Dec/Jan 2011

Domestic Disturbances

Lois Duncan's revived young-adult titles don't have to rely on vampires and dystopias to raise a chill.

Lizzie Skurnick


For a certain swath of American female thirty-somethings, the literary thriller comes with an odd set of associations. In addition to the windswept heaths of Wuthering Heights and Manderley, such books will likely conjure the pine-lined hiking trails of New Mexico, the fiercely policed social boundaries of classrooms and high school cafeterias, and beachy redoubts where teenagers would do well to avoid slippery black rocks.

As for the cast of characters, these readers won't tarry with either hockey-masked predators or moody Heathcliffs with a past. Instead, they will knowingly recognize boys who smell of gum and old tennis shoes and routinely fail to clear their bowls of congealing cereal; delicate-boned girls with steely resolve, standing in opposition to snub-nosed, popularity-hungry counterparts; harried mothers and overworked (or absent) fathers. The Janus-faced suitor is a familiar figure, but his mystery, unlike Heathcliff's, is only a coda to the heroine's ruling narrative, which has more to do with coming to terms with her power than with a partner.

Welcome to the world of young-adult author Lois Duncan, for whom the supernatural moves in lockstep with the painful exigencies of family life. Such domestic thrillers generally set up a perfect family against a malevolent force over which they eventually triumph. But for Duncan, the threat is never truly from without.

Duncan is the author of, as her Twitter page modestly declares, "50 bks., mostly for young people." And like Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, M. E. Kerr, Paula Danziger, and other prolific writers of her generation, Duncan experiences a modest boom about once a decade, as a new cohort of young readers discovers her. Now, however, she is poised for a more sweeping rediscovery. Stretching from fall 2010 to spring 2012, Little, Brown is rereleasing ten of Duncan's most popular titles, ending with her first, A Gift of Magic, which was published in 1971.

Gift, in many ways the ur–Duncan tale, quietly chronicles the misadventures of Nancy Garrett, a sharp twelve-year-old psychic. She uses her uncanny pre-Twitter powers of social networking to divine such things as what her now-absent father is up to in Paris—or when her mother, not unrelatedly, is crying in her bedroom. Indeed, it's because of the pending divorce of Nancy's parents that she and her siblings have moved to the beach town where her mother grew up. Her ballerina sister is verging on anorexia, her daredevil brother refuses to behave, and on the horizon looms a new stepfather, who also happens to be the principal of Nancy's new school.

She is thus a proper Duncan heroine—neither popular nor endearingly unpopular, attractive nor unattractive; like her many successors in the oeuvre, she's poised on the cusp of adolescence, in body and in mind "all planes and angles." Like the literary train of governesses and young wives before her, the Duncan heroine is alternately vulnerable and empowered when faced with a challenge—whether the task ahead is escaping a ghost threatening to channel his dead works through her, outsmarting a witch, snatching back her body from her evil twin sister, or using her psychic powers to break up a ring of baby kidnappers. (It is a testament to Duncan's storytelling skills that these plots, which sound ludicrous in précis, are anything but in practice.)

And it seems the market would be primed for their release. Buoyed up by the tidal force of the Twilight and Hunger Games series, dystopias and vampire, fairy, witch, zombie, and ghost stories abound, each a different mash-up of fantasia and uncorked reality. And these creatures, too, are born of fractious households: Twilight's Bella, after all, is the product of a broken home, while The Hunger Games' Katniss is entirely fatherless, supporting her family fully on her hard-won proceeds from the killing fields.

But Duncan differs on a key point: Unlike contemporary fantasists, she takes her creations utterly seriously. She doesn't outfit them with the appurtenances of today's hyperreality: maudlin romance, dystopian regimes, gothic overlay, chatty narrators, ironic kitsch—all mild forms of apology, really, for the idea of foisting the supernatural on the reader in the first place. She has revised and updated the references in the new batch of rereleased books—though simply to outfit her characters with practical accessories like cell phones and computers, not to plunge them into alternate realities.

