Thursday 16 March 2017

Retro Reading - Help Wanted

If you asked me to name my major literary influences, off the top of my head I'd say Tamora Pierce and HP Lovecraft. With some more thought I'd talk about CS Lewis, Laurell K Hamilton, MR James, and Patricia Leitch. I would almost certainly have never mentioned Richie Tankersley Cusick.

Yes, it's more Point Horror! After enjoying the nostalgic kick of The Silent Scream last week, I decided to indulge my inner teen a bit more with Help Wanted. This is another of my favourites, and I always remembered it fondly when I thought back, but it wasn't until I re-read it yesterday that I realised Cusick may be the greatest literary influence I never knew I had.

To briefly recap the plot, Robin Bailey is a smart and conscientious student looking to make some fast cash for a Thanksgiving vacation with her friends. She answers a "help wanted" ad and finds herself cataloging books in a creepy old house for a creepy rich family with plenty of creepy secrets. Shenanigans ensue! I am simplifying it somewhat, of course. There are moments of genuine unease and disquiet throughout Help Wanted (like how did I not realise the school janitor was an actual sexual predator the first time round???). There are also some unintentionally uneasy moments, like sort-of love interest Parker Swanson casually dismissing his step-sister's suicidal tendencies as like "eh, she's weird, whatever."

But it holds up for me. I adored Robin as a teenager and I adore her more as an adult. I mean:

She's clever and caring. She defends her best friend, Faye, against boys who label her as "that airhead." She looks after Parker's step-sister, Claudia when everyone else dismisses her and slags her off. She works hard and is unassuming and earnest and I want to be friends with Robin, basically.

Another thing I always liked about this book was the romance - or lack of it. It's too easy to cram a pointless love angle into any book, and I do remember Point Horrors being replete with awkwardly timed teenaged fumbles. Like, look, you're running from a madman/vampire/crazy roommate. You have no time for flirting! Help Wanted skips this. Parker and another guy, Walt, are both obviously interested in Robin, but she has no time for their shit. The book ends with both guys gentlemanly escorting Robin home from a traumatic night of nearly being murdered, and lightly teasing each other about being competition for her, but Robin just sort of rolls her eyes and ignores them. I have to admit, I always kind of assumed that she ended up dating both and they formed a happy open relationship, as this seemed the most logical conclusion to me. On re-reading, I agree with my younger self.

So what are the things that made me realise how much Cusick influenced me? The setting - there's a gothic vibe to this story, with mediums, ghosts, and huge spooky houses playing central roles. If you've read any of my work from UNDERTOW to NIGHT AND CHAOS or my Brides of Darkness books, you'll know I dig that classic gothic vibe. Small towns with dark secrets, the undead, creepy locations, yes. Give me that. I doubt that all came from Cusick, but re-reading Help Wanted made me realise she definitely contributed. There's also the element of doubt in here - is it really something supernatural or is there a rational (but horrible) explanation. That appears in PHANTOM FEARS, for a quick example.

This is also the first book I remember reading where mental illness was a plot point, and an important one at that. I think I'd probably always gravitate towards characters who suffer or have suffered mental illness, because I have myself and it fascinates me, but Help Wanted was probably the earliest book I read where it was addressed and discussed openly. Does it handle it well? No. Claudia's paranoia and suicidal tendencies are dismissed as attention-seeking at best, and (spoiler!) she turns out to be the villain, so there's that nasty undercurrent of "crazy people are bad!" in there. Even so, it was...illuminating for me, a depressed and anxious teen, to read about a paranoid and anxious character in any context.

Thinking about Help Wanted lead me onto another Cusick book, Teacher's Pet. I haven't re-read this one yet, but it's another story that features a dark and gothic-esque plot with the whole "creepy setting, dark family secrets, mental illness" thing going on. If I remember correctly, I was outraged by the ending, in which the character I fell in love with turned out to be the villain (and mentally ill. I really need to write something about the presentation of mentally ill characters in Point Horror books, I guess). And the character I thought was a milquetoast wet blanket got the girl, even though he was considerably less attractive and interesting. Bah.

From Teacher's Pet, I think I drew a love of unconventional characters and love stories, in a strange way. I like darker, prickly heroines and romances. Is that all down to Cusick? Probably not, but throughout Help Wanted, I kept thinking "I love that trope! I write that trope!" and it was pretty cool to think about how I've used those tropes in my own work.

Next on the retro reading list? Probably Caroline B Cooney's Freeze Tag. We shall see!

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