Hand to Mouth (Short Sharp Shocks! Book 48)
I’ve come to the conclusion that Demain Publishing are an unstoppable juggernaut of genre fiction, as we’ve barely entered 2020 and they’re already publishing another tranche of titles under their iconic Short Sharp Shocks! imprint. These are the final five books in Series 1 of the imprint, though fortunately the publisher has announced that there are plans for a Series 2 in the near future. After these final five shorts have been published, Demain will be focusing on some of their other imprints, including the crime-focused Murder! Mystery! Mayhem! under which Alison Faye’s brilliant noir novella Maggie of My Heart was published recently. I’m extremely excited to see what Demain Publishing release over the rest of the year, both in terms of their imprints and also the independent releases such as Dave Jeffrey’s upcoming novella Finding Jericho, which I’ll be reviewing in the next few weeks here on the blog. So with that all coming up on the horizon, I decided to take a look at each of the final five releases in Series 1 of Short Sharp Shocks!
While many of the authors contributing to the Short Sharp Shocks! imprint are new to the genre, if not publishing as a whole, Demain also take on veteran authors experienced in penning horror fiction. This includes writers like Deborah Sheldon who has written a number of horror and cryptozoological titles, including several for one of my favourite publishers of undead, post-apocalyptic and cryptid fiction, Severed Press. As a side-note, one of these immediately caught my attention: Body Farm Z. According to the back-cover blurb, this features a zombie outbreak in an Australian cadaver research farm, including undead possums, and has therefore taken its place at the very top of my ‘Must Read’ list for this blog. Returning to the Short Sharp Shocks! imprint, however, Sheldon’s contribution is Book 48, a novelette intriguingly titled Hand to Mouth. The title, and Adrian Baldwin’s excellent and rather unsettling piece of cover art, caught my attention straight away; and that attention was maintained by the back-cover blurb, where the author confidently predicts that ten different readers would have ten different interpretations of the story. I’m always a fan of carefully-constructed ambiguity in my horror stories, so I started reading.
The core concept for Hand to Mouth is actually rather compelling, and one of the more challenging constructs for a piece of horror fiction: a consecutive series of letters, written in the first person. Here we have a father penning a set of letters from his prison cell to his distant son, in a desperate attempt to explain the circumstances behind his imprisonment and the destruction of his family’s life. From the very first page that ambiguity mentioned above is on full display – we have a man assuring his son that he loved for his wife despite an alleged accident, but in the same breath mentioning police, lawyers and even lab technicians. Is this truly an open and honest account? What kind of torrid secrets is this man hiding? As the first letter begins, Sheldon deftly conjures up an air of unease that rapidly begins to saturate the missive, and all of the others that follow it. There’s something that’s off about this letter and the man writing it: too many incredibly specific protestations of innocence, too many attempts to blame anyone but himself for whatever is about to happen.
Slowly but surely, Sheldon constructs an insidious and deeply compelling portrait of a man who is the ultimate in unreliable narrators: someone who is deeply insecure in his position as both a husband and a father, whose partner comes from a rich and landed family who deeply resent his presence, and also insecure in his standing in society in general. Add to that an experimental prosthetic arm, replacing an arm lost in a car accident, and the resulting stress of trialling the prosthetic and managing a strained marriage takes its toll. Here Sheldon introduces a fascinating digression on the subtle unnaturalness of merging flesh and artificial components to create something new and abnormal; the union of lifeless and living materials that effortlessly descends into paranoia and conspiracy theories that sound just plausible enough to follow along with them. As the letters continue, the situation becomes grimmer and grimmer, and more puzzle pieces start to lock together into a family where casual violence, gaslighting and simmering resentment are the norm and not the exception. The ever-present unreliable narrator creates a deliciously unreal and uncertain atmosphere, with Sheldon making you openly question every single thing that is being put to paper, and the things that aren’t being said. Eventually we come to a tragic and unexpected ending, but one that throws up as many questions as it answers, and expertly leaves the reader to come up with conclusions that will – as the back-cover blurb stated – be radically different to each other.
Hand to Mouth is a brilliantly written and skilfully-plotted horror story that reveals more and more of itself the longer that you read. What seem to be the passionately-written pleas of a man wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit slowly becomes a multi-layered horror story focusing on the often devastating results of the anxieties that are inflicted on a family living in modern times. Fears of economic disparity amongst family members, and class-based resentments, are merged seamlessly with suspicions of infidelity and the role of advanced robotics technology at the cutting edge of medical science. A less skilled and confident writer would not have tackled all of those daunting elements at once, or if they had done so it would have become an unreadable melange; yet Sheldon balances them all effortlessly, and in the process creates a multi-faceted and unforgettable horror story that deserves multiple readings just to appreciate all of its subtleties.