Lois Duncan’s Down a Dark Hall Is About the Terror of Being a Teen Girl

Image: Scholastic/Dell

Like Daughters of Eve before it, Lois Duncan’s
Down a Dark Hall is an expertly executed parable of
the terror of teenage girlhood, when adults simply don’t
understand and refuse to listen and the most valuable thing
about you is your unspoiled youth and your easily influenced
mind. Teenage girls in fiction—and, sometimes, in real life—are
prone to a sort of groupthink that can make them targets for
those who would wish to do them harm.

Down a Dark Hall is Duncan’s most terrifying work,
revisited a few years back
on this very site by the inimitable Lizzie Skurnick, but since
revised for modern readers, in 2011. The story, which remains
essentially the same, is instantly recognizable as a Duncan
masterpiece: There is a teen girl, sans parents, dropped in a
situation where everything is not as peachy as it seems. Kit
Gordy has been brought by her parents to Blackwood Hall, an
elite boarding school for very special girls, dropping her off
like dirty laundry while they jet off on an extended European
holiday.

Because this is a thriller, nothing is at it seems. There are
only four girls at the school, each chosen for what turns out
to be psychic abilities, and they are played like violins by
the evil, unfeeling Madame Duret, a gifted medium who uses her
ability to channel the dead as a weapon. The girls and their
youth are nothing but vessels for the spirits of former
geniuses, all of whom died before they could share their
immense talents with the world.

Duncan is an expert at mining the depths of teenage isolation
and using it to full dramatic effect—the girls are alone,
experiencing phenomena that no adult seems to understand.
Unlike life, the adults in this book aren’t on the side of the
teens; even though your parents suck when you’re fourteen and
don’t seem to understand anything that you’re saying, they
generally, hopefully, have the best of intentions. At Blackwood
Hall, the adults are the one true enemy. It’s the stuff of
nightmares, especially for teenage girls who are already
convinced that their parents are out to get them.

Consider this curious safety feature of the rooms at
Blackwood—the doors lock from the outside only. Kit confronts
Jules, Madame Duret’s handsome son, about this hazard after a
harrowing incident the night before—Sandy, another girl staying
at Blackwood, was screaming in the night, saying she saw a
woman in her room, and Kit went to help, only to discover that
the door was locked. He responds with the cool indifference of
a parent telling their child that not getting their tongue
pierced at 14 is really the best thing for them, even if they
can’t see it now.

“Last night, Sandy’s door was locked. I tried the knob. And
then, suddenly, it did come open as though somebody had
released it.”

“Then it wasn’t locked,” Jules said with certainty. “It must
just have been stuck. I’ll see about putting
some oil on those latches. Which room did you say it was?”

Kit regarded him with frustration. “Weren’t you listening at
all? I’m not asking you to oil Sandy’s lock. What I’m trying
to tell you is that something weird’s happening at Blackwood.
There was somebody in Sandy’s room last night. A woman. I
know it sounds crazy, but Sandy saw her with her own eyes!”

Jules’s denial of what he plainly knows to be true is a classic
horror movie trope, but that sense of frustration and not being
heard when all you’re trying to do is tell someone what you
know to be true is a pillar of the teen experience.

The cover of the updated edition.

I didn’t expect to be as scared as I was by my revisit, even
though I am scared very easily by jump scares, the dark, and
the thought of bending down to wash my face and then looking in
the mirror to see someone standing behind me. But Duncan’s work
remains as unsettling as whenever I first read it, even though
my experience this time was altered by the updates strewn
throughout the text. In a Q&A with Duncan that was included
in the copy I read, she said that revising the text to account
for modern times was challenging but necessary. “Remember, some
of these books were written in the 1970s,” she told Jenny Han.
“And a very strong element in many of my novels was the fact
that the endangered heroines were unable to cry out for
help.”

The addition of cell phones, text messaging, and modern
conveniences to the world Duncan creates somehow works very
well in this setting. When Kit, the intrepid heroine of this
nightmare, tries to use her phone upon arriving at Blackwood
Manor, she discovers pretty quickly that the giant pile where
her parents have left her is a dead zone. Reverting to the
time-old tradition of the written word, Kit must communicate
her growing fears about her prison via written letters, which
do not make it to their intended recipients, because they’re
being hoarded by one of the shady professors working to keep
the girls trapped against their will. Even though they’re being
tormented by the souls of the talented and the dead, teenage
girlhood in 2017 is made a little worse by cell phones. At the
risk of sounding like a more gimlet-eyed Nancy Jo Sales, a
smartphone is either a portal to hell or a valuable means of
escape.

Suspending disbelief is essential for horror movies, thrillers,
and scary stories, all of which generally present situations
that could be easily remedied if one person stepped back, took
a look at the situation, and applied some very basic logic. The
modernization of Duncan’s work makes sense on a commercial
level, but I have a hard time believing that a helicopter
parent dropping their child off at an exclusive boarding school
would be fine with the utter lack of communication as presented
in this specific scenario. I digress; logic simply does not
apply in a YA book about young girls being exploited by an old
woman intent on profiting off their youth and any hint of
potential talent.

Still, the purpose of re-reading this book was to assess
whether or not I was actually scared by something I read as a
child. The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes.

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