Rachel’s not jealous of her cousin. But she is afraid.
Like many readers, I was saddened to hear about the sudden death of Lois Duncan last week, at the age of 82. Best known for her YA thrillers, she was a contemporary of Judy Blume, taking on some of the same social issues of Gen-Xers (particularly relating to the Women’s Movement), but never quite reaching Blume’s stature in the popular imagination, probably because she backgrounded those issues with occasionally lurid tales involving witchcraft, psychic powers, kidnapping and murder.
Despite (or more likely, because of) the genre trappings, Duncan was able to occasionally push the envelope even further than Blume, Norma Klein, Sandra Scoppettone, and other “serious” YA writers when dealing with these issues, while never sacrificing the emotional honesty she affords to her (largely teenage and female) characters.
Duncan wrote roughly a dozen and a half YA novels in this vein between the early 1960s and the late 1980s, before taking a hiatus due to a personal tragedy: the murder of her youngest daughter in 1989, a case which remains unsolved. Duncan would be consumed by her personal investigation into the murder for the rest of her life, writing two books on the subject, Who Killed My Daughter? (1992) and One to the Wolves (2013). She returned, in fine form, to YA Thriller genre for one last time in 1997, with the novel Gallows Hill.
Duncan also had the reputation of being incredibly generous in interacting with her readership in the internet age, including this writer. When she “stopped by” a few years ago, she shared a few comments on the inspiration and writing process for Killing Mr. Griffin, When the Bough Breaks and The Twisted Window.
The Plot: The novel opens with Rachel (Rae) Bryant, systematically combing the newspaper, searching for a story buried in the back pages that matches a pattern: a family tragically killed in a car accident in a remote area, accompanied by an unnamed family friend:
So often, when I pick up the paper on sweet summer mornings, I find an article such as this one, and I can’t help asking myself… who is this person? Could it be…? Is it…?
Rae flashes back four years, to the summer she was 15, when as soon as school is out for the year, her family is rocked by the news of the death of her mother’s older sister and her husband, killed in a car accident in an isolated part of the Ozarks. Rae’s family hasn’t seen her aunt and uncle in more than 10 years: they had relocated in order for the husband to complete his novel, which was to be set in the region.
Rae’s 17 year old cousin, Julia, had been attending boarding school in Boston, and was not in the car at the time of the crash. Rae’s parents hastily make arrangements to fly to Missouri to take care of funeral arrangements and bring Julia to back to live with them in Albuquerque.
Initially Julia is shy and awkward, dressing in old fashioned clothes and speaking in the slang local to the Ozarks, which she claims she picked up from the family’s local housekeeper. Rae stifles her discomfort with having to share a room with her cousin, as well as the fact that Julia seems deathly afraid of Rae’s beloved pet dog, Trickle. Ashamed for feeling inconvenienced by the newcomer, Rae throws herself into making Julia feel welcome, including her in outings with her boyfriend, Mike, and her BFF, Carolyn and taking her out to buy a hip new wardrobe. Thus is the first glimpse that SOMETHING IS UP with Julia:
Although all of us teenagers wore bikinis, it was seldom that you saw anybody built exactly right for one. Julia was the exception. She didn’t look like a girl, but like a young woman. [S]he had the kind of figure I had always dreamed of having someday, maybe when I was about twenty.
Within days, Julia transforms herself, flirting with Rae’s painfully shy older brother, Peter, who poses some “theoretical” questions to his sister:
“A first cousin isn’t all that close, do you think, Rae? I mean. It’s hardly blood kin at all.”
“In some states they’re not allowed to marry,” I told him.
The situation escalates quickly, as a series of misfortunes befalls Rae: first she gets an attack of hives the night of the local dance, allowing Julia to graciously step in and accompany Mike (who falls in love with her!!!!); then Trickle abruptly lashes out at Julia, and her parents force her to keep him outside, where he suddenly becomes sick (and dies!!!!!) A similar fate befalls their next door neighbor, a retired college professor and folklorist, after Rae starts asking him questions about superstitions and witchcraft in the Ozarks…
Just when the reader is ready to write off the book as second-rate Duncan, just when the clues are becoming a little too obvious (everyone repeatedly mentions that Julia has a reputation for being a great singer, yet she shows little interest in the subject!) and the coincidences a little too convenient (Professor Jarvis is actually an expert on the very village where her Aunt and Uncle were living!), Duncan pulls a fast one and makes the real terror not the witchcraft that Julia is undoubtedly practicing, but the fact that Rae can’t get anyone to believe her.
Every effort Rae expends to prove that SOMETHING IS UP just further alienates her from her family, and makes her seem spoiled, jealous, and resentful of her own cousin with the tragically dead parents.
In fact, when Rae finally confronts Julia, the latter is so confident that she confesses, Bond-villain style that she’s not Rae’s cousin at all- the real Julia was killed in the car crash with her parents, and she is in fact the Grants’ 22 year old housekeeper, who had long been scheming to get out of rural Missouri, so she made the opportunity happen. And weirdly, fake-Julia’s complaints aren’t entirely unwarranted:
“My name’s Sarah Blane,” the girl I knew as Julia said quietly. “I worked for Ryan and Marge Grant in Pine Crest. They hired me as a cook and cleaning girl, but I realized pretty quickly that this was not the reason they wanted me to live with them. They had heard in the village that I had the gift of witchcraft handed down to me from my grandmother. They thought that if I lived with them I’d tell them things. Ryan Grant was using me to get information for his book.”
“My aunt and uncle liked Pine Crest,” I said “They thought it was a lovely place.”
“Then why did they ship their precious Julie off to Boston? They liked it, sure, for a squattin’ place, for a spot for writin’ a book in, but they wasn’t about to stay there, you can count on that. They was goin’ to leave this summer, to ‘come back to civilization’ as your aunt called it, and where would that of left me?”
Julia/Sarah used witchcraft (naturally) to cause the Grants to have a horrible accident in the mountains, allowing her to pose as the cousin that nobody had seen in 10 years, with poor, tragically dead parents…
But Julia/Sarah isn’t going to stop there, as she tells Rae that, not merely content to seduce Rae’s brother and boyfriend, and steal her BFF, her endgame is to kill off both Rae and her mother, leaving her the only one to comfort her bereaved father…
Rae is horrified, but Julia/Sarah is unperturbed: the wheels are already in motion, and because of all of this yakking, now Rae is too late to save her mother!
Nonetheless, Rae still springs into action, locking Julia/Sarah is her mother’s darkroom and shaking Mike out of his trance long enough to drive toward Santa Fe, where Julia/Sarah has arranged for Rae’s mother to meet a gruesome accident on a lonely stretch of highway.
Spoilers: they arrive in time and the reader gets some jazz about how the power of love can defeat even evil magic.
But it’s not quite a happy ending. While the Rae (and the reader) are certain of Julia/Sarah’s powers and intent, Rae’s family (especially her father) are still willing to explain everything away as a coincidence.
We also learn that Julia/Sarah had managed to bust out of the darkroom and disappear.
We circle back around to the beginning and the present day, learning that Rae is now a sophomore in college, has reunited with Mike… and that she still constantly searches the paper every day for mysterious car accidents, knowing that Sarah/Julia is still out there, ready to wreak havoc on another family.