The V.C. Andrews Experiment


      It all started one day when I was browsing the recent headlines on The A.V. Club. I was stopped dead in my tracks by the following: "Lifetime Seeking to Gross Everyone Out with a New Adaptation of Flowers in the Attic." Now, I had heard of Flowers in the Attic, and was familiar with the most basic aspects of the plot: kids get locked in an attic by their psychotic relatives. Every once in a while, in a social situation, I'd even used it as an esoteric reference/punchline. I recall getting some odd reactions to this, which never made a lot of sense to me. Perhaps this article would explain why! That element of mystery, plus my shameful fascination with the grotesque & with Lifetime movies (redundant?), made me click on that link lickety-split. I had no idea what path this fateful decision would lead me down.
     The first sentence of the article was about as perversely fascinating as they come: "Lifetime is bringing terrifying incest back to the small screen." Wait. WHAT. Can't say I was prepared for that. So I read on,only to find that what I had always thought to be an innocent horror story was in fact a big ol' incestfest. And there were sequels! It was just so lurid and bizarre that I had to know more. Craving more knowledge but mindful of falling too far down a bad touch rabbit hole, I decided to read the comments on this article to see just what this was all about.
     What I discovered was intriguing. Though the majority of comments (and there were a lot) viewed the source material and, most likely, the forthcoming movie as abhorrent trash, the sheer disgust and vitriol in their statements was striking. Granted, we're dealing with a pretty nasty subject here, but this is The A.V. Club we're talking about, where cleverly-phrased tasteless humor is de rigueur. The offending of delicate sensibilities surely couldn't account for all the disdain. Furthermore, there were a number of very passionate defenders of the material. The sheer conviction displayed on both sides meant that, without question, I was going to have to watch this Lifetime movie, if for no other reason than to be appalled and complain about it on the internet afterwards. Needless to say, I was psyched.
     When Flowers in the Attic finally premiered, I made sure to carve out some time in my schedule to watch it, and I was not disappointed. Though it did not quite reach the magnificent levels of the undisputed greatest Lifetime movie of all time,  Drew Peterson: Untouchable, it was still a gripping entertainment experience. All the actors were quite good, except Heather Graham, who was so unbelievably bad that her performance was in some ways the most entertaining of them all. Watching her cyborg-like performance clash with Ellen Burstyn's intense portrayal of a bible-thumping matron was damn near hypnotic in its insanity. In all, it was an entertaining enough experience that I began to mull what had previously been unthinkable: actually reading these books. After much deliberation, I finally bit the bullet, pulled the trigger and other exceedingly violent euphemisms for purchasing literature. I bought the full five book Dollenganger Series (that's what it's called; "Dollenganger" is the assumed surname of the children that is quickly swept aside in the books yet looms over the entire saga). Here now I will present a brief account of what followed.

Book 1: Flowers in the Attic


     Up first is where it all began. Flowers in the Attic is a classic Gothic story with an intriguing plot and not one single line of dialogue that sounds like anything a human being would ever say. Our protagonist and narrator is Cathy, a very strong-willed girl with the unfortunate penchant to wantonly throw around phrases like "Golly-lolly!" and "Golly day!" She and her three siblings are locked in a room (and the adjoining attic) by their mother and grandmother, who abuse them physically and psychologically. Highlights include the younger children having to drink their older brother's blood in order to ward off starvation, platters of sinister donuts, the all-seeing eye of God and, of course, an incredibly skeevy sex scene between brother and sister.
     In fact, "skeevy" describes Andrews's entire oeuvre pretty well. Everything in these books is weird and wrong and shameful and dirty. No wonder they were so popular with teens! For example, you might think that the brother and sister hookup is a desperate act due to raging hormones and years of captivity with no other companionship. And yes, that is part of it. But it is also clear from the narrative that Chris, the older brother, is already having some impure thoughts about Cathy after only a few weeks of lockup. Jeez kid, keep it in your pants. He was probably secretly thrilled about the whole thing.
     Anyway, given how famous this book is, I won't spend too much time on it. Though it falls prey to Andrews's typical pacing problems (each one of her books has long stretches where essentially nothing happens), it's still an effective and engrossing (emphasis on the "gross") page-turner. Even the dialogue is so bad in a "Heather Graham acting" way that it becomes kind of enjoyable, and the prose is actually quite nice, if more purple than Grimace.
     For the sake of comparison, I also watched the first film version of Flowers from the 80s. Aside from the cast doing a pretty great job-I will never speak ill of Kristy Swanson-and the ending being so hilariously awful and over the top as to redeem itself (this scene should have won ALL the Oscars that year), it's terrible dreck. The score is actually quite lovely (and expensive to get on CD), but the material is sanitized and altered in very strange ways, making the film dull and nonsensical. The brother/sister relationship is pretty chaste, which is less disgusting but far more boring. In summary, as the old saying goes, Flowers in the Attic without incest is like a beach without sunshine.

