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Lois Duncan–Making Waves and Winning Awards

Lois Duncan
MAY 6 1981 Duncan, Lois (Author) – Ind. Credit: The Denver Post (Denver Post via Getty Images)

If you haven’t been following the Dead Author Dedication for the month of July, you might not be aware of Lois Duncan or what she contributed to the literary community. If that’s the case, then here’s the short of it: she was a warrior of literature who pioneered the Young Adult horror genre, something that has been continued on by well-known authors such as Neil Gaiman and Cassandra Clare.

Her life was no cakewalk though and despite her proclivity for writing horror fiction for young adults, that ended as abruptly as her life was changed when one of her daughters was murdered and her killer was never caught. If you’re interested in reading more about Lois Duncan and her hard-worked life, then take a look at our article where we discuss The Trials and Tribulations in the Life of Lois Duncan.

Duncan never stopped writing, even throughout her grief and suffering and she left behind a legacy in print, on film, and within the hearts and minds of the people who related to her body of work. This is discussed in greater detail in our article about The Legacy of Horror Writer, Lois Duncan–it’s worth a read, just like all of the books she contributed to Young Adult horror fiction.

Lois Duncan's Books
Lois Duncan’s Various Books

She Won Awards?

Considering the skill and history-making work Duncan contributed to the world of Young Adult fiction–especially in the genres of horror, thriller, and suspense–she was undoubtedly deserving of all (if not more) of the attention and acclaim that she received. We’ve compiled a list of the awards that Lois Duncan received during her lifetime, with the intention of promoting another amazing author.

The Randolph Caldecott Medal

In 1963, Duncan received the Randolph Caldecott Medal–an honor that is bestowed upon writers for the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. She received this award for best children’s book for her publication Silly Mother (1962)–a first edition of which is now worth nearly a thousand dollars!

The Edgar Allan Poe Award

In the spring of each year, the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) present the Edgar Allan Poe Awards (usually referred to as The Edgars)–the Edgars are considered to be the most prestigious awards that an author can receive in the genre. MWA is the premier organization for mystery and crime writers, professionals allied to the crime-writing field, aspiring crime writers, and people who simply love to read crime fiction. What is really spectacular about knowing how prestigious it is to win this award, is the fact that Lois Duncan has actually won six of them! As an author of Young Adult fiction, five of these awards were for the category of “Best Juvenile” fiction, for Ransom (1966), They Never Came Home (1969), The Third Eye (1984), Locked in Time (1985), and The Twisted Windows (1987). While it may seem strange that she didn’t receive any more after the eighties, it becomes less mysterious when her daughter’s murder is factored into it–Duncan no longer had a taste for writing fiction within the crime and horror genre after that.

Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan
Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan

Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award

The Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award is based out of Vermont, it’s an amazing accomplishment and an enormous honor within the world of Young Adult literature, simply due to the fact that the winner is voted for by students across the entire state. In the spring of each year, the eight-person committee for the award carefully selects and nominates thirty books for students to consider. Students are required to read at least five of the books from the list before they are able to vote for their favorite titles. The winner is then invited the following spring to speak with the students of Vermont about their experience as a writer and how they have contributed to the literary world. In the year of 1978, Lois Duncan happened to be nominated for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award for her book Summer of Fear (1976) subsequently received the award and was able to speak to the students of Vermont.

Margaret A. Edwards Award

Established in 1988, the Margaret A. Edwards Award honors an author in addition to a specific body of their work, for their significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. A subdivision of the American Library Association (ALA), the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) annually awards the Edwards to recognize authors whose work addresses the issues that adolescents face as they become aware of themselves, as well as what their role and values within relationships, society, and the world. In 1992, Duncan received the Edwards Award from the ALA for her contribution to writing for teens and being able to relate to them through her literature. They include six of Duncan’s books, citing several of her novels and added, “whether accepting responsibility for the death of an English teacher or admitting to their responsibility for a hit and run accident, Duncan’s characters face a universal truth–you actions are important and you are responsible for them.”

