I Know What You Did Last Summer
by Lois Duncan
© 1973 by Lois Duncan. Cover Art not credited.
I Know What You Did Last Summer is better known for its late 90s slasher movie adaptation, but have to say I think the book is a whole lot better. Originally published in 1973, Los Duncan’s book is a slow-burn thriller with a really compelling premise. There is no man with a hook. Instead, the four teenagers form a pact after they accidentally kill an 8-year-old boy on his bike. The book makes good use of its dynamic cast of characters and delivers a great twist at the end. There are no slasher tropes because it pre-dates the modern slasher by a good five years. What we get instead is something far superior and more memorable than the movie. I was thrilled when I found this awesome retro copy of the book with some excellent hairstyles on the cover. I had read a library copy back when I was a kid and loved it. I was too young to see R-Rated movies at the time, so you can imagine my anticipation leading up to when I finally did several years later. It was a major letdown. I went back and rewatched it before writing this post, and I think it just strengthened my conviction. There’s a bullet review with my thoughts on the film included after the jump. I would love to see a faithful adaptation of this someday. For now, I am more than satisfied with just the book. It’s very much a product of its time, but I think it aged pretty well all things considered. It’s also a great summer read.
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It might not seem like much, but it has a big impact!
Observations & Spoilers:
I Know What You Did Last Summer opens with Julie getting a letter of acceptance to college. She and her mother talk about how Julie really buckled down and became a great student in the last year. Before that, Julie had been more of a socialite, primarily concerned with cheerleading, clubs, and boys. But then something happened. She stopped seeing her boyfriend Ray and became hyper-focused on her studies. She doesn’t hang out with any of her old friends. She recently started seeing Bud, who’s a bit older and very straight-laced. But is a vet who recently returned from Vietnam. Julie doesn’t see their relationship going anywhere, but he’s good company, and their relationship keeps her mother from asking too many questions. Julie also received another piece of mail that morning; a handwritten one with no return address. When she opens it, there is just one small note inside. It simply says: I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER. She doesn’t share it with her mother.
Julie takes the note to her old friend Helen. Helen had dropped out of high school and now works as a Channel 5 Golden Girl, which is something like a glorified local DJ who shows up at events and does the weather on the local news. The seventies were weird. I don’t remember a time when local news stations had anyone other than an actual meteorologist on the news. Anyway, Helen has had a good year since last summer. Helen agrees that the note is something to be alarmed by, and calls her chauvinist asshole of a boyfriend Barry. Barry is a star football player and has only continued dating Helen because her newfound fame had benefits for him. Barry looks at the note and dismisses it as a joke, because of women and their hormones or something. Julie cringes at the way Barry treats Helen and is sickened by how Helen remains devoted to him in spite of it. It was that same gross infatuation that had lead to Julie getting stuck in their pact in the first place.
During the previous summer, the four kids had spent a late night partying by a campfire in the mountains. Ray and Barry had flipped a coin for who would drive back. Barry lost and so he drove Ray’s car with Helen in the front passenger seat. Julie and Ray had sat in the back. Helen had seen the little boy first. It was a curvy mountain road in the middle of the night and the kid had no lights or reflectors on his bike. There was no time to brake or swerve. Barry didn’t stop the car to see if the kid was alright. Julie and Ray protested but he wouldn’t hear it. He stopped at the nearest payphone. Ray called the police to report it, but Barry disconnected the call before Ray could give his name. Barry had been drinking. He was over eighteen and could be tried as an adult. He had more to lose than the rest of them. He insists that they form a pact to never speak of this. Helen agrees immediately because of her gross infatuation with Barry. Ray is reluctant but is swayed by the argument. That leaves Julie as the lone holdout. They put it to a vote and it’s settled. The rest is history.
Julie had read everything she could about the hit and run when it showed up in the papers. The boy’s name was David. He had been sleeping over at a friend’s house and had decided to ride his bike home in the middle of the night. He had died alone. Julie had been wracked with guilt and sent flowers anonymously to the funeral. Ray had skipped town after he and Barry had fixed the damage to his car and sold it. The last Julie had heard, he was working odd jobs out on the coast. Ray returns to town right when the notes start showing up, making him suspect. But he claims that he got a note too. Eventually, all of them get a note of some kind. Someone knows, but how? Barry continues to dismiss it and Helen goes along with him. Ray and Julie find themselves awkwardly on the same team. They’re the only ones taking the threats seriously.
