V.C. Andrews – Mistress of the Teen Gothic

There seems to be a V.C. Andrews renaissance of sorts, probably because a new movie has just been announced starring the girl who plays Sally Draper in Mad Men (well, she has the look and she can act).

At any rate, a while back I linked to a post by Silvia Moreno-Garcia comparing V.C. Andrews to H.P. Lovecraft.

And now The Toast has declared August 12 “V.C. Andrews Day”. Among other things, they have an article about the sexual appeal of Flowers in the Attic, one about the portrayal of disability in My Sweet Audrina as well as an interview with Ann Patty, the editor who acquired Flowers in the Attic, and an article by Ann Patty remembering her experience publishing the books. Found via Radish Reviews.

Particularly the interview with and article by the editor contain lots of fascinating tidbits there, which I for one did not know, such as that Virginia C. Andrews was wheelchair bound from the age of 15 on and that both Flowers in the Attic and the Heaven series were based on supposedly true stories she’d heard as a young girl in the hospital. What is more, Flowers in the Attic would likely never be published by a mainstream publisher at all in today’s climate.

I’m one of the many, many teen girls who devoured the V.C. Andrews books in the 1980s. I borrowed Flowers in the Attic from an older cousin and then proceeded to read my way through the Dollanganger series (Flowers in the Attic and sequels), the standalone My Sweet Audrina, the Heaven series and lost interest somewhere halfway through the Ruby series. Interestingly, the incest – which seems to be what people remember most about Flowers in the Attic along with the arsenic doughnuts – never made much of an impression on me. It was obviously a consequence of the circumstances under which Cathy and Chris grew up and while it was clearly abnormal and dysfunctional, Chris and Cathy were dysfunctional people due to their upbringing. Honestly, what excuse do Jamie and Cersei Lannister have?

By comparison, I do remember the arsenic laced doughnuts and the various other horrors visited upon the Dollanganger kids quite clearly. But then I come from the same city as Gesche Gottfried, 19th century serial poisoner, so the doughnuts would of course register.

In fact, I find it interesting how many people read those books “for the sex”, because I can’t recall finding the sexual content (which is pretty vague anyway) in any of the V.C. Andrews books even remotely titillating. Sex is always creepy or abusive or at least dysfunctional (and often incestous) in V.C. Andrews novels. I don’t think anybody ever had anything approaching regular sex in those books. I must either have been a latebloomer or just very liberally bought up, because I was hardly ever interested in “the sex” in any of the books I read as a teen. I admit that I found the sexual misadventures of Angelique rather fascinating and was quite thrilled by a bad bodiceripper named Valentina by Fern Michaels pre women’s fiction rebranding. But mostly fictional sex just bored me. I gave up on Jean M. Auel halfway through the second book, when there was nothing but sex going on and slammed a Harold Robbins novel I had snatched from my Mom’s shelves back onto the kitchen table with the words “This is such a stupid book. It starts out so well (prologue about a baby being born on a stormy night), but then they skip all the interesting stuff and it’s just about people having sex all the time.”

Interestingly, I also remember the disability aspect in My Sweet Audrina barely at all. I guess the reason is that there were and are several disabled people in my extended family, so disabled family members were not as out of the ordinary for me as they might be to others. I don’t recall any of the things that so often infuriate me about the treatment of disability in fiction (e.g. the noxious trope of losing a body part as a rite of passage that is so endemic in SFF) in the novel either, but then I was a much less sophisticated reader at the time.

Indeed, what made those books so fascinating to me was basically the succession of thrillingly horrible things happening to their heroines. They play into the fear that lurks in the hearts of many adolescents that their parents, no matter how kind and loving and wonderful, will eventually turn into monsters. Or that the parents will die and that you will end up creepy relatives or foster parents who will do horrible things to you. Maybe incest is a secret fear for many as well, though it was never one of mine, since I’m an only child.

