My Life in Books: Killing Mr Griffin

At an age when my fellow T Party writers were discovering epic fantasy novels, I was discovering the marvellous new world of Young Adult horror.

It wasn’t called that at the time. In the 1980s, Lois Duncan was a pioneer in this genre, writing a lot of very creepy books featuring teenagers. I don’t know how I got my hands on a copy of KILLING MR GRIFFIN, but I did have a battered copy on my book shelf at home, so I suspect I discovered it in a second hand book store somewhere. I didn’t buy too many books new when I was an impoverished high school student.

It is the story of a group of teenagers who decide to take revenge on their hard-nosed English teacher. They don’t mean to kill Mr Griffin – at least not at first. They kidnap him, tie him up, blindfold him so he can’t tell who they are, and lock him away. But Mr Griffin recognises his students by their voices, and during his incarceration he comes out with the same cutting remarks he gives to them in the classroom. What the group don’t know is that Mr Griffin suffers from a medical condition, and without his medication, he will die.

I was pleased to find this cover image, because this is the one that featured on the version I read, and it’s what drew me to the book. The current edition has a different cover but I’m happy to see it’s still in print – it’s a terrific book.

I must have been about 14 when I first read this book, and the characters really spoke to me. There are five students involved in the kidnapping plot. Jeff and David are jocks. Mark is Jeff’s best friend, highly intelligent and quick to anger, but at the same time he is incredibly charismatic and it is this charisma that persuades the others to go along with his plan. It’s his idea to kidnap Mr Griffin after suffering humiliation at the teacher’s hands. What the others don’t know until the end of the book is that Mark is a psychopath – in the clinical sense of the word.

As well as the three boys, two girls are drawn into this nefarious scheme. Betsy is a bubbly cheerleader type and Jeff’s girlfriend. She’s not very bright and is just out to have a good time, and it doesn’t take much to convince her that the plan to kidnap the English teacher is nothing more than a great prank. The fifth member of the group, Susan, is a more unwilling accomplice. A straight ‘A’ student, Susan is brought in as bait, to keep Mr Griffin talking in the car park about school work so that the others can pounce on him. She only agrees because she has a hopeless crush on David, and Mark hatches a plan to get David to go out with her, deducing – quite correctly – that once Susan has been lured into the inner circle of ‘popular kids’ she has up to now never dreamed she’d ever be a part of, she’ll be willing to go along with anything they suggest.  Mark has also noticed that Mr Griffin’s class is the only one Susan ever receives a ‘B’ in, and this is something she’s not used to.

Naturally it was the nerdy, brainy loner Susan I identified with, though I recognised pretty much all of the other characters from my school (apart from Mark – there may well have been psychopaths at my high school for all I know, but if I did know any, I wasn’t aware of it at the time). And the situation was set up in such a way that it seemed entirely plausible. Having agreed to the initial plan to request a meeting with Mr Griffin in the car park, when the deed is actually done, Susan rapidly begins to have second thoughts. But since she knows what the group have done, they are not going to let her go that easily – especially Mark. Susan suddenly finds herself in a waking nightmare, when things start going from bad to worse, and she is unable to extricate herself from it. As the plot unfolds, Mark’s grip on reality rapidly unravels, and his descent into insanity is startling and terrifying. This is a genuinely creepy and gripping book, and it was one of the books that hooked me on horror for life.

Along with Stephen King, Lois Duncan was a major influence on my early attempts at writing horror, and I think her books will still resonate with teenagers today. Especially since YA horror is now a legitimate genre. In my day it was just ‘scary stories featuring teens’.


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