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YA Book Club: Lois Duncan’s ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ the Non-Slasher, Slasher Book

By Kate Hudson | Books | August 29, 2019 |

By Kate Hudson | Books | August 29, 2019 |


I most definitely read I Know What You Did Last Summer after the movie came out in 1997, when I was 13. I remember being distinctly let down by the lack of a body count that I was expecting due to the movie. That feeling of disappointment has stayed with me over the years, so I approached this re-read with some trepidation.

The book and the movie share very, very little in common, and that’s probably why expectations were not met. The film is a gory slasher-fest that I loved then, and still kind of love to this day, even though Sarah Michelle’s character was done dirty. The book, however, is really a coming of age story akin to Caroline B. Cooney’s “Driver’s Ed” (a book that I haven’t read since 1994, so we’re going based off of memory here) that is really about how the bad decisions we make as teenagers can either lead us into adulthood, by taking responsibility, or trap us, if we try to hide or run away from them.

So, what happens in I Know What You Did Last Summer if it’s not about a disheveled Jennifer Love Hewitt sulking and skulking about? Well, let me tell you, friends.

Julie, Ray, Helen, and Barry have a secret from last summer. After spending the evening drinking and smoking pot up a mountain in their home town, on their way home around 10 pm, they took a curve too fast and ended up hitting a 10-year old boy riding his bike home from his friend’s house. Rather than stop the car and check on the child, they drove on. See, Barry was driving the car, and as an 18-year old, he was convinced he’d go to jail for hitting the child because he was an adult. Helen, being Barry’s girlfriend, agreed with him, and Ray, being Barry’s friend and also kind of a pushover, went along with Barry’s plan as well. Only Julie wanted to go back and wait with the child. She was overruled and forced to agree to a pact with the other three teens. That they would never speak of that night again, and try to move on with their lives.

Cut to a year later. Barry is off being a d-bag frat bro. Helen won some random contest to join the local TV station. Ray left the area but is rumored to be back, and Julie is finishing up her senior year of high school and just got accepted to Smith College. All is hunky-dory if you squint at it until Julie unexpectedly receives a plain letter in the mail with no address on it. Inside is a note: I know what you did last summer.


Julie freaks out and calls Helen, who calls Barry, and the three meet at Helen’s apartment. It’s awkward between the group, as Julie has cut both of her life, although Barry and Helen are still dating even though Barry cats around on Helen every chance he gets. Barry is a damn cad.

Anyway, Barry decides to gaslight the two ladies, and tells them it means nothing, their feelings aren’t valid, and then goes about his merry way. Barry is the worst, and it was impossible not to picture him in my mind as circa 1997 Ryan Phillipe, who was also the worst, in the movie.

Julie returns home, trying to move on with her life. See, she’s been casually seeing a guy named Bud, who is a bit older, and just got back from the war, and they have a date that night. Naturally, she tries to put the whole creepy note out of her mind and focus on Bud but it only sort of works, because in her heart, she’s still hung up on Ray.

Ray is back in town, actually, after doing some soul searching in the past year. He no longer considers himself the pushover who acquiesced to Barry, instead someone wiser and more mature. I also pictured Freddie Prinze Jr circa 1997 in my mind in this re-read, and honestly, he was a fox then, so I can’t be too angry, here.

The quartet is only able to pretend that Julie’s note had nothing to do with what they did last summer for so long, as Helen and Ray also receive anonymous notes. Helen gets an image of a kid on a bike taped to her door, and Ray gets a worn newspaper clipping of the death of the child, about the same time.

As for Barry? Well, he gets shot (ha, ha screw you, Barry!) after someone calls him and lures him out of the house with the threat of having pictures from that night. Barry most definitely had it coming.

I should note that during this time Helen gets a new neighbor at her apartment complex named Collie, which is only important to note because Bud and Collie are the same person and the guy who is terrorizing the teens. Bud is busy.

See Bud/Collie was Danny’s older half-brother who went to war, which messed with him a lot. He came back to a family torn apart by the tragedy of losing Danny, and it messed with him even more. Wanting to see some justice, he went about piecing together the clues of who could have run Danny over and wanted vengeance (not justice.) His intention was never to turn the group over to police to answer for their crimes. No. He wants them dead, even if he missed on a kill shot with Barry.

