You may or may not be familiar with All Hallow’s Read, a new book-centric holiday tradition invented by the genius Neil Gaiman. Last year, the illustrious Mr. Gaiman decided that there were far too few excuses to put books in others’ hands, and so put together this delightful, globe-spanning event. This year, we decided to participate in the holiday and invited Ana of Things Mean a Lot and Megan of Forever Young Adult to play!
Please give a warm welcome to Megan!
Author: Lois Duncan
Genre: Horror, Young Adult
Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication Date: 1974
Hardcover: 181 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand Alone
The moment Kit lays eyes on the great, brooding mansion looming above her, she can feel it – a strange, penetrating chill that later she would describe in a single word: evil. So this was
Blackwood: a new and exclusive boarding school for girls, where Kit is to be one of the first, carefully selected students – and one of the last.
Blackwood: where Kit and her fellow students will go on to discover they have one quality in common – and the nightmares to prove it.
Blackwood: where sounds in the night will not go away. Where friends and family – everything that is warm and read and safe – will soon be left far, far behind.
When The Book Smugglers approached Forever Young Adult about doing a Halloween guest post, I was pretty excited. Not just because The Book Smugglers are wonderful or because I think their Halloween Themed Week is always the cat’s meow. But because of the three names they threw out at us for a potential old school spooky review: Christopher Pike, R.L. Stein and Lois Duncan. Now, once upon a time, there was a period of my life where I read every single Christopher Pike book ever written. Even the bizarre adult ones like Season of Passage (vampires…on Mars!) and Sati. And before Mr. Pike consumed my life, I had a pretty considerable love affair with R.L. Stein’s Fear Street series. And can you blame me? Where else could you find a full trilogy about an evil convertible?
Since I was worried about my extreme nostalgia for Pike and Stein influencing anything I chose to review, it seemed fitting to go with Lois Duncan. Growing up, I had somehow managed to avoid reading any and all Duncan. In fact, my first and only experience with Duncan came earlier this year, when I decided to review I Know What You Did Last Summer. I was unreasonably shocked to find out it was not at all horrible like the movie version. You know what they say, don’t judge a book by it’s cover or its late 90s film adaptation. With Halloween approaching, I thought it best to review one of her more supernatural novels, and had heard good things about Down A Dark Hall in particular.
Our story begins with Kit Gordy, who is about to spend her first year at Blackwood School for Girls. Kit’s mother just remarried and will be spending the next several months on a European honeymoon with Kit’s new stepfather. Originally, Kit was excited at the prospect of boarding school when both she and her best friend Tracey were applying. But Kit was accepted while the more studious Tracey was unexpectedly rejected. Immediately upon arrival to Blackwood, Kit feels what she can only describe as “evil” emanating from the giant manor. The first tangible evidence that something is amiss at Blackwood occurs when the students arrive. Kit included, there are only 4 total students. After questioning the school’s owner, Madame Duret, the girls receive no other explanation besides that they are special.
Well, it doesn’t take the reader too long to figure out just what Madame Duret is referring too. We learn early enough that Kit once saw the ghost of her dead father. And that the townsfolk believe the Blackwood House to be haunted. And that Kit and the other girls are having intense nightmares they cannot remember in the morning. So yes, it becomes obvious quite early that this will be a book about ghosts.
But this is where the book surprised me. I’m so used to evil ghosts that need to be defeated or exorcised. Or misunderstood ghosts who just need your help or want you to solve their own murder. This is not one of those ghost stories. And to avoid spoiling what I thought was an interesting twist on a classic trope, I will just say that Blackwood School is part of an ongoing experiment. And as an experiment, those in charge of Blackwood have a very clear purpose in mind for its students’ unique gifts.
There is one thing that always strikes me when reading these popular thrillers from decades ago, at least when compared to currently released horror books for teens. They are short. You aren’t getting bogged down by heavy character or relationship development. No unnecessary romance. You’re here for a scary story and that’s exactly what you get.
Of course, this book isn’t without its faults. It’s hard to read any sort of horror/thriller novels for young readers and not get that sense of superiority that comes with being a very wise adult. We always think we could handle someone’s fictional scenario much better than those we read about or watch. As with Kit, I can’t help thinking so, you’re trapped into Blackwood? You can’t use the phone to contact your parents and the staff is hiding the letters you try to send home? You’re worried their grand experiment may kill you? Well, do you have access to the kitchen? Oh, you DO? Well, why don’t you go there and GRAB A KNIFE. And then use it to KILL EVERYONE. And then you can grab the gate keys off their BLEEDING, LIFELESS BODIES. Problem. Solved. I always hope a fictional version of myself would be as ruthless as necessary to get the job done.
In conclusion, it’s a bit of a shame I didn’t get a chance to read more of Duncan’s novels when I was younger. But I’m glad Ana and Thea’s proposition gave me the motivation to finally check out Down A Dark Hall. Because it was fun choice for a book to read in a single sitting, on a blustery and cold night a few days before Halloween.
Thank you Megan! And a Happy All Hallow’s Read to All!