It’s been a year full of celebrity death, and a week full of tragedy, so it’s natural not every loss can be a trending topic. But I’ve found myself kind of sad that a major influence of my teen years passed this week to relatively little fanfare. She deserves more memorials! So here I am to share with you the importance of Lois Duncan, YA horror/suspense writer (among other things, apparently, too).
What is it about being a teenager that draws us to the dark and twisted? Something to do with our own internal upheaval? The realization that the world can be an awful place and no, grownups don’t always know what they’re doing, but we’re still stuck under their thumbs for the next five years or so? Feeling powerless, so longing for some kind of supernatural power to pick up the slack? Maybe all of this? Whatever it is, a Middle School Horror Novel phase is exceedingly common. Even I went through it, which says something.
I am and have always been a grade-A wuss. I was afraid of Sesame Street until I was a teenager. I could go great lengths to avoid things that made me nervous, whether heights or magic shows or my uncle’s weapon collection display. And I still don’t like gory movies. But horror novels were different. Maybe because books in general had always been my safe space, maybe because I had more control, when I could read at my own speed and let my inner eye fade to black when needed. It might be a natural progression from my elementary school obsession with mysteries and fantasies: my favorite Agatha Christie, from the time I read it in 6th grade on, was And Then There Were None, about ten people stranded on an island being killed off one by one, which is really more of a horror motif than strictly mystery, after all. Maybe puberty ups the intensity of everything, and mystery and fantasy plus intensity equals horror.
So somehow or another I found my way there. I poked at Stephen King, but found it too grown-up for my liking. Luckily paperback YA horror was in its heyday in the early 90s. You could spot a Scholastic Point Horror book immediately by title font. R.L. Stine cranked out the Fear Street books (yes, before he gave the younger kids Goosebumps, he made his mark with Fear Street), but everyone knew Christopher Pike was scarier.
Mixed in unassumingly with the rest of these books was Lois Duncan, but when you actually read them, she stuck out. It wasn’t that hers were necessarily scarier than any of the other books. They were just a notch higher quality-wise. Instead of the usual formulaic horror stories—which were loads of fun, don’t get me wrong—Duncan’s books had things like subplots and character growth. They were richer. Sure, they had their fair share of extraneous exclamation points, too, but while most YA horror was a one-time diversion, I came back to Duncan’s books again and again.
Girl-with-supernatural-powers was a favorite topic of mine, and she offered plenty of that. Stranger With My Face, a story of evil twins and astral projection, was my number-one reread, while Down a Dark Hall, a haunted boarding house novel, was my ideal of what gothic horror should be. Summer of Fear gave me pure horror girl-with-supernatural-powers, but The Third Eye’s girl-with-supernatural-powers story leaned more mystery and A Gift of Magic’s girl-with-supernatural-powers story was almost gentle in comparison to the others. It was exciting how many different directions in which she could take the supernatural.
Less interesting to me were her non-supernatural flat-out thrillers, but they may have made more of an impact on everyone else. I Know What You Did Last Summer somewhat infamously became a movie, and Don’t Look Behind You ended up eerily foretelling a real horror in Duncan’s life, the murder of her daughter (who’d been the inspiration for the main character), and the conspiracies and cover-ups that clouded the resulting investigation. When her life started looking like it had jumped straight out of her books, she lost her taste for writing thrillers, and all but stopped. Pretty much just as I’d discovered her.
In library school I had to make a brochure spotlighting a YA author, and chose Duncan half out of laziness, because I’d already read all her books so I could skip right to the brochure making, right? To my surprise, it turned out she’d written one last horror novel after all, Gallows Hill. So much for the lazy method, I would just have to read it. A decade after I’d binged the others, I opened up a brand-new (to me) Lois Duncan book. Halfway through I caught myself grinning as my heart raced and eyes widened. I’d almost forgotten how much fun these books were!
So rest in peace, ma’am. Thank you so much for all the spooky joy and delicious chills.