Down A Dark Hall By Lois Duncan

Why does the exclusive boarding school Blackwood have only four students?

Back to school! Time to start the year with a good attitude cautionary tale wacky scheme inspirational message epic wish-fulfillment fantasy  slightly anachronistic feminist career romance Eh, whatever, let’s just do another Lois Duncan…

All of the  Lois Duncan trademarks are in fine form here: teenage girls asserting their independence and status as new almost-adults, psychic powers that are treated like no big deal, nefarious authority figures, and of course the terror inherent in NOT GETTING ANY ADULTS TO BELIEVE YOU THAT SOMETHING IS UP WHEN SOMETHING TOTALLY IS.

Plus this one goes full-on gothic in the setting and also includes spiritual possession.

The Plot: High school freshman Kathryn (Kit) Gordy is unenthusiastic about attending the prestigious Blackwood School for Girls after her BFF fails to gain admission; but her widowed mother has recently remarried and now she and her new husband, Dan, are off on an extensive European honeymoon, so Kit is stuck with it.

Driving through the remote Blackwood Village in upstate New York, Kit begs one last time for them to reconsider, and we get an economical summary of everything that has been going on up to this point:

“Kit, that’s enough.” There was an edge to Dan’s voice. “We’ve been over it and over it. I know your position in the family has been different from that of most girls; with just the two of you, your mother has treated you as an equal rather than as a child. You’re strong-willed and independent and very used to running things. But you are not going along with us on our honeymoon.”

After stopping for directions, they finally make their way to Blackwood School, which is housed in an enormous castle-like structure, the former home of a (now deceased) wealthy industrialist.

Kit has a violent reaction to at her first sight of the place, as the photographs in the glossy brochures hadn’t prepared her for it:

She could not find the word she was seeking, and so she fell silent as the house grew nearer and nearer and then was upon them…

And then Kit knew the word for which she had been searching. The word was “evil”.

It has been arranged for Kit to arrive a day early so her mother and step father can catch their ship to Europe, but even so, the place seem strangely empty. Aside from headmistress Madame Duret, the only other instructors are her son Jules, fresh out of Conservatory (“Slim and fine-boned, with glossy black hair which framed a face so perfect in feature that it might have belonged to a television star, he was with doubt the handsomest young man she had ever seen”), and the agreeably professorial Professor Farley. The school’s staff also seems limited to just a few locals hired from Blackwood Village, including Natalie, the standoffish cook, with whom Kit unsuccessfully tries to strike up a friendship.

After being shown to her opulent, velvet-draped, living quarters, (including a canopy bed directly out of Edgar Allan Poe), Kit is overcome with sleepiness, and lonely for her long-dead father, who was killed in a plane crash when Kit was very young; she recollects a vision she had of him the night before, which she could not get anyone to believe when the news reached them the following morning.

She awakens the next morning expecting to find the enormous school full of arriving students, but it is strangely silent. Finally, Sandy Mason arrives with Professor Farley, having taken the bus into Blackwood Village- Kit quickly learns that Sandy has been sent to Blackwood because her parents are dead and her grandparents decided to move into a seniors-only community.

Later that afternoon, two more girls arrive together: beautiful, kinda dim Lynda Hannah and serious, homely Ruth Stark, unlikely BFFs who have come from California.

Over dinner that evening they are startled to learn that they four will make up the entire student body.

Mysterious Happenings begin mysteriously happening almost immediately, starting with shared nightmares amongst all four of the girls. Then Lynda, who could barely manage a stick figure at her California school, starts producing highly advanced drawings and paintings. Then Sandy starts writing sonnets and claiming to commune with a mysterious woman named Ellis. Ruth, although always having had an aptitude for math and science, begins doing some “pretty intricate math… stuff I could have ever even conceived of before.”

And Kit begins having nightmares about being unable to stop playing the piano, awakening in the morning with her hands aching, as if she really had been playing all night. The coincided with her walking in on Jules playing some reel-to-reel tapes of incredible piano scores, which he dismisses with the lame excuse that he doesn’t know who composed them, it was probably Schubert or someone.

