We’re starting off July with a bang—and honoring one of Horror’s great women writers! Although she was best known for her work in young-adult novels, she is considered a pioneering figure in the development of the genre, specializing in the sub-genres of horror, thriller, and suspense. Lois Duncan, an author that throughout her life dealt with innumerable travesties and tragic turmoil that most of us only have nightmares about was a figure to be reckoned with. Despite all of the trials that Duncan faced during her lifetime, she somehow made it through as a celebrated author of young adult fiction and horror.
The Early Years of Lois Duncan
Born Lois Duncan Steinmetz on April 28, 1934, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Lois Duncan and Joseph Janney Steinmetz—she grew up with one younger brother, and parents who were professional photographers who worked for magazines taking pictures for the Ringling Brothers and the Barnum & Bailey Circus, as well as publications such as Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Time, as well as Town & Country. Growing up with photographers for parents, found her as the focus of their work on regular occasions, including when she appeared on the cover of Collier’s magazine in 1949.
Duncan knew at an early age that she wanted to be a writer and ended up submitting her first story to a magazine at the age of ten. When she was thirteen, ger first acceptance letter came, she had finally made her first sale to a magazine called Calling All Girls; this early accomplishment for Duncan inspired and motivated the young writer to continue on with her passion. To quote Duncan herself, “[she] could hardly wait to rush home from school each day to fling [herself] at the typewriter.” After spending much of her early years in Pennsylvania, she relocated to Sarasota, Florida later in her childhood where she spent her time amongst circus performers which influenced her picture books that she would write later in her career
A self-described “shy, fat little girl,” as well as a “bookworm and dreamer,” Duncan dreamed of being a writer for a living throughout found herself at home as a child playing in the woods. It makes sense that she, like most writers, would feel some type of insignificance during childhood and end up using it to fuel her passions throughout her life. She would graduate from the Sarasota High School in 1952 then enroll at Duke University that same year before she ended up dropping out in 1953 when she started a family with, Joseph Cardozo, a fellow student at the university.
A Full Career
After getting her first magazine publication at the age of thirteen, and dropping out of Duke University during the early, she continued to write and publish articles in magazines—eventually publishing over three hundred such articles in a variety of different magazines. In 1958, she ended up writing an incredibly successful short story in Seventeen magazine, titled Love Song for Joyce under the pen name of Lois Kerry—she nearly didn’t win the contest it was meant for because an underage boy was drinking a beer and it was considered inappropriate. When Seventeen asked her to change it to a Coke, she obliged and took home a thousand dollar prize. This helped her to secure her first young adult writing contract, from which she produced Debutante Hill in 1959.
After divorcing her first husband, Duncan moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1962 with her children and supported herself and her children by writing greeting cards and fictional confessionals for pulp magazines. Four years after relocating she published the novel Ransom, for which she earned herself the Edgar Allan Poe Award nomination, which also marked her transition from romance fiction to more suspense-oriented works.
During the early 1970s, Duncan was hired to teach journalism at the University of New Mexico, which she later confessed was a mistake on the part of the person who hired her—having been a friend—having overlooked the fact that she did not have a degree when she was chosen as a replacement, due to her extensive experience writing for magazines. To remedy the situation, Duncan earned her B.A. degree in English in 1977 while simultaneously teaching journalism.
Suspense and Horror Novels
Duncan had a personal interest in supernatural and speculative fiction, which inspired her to write a variety of suspense and horror novels that were aimed for teenagers, some of which were adapted for the big screen. In 1978, her novel Summer of Fear was adapted to film by Wes Craven, but her most famous example, by far, was the 1997 film I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was adapted from her 1973 novel of the same name. It’s possible that much of the slasher horror craze was derived from Duncan’s novels, wherein she broke major ground by creating novels that didn’t capitalize on sex, drugs, and the bad-boy image of its characters, but more so on the ability of teenagers to be nasty and twist anything to justify their own means.
After the death of her youngest daughter in 1989 Duncan only wrote one more horror novel, titled Gallows Hill in 1997—since her daughter’s death marked a complete shift in her writing. In 1992 she penned a non-fiction account that detailed her daughter’s unsolved murder titled Who Killed My Daughter? but otherwise stuck to less dark material. Due to the own impact it had on her life, Duncan also founded a research center that was designed to help investigated cold cases, it would eventually evolve into a nonprofit Resource Center for Victims of Violent Deaths—this was in an effort to help anyone who had to deal with the trauma that she herself went through.
The Death of Her Daughter
July 16, 1989 marked a terrible day in the life of Lois Duncan—her eighteen-year-old daughter Kaitlyn Arquette was driving her car in Albuquerque, New Mexico was shot twice in the head. She was the victim of a drive-by shooting and she died the next day without ever waking up. The police investigation that ensued concluded that the death of Kaitlyn was the result of her being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Three men ended up being charged in the case of her death, but the charges were dropped due to a lack of evidence. Duncan was never satisfied with the result of her daughter’s case—she ended up investigating on her own and discovered that her daughter’s boyfriend was involved in an insurance scam. She believed that her daughter had somehow uncovered the scam and ended up being the target of someone who had been involved—not necessarily by her daughter’s boyfriend, but by one of his associates—with someone who didn’t want her daughter to blow the whistle on their organized criminal activity.
The police stopped investigating the death of Kaitlyn and the crime was never solved, but in 1992 she finally published Who Killed My Daughter? She confessed that it was the most difficult book that she ever had to write, but being that it was a non-fiction book and about her own daughter’s murder, it’s no mystery as to why it would have been. Kaitlyn’s family continued to pursue the investigation of her death and new information continued to surface long after the case was closed. The case and subsequent book were regularly featured, with the hopes that it would help improve the situation, on shows like Good Morning America, Larry King Live, Unsolved Mysteries, Inside Edition, and Sally Jessy Raphael. Lois and her husband Don Arquette created an maintained the Real Crimes website in order to help other families who were experiencing similar situations. Lois would interview families of homicide victims whose cases were believed to have been improperly handled by law enforcement and Don would back any allegations to actual documentation that was released to the public, such as police reports, autopsy records, as well as crime scene photographs.
At the End…
Duncan passed away on June 15, 2016, as the result of a stroke and left behind a small army of devastated fans and people whose lives she had touched. Lois was survived by her husband Don Arquette, her four remaining children and six grandchildren.