In many ways, the V.C. Andrews novels were the last hurrah of the gothic romance (and coincidentally, I obsessively read Daphne Du Maurier at around the same time). All the elements are there, the creepy old house, the beleaguered heroine, dark family secrets, untrustworthy relatives who are not what they seem. Only that V.C. Andrews turned already rather childlike gothic heroines into actual teenagers. In fact, I’m stunned that the editor and publisher did not expect that the book would be such a hit with teenagers. Honestly, who did they expect would read the stuff? Cause the books don’t really work all that well, when discovered at an older age. As a matter of fact, I’m not even tempted to reread the books, though I still have all of mine, because I doubt that I could stomach them today.

Teens and young adults tend to be rather gloomy anyway and have a taste for depressing entertainment. It’s why grimdark sells, why Stephen King made millions, why The Cure and The Smiths and Joy Division sold records and why you can always find depressing pop songs and “I’m so angry” rock in the charts. V.C. Andrews books were a part of my grimdark phase along with grim anti-hero comics (Wolverine mostly), melodramatic Italian operas, Daphne du Maurier and Angelique novels, Highlander and Beauty and the Beast and Freddy Krüger, hanging out with the heavy metal boys at school and sometimes listening to their music by osmosis. I grew out of grimdark in my late 20s (though I had already grown out of V.C. Andrews several years before), just at a time that popular culture in general was taking a massive turn towards grimdark.

Maybe the turn towards ever darker mainstream entertainment is what is causing the current V.C. Andrews renaissance. Or maybe it’s because the generation that devoured those books as teenagers is now at a point where they fondly look back on the obsessions of their youth.

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13 Responses to V.C. Andrews – Mistress of the Teen Gothic

  1. Even though the late Ms. Andrews and I were once represented by the same agency, I’ve not given one of her books a read. I really need to get around to her one day, as she was once the favorite of my eldest daughter.

    • Cora says:

      I suspect your daughter got more out of those books than you would, because V.C. Andrews is one of those writers that are best read and discovered in one’s teens or early twenties (though I recall that my Mom liked the ones she read). I’m not sure if I would enjoy the books as much as I did at 15, if I were to read them for the first time today.

      That’*s very cool about you sharing an agent with the late Ms. Andrews BTW.

      • If you think that’s cool, my current agent handles the Robert Ludlum estate (as well as produces the Bourne movies — in fact he “discovered” Mr. Ludlum), used to represent David Morrell, and currently reps Eric Van Lustbader. And on the dramatic rights front, I once had a novel marketed in Hollywood by the agent team that sold The Perfect Storm.

        Just goes to show that having had powerful agents throughout one’s career is no guarantee of success in the writing business.

  2. Sherwood Smith says:

    I suspect you’re right about teens, who have so little experience they can thrill to the id vortex of such stuff as Andrews, while not noticing the staggeringly bad writing. (My kid sister adored them, loaned me one, and I couldn’t make it past chapter two, the prose sucked so much, and the emotional dynamics were so soap-operaishly fake.)

    Over the years, I’d meet people who discovered those books as teens. Like L.J. James’ vampire stories, I think you have to be a certain age to get the crack out of them.

    • Cora says:

      I was fifteen or sixteen and I read them in English, which wasn’t my native language, so I wouldn’t have noticed the bad writing. And if I noticed, I would probably have taken it either for a very elevated literary style or for some really cool slang. Did I ever tell you how I emulated the weird faux slang of Marvel Comics for a while as a teen, because I mistakenly assumed that this was how “real Americans” talked?

      But I do agree that the V.C. Andrews books work best when you find them at the right age. It’s not something you want to read as an adult, when the full ridiculousness hits you, but as a teen they’re wonderful. Ditto for Edgar Rice Burroughs and Daphne du Maurier, both of which I loved as a teen, but couldn’t read now. Victoria Holt in her many guises, too.

      I never read the L.J. Smith vampire books back when they came out, though I would have been at the upper age range (17 or 18) where they work. And when I tried to read them as an adult in the wake of their renewed popularity, they struck me as – well – rather silly. My students totally love them, though. They’re useful for teachers, too. I once used The Vampire Diaries to discuss the form of fake diaries and epistolary fiction and to introduce The Sorrows of Young Werther. One of my students, the sort of kid who would never have found Goethe on her own, even wrote Werther fanfic!

      Indeed, I’m always a bit sad when I come across a popular YA series as an adult and think, “Oh my God, I would have so dug this when I was fifteen.” Twilight and The Hunger Games and indeed all of those YA dystopias have that effect on me. Why, of why, couldn’t those books have been around when I was fifteen and wouldn’t have noticed the cracks?

