Don’t Stray From the Path: Teacher’s Pet and Help Wanted 

Richie Tankersley Cusick’s Teacher’s Pet (1990) and Help Wanted (1993) have quite different plots, but they both end up in the same place: with a young woman in danger in the woods. In these two Cusick novels, these girls have been told to stay out of the woods and that, if they must pass through them, they must stick to the path, much like Little Red Riding Hood setting out for Grandma’s house. But following the Gothic tradition, these woods hold intrigue and temptation, as well as danger, and both characters find themselves drawn toward these secrets, with disastrous consequences.

In Teacher’s Pet, Kate Rawlins has accompanied her English teacher Miss Bunceton to a reclusive writers’ workshop. While Miss Bunceton is there to write steamy romances, Kate’s genre is horror and she’s thrilled about the workshop being led by one of her favorite horror novelists, William Drewe. When she shows up for Drewe’s workshop, however, she and the other students learn that the author has mysteriously disappeared and his not-at-all-famous brother Gideon, who is also a writer, will be filling in for him. Kate is understandably disappointed that her favorite author is a no-show, but as Gideon showers her with attention and praise, she quickly gets over it. And Gideon’s attention is intense: he begins by complimenting her writing and offering to work with her in one-on-one sessions. After their first session, he tells her that “I noticed you last night. I was hoping you’d be in my class” (29), revealing that it’s not just her writerly talent that has caught his eye. Gideon is a tortured Heathcliffe-style hero, haunted by his sister Rowena’s death and the mysteries that plague the camp, including his brother’s disappearance, and Kate is all too happy to comfort and soothe him in his moments of distress. Gideon is approximately thirty years old and Kate is a high school student, but that doesn’t stop their relationship from quickly becoming intimate and romantic, as he confides in her and kisses her in the woods, before the mood is killed when they find a severed hand in the leaves.

Kate is one of the only teens who has been allowed to participate in this workshop, and from the start she feels isolated, out of place, and self-conscious, which leaves her particularly vulnerable to being drawn in by Gideon’s attention and encouragement. Miss Bunceton pops in and out of the story from time to time, but she’s shockingly lax when it comes to supervising a minor in her care. When she accidentally gets a bad case of poison ivy after rolling around in the woods looking for inspiration for her next romance, she has to be transported to the medical center in town and Kate is alone. The stoic and creepy groundskeeper Pearce also hovers around the edges of the action, though Kate rarely thinks of him as a friend or ally. She decides Pearce isn’t really such a bad guy while she’s taking care of him after he gets his leg caught in a spring trap (care that includes kissing him a little bit too), but given that he got his leg caught while he intentionally trying to scare her about a nearby cave being full of poisonous snakes, Kate’s romantic good judgment becomes more doubtful with each kiss.

Other than her growing relationship with Gideon, her only friends at the workshop are a couple of the teens who work at the camp, Denzil and Tawney. These two are good friends to have: Denzil practically lives at the camp, knows all the ropes, and has an interest in writing himself, sometimes sitting in on workshops when he has time between jobs, while Tawney has an overactive imagination, is absent-minded (she accidentally sets the kitchen on fire), and is prone to panic. They both give Kate invaluable insight into how the camp works and the dangers she faces, and these peers are actually the ones who protect her when things start to go wrong. When someone vandalizes her cabin, including smearing blood all over her bathroom, Denzil is the one who helps her clean it up, they accompany and protect Kate in the woods during the workshop’s traditional Horror Hunt (a scavenger hunt-style competition), and they have access to a van that can get Kate back to civilization if and when things at the camp get too scary or dangerous. While Tawney is thrilled about Kate’s relationship with Gideon, buying into his tortured romantic hero image, Denzil warns Kate to stay away from him (though of course Kate doesn’t listen until it’s too late). All in all, other than Denzil—who is motivated at least in part by his own romantic interest in Kate and a desire to eliminate the competition—remarkably few people raise any objection to a high school girl engaging in a romantic relationship with a grown man who is also (at least temporarily) her teacher and an authority figure. Cusick presents this as a potentially unorthodox but generally okay relationship and if Gideon is “more mature” than the teenage boys Kate usually dates, that’s part of his attraction (even though this is a bit suspect, given his hysterical state of arrested development and regular moments of blind panic).

As part of the Horror Hunt and her infatuation with Gideon, Kate goes to the Drewes’ family home, buried deep in the woods, where she has specifically been warned not to go, including by Gideon himself. While lost in the woods earlier in the novel, Kate encountered a shrouded woman who claimed to be Gideon and William’s sister, Rowena, who speaks in threatening riddles, saying “Kate … Kate … doomed to your fate” (58, emphasis original). As Kate digs deeper, she uncovers the Drewe family’s dark secrets: William is an overbearing monster who refused to let Rowena and the groundskeeper Pearce marry, while Gideon is the real writer, allowing William to publish and take credit for Gideon’s books as a tradeoff to try to get William to stop terrorizing their family. It didn’t exactly work, and Rowena died in a fire she set trying to kill William. Gideon was out of town when it happened and is haunted by the guilt of not being there to protect his sister or kill William himself (William survived the fiery murder attempt). But someone has finally succeeded at killing William, now leaving dismembered bits of him around the camp, including the hand in the woods.

