Lois Duncan’s 1974 Down a Dark Hall is a young-adult gothic novel.
Kit Gordy’s widowed mother has found new love and Kit has become a temporary inconvenience. There is no place for a teenage daughter on the newly married Mr. and Mrs. Rolland’s European honeymoon, nor are the Hollands inclined to leave Kit on her own. Madame Duret’s upstate New York Blackwood School for Girls seems to offer a sensible alternative. While her mother and stepfather explore their new marriage together, Kit will enjoy a transformative education.
Perhaps enjoy is the wrong word.
The former Brewer mansion is an impressive edifice, out of place in the backwater city of Blackwood. Once a private home, the mansion is now home to a school for well-connected girls from wealthy families. Rather, that is what it advertises itself as being. It is odd that there are just four students: Kit, Sandy Mason, Lynda Hannah, and Ruth Crowder. It’s equally curious that the staff is just as miniscule: Madam Duret, her college-educated son Jules, Professor Farley, and cook Natalie Culler.
As odd as the arrangement is, the results speak for themselves. Lynda flowers into a skilled painter, Kit into a pianist, while Sandy writes memorable poems. Remarkably, none of the girls previously demonstrated any such talents. This is because neither girl possesses such talents. They are merely conduits.
Although she omits this detail in the brochures, Madam Duret is a skilled medium. The criteria by which she selects students is not artistic talent, latent or otherwise, but psychic receptiveness. The girls are the means by which Madam Duret provides dead geniuses the opportunity to further express their talents. It is an arrangement from which all benefit!
There is the small matter that Duret does not share the fortunes she makes from “rediscovered” works of the masters. There is also, as the girls learn, the small matter that some of Duret’s former students in Europe committed suicide. Only some. The rest all went mad as the spirits they were channeling tried to possess them full time.
Survival and sanity demand escape. However, Madame Duret is committed to her Art. There’s a reason she selected such an isolated estate.
The setting and the events of the novel would seem to be the ideal pretext for a classic gothic cover illustration: Kit flees from the mansion, at night, with a single window lit behind her. Oddly, even though it was an isolated mansion and even though Kit was trying to flee … cover artists seem to have focused on the hallway of the title and sometimes on Kit.
Down a Dark Hall was popular enough that it was adapted into a 2018 movie.
I didn’t read this when it was first published, in 1974. I wasn’t much of a fan of gothics; there was too much popular fiction being published, even then, for me to keep up with it. Recently a patron requested a review. Reading this book wasn’t an onerous task … which rather surprised me. Reader, I liked it.
Because the edition I found was a recent one, my attention was caught by the fact this novel references cell phones and the internet. Rather than indicating an unusual level of prescience, this reflects the fact that the author modernized her novel in 2011. Such updating can easily be intrusive, can even undermine the plot. In this case, however, such modern conveniences are mentioned only so that the author can explain that such things are not available at Blackwood. Come for the lack of modern conveniences, stay for the obtrusive censoring of letters home.
Interestingly, while most of the girls are displeased when they learn about Madam Duret’s bold venture, not all of them are. Poor Lynda does not want to believe that her new talent is not truly hers. Her previous life didn’t feature any accomplishments and she’s reveling in competence.
The book’s brevity1, stripped-down prose, and straightforward plot make it clear that it was and is aimed at younger readers. Nevertheless, my interest never flagged. I was pretty sure Kit would survive but only pretty sure. The other characters had no such (probable) plot armour. In fact, the novel leaves unclear the fate of one of the students. Suspense!
1: Which means the reader is denied the epilogue in which Kit, her mother, and stepfather discuss their choice of school for Kit. Too bad, because that conversation could have been epic. It is safe to say that either Kit will be deemed nuts and institutionalized or she will never lack for material with which to emotionally blackmail her parents.