’s no way I could listen to music while writing! In order to find my “sweet spot” of focus, I need stillness and quiet.
KR: Do you have a favourite horror movie/director?
One of my favourite (relatively) modern horror films is John Carpenter’s, The Thing. Yes, the special effects are spectacularly gross, but I admire the tightly-written script and the building, gnawing sense of dread as every character starts to question their own and everyone else’s identity.
Val Lewton was a prolific Hollywood film producer and scriptwriter responsible for a string of low-budget horror classics. Some of my favourite Lewton films include Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Body Snatcher (1945). The RKO movie studio would give him a miniscule budget and a lurid title but leave the rest totally up to him, including the story and script. Censorship at the time was strict, so he had to make do without blood, gore, violence or sex. The results are impressive. Lewton’s films are brooding and atmospheric, relying on sound effects, shadows and suggestion for their power. Each film is a master class in the subtleties of horror writing.
KR: What are you reading now?
I always have about half a dozen books on my bedside table; generally, a mix of novels, anthologies and collections. One of the novels is The Glamour by Christopher Priest. I’ve read only one other of his titles, The Prestige, and enjoyed it very much, with its blend of sci-fi and gothic horror, its various timelines and range of literary devices such as journals, omniscient POV and first-person narration. I’m hoping The Glamour will be just as intriguing.
KR: What was the last great book you read?
The most recent fiction title I enjoyed tremendously was Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars. From my Goodreads review: “…King – in short form – is just so damn READABLE. I go to bed, promising myself a relaxing fifteen-minute dip into a book before lights out, and end up devouring his short fiction until my weary eyes are crossing and watering. His conversational writing style is so smooth, it’s hypnotic.”
KR: E-Book, Paperback or Hardback?
Paperback, but I’ll take an e-book if that’s the only format available. Hardbacks are too expensive for someone like me who buys books like other people buy groceries.
KR: Who were the authors that inspired you to write?
The writers at DC Comics in the 1970s. I adored the adventures of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Superman, Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, and so on. As a kid, I used to buy a comic every week out of my pocket money. I started creating my own superhero comics and thought I wanted to be an illustrator. When I was about ten years old, however, I realised that I enjoyed writing the stories much more than drawing the pictures.
KR: Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?
I always outline. It’s a hangover from writing TV scripts and magazine feature articles. Such formats are fixed (for either time or word length) and you can’t deviate. For example: a half-hour TV program is about 21 minutes worked around two commercial breaks; and if you promise a magazine editor 2500 words, that’s exactly how much you’d better deliver. While writing fiction, I find that outlining beforehand allows me to pin down a story and get a first draft on paper, rather than letting an idea lead me around and around in pointless circles. That said, my outlines are very brief – perhaps a line or two per plot-point.
KR: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
It depends on the project. My most labour-intensive novel was Devil Dragon (Severed Press), where I had to learn about evolutionary biology, herpetology and firearms – three subjects I knew absolutely nothing about. My latest novel Body Farm Z (Severed Press) required extensive research into body farms and the processes of decomposition – revolting, but given my background in health and medical writing, fascinating. My novelette The Again-Walkers (published in my award-winning collection, Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories) required delving into ninth-century Danish culture and superstition; time-consuming, since Vikings didn’t tend to write about day-to-day living, and I had to find secondary sources.
Other projects, such as my novel Contrition (IFWG Australia) and many of the stories in my collection Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories (IFWG Australia) needed a different kind of research; that of rummaging through my own experiences and memories. I often reimagine events that have happened to me or use emotions as springboards to story ideas or character creation.
I research just enough to get me started, then along the way as required. Otherwise, you risk getting too fixated on research to ever begin writing your project.
KR: How would you describe your writing style?
Spare, direct, cinematic.
KR: Describe your usual writing day?
I start by editing my work from the day before. By the time I finish editing, which might take an hour or two, I’m thoroughly immersed in the storyline again and can pick up from where I left off. I write for perhaps three to four hours, on average. After that, my brain feels wrung out and needs time to “decompress”.
KR: Do you have a favourite story/short that you’ve written (published or not)?
Close to my heart is a crime thriller titled Bodily Harm. I wrote this contemporary novel a few years ago but its brutality, violence, psychological horror and sexual themes have made it a tough sell. Generally, the feedback I’ve received from publishers is that while they love the story, it’s too much of a “hot potato”. (Hey, if anyone reading this happens to be a publisher of crime fiction looking for a vicious, take-no-prisoners kind of novel, contact me! Yes, I’m serious. Please get in touch.)
KR: Do you read your book reviews?
Always. Good, bad or ugly, I appreciate them all.
KR: How do you think you’ve developed as an author?
I wrote my first short story in 2005, and began switching my focus from non-fiction to fiction in 2007. My first pure horror story, “Perfect Little Stitches”, was published in Midnight Echo magazine in 2015. Over the years, my style has become darker. I’m attracted to the nihilism of noir and horror. I guess a certain degree of cynicism comes with age and experience.
KR: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received regarding your writing?
It’s hard to say. Most of the advice people gave me in my youth was simply, “Do something else with your life that’s more female-centric”, which I ignored. My bookcase holds dozens of “how-to” manuals on various writing techniques, which is useful. I suppose the best advice I ever read was from Ernest Hemingway: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master”. I stay curious about the craft, and constantly experiment and try new things. I’ve been writing for a long time, but still have a lot to learn.
KR: What scares you?
Oh my God, just about everything! The older I get, the more anxious I become.
KR: Can you tell me about your latest release please?
My latest title is the epistolary novelette, Hand to Mouth, released by Demain Publishing as a stand-alone piece in their popular “Short Sharp Shocks!” horror series. It’s about a man in prison who writes letters to his son, trying to explain how and why he ended up behind bars. Part horror, part science-fiction, it’s a monkey puzzle of a story where the truth is slippery and dependent on the reader’s interpretation. I spent many drafts working layer upon layer of meaning into the narrative. I’m thrilled to be working with Demain Publishing, and to be collaborating with a UK publisher. To date, most of my fiction has been released through Australian publishers. Hand to Mouth has its own cover too, designed by graphic artist Adrian Baldwin, which is wonderful.
KR: What are you working on now?
I’ve blocked out a horror novella, which will be my next project. It’s a contemporary story set in an Australian town, but the events exist on an alternate timeline. I’ve also got a novel I’m itching to write – which I blocked out a few months ago – but the novella insists on going first! You have to write an idea while it’s hot. As I’ve learned from bitter experience, if you make a story wait its turn, it often goes cold in the meantime.
KR: You find yourself on a desert island, which three people would you wish to be deserted with you and why? You can choose…
a) One fictional character from your writing.
b) One fictional character from any other book.
c) One real-life person that is not a family member or friend.
Wow, this is a seriously difficult question. Hmm…
Okay, my own fictional character would have to be Helen from my short story “Basket Trap” (Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories, IFWG Australia). She’s resourceful and cool-headed in a crisis. Simon Templar because he is blessed with exactly the kind of “deus ex machina” luck we’d need to get back to civilisation, as in, “Oh look, Deb, a passing ship!” And Bear Grylls, who could build our camp, and forage for food and fresh water – just as long as I don’t have to drink his piss.
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
Richard Bell is a poet and writer with a passion for the horror genre. He has work published by Weasel Press, Carmen Online Theatre, Night Gallery, The Horrorzine and the Fragments of Fear series on YouTube, under the name Rick Nightmare.
He lives in a sleepy hamlet in Northern England with his family and galloping insomnia.