Venturing alone into the woods and back to the Drewe family house—even though literally everyone has told her not to—Kate is attacked by Rowena, who ties her to a bed and is prepared to set the house on fire around her. Except that Rowena (of course) isn’t actually Rowena, but Pearce, who loved Rowena and feels so guilty about being unable to save her that he has internalized Rowena’s personality into his own–yet another example of ‘90s teen horror’s terrifically flawed and wildly overused “split personality” plot device. He used this proxy to murder William and now attempts to murder Kate. Kate is saved through the combined efforts of Gideon, Denzil, and Tawney (who has also disguised herself as Rowena, in order to trick Pearce/Rowena). In addition to the high-tension life and death stakes of this confrontation, this final scene presents an odd love triangle (quadrangle?) of sorts, as Kate finally sees Denzil’s romantic potential and kisses him, is still infatuated with Gideon, and had also kissed Pearce when he got his leg caught in the spring trap (which he, as Rowena, had set). As Kate heads home from the writers’ workshop, she hasn’t actually done any writing, but she’s had a lot of adventures and is romantically confused as she tries to decide between Denzil and Gideon (at least Pearce is out of the running).

In Help Wanted, the threat of violence becomes much more pronounced. Robin Bailey is less isolated than Teacher’s Pet’s Kate, as the woods she traverses surround Manorwood, a spooky house just down the street, where she has landed an after-school job sorting and cataloging a dead woman’s books. In addition to working on the books at the Swanson house, Robin also finds herself drawn into potentially romantic intrigue with Parker Swanson (the dead woman’s step-son) and the misadventures that surround his step-sister Claudia, who is convinced that her dead mother has returned from the grave to kill her.

In addition to the danger that lurks in the woods and off the beaten path, there are some notable similarities between Teacher’s Pet and Help Wanted: both Kate and Robin find themselves deciding between two guys, though in Robin’s case, they’re both age-appropriate classmates: Walt has a sardonic sense of humor and good-naturedly jokes with Robin, but also checks in with her to make sure she’s okay when the weirdness really starts piling up, while Parker is a flashy jerk. There’s a predatory older guy in Help Wanted as well with Skaggs, Manorwood’s caretaker and a janitor at the local high school who frequently leers at and makes inappropriate comments to the teen girls he encounters, but he’s clearly presented here as creepy and potentially dangerous, rather than a valid romantic partner. Both young women discover physical evidence of a murder as they walk through the woods, in Robin’s case with an ominous trail of blood and hair rather than dismembered body parts. Both novels also feature a peripheral female character who is depicted as hysterical, overly imaginative, and not able to be trusted, though Help Wanted’s Claudia fares a lot worse in this respect than Teacher’s Pet’s Tawney, as Claudia’s family is unsympathetically dismissive of her frequent moments of panic and seem to have accepted the girl’s eventual institutionalization or suicide as inevitable and more of a nuisance than a tragedy.

Like the Drewes family, the Swansons have got a lot going on. The books Robin has been hired to catalog belonged to Lillith, Mr. Swanson’s second wife, a self-proclaimed medium who Robin is told died by suicide after cutting her wrists and then jumping off a cliff into the ocean. Lillith was also a gifted artist and Robin’s first perception of her is through an unnerving self-portrait that hangs in the house, featuring a woman who is “delicate and childlike, her small face ghostly pale and painfully vulnerable … her clear violet eyes gazed wide with some unknown horror … [her clothing was] smeared and stained with blood. Her right hand plunged a knife deep into her breast. She was smiling” (36). Lillith’s role and history in the family is similarly unsettling, as she appears to have preyed upon Parker’s father while he was in mourning, promising him communication with his late wife in the afterlife, as Lillith insinuated her way into their lives as both a medium and a cleaning lady (mediumship wasn’t paying the bills). Lillith’s talent for communicating with the dead may or may not have been genuine (Cusick offers other characters’ speculations on this but no definitive conclusion), but was apparently instrumental in snagging Parker’s dad and bringing her and her daughter Claudia into the Swanson family, where they made an unhappy home up until Lillith’s death. When scary things start happening to Claudia, the girl believes it is her mother who has come to claim her, while Robin suspects Parker of trying to drive his step-sister to further madness in an attempt to secure the inheritance his father has promised Claudia.

Robin occupies a kind of liminal position in the class spectrum and her relationship with the family: she’s taken on this after school job to make extra money for a spring break trip to Florida with her girlfriends, but she and her mom are solidly middle class. She’s working to make money to help fund fun rather than out of necessity, her brother is in college, and her mom’s nights are filled with college courses and exercise classes. While the Swansons are clearly established as of a higher social class than Robin and her family, they don’t treat Robin as a domestic servant but as more of a skilled laborer and later, as she learns some of their dark secrets, as an ally and confidant.