Instead, the beginnings of Duncan's books are nearly tautological, their seeming harmlessness all the more laden with menace. "It's summer. Summer—again" (Summer of Fear, 1976). "It was a wild, windy, southwestern spring when the idea of killing Mr. Griffin occurred to them" (Killing Mr. Griffin, 1978). "The note was there, lying beside her plate when she came down to breakfast" (I Know What You Did Last Summer, 1973). "The kidnapping took place on a Thursday" (Ransom, 1966).

Duncan's style is to disrupt such deliberately leaden, affectless exposition with interior cries, terrifying chapter closings, and em dashes that leave their sentences dangling on the edges of precipices—as in Daughters of Eve (1979), when Tammy Carncross, initiated into the girls' society, intuits the terror to come. "Something is wrong," she thinks (yes, in italics). "I have this feeling—" Earlier in the book, another novitiate walks up the street, "her head . . . bent forward beneath the weight of the last load of official summer sunshine." Even Duncan's sun is laden with foreboding.

There's a kind of bravery in this unsparing tone. All paranormal fun aside, Duncan matter-of-factly acknowledges adolescence's persistent, profound, and unsourced anomie. Take an ordinary morning for Killing Mr. Griffin's pawn—the bespectacled, unpopular Susan McConnell—who not only despairs of her lot ever improving but takes a singularly dim view of the lot of the universe in its entirety: "She had a sudden, irrational urge to put her head down on the desk and weep for all of them, for the whole world, for the awful day that was starting so badly and would certainly get no better." It is hard, in fact, to find a home without some fundamental, real-life instability in Duncan's work—ranging from a girl simply bearing an unfair load of the housework to one bearing witness, nightly, to her mother's beatings at her father's hand.

But the outside world always conspires to transform these banal, everyday cracks in ordinary life into intolerable fissures—be they psychic or simply psychopathic. Would Laurie Stratton, of Stranger with My Face (1981), have been vulnerable to body swapping with her evil twin sister, Lia, if her parents had simply told her in the first place she was adopted? Would Killing Mr. Griffin's straight-A student David have been so vulnerable to the urgings of the deeply disturbed golden boy Mark were he not alternately enraged and ashamed at having to care for his elderly grandmother because his single mother has a full-time job?

Still, if it is through the shame of family secrets that teenagers are made vulnerable, family is also how they are redeemed—and often, via assistance from the least expected family members. Susan, in Killing Mr. Griffin, is saved from a fiery death by the pregnant wife of the man she's helped murder. Kit, in Down a Dark Hall (1974), escapes a burning house with the unexpected help of her dead father.

Despite the bows she makes to the technological present in the revised editions of her novels, Duncan's work was actually more prescient than any of the recently churned-out dystopias will prove to be. She was not, of course, laying bets about our future gadgetry; rather, she's been preoccupied with the possible harm and necessity in our interconnectedness; how personalities mutate, for good and ill, under the influence of others; the danger not only of hiding behind a public image but also of revealing too much. These are, of course, the signature concerns of our socially networked age—but more because of our native social curiosity than our ever-expanding roster of handheld gadgets and apps. Now, we're a nation of Nancys, picking one another's brains for updates; Lauries, betrayed by our bodiless proxies; the girls of Down a Dark Hall, channeling the information of hundreds of others with dubious benefit.

And it's this note that should speak to the current generation, even if its members are no longer quite so used to this remorselessly grim portrait of suburban family life. (That's for the grown-ups watching Mad Men.) After all, our phone technology and marriage mores haven't shifted quite so fundamentally as our dominant literary mood has. It's true that differences can seem nearly as imperceptible as those a numinous Laurie observes as she gazes at her sleeping twin. Young-adult literature is still—almost exclusively—supernatural, and it still depends on the family as a universal foil. But Duncan's take on it is singular. In her world, we are both protagonist and antagonist, one girl brushing her hair in her pajamas, thinking she's gazing at herself in the window, while her bodiless twin pretends to be her reflection and gives her a mocking half smile, waiting for the moment she can steal her body for good.

In this round, when she stares across at us through the glass, will we recognize her as a long-lost sister or as the stranger she is?

Lizzie Skurnick is the author of Shelf Discovery (Avon, 2009), a memoir of teen reading. She lives in Jersey City.

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