LURID: Flowers In The Attic
LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.
There’s a unique stripe of Bad Books that have a profound effect on your development. Everyone has at least one. They’re usually encountered somewhere around the sixth grade, when reading is still a pleasure and a matter of self-selection, before set texts kick in and make the whole process a chore, and while your innocence can still be stripped away by mere words on the page.
There are a lot of innocence-stripping books out there. In the midst of all the moral panics about video games, movies and TV shows warping the fragile little minds of this age group, books get off relatively lightly. Apart from the Banned Books lists that really only affect school libraries, there’s no ratings system, no parental controls; any kid can walk into a bookshop, lay out some coin, and walk away with the literary equivalent of a M:16. Or, more accurately, the literary equivalent of a viral hemorrhagic fever agent; a dirty bomb.
Once one of these Bad Books hits a junior high school class, the whole student body can be infected. Books are the easiest form of file to share. Peruse the good bits, and pass it on. After a couple of go-rounds, the book falls open at the most salacious pages, inviting you to dive in there. Read. And have your mind blown wide open. They did what? Ewwwwwwww!
Flowers in the Attic, a truly lurid tale of incest, Mommy and Daddy issues, religious fanaticism and murder, is my personal Bad Book.
I can still recall how that book smelled (eau de hamster, that peculiarly adolescent whiff). How the embossed cover with its peekaboo keyhole felt underneath my tweeny fingers. And how being caught reading it under the desk in a lesson by my favorite English teacher was the ultimate humiliation (“What do you see in this trash? I’m so disappointed in you.”). Reading it was a rite of passage. Reading all the sequels was proof of full womanhood; anyone who'd done so could claim a certain seductive cachet, as we knew all about Sex. Well, only the parts that a reclusive, wheelchair-bound illustrator with the most febrile of imaginations thought fit to mention.
First published in 1979, FITA was an instant best-seller, spawned a series of sequels (five books in total, a proper saga, take that, Twilight!), and kickstarted the ever-popular “children in jeopardy” genre. The author, Virginia (later V.C. to conceal her gender and thus maximize sales within the horror genre) Andrews claimed it was based on a true story.
The plot, as per the original pitch letter, is simple:
A young wife is suddenly widowed. Left with four children. She is totally unskilled for the labor market, and deeply in debt. Her home and all she has is repossessed. However… she has one solace. She is the sole heir to a tremendous fortune if she can deceive her dying father, and never let him know she is the mother of four children he would despise. Four children are imprisoned in an upstairs room of a huge mansion. Their playground is the attic… Their lives become a vertual [sic] endurance test to outlive the dying grandfather… The years pass. The grandfather doesn’t die… And when their mother remarries, and goes on an extended European honeymoon, they are left in the care of a woman who has no heart, and no pity for the children she considers “the devil’s issue”. Born of an unholy wedlock between half-niece and half-uncle. 
Who wouldn’t want to see the full manuscript? Andrews puts sensuous flesh onto these Gothic bones. The Brontes and Du Maurier are obvious influences, and her style is a weird mix of modern and Victorian: Danielle Steel by way of Louisa May Alcott.
I find every word I put down, I put down with tears, with bitter blood, with sour gall, well blended with shame and guilt… Years have passed and I am older and wiser now, accepting too. The tempest of rage that once stormed within me has simmered down so I can write, I hope, with truth and with less hate and prejudice than would have been the case a few years ago.
Are you hooked yet? FITA is difficult to describe to the non-aficionado. It’s a horror story, through and through. But it’s also a (warped) romance, a coming-of-age yarn, and a period soap opera, set in a lost world of 1950s family values. Perhaps it’s best described as a fairy tale, situated in a deep dark forest far beyond the furthest nightmares of the Brothers Grimm. It’s the princess fantasy turned upside-down, inside out, and left to spill its still steaming entrails onto a gore-spattered floor.
Cathy Dollanganger is the ultimate princess-type: long blonde hair, painfully beautiful, a talented ballerina. She lives in “a house as big and rich as a palace”, Foxworth Hall. She’s the eldest daughter of a wealthy heiress, who showers her with luxurious gifts. The handsome prince can barely take his eyes off her. There is no doubt that, one day, she will rule as queen, fairest of them all.
