Babysitting is without a doubt the most hazardous after-school job in the world of young-adult horror. The caregivers in these books count themselves lucky if the biggest problem of the night is getting the kids to bed. Those less fortunate sitters have to deal with a variety of boogeymen. Although, not every waking second of these teens’ lives is a total nightmare; their own homes and schools are temporary safe havens. A. Bates, on the other hand, found a way to ensure one babysitter is in a constant state of terror. In the author’s 1991 novel Mother’s Helper, a 17-year-old accepts a well-paying but unusual job offer; she is hired to watch an infant full-time. The only catch is the nanny position requires staying on a small island, far away from home… and always close to danger.
Rebecca “Becky” Collier finds an excuse to leave Seattle for the summer after her boyfriend dumps her for her best friend. And with her going off to college soon, the prospective freshman needs to earn some fast money. So, when Mrs. Nelson provides a stone for two birds, Becky jumps on a plane to Sebastian Island. The gig itself — watching over a baby boy named Devon all summer — is easy enough, but after a while, Becky grows weary of Devon’s high-maintenance mother.
Mrs. Nelson is visibly uncomfortable around her own son, and she is reluctant to let Becky leave the house. Making things weirder is the reason why the Nelsons are in Sebastian in the first place. Someone has threatened Devon, and his parents — Devon’s father is away this whole time — think keeping him here is the best option. As willing as Becky is to overlook all the red flags for an enticing lump sum of $5000, the growing isolation eats away at her. On top of that is the handsome yet suspicious townie and neighbor, Cleve Davidson, who keeps asking Becky so many prying questions.
Once she is allowed a night off, Becky’s mind starts to run wild. Along with the sheriff’s convenient accident, one that effectively leaves the town of South End without any law enforcement, Becky ponders Cleve’s innocence. His unremitting curiosity about Becky’s job and her “aunt” suggests he is not who he appears to be. Mrs. Nelson herself is equally shady, if not more so. She not only forbids Becky from answering the phone in her office when she is not home — a room Bates compares to the forbidden one in the French folktale “Bluebeard” — those daily work meetings of hers are nothing more than her sitting alone at the marina. For someone who claims to be in hiding, Mrs. Nelson sure is lousy at staying hidden.
From Becky feeling like a prisoner in the Nelsons’ summer house to her increasing anxiety about Devon’s stalker, Mother’s Helper is all about horrors from within. Becky suffers the effects of cabin fever early on; both her irritability and paranoia cause her to make rash decisions as the story progresses. Then, being aware of Devon’s predicament causes Becky to be mistrustful and nervous. The more enmeshed she is in the Nelsons’ problem, the more she internalizes their fears.
As for scares, Bates largely channels the psychological menace of classic “imperiled women” films as opposed to the teen slashers influencing other suspenseful YA novels from this same era. She plays on Becky’s dread with an incessantly ringing yet never answered telephone, and she perpetuates the sensation of being watched. At one point, the author terrorizes the protagonist with strategically placed dolls; some are broken and mutilated, whereas the most daunting of them all is left completely unharmed. An excellent line about this incident sums up Becky’s uneasy state of mind:
“This doll was perfect — no slashes, no broken, shattered head, no ripped limbs — and somehow it was even more frightening.
Almost like it’s a fill-in-the-blank threat, Becky thought. Fill it in with anything I can imagine.”
Family thrillers were on the rise in Hollywood when Mother’s Helper was first published. Sinister sitters, jilted paramours, and bad seeds were only some of the threats found in these now-dated narratives. Regardless of how they did it, the ostensible villains sought to destroy the family. This book predates the subgenre’s cinematic peak, which includes The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Poison Ivy, and Mother’s Boys. Unlike those films, though, Bates’ story details the aftermath of a crime. Of course this facet is unrealized until the last act.
Mrs. Nelson eventually caves to Becky’s questioning and admits she is on the run from Franklin, her abusive husband. The women conceive a plan in anticipation of Franklin’s arrival; Becky hides the baby elsewhere while Mrs. Nelson distracts her husband. As to be expected, things do not go accordingly. This is due to the fact that Mrs. Nelson is lying about everything. Devon is not her child; he is the biological son of Franklin and his current wife. Becky’s client abducted the baby and then fled to this island, where she put everything, including the rental home and checking account, in the nanny’s name. And to ensure he would not alert the proper authorities, Mrs. Nelson injured the sheriff and let the town think Cleve was responsible.
Caroline B. Cooney exercised the “stolen baby” plot a year earlier in her Janie Johnson series, beginning with The Face on the Milk Carton. However, Mother’s Helper executes the idea much differently. The result comes as a greater shock for the target audience, seeing as the twist is delivered toward the end rather than at the beginning like in Cooney’s book. Younger readers identify with Becky, who like themselves, would never suspect a mother is lying about being a parent. The thriller plays with perception as well as the concept of who can be considered inherently trustworthy. Having Becky then become an accomplice to kidnapping, albeit without her knowledge or consent, is appalling.
Despite having been manipulated, lied to, and almost killed, Becky remains compassionate. She understands Mrs. Nelson needs a different type of help now. As she confronts the woman at the marina, Becky is sympathetic instead of angry. She ultimately lets Mrs. Nelson escape and tells her to “be safe.” Letting the antagonist, particularly someone who has a mental illness, live in these kinds of stories is both merciful and uncommon. It is also not the most logical or even the most lawful choice to make, but it suits Becky, a character whose fatal flaw is caring too much.
There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on at Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.