Master of her genre

Published July 3, 2016
Lois Duncan. — Jean Baptiste/Lacroix WireImage
Lois Duncan. — Jean Baptiste/Lacroix WireImage

The first book that I read by Lois Duncan (April 28, 1934 — June 15, 2016) was called Lost in Time (1985). At the time, in the early 1990s when I was a teenager, her books weren’t readily available and I came across it at a second-hand book cart. The cover depicted a young girl against the backdrop of an old-fashioned, palatial house enveloped with mist, with the blurb “Her days are numbered ... will Nore find a way out?” which must have appealed to me, given that I purchased it on the spot.

The moment I started reading it, I was hooked. Lost in Time centres on a 17-year old girl who has recently lost her mother; she goes to New Orleans for her summer holidays from her boarding school in New England to spend time with her father and new step-family. Most of the book is set in Shadow Grove, “a replica of Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara” — the ancestral home of her beautiful stepmother, Lisette, and her two children: Gabe, who is Nore’s age, and the 13-year-old Josie. Nore has an “unnatural” sense of time” and traces of clairvoyance, and this helps her not only uncover the secret that her stepfamily is hiding, but helps her escape her murder and that of her father’s at the hands of her stepfather.

Locked in Time was one of the 50-something books that Lois Duncan wrote during the course of her career in the 1970s, most of which were for teenagers. She was one of the handful of writers at the time, like Robert Cormier, Judy Blume and Paul Zindel, who helped form the ‘Young Adult’ genre. While most of these aforementioned writers, along with Duncan, wrote about teenagers meeting the challenges of adolescence, Duncan went a step further: she incorporated the supernatural, horror and suspense in her books, thus paving the way for writers such as Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine.


Looking back at the life of novelist Lois Duncan and her books that remain popular today, decades after they first came out


Born in Philadelphia, Duncan’s parents were magazine photographers, and while growing up in Sarasota, she managed to have her stories published in several magazines while she was a teenager including Calling All Girls and Seventeen. She received an English scholarship, to Duke University, but her parents didn’t allow her to take it. “They had saved up and had enough for my college education,” she said, “and there were plenty of kids who didn’t have the money and they didn’t think it was fair that I should accept the scholarship when it ought to go to someone who needed it more.”

She attended Duke for a year, after which she got married and dropped out and eventually moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where many of her novels are set. She also taught in the journalism department at the University of New Mexico when she was in her 40s, after she had established herself as a bestselling author, and the “master of suspense”. “They had forgotten to check my credentials ... I really loved teaching ... and I thought somebody will find out. So I started taking classes ... and eventually graduated with honours; I had five children at home, so I was teaching, writing and going to college and raising my family all at the same time.” Having enrolled as Lois Arquette (her married name), Duncan recounted: “In my juvenile literature class we were studying Lois Duncan books and I wrote some very insightful papers for the teacher who didn’t know about my double identity.”

Perhaps the best known of Duncan’s books is I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973) — which follows the lives of four teenagers after they accidentally kill a child in a car accident. The popularity of this book is partially due to the fact that it was made into a feature film featuring Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Junior, Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar in 1997; as is usually the case, the film was a complete letdown for Duncan fans and Duncan herself, but probably led to higher book sales.

Her other notable books include Killing Mr Griffin (l978), in which a group of teenagers, led by a sociopath, end up killing a teacher accidently; Down a Dark Hall (1974) — the students of the exclusive Blackwood School have certain abilities that allow deceased artists and authors to use them as channels to create the work they were unable to during their lifetimes; Stranger With My Face (l981) — 17-year-old Laurie has a twin whose existence she has no knowledge of since she was adopted; the twin is evil and contacts her through astral projection and occupies her body; and Summer of Fear (1976) — Rachel’s cousin Julia moves in with her family after the death of her parents, but it turns out that she is a witch; and Ransom (l966) — teenagers on a school bus are kidnapped by a mentally disturbed man. Of the latter, Sarah Weinman, editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels Of The 1940s & ’50s points out in The New Republic: “Half a century later I still think of Ransom with a sense of dread. Part of it is retroactive — the novel was published the same year as Charles Whitman’s mass shooting at the University of Texas-Austin — and another part is how it was predictive, eerily similar to a 1976 school bus kidnapping of children in Chowchilla, California.”

She adds: “Duncan would perfect that creeping sense of paranoia during her decade-long peak from I Know What You Did Last Summer to The Third Eye, coinciding well with the dread suffusing the country in the post-Vietnam, post-Nixon America.”

Duncan’s work was diverse in many ways; while some of her titles explored supernatural abilities such as astral projection and ESP — remember this was in the 1970s when most people laughed at anyone who believed in such phenomena, others dug deep into the minds of unbalanced henchmen, resulting in fast-paced thrillers that were difficult to put down. And despite the supernatural elements, her books were believable, thanks to her ability to flesh out characters who were despicable at times but, for the most part, utterly relatable, because of the depth she brought to them. But this perhaps is not surprising, given that Duncan once said: “When I develop a character, I go back and develop that character’s entire background and [their]... family.” She also felt that fiction writers should study psychology as she did in order to understand their characters well.

Of course, like most writers, many of Duncan’s books which were written in the 1970s, seem a little dated. However, that didn’t harm the sale of the books and they continue to be published; such was their popularity that several of them were re-published after she “updated” them, after arming her protagonists with modern-day devices such as mobile phones, as well as contemporary language.

It is safely evident that Duncan’s work will live on — there are talks of two of her books being made into films including Down a Dark Hall —which will be produced by the Twilight series’ author Stephanie Meyer. This may provide some comfort to Duncan’s fans — and there are legions of them across the world.

Sadly, the book that mattered the most to Duncan was non-fiction — Who Killed My Daughter? (1992), which was written following the death of her daughter Kaitlin who was shot; the killer was never identified and the case remained unsolved. Her daughter’s death formed a large part of the reason why she didn’t write too many suspense novels in her later years; in an interview with BuzzFeed she said: “I went weak after Kait’s murder ... How could I even think about creating a novel with a young woman in a life-threatening situation?” Perhaps it is safe to say that given the tragedy of her daughter’s death in 1989, Duncan could relate to a poem she wrote in Killing Mr Griffin 11 years earlier:

“Water, water, cold and deep,
Hold me fast so I may sleep.
Death with you is hardly more
Than the little deaths before.”

Needless to say, Duncan’s works will continue to enthral many generations to come.

The writer is a Dawn member of staff.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 3rd, 2016

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