Andrews fractures every Disney cliché. Half-starved Cathy is locked in a dusty attic in a far corner of the mansion. At the age of twelve she has to become a mother to her younger siblings. The luxurious gifts are Momma’s way of assuaging guilt for not visiting the children for months at a time. None of the beautiful dresses Momma buys fit Cathy’s developing figure, and she has to rip holes in them just to get them over her budding breasts. The handsome prince is her brother. When Cathy does finally become queen, the years of abuse and hatred mean that she can’t be anything other than Wicked. And as for what happens to all that long, lovely, naturally blonde hair… oh my!
Why would teenage girls in their millions find this outrageous yarn so compelling? Rarely has a YA novel featured such a fierce protagonist (in the traditional, as well as the Tyra, sense of the word). Cathy is an unstoppable force of nature; thanks to her transformative experience in the attic, she’s “like porcelain turned into steel”. She fights for her siblings’ lives with the ferocity of a tigress. She absolutely will not give up her dream of becoming a ballerina. She loves and hates with equal passion, and shares every sordid nuance of her emotions with ‘Dear Reader’. And she never, ever, allows herself to play victim, no matter how much abuse is heaped upon her. While Bella Swan frets about getting wrinkles once she turns eighteen, Cathy dances till her toenails fall off. Cathy could totally have Katniss Everdeen in hand-to-hand combat, even if the two of them were fighting to defend their precious little sisters. And Cathy’d pin Hermione Granger between her “strong dancer’s legs” before that prissy little witch could get her wand out, and still come up snarling with rage and spitting curses at her mother.
Therein lies a chunk of Cathy's charm. Despite the Gothic trappings of her situation, she's a real girl, a pulsating teenager, a hormonal morass of unreason, awkward and flawed. She’s the poster child for angry adolescents everywhere, victim of the ultimate in unfair grounding (three years!). When Cathy says “I HATE you, Momma” she means it, forever. That hatred turns into a two-way street during the course of the novel. Never has a vain mother had more to fear from the burgeoning sexuality of her eldest daughter. Cathy’s no Snow White, batting her lashes at the Huntsman so he’ll spare her life. Cathy sneaks into Momma’s bedroom one night and kisses the man she sees asleep there (Bart, the toyboy), full on the lips. He thinks it’s a wet dream. An enraged Momma knows better, but she can't destroy his memory or tell him the truth. For most teenage girls, whose spats with their Moms involve only skirt length, eyeliner and missed curfews, Cathy is a terrifying revelation. Cathy’s beauty, rage and ability to destroy her mother's peace of mind make her very powerful, which has to be appealing to the average teen unable to muster more than a few slammed doors in response to a parental slight.
While Cathy’s experience starts on the familiar ground of teen rebellion, it goes rogue very quickly. On a psychological level, the trials and tribulations experienced by the Dollanganger siblings are completely through the looking glass. They begin as the all-too perfect normative family unit – blonde and wholesome enough to be straight outta Salt Lake, two girls, two boys – but decline into hollow shells over their three year imprisonment. The young twins, Carrie and Cory, denied sunshine, exercise and a proper diet, stop growing. Their darkest hour involves drinking Christopher’s blood in order to stay alive during a period of deliberate starvation by their captor Grandmother. Grandmother's child abuse playbook seems to be pulled from the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe - as well as locking them up and subjecting them to slow, painful arsenic poisoning, the matriarch whips them, smashes all the mirrors, pours boiling tar on Cathy's hair while she sleeps, demands daily Bible recitals, and cuts off the water supply.
Why is she so crazy and angry about the presence of the children? She tells them they're "devil's issue" with good reason. Incest – still one of the great taboos in our society - rots the whole clan to its core. They're all warped, at a genetic level, and this manifests in the way the Dollangangers look at one another. Apart from their infamous coupling that flies in the face of the Westermarck Effect, Christopher and Cathy display Oedipal and Electra Complexes respectively. Christopher’s Oedipal longing seems to cut both ways:
Momma gave him the longest look, full of sweet compassion as her hand lifted to caress his boyish cheek. He was a younger smaller edition of the husband she’d so recently buried. No wonder tears came to her eyes.
Cathy also yearns for dear departed Daddy, who often told her she was his favorite princess. She never fails to note how Christopher Jr. resembles Christopher Sr., and when they do finally fuck, there’s a sense of the entirely inevitable. If Daddy hadn’t expired in a car crash, he may well have been The One. However, as with everything else in her attic existence, Cathy has to settle for a feeble substitute.