Kit and Sandy become more and more troubled as the weeks pass: the incoming mail seems to indicate that friends and family members haven’t been receiving their outgoing letters, and Madame Duret seems untroubled by the fact that each of the girls is isolating themselves more and more to work on their special “talents”, to the point where sleep and regular meals go by the wayside, and everyone becomes sick and haggard.

Although Ruth is mostly OK with the trade-off of her health for her newfound math prowess, she does slip off to the library to do some research when Sandy is constantly talking about Ellis as if she is a real person: she shares her suspicions with Kit that Ellis is actually the spirit of Emily Bronte, appearing under her early pseudonym Ellis Bell. It also seems like all of those gorgeous landscapes that Lynda keeps producing and signing “TC” are actually the work of Thomas Cole. Could those recordings that Jules was playing actually be Franz Schubert speaking through Kit from beyond the grave?

After cornering Natalie and learning the true story behind the estate that now houses Blackwood (it burnt to the ground killing Wealthy Industrialist’s entire family- rumor has it he continued to inhabit it with the ghosts of said family until his death), Kit confronts Madame Duret, and it comes out that she has selected all four students for their latent psychic powers (and absent parents), and the location for its proximity to the spirit realm. The girls will serve as unpaid laborers transcribing the work of those artists and scientists died tragically young, their full potential unfulfilled. Madame has long had a side-line in selling heretofore undiscovered “works” of the likes of Vermeer and Hemingway.

Kit, Ruth and Sandy rebel. Ruth mainly seems angry that she’s not getting credit for “her” new scientific and mathematical discoveries, while Sandy seems to have been abandoned by the mostly-benevolent spirit of Emily Bronte- it’s never explicitly stated, but it sounds like she’s now the medium for the Marquis de Sade. But Lynda is too far gone.

All pretense of Blackwood being anything other than a psychic sweatshop is dropped. Kit tries to appeal to Jules to look into his mother’s files, to at least find out what happened to the students at Madame’s previous school in Europe. When he is reluctant, Kit and Ruth take their opportunity to pull off a daring plan to contact the outside world during a thunderstorm when the power is knocked out, to reach the only telephone on campus in Madame’s office. Unfortunately, the phone is out as well, thwarting that plan.

Additionally, Natalie, the one lifeline to the outside world, had been fired after Madame caught her telling Kit and Sandy about Blackwood’s mysterious history. When she shows up for her back pay, Kit desperately passes her a letter to her friends back home- only later does she realize that she included no address for her to mail it to.

However, Jules finally mans up and goes snooping, discovering that every single one of his mother’s past students has either committed suicide or been institutionalized. He vows to get the girls out of Blackwood and into town. Unfortunately, he’s still pretty ineffectual, and Ruth steps up and causes a distraction, throwing the notebook of her works into the fireplace, which angers the vengeful spirits of the dead and sets the entire estate on fire. While everyone else escapes, Kit runs back in to try and save Lynda, but becomes trapped in the titular long, dark hall, preparing to meet her own fiery death, when the spirit of her dead father appears once more and guides her to safety: once outside she sees her friends from back home driving up to the school. Natalie got the message through after all.

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8 Responses to Down A Dark Hall By Lois Duncan

  1. miss amy says:

    Oh, man–this sounds cool as hell and like something I would’ve eaten up around 13 or 14. I loved all of Caroline B. Cooney’s weird supernatural horror books, but for some reason, I never picked up any of Lois Duncan’s novels.

  2. Pingback: Wrapping Up The Imaginary Summer Book Club: The Haunting Of Hill House By Shirley Jackson | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

  3. Jamie Jordan says:

    This is one book that I liked that I read only once. My dog Taffy ripped up the library book and I was too ashamed to go pay for it (probably $3.00 or something, but a lot of money to me in 1981). Maybe I’ll download it on my KIndle

  4. Rachel Brand says:

    What a great blog! I’ll never forget the first time I read this book. Finished it in one sitting and was freaking out. I need to find a copy and revisit it.

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