October 21, 2013

[Book Review] Teacher's Pet by Richie Tankersley Cusick


Kate likes a little thrill. She likes a little scare. And she loves getting the chance to go to the exclusive week-long writing conference taught by the famous master of horror himself. He's so good at being so bad.

With a teacher like that, you expect a little competition. With a teacher like that, you practically have to kill to get his attention.

Does Kate have what it takes to be teacher's pet?



Let me start by saying that the above blurb, which appears on the a back of the ISBN 0590431145 edition of Teacher's Pet, does a terrible job of describing what this book is about. So here's one of my own creation:
When Kate arrives at her horror writing conference, she's in for some disappointment: the genre master she came to see, William Drewe, never showed up. Instead, his brother Gideon will taking over the class and lecture schedule. But Kate doesn't mind; Gideon is a handsome and talented young horror writer, and he really seems to like her.
But someone is going out of their way to scare Kate. William is still missing. People are getting hurt. And someone is definitely following her.
Is one of Kate's new friends playing a practical joke on her? Or is someone really out for blood?
Much better. Now we can move on.

Ultimately, this story was entertaining. I had a bit of fun batting around various theories as I read, and it wasn't quite the utter facepalm of some its contemporaries in the YA horror genre. But there was a lot to complain about.

First and foremost, what the hell is up with Tawney? The character, a girl in her late teens or early twenties who works at the conference, is one of the two (non-love interest) friends that Kate makes. And Tawney, though described as pretty and kind, is one of the dippiest dips that ever dipped.

Seriously, I spent the entire book wondering what the heck was up with her. When she's introduced, her friend Denzil makes the circle-around-the-ear "she's crazy!" hand motion to warn Katie about Tawney's eccentricities. When she talks, it's clear that Tawney is extremely naive and oblivious. She's the kind of girl who can be ruthlessly mocked without her ever noticing, the kind of girl who feels no shame in skinny dipping with a near-stranger where anyone might stumble upon her, and the kind of girl who never seems to catch sarcasm or figurative speech.

In other words, it's implied that Tawney might be slightly disabled... but the book never comes out and clarifies. Which rather annoyed me, I'll admit; if she is meant to be disabled, it would have been nice for the story to explicitly state that. Tawney's a very positive, helpful character, and it'd be great if I could point to her as a positive portrayal of the intellectually or socially disabled.

Or maybe Cusick just wanted to write a "dumb pretty girl" character. I have no idea.

My second complaint is something that I don't think I've ever seen properly addressed in one of these 80s/90s YA horror stories: Why does no one ever call the police? Seriously, within the first few chapters, Kate finds what she thinks is a severed hand in the woods. Wouldn't that be a great time to call the cops? And if it's not, how about calling them when one of the characters gets their leg caught in a bear trap that they believe was deliberately set? Or how about when it becomes clear that William has not just drunkenly wandered off and is legitimately missing, possibly murdered?

All of these seem like very good reasons to call the police, and yet Kate never does so. Hell, Kate is encouraged by the adults at the conference to refrain from calling the police, in spite of the fact that she might be in mortal danger.

Which brings me to my next complain: Why are the teenage protagonist's love interests both in their twenties?

First, we have Gideon, the hot horror author/teacher/lecturer in his twenties. Tawney's practically head over heels for him, and Kate doesn't take too long to join her. So when Gideon asks for a private conference with Kate, during which he takes her out into the woods and unexpectedly kisses her, she doesn't complain.

Wait, wait, wait. Hold the hell up. Her teacher takes her into the woods and kisses her uninvited? I'm seeing quite a few problems with that, guys. Most importantly, she's, what, fifteen to seventeen at the most, while he is explicitly mentioned to be in his early twenties.

The other one isn't any better--in fact, it's worse. The first character Kate and her teacher meet in the story is Pearce, a super creepy dude whose age is never specified (as he is stated to be the childhood friend of Gideon, he can be assumed to also be in his twenties) and who spends most of his scenes being really suspicious... and then Kate kisses him. Without any warning.

I literally did a double-take when I read that. My eyes skimmed over it, then flew back to the word "kiss". My only note for that scene says, in all caps, "WTF? WHY ARE YOU KISSING THIS GUY?" They had no chemistry. There were no hints that any kind of relationship--hell, any kind of affection--was going to develop between these two characters (unless you count a joke from Denzil about how girls always fall in love with mysterious guys like Pearce) until suddenly they'd shoved their lips together. It was absolutely fucking baffling.

Speaking of something that wasn't baffling, however: I figured out the super shocking plot twist on page 129. (There are 214 pages total.) From there on out, I knew whodunnit and how. I hoped, however, that I was wrong (more on that in a minute).

Now, 129 out of 214 isn't that bad. It's 60% of the book, which sounds kind of lame until you realize that when it comes to these Point Horror and Fear Street type books... you usually know how things are going to play out by, say, 40%. They're just incredibly obvious, and there's usually not much room for extra guessing. With Teacher's Pet, there were at least enough clues that I could still entertain a few alternate theories until I got to the reveal.

Which brings me to the reveal itself. This is your spoiler warning. I am about to reveal the How (but not the Who).

I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate Dissociative Identity Disorder plots. I hate them with a fiery passion. I hate when horror writers pick a buzzword mental diagnosis, plop it into their story, and expect you to call them clever. And I especially hate when it's DID.

See, this hatred has a history. In 2011, I went on a Fear Street binge. And one of the things you notice when you read a bunch of those books back-to-back is that the series looooves to have a "s/he's got multiple personalities!" reveal at the end of their stories.

Let me just say that I can deal with a DID character. I can accept the fact that one particular character in one particular story suffers from or at least appears to suffer from what was in 1990 known as "multiple personality disorder". What I cannot accept is that in the two decades after the release of Flora Rheta Schreiber's Sybil, MPD/DID became a go-to plot twist for horror and thriller endings.

Here's the thing. There is no doubt that there are individuals--many, many individuals--who at the very least claim to have multiple personalities. But DID was and is a very controversial medical condition, and there are plenty of medical professionals who will gladly inform you that DID cases are misidentified Munchhausen Syndrome patients, instances of therapist suggestion, iatrogenesis, misdiagnosis of other conditions, etcetera. In fact, this 1999 survey of 301 board-certified American psychiatrist found that "Only about one-quarter of respondents felt that diagnoses of dissociative amnesia and dissociative identity disorder were supported by strong evidence of scientific validity."

So it's clear that these twist endings are not in fact the result of the author's research into a psychiatric disorder. They're simply using an unproven diagnosis that the public thought was "cool" to write a story that the audience will hopefully also enjoy. No twist ending involving DID that I have ever read bothered to spare one word about the reality and controversy of the disorder; it's just "such-and-such is now getting the care s/he needs".

Yeah, whatever.

But, like I said, Teacher's Pet was a sufficiently entertaining story. I'm never going to love it, but it was a reasonably fun way to spend two or so hours in spite of all its flaws. So I don't highly recommend it, but if you can get your hands on a copy, it might be a fun way for a horror fan to spend an evening and get into the Halloween spirit.



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