Was I ever not-weird? I really can’t say. From the time I can remember, I was a weird child who grew into a weird teen who went on to become a weird adult. Part of my oddity has been a fascination with true crime, mystery, and the supernatural. Which is why, in high school, my sister clued me in to thriller novels by Lois Duncan.
For decades, writer Lois Duncan has churned out spine-tingling, edge-of-your-seat novels starring teenaged protagonists in dangerous situations. Her tenure of terror began in the 1960s with titles like Ransom and They Never Came Home. Her writing spree continued through the 1970s with popular books like Down a Dark Hall and Killing Mr. Griffin, and into the 1980s with novels like The Third Eye, Locked in Time, and The Twisted Window. It was in the 1990s that Lois Duncan, after a tragic experience, lost her penchant for penning thrillers. And it was in the ‘90s that I began reading her work.
My sister and I were crazy about her books. Several had been written before we were born or when we were children, and much of the dialogue and expressions were passé. So were some other details. "They used record players!", I’d laugh to my sister when a Duncan character spun tunes; I’d glance smugly at our shoebox of cassette tapes, which we played from a pink-and-turquoise stereo. But in the end, the time period didn’t matter. I loved being scared from the safety of my bedroom. And Duncan came through, every time.
In the past week, being at the ripe age of I’m-Not-Telling, You-Do-the-Math, I reread three of her books. I began with the crime thriller, I Know What You Did Last Summer. A young boy is killed in a hit-and-run, and the four teens driving that night try to forget that anything ever happened on that lonely road. But somehow, someone knows, and that person wants them dead. If the name of this novel sounds familiar, it’s because it was adapted into a horrifyingly bad slasher movie starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. Of course, the book was nothing like the film, exempt of blood or gore. Instead, four characters not only navigate a harrowing situation, but they must untangle their own moral quandaries, plus the mysteries of dating and friendships. Reading this book last week, I realized that I couldn’t remember how it ended, and I found myself turning page after page, wanting to know.
Next, I reread Summer of Fear. In it, a young woman, Rachel, along with her family, welcomes her cousin Julia into their home after her parents die in a tragic accident. But Julia isn’t who she seems, and although she enchants everyone around her, she begins taking away everything important to Rachel, from her beloved dog, to her best friend, and even her boyfriend. Desperate to earn her life back, Rachel discovers that Julia comes from a background of witchcraft, steeped in the Ozark Mountains, and that she wants Rachel gone. Rereading, I turned those pages with my tongue in my teeth, my mind yelling at the protagonist all the while: "Rachel, don’t do that! Don’t go in there, Rachel! Oh my God, Rachel, hurry!"
Lastly, I reread Stanger with My Face. Sixteen-year-old Laurie also encounters someone new in her life, but only after her friends, her boyfriend, and even her family repeatedly mistake a mysterious figure for her. Laurie realizes she has a frightening dopple-ganger, a long lost twin sister who appears not in body, but through a phenomenon called astral projection, in which her soul untethers from her body. Laurie wants a connection with her sister, but she soon realizes that her twin means her, and those she loves, mortal harm. Last night as I read, I found myself feeling rattled, and honestly, a bit scared. I was glad my cats were on my bed to protect me.
In 1989, Lois Duncan’s youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, was murdered. No one was able to find out what happened to her. The case remains unsolved. After this terrible loss, Duncan no longer wished to write about young women in fearful situations, so she stopped. A little over a year ago, Lois Duncan, a soft-faced woman with kindly eyes and a mind that spun out chilling stories, died at age 80.
But it was back in 1992, not long after her daughter’s death, that Duncan’s collection of thriller novels won the coveted American Library Association Margaret A. Edwards Award, with the citation "…Duncan's characters face a universal truth—your actions are important and you are responsible for them." That’s exactly what I took from her work, and Duncan’s books helped get me through some rough years. Adolescence is more terrifying than fiction—and being a weird kid in high school is not for the faint-of-heart. I’m so glad I didn’t have a madman out for revenge, a black-magic witch, or a murderous evil twin to contend with—I don’t know how I’d deal!
Check back each Thursday throughout the summer as we re-read and reflect on our old favorites!