A rosey red apple bleeds from a stab wound in this close up of Darryl Zudeck's cover illustration

It’s time for another Thrift Store Finds! It’s the series where I stand in the center of a ring of paperback horror novels and spin around until I fall down. Whichever book I land on, I have to read. It’s kind of like a reverse spin the bottle with less kissing and more brain damage.

I honestly don’t why more teachers aren’t crazy.

They get up at dawn, struggle through a commute, teach lessons to a bunch of pint-sized assholes, grade papers, manage helicopter parents—the list goes on and on. You’d think all this pressure would get to even the most seasoned professionals eventually. But of all the teachers I’ve met, not a single one of them has ended up a gibbering mess huffing dry erase markers. Maybe teachers are just made of stronger stuff than the rest of us.

Mary Margaret McCarthy was certainly made of strong stuff, but her teaching techniques in The Substitute Teacher would hardly qualify her for teacher of the year. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Substitute Teacher opens with Beth and Jack Flynn moving their family into a new house in Bayside, New York. It should be an exciting time, but Beth can’t shake her feeling of “psychic unease.” Sure it could be the August heat, but it also could be the “vestigial effect of remembering Frank E. Lutz.”

You see before Beth was a stay-at-home 90s mom, she was a star HR employee whose career was cut short when she revealed that hot shot CEO candidate Payson Tevane was really con artist Frank E. Lutz. Unfortunately for Beth, Lutz didn’t take too kindly to being outed, so he broke into her home and attacked her with a bailing hook then ran off and committed suicide.

But even though Beth knows Lutz is dead, she still can’t shake the feeling that he’s stalking her because she noticed their garbage can was upside down and Lutz had a compulsion to turn over empty receptacles (???).

Jack is completely unsympathetic calms her down by reminding her that Lutz is dead. Beth saw his body in the morgue for goodness sake. Even genius-level deceivers like Lutz can’t fake dead. Or can they?

Meanwhile . . . 

Front cover design for Jordan Storm's 90s horror novel "The Substitute Teacher.
" A red apple sitting on a composition book drips blood from a knife wound.
Cover design by Darryl Zudeck

Mary Margaret McCarthy is interviewing for a job as a substitute teacher with New York public schools. Although her resume looks good on paper, the superintendent can’t help but get a weird vibe from her. First of all she’s big. Like massive. Over six feet tall and made of solid muscle, with hands that even “Patrick Ewing would die for.” Then there’s the fact that she’s carrying a giant purse that’s obviously full of heavy, oddly shaped objects. But the real thing that has him freaked out is her “bovinely placid” manner. 

But even so, the super has to admit she has what he’s looking for, “a warm body that could presumably find its way to any school, enter a classroom without collapsing, and prevent the inmates of that classroom from looting and pillaging the premises.”

Who says the education system is broken?

Of course, the super was right to be wary because Mary Margaret isn’t who she seems. And no, she’s not Frank E. Lutz in a problematic Mrs. Doubtfire disguise, thank god. She’s really Loretta Dorsett, an insane, pain-addicted former nun who is convinced that she’s one of “the Chosen.” And what are the Chosen here to do? Why murder children, of course.

The two storylines run parallel with Beth examining her past and Loretta murdering children and beating herself with a belt, until the two finally go head-to-head in a spectacular and bloody final battle.

Paperback collectors come to the hobby for a lot of different reasons, but one thing we all have in common is our love of discovery. Sure, it’s nice to find genre holy grails that have already been vetted by fellow fans, but nothing beats picking up a completely unknown book and seeing what’s inside. 

Back cover of a paperback copy of "The Substitute Teacher."
I have to admit I only read the promo text after I finish the book.

We all know we can’t judge a book by its cover and do it anyway, which is why I was skeptical when I picked this puppy up. From the title treatment and illustration to the subject matter, I was pretty sure I was in for early-90s YA a la Christopher Pike. My suspicions only increased when I Googled the author and found only one other credit to their name (pen name alert! Anyone out there have a lead?). So you can imagine how excited I was when this book turned out to be more mature than I expected. 

ELEMENTS OF STYLE

I don’t know (yet) who Jordan Storm might be, but they’re a darn good writer. Technically, Storm balances description, dialogue, and action expertly, weaving between the three so smoothly, you barely notice it’s happening. 

Storm shows off this skill in a scene where Beth’s son is nearly hit by a passing semi. Instead of sending Beth immediately into action, Storm takes the time to really paint a picture of the scene. 

“She smelled the stench of scorched rubber in the hot August air, saw a huge Budweiser truck halted at an angle in the street . . . A long, jagged set of double skid marks stretched from the truck’s rear tires to a point at least a hundred feet up the boulevard. . . . half a dozen cases of beer had been thrown onto the roadway: smashed cans, broken glass, and the sickly sweet stink of hot beer.”

These descriptions pull double duty. Not only do they set the scene, but they also build suspense. We want to know Beth’s son is OK as much as she does, and every sentence that doesn’t reveal his fate only makes the tension worse. 

Storm also takes full advantage of his antagonist’s poor mental state to give us some absolutely metal imagery. After killing her first student, Loretta is summoned to evening prayers where a statue of the Virgin Mary seems to come to life. 

“‘That’s right, Loretta, my child,’ said the Virgin now, removing the purple beating heart from her bosom and holding it toward Loretta. Blood dripped from the heart, through the Virgin’s fingers, and onto the candles. ‘Take my heart, child, and crush it if you will.’” 

Insert three emoji finger horn symbols here.

YOU CAN TAKE THE HORROR OUT OF THE PAPERBACK, BUT . . .

I love being pleasantly surprised by the quality of the horror novels I read, but I have to admit I’m always happy when some of the goofier elements of the genre remain. I’m especially partial to the bizarre metaphors and unusual word choices that were so common to the era. In that regard, Storm didn’t disappoint.

Sexy women have “perfumed fingers,” street punks wear cutoffs that bulge “like rotting apples,” and at one point Beth refers to her former tormentor, Payson Trevane, as “the biggest snow-job, blow-job, hand-job con artist in the Western Hemisphere.” God, I love that line.

AIN’T NO SUBSTITUTE (TEACHER) FOR PLOT

Listen, at the end of the day, no matter how good your sentences are or how empathetic your characters, without a good plot, you’ve got nothing. Thankfully, Storm delivered on that front as well.

Thanks (again) to the cover, I assumed the story would be about a malevolent sub who torments her students while clueless adults fail to see what’s going on. I figured the main character would be a straight-A student whose world spirals out of control as they battle this cruel educator. But that’s not what I got at all, and I couldn’t be happier.

Turns out, The Substitute Teacher is two parallel stories about women and the painful histories that made them who they are. It’s about madness and second chances. It’s a story about trauma and what happens when cruelty begins to feel like kindness and contentment disguises evil. And for all those heavy themes, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.

***

Looking for psycho ladies who love children just a liiittle too much? Try What’s Wrong With Valerie? on for size.

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