Down a Dark Hall - Lois Duncan

I read this one for the Chilling Children square! It would also work for Ghost, Haunted Houses, Genre: Horror, Supernatural, Gothic, Terror in a Small Town and Classic Horror.


I am giving this book 3 1/2 stars based upon my enjoyment of the book this time around. If I had been rating this book circa 1976, two years after it was published and I was 10, I would've given it one million stars, once I emerged from my hiding place under my comforter. Because this book scared the bejeezus out of me when I read it as a pre-teen!


I still maintain that Down a Dark Hall is the scariest Duncan, with it's ghostly elements. A relatively short story, the author does a tremendously effective job in building tension. I can still visualize the climactic scene in my mind from when I first read it more than 40 years ago. I doubt that it would have the same impact on today's relatively sophisticated young people, but I can say that my daughter, at around age 13, disappeared into the kindle reissues of Duncan's books for one entire month during the summer vacation between 7th and 8th grade. She devoured them, reading one after another until she had read them all. She would come to me, kindle in hand, a look of pleading in her eyes and ask for Gallows Hill or I Know What You Did Last Summer or Summer of Fear. And, being a sucker for a child asking for a book, my answer was yes, yes, and yes again, at which point she would disappear to her tree house with an apple, reappearing only for dinner.


Duncan's books all involve young, female protagonists. While hardly revolutionary now, given the plethora of YA books published every year centering around young women, Duncan's books were unique in their time. Adults are largely absent, unless they are actively sinister. Young women, and groups of young women, frequently act together to get into, and get out of, their own problems. Evil wears both a female and a male face, but the victims are almost always young women who must empower themselves to face their fears and vanquish their tormentors.


Down a Dark Hall plays to these themes admirably. Kit is dropped off at Blackwood Hall by her parents who either cannot or will not see the obvious clues that danger lurks there. The red flags are so big that they are flapping loudly in the face of anyone with eyes to see. Kit is abandoned, at risk, and must literally fight her way out of danger. That she succeeds is a triumph. And that Duncan has created a terrifyingly realistic story out of frankly supernatural happenings is remarkable. 


At the end of the book, there's a discussion with Duncan, who is still alive although she hasn't written anything new in years. In the Q&A, she talks about the process of updating the books in 2011 for the modern tween, where she attempts to deal with the reality that today's youth possess cell phones that enable them to call 9-1-1 at basically any moment. On the one hand, she did a reasonable job in fixing the texts. On the other hand, they are still obviously books for a different era, and, in some ways, I feel like it would've been better to just leave things as they are and let kids read them as books published before widespread availability of technology.


If you're interested in the ubiquitous nature of the Duncan YA horror phenomenon that swept teen and pre-teen girls in the 1970's, that extends even to today, the New Yorker published a lovely article titled I Know What I Read That Summer, which you can find here.