Most young women, coming of age, at the tender ages of 12 and 13, might be reading Jacqueline Wilson or Stephanie Meyer, or perhaps the latest of the Harry Potter novels. At least, they were when I was around that age.
But, I was different.
I was among the tribe of very peculiar young girls who read the dark, incestuous southern gothic novels of V C Andrews, and my god, how we loved them.
These were not the sorts of novels that were marketed and promoted to young girls. No, membership into the secret society of V C Andrews fans was by invitation-only, and I remember my invitation very well. A little friend of mine at school in year 8 (or it could have been as early as year 7) was a fellow avid-reader, and she started telling me about this whacky book she was reading. I remember thinking that she was telling me tales, because they didn’t make books like that. She was describing the story of four children who are locked away in the attic of a huge gothic mansion called Foxworth Hall, where they are abandoned and then poisoned by their own mother, who kills one of the twins and causes the later suicide of the other, who couldn’t bear to live without her sibling. Not only that, but the two elder children, Cathy and Christopher, became so lonely during their hormone-riddled teen years that they develop an incestuous relationship.
My friend told me about all the raunchy scenes (and not just those between siblings, which was shocking enough), and all the dirty bits about mysterious stains on sheets and how the children navigated their developing sexuality while being trapped in an attic.
So, naturally, I asked my mum if she could buy me this lovely, quaint little novel called Flowers in the Attic by V C Andrews. I devoured this book and was utterly thrilled to find there was a whole series, and I gobbled those ones up too. Not only was it every bit as filthy, scandalous, and raunchy as my friend had warned me, but it was a fascinating gothic tale of abandonment, of loneliness, of greed, and of the raw human need to be loved. I remember crying buckets at certain scenes, truly invested in these wild and unhinged characters.
The amazing thing about V C Andrews’ writing was that, in many cases, it was actually so bad it was good. I read an article once (I forget where) which stated that one of the pulls for the literary agent who read VC’s work (her ninth attempt at a novel after a successful career as an illustrator) was that she wrote in such a bizarre and dreamy way. Her characters spoke in a highly dramatic and unrealistic way, and yet it’s what keeps you turning the pages. The twists and turns were outlandish too, almost too bizarre, which meant that you could never ever guess where it was going next.
Looking back, what I loved about the Flowers in the Attic series (and subsequent novels by V C before she died and subsequent works under her name were ghostwritten) was that her characters were ultimately flawed by their lack of self-control when it came to their needs. And my god, were her characters needy. Men were pathetic, woman-hungry, and even the most powerful were in want of a mother-figure in their lives; their relationships were awash with Oedipus complexes of the highest magnitude. The women were desperate, love-starved, vengeful, furious and sometimes psychotic. Oh, and beautiful – breathtakingly, divinely beautiful creatures, every one of them.
I would later go on to read the Heaven series and My Sweet Audrina, the deliciously spooky standalone novel. As far as I know, this very sadly concluded the books V C herself actually wrote, though her estate was to later to approve a ghostwriter to come up with Andrews-esque titles, of which there are now about 4 billion.
On the surface, these characters were unreal. But in other ways, they were somehow too real – unnervingly so. They were our ugly underbellies, and the melodrama that we craved in our boring, mundane, very British lives.
Which brings me to the other draw for me: these novels were written and indeed set in Virginia, USA. There ain’t no gothic like southern gothic, and that’s a fact – (look at the game Red Dead Redemption for a modern example). Now, all right – that’s the deep south, with marshy swamps and hanging willows and dirty secrets in hidden pond shacks. But V C Andrews’ works had that same feel; that earth-deep drama of the kind Joan Collins would be proud of.
Actually, the 1980s series Dynasty reminds me a lot of V C Andrews’ novels; something about the 80s glamour shots, the pouffed satin sleeves, the shoulder pads, the power suits, the eccentric blow-dried hair, the bitch-slapping. Then there’s the wealth; the dripping, seeping wealth. V C Andrews wrote a lot about young women going from rags to riches as their beauty and secret lineage led them to huge sprawling estates and spooky mansions with hidden passages and candle-lit liaisons and forbidden love.
Say no more, right? Hence, my eternal love for these spooky, outlandish, beautiful gothic novels.
So what about Virginia Andrews herself?
Even though our dear southern belle Virginia sadly died in 1986 of breast cancer, I still feel guilty for posting that photo above. Allegedly the author absolutely hated it, because People Magazine covertly took the picture and published it without her consent. This was one of only two known interviews Virginia did (the other was in a horror anthology of authors called Faces of Fear, which I’ve yet to read). She was famously reclusive and private, and ashamed of the back injury and terrible arthritis that can be seen in the photo above.
I read that Virginia often wrote her novels standing up, because her back would be too painful to sit up straight for long hours while she typed on an old typewriter. She had been made disabled by an accidental fall down a staircase at school aged 15, and it changed her life forever. **2021 EDIT* – This is apparently a myth! According to this blog post/biography of the real V C Andrews, the back injury was not actually incurred in high school. Her arthritis came first and gave her countless issues during her youth, while the back injury happened many years later when VC was in her 50s. Naturally, combined with her arthritis, her issues were exacerbated. ** She became dependent on care from her mother and, as far as we’re aware, never married or had children.
Which to me is a shame, because any fan of her novels will know what a flame that woman had in her heart – though who knows, perhaps she preferred singledom. You can see from her photographs at the age of about 60 (though she never revealed her age – a true southern belle of Blanche from Golden Girls standards) that she was beautiful and unique in her appearance; a true individual. She looked like a character from one of her novels.
The fact that her novels span the genres of horror, gothic, romance and family saga all in one go should give you some idea of just what page-turners they are, and how thrilling they are to her adoring fans of the past and present.
Now, many people would call these novels fast-fiction, or pure trash – and you know what? I think V C would be the first to agree with you. She said:
I think I tell a whopping good story. And I don’t drift away from it a great deal into descriptive material. When I read, if a book doesn’t hold my interest in what’s going to happen next, I put it down and don’t finish it. So I’m not going to let anybody put one of my books down and not finish it. My stuff is a very fast read.V C Andrews in Faces of Fear.
What V C Andrews taught me from a writer’s perspective is to be entirely true to yourself, your vision, and to never be afraid to write outside the lines. We wanted melodrama and we got it in spades; she turned it up to 11. Nobody before or since has managed to quite capture that peculiar mix of gothic horror and lusty romance; not in my opinion. Maybe some have come close, but if you ask me, they’re imitating – and that’s the highest form of flattery.
Are you a V C Andrews fan? What did her works teach you as a reader and/or writer? How old were you when you discovered her?
I hope you enjoyed reading about one of my favourite authors.
Until next time, keep well, keep safe, and stay indoors.