Helen is his next target, who is lulled into a false sense of security because Barry was being an a*shole and told the group that he wasn’t attacked because of last summer, but it was a robbery gone awry. Barry is the worst, and his reasoning for lying was so thin I don’t even remember, even though I read the book an hour ago. Collie traps Helen in his apartment, tells her who he really is and that he plans to kill Julie, and her. Helen seizes a brief lapse in his attention to lock herself in the bathroom, and then jump out the second-story window of her apartment, as Bud was trying to take the door off its hinges. Helen survives, unlike the Helen in the movie, who honestly deserved better. She was a lot less vapid and more self-aware than book Helen. Justice for movie Helen!


He then goes to Julie’s, and when she doesn’t go out on the date with him because her mom had a bad feeling about that night, gets her to agree to walk him to his car and then tries to choke Julie to death. There’s a message here, ladies: always trust your gut instinct! Ray unexpectedly shows up at the last minute to clobber Bud on the head with a flashlight, and get Julie away from him. The book ends with the teens agreeing to break their pact, and deciding to tell the authorities what really happened to Danny.

So, Lois Duncan is a different beast than R.L Stine or Christopher Pike, in the sense that her books have subtext unlike the other two, where lizard monsters from Mars don’t necessarily represent anything other than a danger of getting murdered. Re-reading this book now, as an adult, without the expectation of the slasher flick to compare it to, I appreciate it more.

I did a lot of boneheaded things with cars when I was a teenager, and I’m fortunate I never had anything go as off the rails as it did for the teens in this story. We did some truly, spectacularly dumb s*it, like purposefully play bumper cars (with the actual cars our parents let us use) into snow berms, not knowing if it was actual snow berms, or just parked vehicles piled high with snow on top of it because I grew up in Alaska. That’s just one of the lesser dumbs*it things I pulled in high school. I’m too embarrassed by the bigger dumbs*it stuff we did to share it with you, but suffice to say, it was pure luck nothing terrible happened to us back then. Related, I am a very cautious driver as an adult, and don’t like to take any risks on the road, whatsoever.

When you’re younger, you have your entire life ahead of you, and I can see the draw of trying to hide your sins, no matter how great, to preserve your future. The teens in this book had no idea how the world works—they didn’t know what would happen to them if they came forward that night, or how it would shake out. The unknown scared them more than the body of the child they had run over in an accident. So rather than do the responsible, and right thing, they fell in line behind an a*shole, and let him call the shots because it was easier. This is ultimately a book about peer pressure, and how doing the wrong thing will inevitably haunt you, even if you think you got away from the consequences. You can never get away from yourself, until you accept responsibility for your actions, and try to do right.

There’s a lot of meaning packed into this little book if you look for it.

One of the things I did not like about this was that my e-copy was updated in 2010 to include more modern references, such as cell phones, and the war Bud got back from was Iraq instead of Vietnam. (The book was initially published in the early ’70s.) We need to have more faith in the YA readers of today, that they can connect with a story emotionally without having to update references that might be more accessible to them. The premise of this story falls apart in the modern era—the age of camera phones and cell tower pings would most certainly mean the teens were discovered before they could come clean and the updates are jarring in that context.

When I was younger, I enjoyed reading YA books from previous generations because it gave you a glimpse of what life was like in a time before you, for people your age. I think updating these books erases a part of their history, and that we need to have more faith in younger reader’s ability to engage with content that was written before now. How dumb is the premise of “Flowers in the Attic” when you realize that at any point all the Dollanganger siblings needed was a smartphone (which they could have stolen from any resident or staff member of the compound they were locked in) so they could Web MD Cory’s symptoms, and call the authorities for help? That book would suck. I hope this trend stops, or in the very least, you’re given the option of buying the original text in an e-version.

Alas and alack.

Next week we’re doing a deep cut because it’s back to school time, and what goes better with that than an ancient evil and murder? Yes, friends, I’m digging out my copy of Peter Lerengis’ “The Yearbook,” which messed with my 8-year old mind so much that I think I stopped reading it partway through and made my oldest brother read the whole book first so that I could have someone reassure me that it was all fiction and talk about it to after I was done. If I recall, this involved a cult and a lot of earthquakes, and yes, murder. We’ll see if memory holds. Until then.

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Kate is a staff contributor. You can follow her on Twitter.

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