      • Sherwood Smith says:

        You’re absolutely right. I remember reading the L.J. James books that a friend had read and loved passionately as a teen, and thinking that if I’d read them as a teen I would have adored them. Reading them as an adult, I was so bored I just couldn’t force myself through.

        For me, as a teen, the perfect teen books were indeed Daphne du Maurier, Dune, Robert Heinlein, and all those Gothics. (Can’t read any of them now, especially the SF, though the writing in some of the Mary Stewarts is so good that a couple of them hold up fairly well now.)

        • Cora says:

          I actually tried reading Daphne du Maurier a few years ago, when I found a Daphne du Maurier book I had never read in a used book store. I started reading it and found that I just couldn’t get further than chapter two or three. I wondered whether I had just caught a bad Daphne du Maurier book (though it had all the elements I once loved), so I picked up one of my old copies and found that nope, I just couldn’t read her anymore at all.

          I never cared for Heinlein at all, either at 15 or now. His politics were so blatant (and I only read two fairly harmless ones) that the books just annoyed me. Interestingly, the bookstore that was my main purveyor of SF as a teen (due to being the only bookstore with an English language section in town) had very little Heinlein in general. Come to think of it, they carried very few right-leaning SF authors, which is also why I considered SF an inherently leftwing genre for years. Whoever was in charge of the English language SF section apparently filtered those books out.

          Dune I did like as a teen, but when I picked it up again a few years ago to look something up, I found it pretty much unreadable. Interestingly enough, I can still read Asimov, though I now realize how much of what I saw in those books and characters only existed in my own mind. I never read any new Anne McCaffrey after my early twenties, but when I looked up something in one of her older books, I actually got caught up in the story again.

          There are books you just have to find at the right point in your life or they will never work for you. For example, I spent a lot of time trying to track down copies of E.E. Smith’s Lensman series, since I had heard that it was this enormously infuential SF series. But when I finally got copies, I could barely get through the clunky prose and bad writing. That’s another series that probably would have been better at 15.

          • Sherwood Smith says:

            Oh, yes. I remember when I picked up Dune after many years, I was shocked. Who had taken this brilliant book I remembered at fourteen, and turned it stupid?

            I also tried the Lensman series as an adult. No go.

            Heinlein’s politics escaped me at age thirteen–I skipped over a lot of the long, dull political speeches. The sexual stuff also zoomed over my head. But when I tried rereading them a few years later, eueeuuuw!

            • Cora says:

              My adult reaction to Dune was pretty much the same. Wait a minute, was this always so bad?

              I usually was pretty good at ignoring problematic political content in media I consumed as a teen, e.g. I never noticed the strong anti-disarmament message in the original Battlestar Galactica, but then I had never met anyone who was against disarmament in my life and simply assumed that everybody was in favour of disarmament except politicians, who were either evil or influenced by evil people. I never noticed the Mormon content either, because there were no Mormons in Germany.

              I did notice the politics in Heinlein, because they did address issues that were discussed in West Germany at the time. For example, the strong anti-union message was notable, because labour conflicts and unions were a hot topic. And though I did not particularly like unions as a teen (I had to grow up to appreciate them), largely because extensive strikes in the print industry led to grumpy parents at breakfast, since there was no newspaper (and I flat out hated the striking miners, because our shipyards were dying too and no union seemed to give a damn, it was just miners who counted), my reaction to Heinlein was, “Dude, if you don’t like unions, then don’t have them in your SF, but don’t rant about them.” Meanwhile, Heinlein’s glorification of the military was just bizarre, because no one in 1980s West Germany actually liked soldiers or found them in any way worth glorifying (which still makes a lot of US pop culture difficult to consume, because Germans have to be convinced that “dead marine in Rock Creek Park” is a tragedy). “Soldiers are not inevitably arseholes” was the most positive position anybody had. Yes, politicians tried to tell us otherwise, but we neither trusted nor believed them. Never really got the sexual stuff, but then it wasn’t prominent in the Heinleins I read (mostly early juveniles like Starman Jones or Citizen of the Galaxy)

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