The Edgar Allan Poe Grand Master Award

In 2015, a year before Duncan’s death, she did however receive what can be considered an achievement of a lifetime. The MWA awarded Lois Duncan the Edgar Allan Poe Grand Master Award, something that any author would consider themselves lucky to receive.

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Featured Horror Books Women in Horror

The Legacy of Horror Writer, Lois Duncan

The Legacy of an author like the late Lois Duncan stretches farther than one might think—having been 82 years old when she died of a stroke, she left behind a long prolific career of writing fiction for young adults. Many people read Duncan’s books in their adolescence, so much so her books can be considered a rite of passage. One thing that can be said of Duncan’s writing is that she captures the essence of what it is to go through puberty—the feelings of alienation and the thirst to be accepted by one’s peers—and also the kind of chilling, oft supernatural situations that made her horror and thriller writing so famous.

I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan

I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan

What She’s Known For

I started writing for young adults because I was one.

Lois Duncan in The Sarasota Herald-Tribune 2005

Duncan wanted to create something relatable for readers who were too old for children’s books and too young for adult books–something in between that could bridge the gap between, something that would carry them over and enable them to be lifelong reading enthusiasts. Authors like Lois Duncan are incredibly important, they breed the interest and love for the written word long after our parents stop reading us bedtime stories and well before we lose interest in school-assigned reading. Duncan’s most well-known books to date were written well before young adult fiction had become a popular genre—among these, she had created Down a Dark Hall (1974), Killing Mr. Griffin (1978), and Stranger With My Face (1981). These books were all considerably violent in their own right, but when her 1973 novel I Know What You Did Last Summer was adapted to the big screen, Duncan was “utterly horrified.”

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) Movie Poster
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

The movie adaptation, which was released in 1997, horribly skewed her suspenseful thriller—a book about a group of teenagers who were desperate to conceal an accidental killing–into a slasher horror film. She recounted going to see the movie for the first time, “the first time I knew it was a slasher movie was when I bought my popcorn and bought my ticket and excitedly walked into the theater … the heads were dropping and the blood was spurting and I was screaming and the audience was screaming.” Truly it was never her intention for it to be as bloody and shocking as it turned out to be on film and it didn’t ring true with the message she tried to embed in her stories, that what you do in life matters and accepting responsibility for your actions is paramount.

Not all of Duncan’s work lies within the realm of the terrifying and dark, some of it is decidedly light—especially the work that followed after her daughter Kaitlyn—and many of her works have been adapted into film. Like most authors who have had their work adapted into screenplays, Duncan didn’t exactly make her name from audiences knowing who came up with the original idea for them. Instead she made her name through the amazing wealth of novels that she contributed to multiple genres and the awards she received for them.

What the Critics Had to Say

Lois Duncan is regularly given credit by critics and journalists alike for pioneering the genre of young adult fiction—she made most of these strides within the teen suspense and horror genres and was even dubbed as the “queen of teen thrillers.” The Washington Post’s Emily Langer stated that Duncan, “plucked her characters from normalcy and placed them in extraordinary, often dark circumstances,” which for a time when Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Robert Cormier were big names in fiction, was decidedly against the grain of the genre.

What the Fans Have to Say

Even four years after her death, Lois Duncan is still on the minds of the people she inspired to write during their youths—her impact was profound and lasting because she finally gave teens a voice for the dark and dismal forces that play a large part in the imaginations and fantasies of so many of us during a time of chaotic emotions and hormones. She isolated that turmoil and removed it from the internal struggle by creating these dark tales and then illustrated how much worse things could really be beyond our own thoughts, fears, and expectations.

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Featured Horror Books Women in Horror

The Trials and Tribulations in the Life of Lois Duncan

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

Magazine Publications

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.

Teaching Work

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.