Remembering Lois Duncan, The Queen Of Teen Suspense

Jun 16, 2016
Originally published on June 16, 2016 5:46 pm

Author Lois Duncan has died at the age of 82. She was the queen of teen thrillers, a pioneer in the young adult suspense genre.

Long before vampires sparkled or hunger was a game, Duncan was writing tense, scary stories for teenagers. Books like Down a Dark Hall and Stranger With My Face kept a generation of readers up at night.

"You have girls switching bodies with each other, and you have girls at a boarding school being possessed by long-dead artists," says publisher Lizzie Skurnick, who has re-released some of Duncan's early work through her own imprint, Lizzie Skurnick Books.

"It's these dramatic situations, but the writing is as good as any literary fiction today."

Duncan was just 13 when she sold her first story. "From then on," she said later, "my fate was decided. I wrote what I knew about, and could hardly wait to rush home from school each day to fling myself at the typewriter."

She typed up short stories — true confessions were her specialty — and dozens of novels, some of which were turned into movies. Though, as Skurnick recalls, Duncan didn't always like the results.

"Lois once told me a funny story of seeing I Know What You Did Last Summer, and sitting in the movie theater just perplexed."

That movie lifts the core of Duncan's original 1973 novel, but mixes it liberally with bloody urban legends. Just FYI, there's no lunatic killer with a hook for a hand in the book.

Duncan published her last teen thriller, Gallows Hill, in 1997; she seemed to lose her taste for the genre after tragedy stuck her own life with the murder of her youngest daughter, Kait, in 1989.

That crime was never solved. Duncan devoted the rest of her life to researching and writing about it. "I think Kait is worth the truth," she told Larry King in 1992. "We're just determined to not let it be called a random shooting if it wasn't."

She never gave up. Warner Bros. had just been in touch to talk about a documentary on the case when Duncan died suddenly Wednesday at her home in Florida.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Author Lois Duncan has died at the age of 82. She was the queen of teen thrillers, a pioneer in the young adult suspense genre. Her own life was marred by tragedy. NPR's Petra Mayer has this appreciation.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Long before vampires sparked or hunger was a game, Lois Duncan was writing tense scary stories for teenagers. Books like "Down A Dark Hall" and "Stranger With My Face" kept a generation of readers up at night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIZZIE SKURNICK: You have girls switching bodies with each other, and you have, you know, girls at a boarding school being inhabited by long-dead artists.

MAYER: That's Lizzie Skurnick, who's republished some of Duncan's early work through her own imprint, Lizzie Skurnick Books.

SKURNICK: It's these dramatic situations, but the writing is as good as any literary fiction today.

MAYER: Duncan was just 13 when she sold her first story. From then on, she said later, my fate was decided. I wrote what I knew about and could hardly wait to rush home from school each day to fling myself at the typewriter. She typed up short stories - true confessions were her specialty - and dozens of novels, some of which were turned into movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And they hear over the radio that this lunatic killer's escaped from an insane asylum. He's got this long, sharp hook for a hand.

MAYER: Duncan didn't always like the results. Again, Lizzie Skurnick.

SKURNICK: Lois once told me a funny story of seeing "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and sitting in the movie theater (laughter) just perplexed.

MAYER: The movie lifts the core of Duncan's 1973 novel but mixes it liberally with bloody urban legends. There's no lunatic killer with a hook for a hand in the original. Lois Duncan published her last teen thriller "Gallows Hill" in 1997. She seemed to lose her taste for the genre after tragedy struck her own life with the murder of her youngest daughter, Kate, in 1989.

That crime was never solved. Duncan devoted the rest of her life to researching and writing about it. Here she is talking to Larry King in 1992.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOIS DUNCAN: I think Kate is worth the truth. And we're just determined to not let it be called a random shooting if it wasn't.

MAYER: She never gave up. Warner Bros. had been in touch to talk about a documentary on the case when she died suddenly yesterday at her home in Florida. Petra Mayer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.