Book Review – ‘Perfect Little Stitches’ by Deborah Sheldon

Deborah Sheldon’s “Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories” won the Australian Shadows Award for Best Collected Work 2017, was shortlisted for the “Best Collection” Aurealis Award, and was long-listed for the Bram Stoker Award “Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection”. It is easy to see why. This is an immersive and intricate collection where every ending lingers.

There are a total of twenty-one tales in this collection, and each one is unique and markedly different to the last. It provides a curiously disjointed but thrilling read, you never know what you will be thrown into next. Short stories can often be hard to perfect, but Sheldon has mastered the art with ease. She skilfully manipulates her readers, sending them hurtling into the darkest corners of her imagination without allowing them to pause for breath. 

From terrifying mermaids to murderous prehistoric birds; naive grave robbers and a plague of malevolent, tiny spiders, these stories are overwhelmingly dark and tense. Sheldon writes powerful characters extremely well, and is adept at exploring human emotions in even the most unlikeliest of narratives. She doesn’t shy away from pouring the poison, in fact she drenches every story with the dark. Sheldon writes about horrible things happening to good people, and she invariably ends her stories on a dour note. Good does not often triumph over evil in these tales, but I found that enhanced my experience — it made the stories feel so much more real. 

Sheldon has researched and written numerous medical factsheets for the Better Health Channel in Australia, and her intimate knowledge of the human anatomy and the many ailments it can suffer from, most certainly adds an extra disturbing layer to her fiction. In her titular story, Sheldon describes the mechanics of illegal organ harvesting in exquisite detail, inserting an incredibly vivid and visceral image in the reader’s mind. I found the details fascinating, and while I would usually shy away from gore, somehow the preciseness of her descriptions and methodological approach made the blood-loss in her more violent stories much easier to bear. 

One of my favourites, ’In The Company Of Women’ is a well-researched historical horror which tells the story of Philantha, an Amazon warrior, and her unexpected encounter with two harpies — repulsive creatures, half-hag and half-bird. For me it felt both mythological and metaphorical and spoke very astutely of female power and conflict. I loved the attention to detail and the layered, almost lyrical prose.

My other favourite ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ was a heartbreaking and beautifully written fairytale. From its stark and chilling opening lines to its inevitable and mournful end, the choices of a mother determined to do the right thing for her child whatever the cost is a thoroughly unsettling read. You are told what to expect from the very start, but even so you can’t help but hope for some divine intervention which might alter her child’s terrible fate.    

Another notable story, ‘The Brightest Place’ entwines nightmares with reality; demons with time travel. We are never explicitly told which world is real and which is based in fantasy, but as we are dragged into the main character’s confusion, Sheldon describes it so keenly I felt his panic almost as clearly as if it were my own. It reminds us that what we perceive as reality might not always be the truth. That we can’t always believe what we think we see. 

This collection is, without a doubt, quite a bleak one. There are very few happy endings, and the characters often have to endure quite horrible things without any promise of revenge or retribution. There were a couple of stories I found very difficult to read, not because they were poorly written, indeed quite the opposite, but because Sheldon managed to peel away at my emotions like she was picking at a scab. Her words were often raw and unflinching, and I felt quite battered by the end. That, for me, is a sign of excellent story-telling and an impressive wealth of talent, something which Sheldon clearly has in spades. I truly loved this collection, and I cannot wait to read more of Sheldon’s work. If you like your short horror fiction to have a fierce bite, this anthology will definitely not disappoint.

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. Her credits also include TV scripts, stage plays, magazine articles and award-winning medical writing.