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Down a Dark Hall: Lois Duncan’s They Never Came Home (1969)

In this ongoing series, I’ll be looking at the Young Adult genre fiction books that impacted my youth.

Lois Duncan’s second Young Adult genre novel, They Never Came Home, was published in 1969. Coming just a couple of years after the Manson Family murders, the ominously titled book conjures all sorts of terrifying scenarios, but as it turns out, the plot is both more simple and more convoluted than one might assume at first glance.

Within the first two pages the basic setup of becomes clear: Larry Drayfus and Dan Cotwell are missing. The two teenagers went on a hiking trip over the weekend but as of the following Monday morning, had not returned home. With Ransom, Duncan established multiple narrative threads: there were the kidnapped teenagers and their captors in one story line, while another followed the family members waiting at home. The potential for concurrent narratives – “teens try to survive in the wilderness” and “families fall apart due to worry and grief”— is there in this book, too, but that’s not where Duncan takes the story. In fact, the reader doesn’t find out what happened to Larry and Dan until the fourth chapter. Even then their true fate is obscured.

After the vibrancy of Ransom, They Never Came Home comes across as a bit of a letdown, especially after such a promising title and setup. Granted, Duncan does continue her exploration of sociopathic behavior. In Ransom, it was Glenn who was narcissistic and manipulative; in They Never Came Home, it’s Larry Drayfus, although when the book first introduces him, he is going by the name Lance Carter, a young man who is living in California with his brother Dave.

It isn’t too difficult to figure out that Lance and Dave are really Larry and Dan, but the reason why they are traveling under assumed names isn’t as clear at first. As it turns out, Larry is a key player in a drug smuggling ring: he brings marijuana from Mexico into New Mexico on behalf of a man named John Brown. Larry decides to keep $5,000 of the drug money for himself and goes on the camping trip with Dan as a pretext for hightailing it out of town. While on the trip, Dan falls and hits his head and Larry figures this is a stroke of luck; he can then convince Dan that he is actually someone named Dave and never has to fess up to his own thievery.

Perhaps in 1969 the threat of high school kids becoming unwilling drug mules was higher than it is in 2017, but that seems unlikely. That makes the part of the book in which Larry’s sister Joan (who is also Dan’s girlfriend) and Dan’s brother Frank get suckered into doing just that come across as fairly unbelievable. This is the same basic plot that I created for some Facts of Life fanfiction I wrote when I was about 11 years old. Combine that with the soap opera element of amnesia, and it’s hard to imagine high school kids would think the plot of They Never Came Home is a plausible one. Sure, the book came out nearly 40 years ago, and maybe I’m cynical, but it still feels like a stretch.

The drugs are smuggled across the border inside car tires while the smugglers present silver and turquoise jewelry to customs as a ruse. As part of this, the Mexican drug connection enlists the help of his young son, José. This would have been a good opportunity to introduce the idea of Americans exploiting the underclass in Mexico, but instead it comes across as at least slightly racist and more than a little clichéd.

There are a couple of interesting subplots that keep They Never Came Home fairly interesting. As a result of Larry’s disappearance, his mother has a nervous breakdown and it’s dealt with in a believable and somewhat heartbreaking manner. The family knows that she is not dealing with the situation in a healthy way, but they are embarrassed to admit it in public. Joan has to take on a lot of responsibility, despite the fact that she is about to graduate from high school and has plans on going to college. It’s a skillfully handled subplot, and the idea that Joan is more mature and grounded than either of her parents is a compelling one.

The more interesting aspect of They Never Come Home is Joan’s continued gut feeling that Dan, despite being gone for several months, is still alive somehow. She keeps his photo on her bedside table and keeps his memory alive, in part by becoming close with Dan’s brother Frank but also by associating Dan with happy thoughts: “It was much less difficult to sleep at night with the knowledge that a strong face and steady blue eyes were standing guard over her dreams.” Although it isn’t outright stated that Joan has some kind of psychic connection to Dan, it’s enough of a subtext that it makes Duncan’s future ventures into the supernatural seem like a natural progression.

Next up: Lois Duncan’s I Know What You Did Last Summer

About Less Lee Moore

Less Lee Moore fell in love with weird music and movies during countless hours spent watching Night Flight and listening to college radio as an impressionable teenager. She is the founder of Popshifter, and also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop, Modern Horrors & more. She has a degree in Film Studies from UCSB and a Hannibal tattoo.

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