The prequel, Garden of Shadows, published almost a decade after FITA, reveals that the incest is even more complicated. Sure Corrine and Christopher Sr. are half-uncle/half-niece on their fathers’ side, but on their mothers’… wait, no, that apostrophe is all wrong. Their mother’s. They have the same mother. And their fathers are father and son. So they’re half brother and sister and probably each other’s grandparents. That means they’re… Not even polygamist compound-dwellers have a word for that. We’ll never know if this was a detail Andrews intended, or something tossed into the mix by the ghostwriter.
Ah, the ghostwriter. V.C. Andrews’ personal history is almost as lurid as her creations. She suffered a spinal injury at the age of fifteen, and was confined to a wheelchair with arthritis, unable to walk or even bend at the waist. She lived with her widowed mother and supported them both working as a commercial artist from home. An avid reader, she occupied her spare hours writing fantasies, starting out with science fiction in the early seventies before tapping into the gothic fables that were to become her oeuvre. She told friends and relatives that she had some luck getting stories published in confession magazines, including a tale entitled “I Slept With My Uncle On My Wedding Night”. No one has ever found the magazine this story appeared in, and it remains a source of much speculation among Andrews’ aficionados.
Success came late – Andrews was fifty-six when FITA was published – and she didn’t live to savor it for very long, dying of breast cancer in 1986. Yet her story took another bizarre turn after her death when her publishers decided that the “name and likeness and biographical material about the writer for purposes of advertising and trade” clause in her contract could be taken very literally. They hired a ghostwriter, Andrew Neiderman, who has been “creating additional novels inspired by her wonderful storytelling genius” ever since. “V.C. Andrews” has churned out more books while dead than alive. Perhaps that’s the ultimate credential in horror fiction?
For sheer taboo-busting Southern Gothic freakiness, FITA deserves its place in the horror canon. In 1986, at the height of her popularity, Andrews beat Stephen King into second place for the American Booksellers ‘Number One Best selling Author of Popular Horror and Occult Paperbacks’. Wes Craven was originally signed up to write and direct the movie version of FITA in 1985, but the script he turned in was deemed too violent, and he quit the project. The Craven screenplay is tame by, for instance, Nightmare on Elm St standards, but it’s an effective retelling of the book. At least it mentions the Cathy/Christopher Jr. incest in passing, something the existing movie fails to do. FITA is one property that's ripe for a respectful remake.
In my first LURID, I discussed Stephen King’s definition of a Bad Book, as requiring “total emotional involvement, pretty much undiluted by any real thinking process” and the “amazing commitment it imposes on the reader of intellect or maturity”. It certainly takes a “total emotional involvement” and “amazing commitment” to ride along with FITA as it’s cranked from one moment of excess to another, from the “ladder of bloody welts on Momma’s back” after her homecoming flagellation, to the final realization that the powdered sugar on the children's donuts is, in fact, arsenic, deposited by Momma's fair hands. But Andrews earns that involvement and commitment from the reader, through the sheer madness of the situations she commits to paper, and through the sympathy she generates for Cathy. Only the stone cold and soul-less couldn't care what happens next.
More than anything, Andrews nails the destruction of innocence in her writing. As Cathy faces any privation her Momma and Grandmother can throw at her, our inner querulous sixth-grade reader is in constant dread of the moment when she will confront the most heinous and taboo danger of all, Christopher’s penis. She fights it when it finally appears:
I had the strong dancer’s legs; he had the biceps, the greater weight and height… and he had much more determination than I to use something hot, swollen and demanding, so much so that it stole reason and sanity from him.
But deep down, she's curious, denied, hungry, unfulfilled, fantasizing, confused, conflicted and, inevitably —
…Somehow we ended up on that old mattress – that filthy, smelly, stained mattress that must have known lovers long before this night. And that is where he took me, and forced in that swollen, rigid male sex part of him that had to be satisfied. It drove into my tight and resisting flesh which tore and bled.
They did what? Ewwwwwwww!
Flowers In The Attic: my personal Bad Book. It's a book that needs no apologies if you're a twelve year old girl, but, for full enjoyment, the rest of us require expert suspension of disbelief - as with many other Bad Books. It changed my life by infecting me with a hunger for the outré, the shadow side, the forbidden, the uncanny, the salacious, the flawed but fierce bleeding heart heroine. The lurid, if you will. Without FITA, I wouldn't be here today.
And if anyone wants to hire me to write the ultimate screenplay version, I am so up for that.
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