There’s plenty of weirdness in the house itself but it is in the surrounding woods that the real danger lurks. Robin has to pass through these woods every time she goes to the house to work after school and she and her friend Faye are also in the habit of sneaking through a gap in the fence and going through the woods as a shortcut on their walk to school, which is how Robin first stumbles upon the hair and blood, though no one else really cares of believes her–even when they learn that one of their classmates, Vicki Hastings, has gone missing. One night when Robin is heading home from Manorwood, she gets startled by spooky sounds and someone calling her name. She takes off running through the woods, where her hair gets tangled in a tree branch and she becomes prey for Skaggs, the house’s creepy caretaker. As he reaches out to touch her, Robin pleads with him to help her get free and he responds with “Why should I? … When you’re so nice and helpless this way?” (147), which is a genuinely terrifying threat. Robin is saved from sexual assault and potential murder when Parker emerges from the shadows to scare Skaggs off and Robin runs for home, though she finds herself less relieved that Parker turned up and more suspicious about what he was doing lurking in the woods in the first place, and whether he also means her harm.

In the final showdown, Robin is drawn once more into the woods as she follows Claudia, who she believes is either fleeing in panic or has been abducted by someone who wants to hurt her. As Robin heads out into the night, “The forest seemed to swallow her. As Robin pushed her way through a maze of trunks and branches, she didn’t even notice the scratches on her face, the limbs tearing at her hair” (176).  Running through the woods, Robin finds Vicki Hastings’ body, now in a state of advanced decomposition, and Skaggs soon shows up to gloat over how he raped and murdered the other girl, telling Robin “You’re gonna look just like her” (179). He drags Robin to an outbuilding deep in the woods and launches into a truly unsettling dialogue about how much he enjoyed raping and murdering Vicki and how much he’s looking forward to doing the same to Robin. Claudia rescues Robin by plunging a set of gardening shears into Skaggs’s back and killing him. Robin shifts into rescuer mode once more, following Claudia out in the wilderness to protect her and see her safely home, only to find out that Claudia is actually just as unstable as everyone has said she is when Claudia tries to push Robin off a cliff. She means to frame Parker for Robin’s murder, which will allow Claudia the chance to become the sole heir to the Swanson fortune. Parker and Walt save Robin, Parker attempts to save Claudia but she chooses to plunge to her death rather than accept his help and face the consequences of her actions, and in an out-of-left-field revelation, the Swanson’s housekeeper Winifred (who has been a peripheral but kindly presence throughout the novel) confesses that she murdered Lillith to protect the Swanson family. Echoing the final pages of Teacher’s Pet, Help Wanted ends with a love triangle, as Walt and Parker argue over who should get to drive Robin home, though it seems like after being nearly raped and murdered (twice!), Robin probably has other things on her mind.

In both Teacher’s Pet and Help Wanted, these young women work to make their way in the world only to find themselves facing danger on multiple fronts. When guys show an interest in them, they can’t be sure whether that interest is authentic and well-intentioned or an exploitative ploy that might end in murder, while other men (like Skaggs) pose a direct and unquestionable threat to their well-being. When they find other girls and young women in whom they can confide, they are told that those new friends are unstable and can’t be trusted, and when it comes right down to it, their new girlfriend could be either a real friend who will be there in a crisis (Tawney) or another attempted murderer (Claudia).

There’s a classist undertone to Teacher’s Pet and Help Wanted as well, as most of the dangerous characters are working class domestic employees: the groundskeeper Pearce, who William says isn’t good enough to marry his sister Rowena in Teacher’s Pet, and Help Wanted’s caretaker/janitor Skaggs and housekeeper Winifred (the least threatening of the bunch, but still technically a murderer). Even Claudia is depicted as being of a lower-class position than the rest of the Swanson family in Help Wanted, as she and her mother are accused of being gaudily nouveau riche, manipulative women who are after the Swanson fortune and will go to any lengths to secure it.

In the end, both Kate and Robin find their way out of the wilderness, but Teacher’s Pet and Help Wanted make it abundantly clear that the world is a dangerous place, one in which young women are never really safe from exploitation, sexual assault, or murder. Insult is added to injury when the sexual violence they encounter in the woods—both in threat and in reality—is marginalized and dismissed, framed as just one part of the larger wacky romantic adventures they muddle through rather than being addressed as life-threatening, serious trauma. Rather than a wolf in Grandma’s clothes hiding deep in the heart of the forest waiting to prey upon and consume them, these young women encounter a range of dangers with friends and foes alike in the shadowy woods, where straying from the path may well be deadly.

Alissa Burger is an associate professor at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. She writes about horror, queer representation in literature and popular culture, graphic novels, and Stephen King. She loves yoga, cats, and cheese.


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