Lois Duncan may be dead, but she certainly isn’t gone. Her books, her stories, still exist and we can always bring her back whenever we open the pages of one of her books. I owe a lot to Lois Duncan, because she was one of my original Favourites; the list of authors that made me want to write twisted books set in high school, and now that I do…I’m quite happy. These life-changing authors included Robert Cormier, Joan Lowery Nixon, Kathy Acker, Jay Bennett, Robert Arthur (The Three Investigators), Carolyn Keene, Francesca Lia Block, Theresa Breslin, Laurie Halse Anderson, and of course Lois Duncan. These authors were larger than life, far removed from a council estate in Cumbernauld where I grew up. Their books were fuel for someone who wanted to escape from a world where the internet didn’t exist. Lois Duncan was at the top of the Favourites list. A prodigious author, she could turn her hand to anything and make it work – she wrote and published books for children, teenagers, and adults, though for some odd reason her source material – when inevitably adapted for the big or small screens – suffered the indignity of being totally transformed into outlandish parodies of their original form.
It is her books for teenagers (or Young Adults, as they’re known as today) that made the greatest impact. I first discovered I Know What You Did Last Summer in Cumbernauld Library, sitting on the Returns shelf. The title alone hinted at something sinister and odd. I remember the cover art very clearly. It was two wide eyes, open wide with fear, and a dramatic shot of a car with phantom headlights zig-zagging across the rest of the cover art. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, this started a love affair with American YA. The book told the story of friends who committed a terrible crime, covered it up, and went back to their lives as though nothing happened. But someone saw them that night, and soon a campaign of terror is waged against the teenagers. There aren’t any phantom fishermen with hooks in this book. No, it’s a subtle story of what happens to those who suffer in the aftermath of bad decisions. It could also be taken as a critique on the Vietnam War, but the tween version of me (I dressed like a human rainbow and waved a lot at people) didn’t see that at the time.
What strikes me about I Know What You Did Last Summer after re-reading it this week is how much I supported the antagonist as he carried out his mission. The skill of Lois Duncan as a writer is to make you feel that he’s right to come after the teenagers who resemble Jennifer Love-Hewitt, him from Cruel Intentions, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Fred from Scooby-Doo. The younger me rooted for the teenagers behind the wheel, but me as I am now…felt sorry for the villain. More than that, there were times I wanted him to succeed.
Then came Killing Mr. Griffin, which gripped the tween version of me with the title alone. This is probably Lois Duncan’s darkest book. A revenge tale that shows the consequences of kidnapping a hated teacher, it all hinges on the belief that teenagers would allow themselves to be manipulated by a charismatic loner. As a YA book buff, I’d already encountered this in a book called The Wave by Morton Rhue. But what makes Killing Mr. Griffin so brilliant is that the teenagers involved don’t mean for events to spiral out of control. It happens, they’re trapped, and that’s when you see the stresses on each character – and it’s how they deal with the situation that makes the book compelling. CLUE: They blame the psychopath, but take responsibility as is the way in a Lois Duncan book, and completely unlike the movie versions of her books where teenagers get away with everything, including wearing dungarees.
Summer Of Fear, which is probably my personal favourite, shows the tame effects of witchcraft when wielded by a home invader. A teenage girl has to watch her life unravel when a newcomer takes everything from her, and of course this new presence has the magic to back up her bitchy ways. These books need to be judged in the context of the time they were published; back in 1973 it was terrifying to imagine that you were being followed by a war veteran who held you accountable for what you did last summer, likewise the idea that someone could walk around your bed and kill you with magic probably made an entire generation of teens push their beds against a wall. A lot of what happened in Lois Duncan’s books could be considered subtle in an age where psycho teen bitches with imaginary unicorns blow up schools (that would be one of my books) but of course back in those days, this was really scary stuff.
Other notable books by Lois Duncan include Down A Dark Hall, The Eyes of Karen Connors, They Never Came Home, Locked In Time, The Twisted Window and many others.
Lois Duncan’s love for teen thrillers waned after her own daughter’s death. She died in mysterious circumstances and it knocked the stuffing out of Lois, who decided she could no longer write books which featured female protagonists in peril. And so she published books for children and adults, including a book about the death of her daughter titled Who Killed My Daughter? I never read it, because it all felt to raw. In some weird way I felt I knew Lois Duncan, that she was a distant friend, a pen pal who wrote books just for me. And it would never happen again. I still had my other Favourites, but Lois Duncan books were an event. Something special to savour.
And then a librarian told me there was a new Lois Duncan book coming out soon. Well I nearly fell spilled my Cherry-Cola on the carpet, and rolled all over it in my best Little Mermaid impression, that’s how happy the news made me.
Gallows Hill (it doesn’t have an apostrophe and I spent years assuming it did) was Lois Duncan coming to terms with a book that she didn’t want to write, but knew her fans wanted to read, and it was worthwhile. Gallows Hill felt like an old friend that I hadn’t hugged for a long time. The story of a girl who may or may not be the reincarnation of a witch, she comes to a town steeped in witchcraft lore…and finds herself targeted by the townsfolk. It was later made into a TV movie with a hook handed killer. Does that sound familiar? It made me so mad. It was nearly as bad as the time that Miss Marple book had a killer lesbian nun inserted into the TV movie.
One of the many pleasures of visiting various libraries in schools during my book tours is that I get to see some old books. School libraries don’t have a high budget, and lack support, so they can’t update their stock as often as public libraries.
And sometimes if I’m lucky…I’ll find a fabulous old Lois Duncan book and it all comes back to me, the excitement of finding that book all those years ago for the first time. It’s like a sign to remind me what started it all.
Thanks for everything, Lois!