Are You There, Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan

Illustration for article titled Are You There, Crazy Psychic Muse? Its Me, Lois Duncan

Welcome to 'Fine Lines', a new feature in which we give a sentimental look-back to the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. We asked Lizzie Skurnick — writer, book reviewer, blogger, teen expert and Nat'l Books Critics Circle board member — to start off the series. Below, Lizzie takes on mystery/suspense master Lois Duncan's fall 1977 classic 'Summer of Fear'.


It's summer. Summer-again.

Over the course of the last decade I have been conducting a longitudinal survey on the works of Lois Duncan as experienced by other women my own age (old), often while trying on eyeliner at Ricky's or attempting to alienate someone's annoying new boyfriend. Amongst many unsurprising results ("I thought I was psychic until I was 32"; "Why are you talking about Lois Duncan to my new boyfriend"), one surprising one is as follows:

Not one woman — one! — over the course of a decade was able to name the title of the book to your left, even though all had read it several times, sometimes aloud to each other or even just mouthing it because they were bad readers.

You like those italics? That's me doing Duncan. Anyway, let's review the plot. After the tragic death of her parents, a long-lost cousin comes to live with an innocent family, but then turns out to be an Ozark-bred trash-talking murdering witch who says things like "varmint" and totally STOLE THE IDENTITY of the cousin, whom she really killed, along with the girl's parents, in a fiery crash off a cliff.

That numerous women who can remember the names of people I don't even recall fooling around with or even knowing from like eighteen years ago could not scare up a title for a work they'd read at least 5 times WHILE ALSO HAVING read Who Killed My Daughter stems, I wager, from the fact that herein and herein alone Duncan has taken the typical conceits of her other works of fiction and amped them up to an unsettling degree. Just to refresh for you, some classic Duncan tropes:

1. The Malevolent Double Stranger With My Face, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Down a Dark Hall, Summer of Fear

2. Scary Ringleader Killing Mr. Griffin, Five Were Missing, Daughters of Eve

3. Perky heroine, just getting breasts, hotter boyfriend than she deserves Stranger With My Face, Daughters of Eve, Summer of Fear, I Know What You Did Last Summer

4. Psychokenisis/Telekenesis/Deus-ex-machi-nesis A Gift of Magic, Down a Dark Hall, The Third Eye, Stranger With My Face, Five Were Missing

5. Subtle Indictments of Reagan-era Feminism Daughters of Eve, plus every mother character who's always all like, "But I chose not to work"

6. Helpful Old Person, Happens to Be Expert on Something Key to Plot Todo.

7. Albuquerque Toujours.


Summer of Fear does not deviate from the above. As I'm sure you now recall, since I told you the title and the end and everything already, 15-year-old Rachel is living the high life in Alburquerque as a red-haired, freckly, prime-pubescent smarty pants with a hot boyfriend, Mike, a kindly sage of a neighbor, Professor Jarvis, a spunky BFF, Caroline, two annoying brothers, and parents who inexplicably tolerate them all. This all goes to hell, however, when Rachel's aunt and uncle are killed in a car crash, and their daughter Julia (WATCH FOR THIS JULIA PERSON) comes to live with the family permanently.

So far, we are on familiar, roseate-tinged territory. A gawky teen who has recently blossomed into love and B-cups (Mike to Rachel: "Let's face it, there've been some changes in the past year, and in all the right places"); Beave-like brothers ("Pretty soon, Bobby came in smelling like old tennis shoes and chewing gum"); a convenient plot device thinly disguised as an old-person sage ("Pine Crest?" The professor nodded appreciately. "That's in the heart of the Ozarks, isn't it?"); a pet who knows the score before everybody else ("Julia's body stiffened. 'I'm not very good with dogs. They don't like me'); and subtle hints that something is terribly wrong ("When I think back I realize that this was the moment I received my first hint that something was terribly wrong").


As I reread the novel, all I could think was that my twelve-year-old takeaway from the entire novel basically was the whole scene in the shopping mall where Julia tries on a bikini and Rae cannot deal, the substance of which is apparently burned in my brain: "...she had the kind of figure I had always dreamed of having someday, maybe when I was about twenty."

I still dream of that! But what I had forgotten— let's say blocked — was everything else. First of all, one set of parents, plus one real-life girl your age and everything, is fully killed, thrown off a cliff. Killed! Second, a dog is killed. Killed! A dog! An innocent dog named Trickle! Third: a man is hospitalized and paralyzed and, like, has to send messages by blinking. Paralyzed! Fourth: Did I mention an evil Ozark woman kills and impersonates Rachel's cousin and moves in and steals her boyfriend and everything, KILLS? And fifth: once Rachel calls her out as the witch she is, Julia is always wandering around with her eyes narrowing at Rachel and a smile dancing on her lips and saying evil shit like, "Maybe [your dog] choked on his own bad temper" and suggesting that at the end of the day she really wants Rachel's DAD, not her BOYFRIEND, and it is fucking terrifying.


We're not even getting into how scary the witch stuff is. Cuz not only does not-really-Julia kill Rachel's aunt, uncle and the real Julia just by just marking a place on the map where they should go off the cliff, she kills Rachel's dog Trickle by making a random wax doll, she gives Rachel hives, thereby decommissioning her for an evening so she can better steal her boyfriend, simply by splattering her picture with red paint. She makes everyone fall in love with her by sprinkling powder in their water. Oh yeah, also? She always avoids taking pictures. Do you know why? Because witches don't show up in them.

But really, after Rae triumphs and saves her mom from a dive off a cliff and gets her boyfriend back, the scariest thing I learned is that having not-really-Julia-actually-some-random-Ozark-person be a witch is the most manipulative, oooh-shiny! plot device I have never seen coming at age 12. After all, there's not really any reason for not-really-Julia to be a witch. Murdering people, impersonating cousins and trying to sleep with their Dads is already pretty scary. But, as a certain Parents' Choice winner must know, there is no way you are going to focus on any of that when you are twelve. Instead, you are going to make a wax figure of your biggest enemy and try to burn it with a candle. You are going to spatter a photograph of your brother with blue paint and be freaked out by your powers when he gets a bruise two weeks later and, like, NEVER do it again. And, after 22 years pass, you are going to write about it all and wonder, actually, why Ozark Sarah didn't just murder the first Julia and her mom and run off with that Dad. Because that Dad was a writer, right? That seems like a smart move.


Happy rereading!

Earlier: Were You A Judy Blume Enthusiast Or A Babysitters Club Nerd?

Related: Summer Of Fear

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Holler when we get to Jackie Collins (I'm partial to Hollywood Wives, thanks).