Helen makes friends with a new tenant named Collinger in her new fancy apartment building. He seems nice and he’s kinda cute, but not in a conventional way. Meanwhile, Barry thinks about breaking up with Helen after he finds out she called and left him a message. This isn’t because she calls often, but because he’s a dick. He gets another call and takes it. His frat brothers comment that they could never get away with talking to their girls the way Barry does. Barry leaves the frat house; it’s Memorial Day and fireworks are going off on campus. Just as Barry crosses the football field, a stranger blinds him with a floodlight and shoots him. When Helen finds out that Barry had been shot, Collinger shows up and brings her to the hospital. Barry’s mother does not like Helen and doesn’t try to hide it. She blames Helen for being involved somehow since it is widely believed that Helen had called Barry right before leaving the house. Helen flatly denies this. Barry lives and tells his parents otherwise. Helen isn’t allowed to see him. She is beside herself. Barry, somehow, still won’t listen to Ray and Julie, because on top of being a ruthlessly selfish and terrible person, he’s also not that smart. I’ll bet he runs for president someday.
Jule and Ray start spending more time together. It’s clear their breakup was hard on both of them. Julie isn’t ready to forgive Ray for siding with Barry and Helen, but Ray now knows that he made the wrong call. But they can’t unmake the pact, and someone seems to have figured it all out. Julie and Ray decide to visit the family of the boy they killed. They make up a story that their car is broken down and they need to use the phone. There’s a ladder outside and it looks like someone is painting the house yellow. They meet David’s older sister and learn all about how David’s death broke apart her family. She’s lonely with everyone gone. She briefly mentions an older brother, but Julie and Ray are too wrapped up in their own guilt and don’t catch it. They use the phone and leave as quickly as they can. They’re pretty certain that David’s sister isn’t the one sending the notes, and don’t feel any closer to finding how who is.
Barry refuses to break the pact. He confesses to Ray that it wasn’t Helen who called him that night, it was some other girl he was seeing. Only he’s lying about this, too. He got a call from a man claiming to have photographic evidence of them hitting and killing David Gregg. The man said he was holding the evidence ransom unless Barry agreed to meet him out on the fields. Barry didn’t believe the man could have photo evidence; cameras that could capture that sort of thing didn’t exist yet. But he couldn’t risk his football scholarship, so he went out to meet him. Now Barry has been shot and the bullet hit his spine. They don’t know if he’ll ever walk again. Even after all of this, Barry shares none of this information with his friends. That’s because even a near-death experience can’t automatically make someone less shitty. You suck, Barry. And by the end of this book, everyone will know it.
Meanwhile, Helen has been growing closer to Collingsworth. She feels like they hit it off pretty well. That is until Collingsworth calls her out on being a shallow narcissist in front of the whole pool deck. He points out how all of their conversations have revolved around her and her problems. Helen is humiliated and furious. She waits out on the pool deck for a while to play it cool and mingle with her neighbors. When she goes up to her room, Collingsworth is waiting for her. She finally realizes he’s the one who shot Barry. He’s the one who’s been sending the notes. And now he plans to kill her. Her phone ringing provides enough of a distraction that she’s able to flee into her bedroom. Collingsworth starts quietly taking the bedroom door apart, avoiding any scene that would bring Helen attention. Helen decides to take her chances and jumps out of her own bedroom window down to the pool deck below.
Meanwhile, Julie has a date with Bud but her mother wants her to cancel. She just has a bad feeling about that night. She had the same foreboding sense the day that Julie’s father died, and again on that night last summer. Julie wants to confess it all to her mother so badly. She doesn’t but she agrees to cancel her date with Bud. Only Bud is already on his way. When he arrives Julie apologizes but says she needs to stay in that night. The easy-going Bud is uncharacteristically insistent that they still go out. He finally relents and asks if Julie can at least walk him to his car. While walking to his car in the dark, Bud finally reveals to Julie who he really is.
