When the Internet Doesn’t Work With Your 1970s Plot: Down a Dark Hall

From the moment she arrives at the school, Kit Gordy is aware that something is wrong. No, more than wrong—outright evil. These claims could, I suppose, be dismissed as usual teenage angst. But as it turns out, Kit is quite right: The building, the school, and its purpose are all quite, quite evil.

That isn’t actually the disturbing part of reading Lois Duncan’s Down a Dark Hall (1974/2011) today.

Spoilers ahead.

Kit is at the school largely because her mother has just gotten married to Dan, who is taking her a four-month tour of Europe and not taking Kit along. Dan is a jerk. (Not just because of this.) Fortunately, he’s also not really in this book very much, so we’ll try to move on, if not without my annoyed observation that he’s also managed to convince Kit that his annoying behavior? Is all her fault. Which kinda makes her the perfect candidate for what’s about to happen to her, but I anticipate.

Oddly enough, the Blackwood School has accepted only four students—Kit, Sandy, Ruth, and Lynda, quite possibly to ensure the book is not dealing with an overabundance of characters. Even with this, most of the girls are just lightly sketched in: Kit is lonely, Sandy might be fun, Ruth is a genius, and Lynda beautiful and brainless. Only Ruth, who combines a certain hardness and cynicism with her intelligence, really stands out—which is OK, because as in so many books, the real villains here are the teachers: Madame Duret, Professor Farley and Jules, Madame’s very good-looking son.

Not that anything seems too dangerous at first—odd, perhaps, since the rooms are incredibly opulent, far beyond usual college dorm rooms, despite the fact that the servants don’t really seem inclined to stick around and clean. The girls are indulged, able to study more or less whatever they want to study, with private tutoring. Jules is awfully cute; Madame completely charming, able to tell all kinds of amusing stories about international travel; and Professor Farley seems sweet. If not for the whole locking-the-girls-inside-the-gates thing, bedrooms that can be locked only from the outside, mysterious lights, cooks not allowed to talk to the students, and overall sense of Hello This Is a Gothic House of Horror, it would be a pleasant place.

That is, until the girls start having nightmares—serious nightmares—and begin developing major talents: Untalented Lynda can suddenly paint, Ruth is scribbling out mathematical formulas, Sandy starts writing sonnets, and Kit keeps hearing music—music that, it turns out, she is playing during her dreams. Also, all four of them realize that even before they arrived at Blackwood, they could all speak to the dead.

This, as it turns out, is not a coincidence: The four girls were accepted mostly because of their psychic abilities, partly because all of them are pretty detached from relatives and friends who might come to the rescue. The three adults use a combination of isolation and guilt to keep the girls under their control, aided by the issue that various dead people keep waking the girls up and giving them nightmares, leaving them horribly sleep-deprived. It’s genuinely creepy, and even somewhat seeing the point of the adults involved (“The world needs more Emily Brontë sonnets!”) doesn’t really help.

(Maybe if the sonnets quoted in the text sounded a touch more like Brontë, and a touch less like very bad imitations of Brontë sonnets.)

When I read this years ago, none of that—or some of the implications of just how easy it was for these adults to, for all intents and purposes, kidnap and brainwash four teenage girls—bugged me too much. It was a decent ghost story, after all. No, what really bugged me was the ending, which left the fates of at least two characters in doubt, and also did nothing with the implied romance between two other characters. I mean, come on; this is a Gothic novel, which usually ends—and, in my opinion, should end—with some sort of conclusion to the main romance, implied or not. Even if it’s just a bunch of readers yelling, “No, Jane! Don’t tell us you married him! You’ve got money now! Go off and find someone who doesn’t lock his wife in an attic and then lie about this to you!” Whoops, sorry, moving on.

This time, however, what threw me in the edition I picked up for this reread was this bit:

Impulsively, she got out her cell phone and punched in Tracy’s number. The “no service” message popped up on the screen. Just her luck. This really was the middle of nowhere.

Kit felt like screaming with frustration. She’d have to resort to e-mail. They had to have Internet in the school.

Well, maybe, except, and I feel I must point this out, they certainly did not have to have email or Internet back in 1974, when this book was originally published.

This is followed by another passage where Ruth says that she only needs a quick Ethernet cable.  Madame confirms again that the school has no Internet, assuring the students that it’s not a problem since the library is excellent. Look, Madame, I remain a dead-tree-paper person myself, but if you are attempting to give state-of-the-art science lessons, access to the Internet is good. Especially since—as the book confirms later—the students do have their laptops. Which must be crying with the inability to constantly check the Internet. Trust me, I had a recent spell with a cable Internet issue and my computer was happy to inform me, more than once, that I was not connected to the Internet, like, yes, I am aware. Now imagine that happening endlessly because you are in a luxury school that somehow doesn’t happen to have Internet access and this is somehow not really raising questions in anyone’s head.

It’s an awkward conversation, it makes no sense, and of course, it is here because—as Duncan admits in an interview attached to the 2011 edition—the very presence of cell phones and Internet access would completely ruin the plot.  It would not be particularly difficult for parents and friends to realize that something was happening to the girls; it would also not be particularly different for the girls to call out for help—or, perhaps even more importantly, do a bit of research on the Internet to find out just what had happened at the previous schools run by Madame. (The book confirms that things did not go well.) So Duncan goes to great lengths to assure us, multiple times, that the school has no Internet or cell phone service…

…except for the huge, huge problem that the girls had access to the Internet, and Google, before arriving at the school, and could have researched the school and the teachers then. As I said, the girls are somewhat disconnected from their parents, but Kit and her mother are close. I find it very difficult to believe that her mother would not have Googled to find out a bit more about the school before leaving Kit there for months, European vacation or no European vacation.

And the other problem, which is that part of the plot also involves Kit and the others getting occasional messages from outside the school. These outside messages can’t be taken out of the book, since reading them allows the girls to figure out that their outgoing mail is not, shall we say, all that outgoing. Since, as noted, the Internet isn’t working, Duncan instead tries to say that the girls are getting these messages via snail mail, which… OK, I guess, but how likely is it that anyone would be replying by snail mail, instead of asking what the hell is going on with the phones, or just waiting to catch up on Facebook over Christmas vacation.

I understand, of course, that the rewrite was meant to make this book more relatable to the 2011 audience, and I’m not against that thought. But what the rewrite proved to me was that some 1970s plots work only in a 1970s environment.  This was one of them. And I’d like to think that readers in 2011 can still relate to 1970s communication issues—even if these issues are getting harder and harder to remember.  Which is to say, if you want to read this book, seek out the original edition, if you can.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida, with a cranky internet cable that, to add to the issues, does not allow her to talk to dead people.


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