Bud is really David Gregg’s older brother. He is also Collingsworth, Helen’s neighbor. He had been away in Vietnam when his younger brother was killed and came home to find his family torn apart. He became suspicious of the expensive roses anonymously sent to David’s funeral. He took it as a mocking gesture. He was eventually able to piece together some info based on things people said around town and tracked them back to Julie. Then he followed her, flirted, and asked her on a date. He sent her the letter to confirm his suspicions. He followed her to see where she went after getting it. That’s how he figured out who the other kids were. Now he was going to strangle Julie and complete his vengeance. This was a bit of an info dump, but I also bought it because I felt like Bud was bragging. He wanted Julie to know how clever he was before he killed her.
Bud is strangling Julie when Ray shows up just in time to knock Bud unconscious. Barry had called Ray and released them from the pact. He had a change of heart after being able to move his feet, meaning he would walk again. So just to be clear, Barry is still an asshole. Ray had tried to call Helen but got no answer. When Julie’s line was dead he feared the worst and came running. Ray had also made a connection earlier that day when he ran into Bud and got sandwiches at a drug store… which is/was apparently a thing? Ray had noticed yellow paint on Bud’s hands. Yellow paint like they had seen at David’s house. As it all started coming together, he knew he had to get to Julie. Then the police showed up. Helen had survived her fall from the window and insisted the police check on Julie. Her hunch had been correct. The pact is broken and the day is saved.
In the end, the story had some good dynamics of the kids having to face the consequences of their actions. Barry was the worst person and had the most server consequences. Ray was the only one who got off without really having something bad happen to him. I did kinda hate the last line about Julie’s death being intended to hurt him. It stank of old gender roles and felt more dated than any other reference in the book. I even enjoyed it in spite of it having a villain who confesses his whole plan at the end. I was sold on it being a brag in this instance. I just realized this book is approaching 50 years old and that just made me feel old as shit. The few messy bits aside, it holds up really well. I’m looking forward to reading more of Lois Duncan’s horror.
For the scoring of each book, I decided to rate them based on five criteria worth 2 points each.
I then split that in two to give it a rating out of 5 stars. Those criteria are:
Concept: the strength of the overall idea
Execution: the mechanics of storytelling
Character: the protagonists, antagonists, and villains
Intent: does it succeed in being the kind of book it wants to be?
Originality: subversion and reliance on genre tropes
The concept is solid. It places its characters in a really fucked up situation and shows ups what they are made of.
I really liked the way it was paced and how the backstory of “last summer” unfolded gradually. I’m taking off one point for the info dump and some super convenient timing in the last few chapters.
Each of the main characters felt real. Julie and Ray made to be the most relatable, but the contrast with Barry being awful and Helen being willfully ignorant made the whole situation feel more real.
Scare Factor: 1/2
I don’t think it’s scary so much as horrific. It was more thriller than horror.
This is a standout among its many contemporaries.
I Know What You Did Last Summer was a hugely popular movie, and many people do not even know that it was a book first.
• I remember being disappointed by the movie back in high school.
• The guy they ran over “waking up” and grabbing Helen’s crown was just silly.
• Turning this story into a slasher movie was such an odd choice when you think about it.
• I was surprised by Jennifer Love Hewett’s acting in this. I just expected her to be bad and she wasn’t.
• Freddie Prince Jrs acting on the other hand… it’s hard to take him seriously. He was good as Fred in Scooby-Doo though.
• What did Alex do to deserve being killed first? He wasn’t involved. He drove by after it happened. These were in the days before he had that Big Bang Theory money.
• We don’t get to see any of the headlining actors get killed? The gore was overall really minimal. For choosing to go the slasher route I would have expected more.
• The book was better, darker, and more impactful than the movie. The movie cheapened the characters, missed the themes altogether, and was filled with horror cliches.
Don’t miss the next post in the Pulp Horror blog series:
R.L. Stine’s The Babysitter II
Also, be sure to check out the latest from my Fear Street blog series:
Fear Street #13: The Secret Bedroom