Book 2: Petals on the Wind

     Now this book...eww. Just eww. And I don't mean that in the sense of it being a bad book, either. In fact, it's quite ambitious, and rather epic in its scope, especially compared to the first book, which spends 95% of its time in one room. The dialogue is still a hate crime to literature, but the plot is involving and pretty satisfying, especially in the final hundred pages or so. And mercifully, "Golly-lolly!" is put out to pasture for good.
     No, when I say "eww," I mean it in the sense that I was completely disgusted by numerous things in this book. Make no mistake, I have a strong stomach. I just read Battle Royale, which contains such extremely ghastly occurrences as popped eyeballs, spilled intestines and heads shot up into a fine pulp. I was highly entertained by it. But at several points while reading Petals, I actually made a barfing sound and had to put the book down for a little while. I didn't know quite how much I didn't want to read about sexual intercourse between a man in his forties and his traumatized teenage ward until I picked up this book, for example. It's salacious in a page turning way, for sure, but the thing is, nearly every single character here is a total asshole. Pretty much every guy is a rapist in one way or another, and incredibly, we're supposed to buy them as noble protagonists despite this. I'll put it like this: Christopher the sister f*cker is the most likable man in this entire book, and it's not close. And the women don't fare much better, as the sheer level of violence against women, sexual and otherwise (and the idea put forth in nearly every case that it was actually her own fault she was assaulted, and that the man who did so couldn't help it) has all the hallmarks of misogyny. It's...troubling, and I had a hard time figuring out how the reader is supposed to interpret it.
     Here's what I arrived at: like Flowers, this is written from the perspective of Cathy. Now, if we're supposed to think that she is severely messed up due to her time in the attic and has an incredibly warped sense of what's right, then this book is a well-crafted, crushingly depressing tragedy. The fact that Cathy is shown to be more or less off her rocker at the beginning of the third book supports this. Here's the thing, though: after the beginning of the next book, that plot element drops away and Cathy is shown to be more or less normal and well adjusted (give or take a penchant for rampant unholy coupling with her sibling), so how deranged is she really supposed to be? That leaves the possible option that we're supposed to take her narrative in this book at face value, which would be appalling for a number of reasons. So I'm just going to stick with the first interpretation and chalk the rest up to laziness/lack of continuity. It certainly wouldn't be the only time those particular bugaboos crop up.
     Whew, sorry to go off on a think piece there. Here are some final thoughts about Petals on the Wind (spoilers!):

- I've never been happier about a character's suicide than I was with this book. Die, Julian, die.
- Actually, I was pretty much rooting for everyone to die in this book, except for one of the people who actually does die. No, not Bart. F*ck him.
- Never, NEVER attempt to describe the plot of Petals on the Wind to someone unless you want them to think you are completely out of your mind. It's like reciting from The Necronomicon.
- Seriously, we have a "kindly" doctor whose repeated marital and statutory rape is just shrugged off, a dance recital incest baby miscarriage and a ballet-based torture scene. And that's just off the top of my head.
- The Lifetime movie adaptation of this book, despite chopping out about half of the content, somehow managed to add even MORE incest to the plot than the original contained. A dubious achievement, to be sure.
Book 3: If There Be Thorns

     If Petals on the Wind committed the sin of being too gross for its own good, then If There Be Thorns suffers from being a bit too boring. After the sweeping, if revolting, saga that came before it, the relative quaintness of Thorns works against it. The tale is not a cross-country romp like the previous one, but rather confined mostly to a couple of neighboring houses. Most of the shock value is either well-worn territory (Chris and Cathy are totes boning on the reg now!) or a bit desperate (got a gaping wound? May as well moosh some dog poop into it!), so the book truly has to stand on the strength of its plot. Which, to be fair, is not bad. Bart and Jory, Cathy's two sons from two dead lovers, take center stage here. Jory takes over narrator duties from Cathy, who as previously noted, goes completely bananas at the beginning of the book, recreating the attic prison of her childhood in her own home. Then she...gets better, I guess? I don't know, she seems fine after that.
     In any case, Bart assumes the psychopathy mantle from her, as he begins hanging out with the creepy old lady next door and her misogynist butler. Things begin to go south pretty quickly as animals turn up dead and Bart tries to murder his adopted baby sister with scissors. So basically, it's kind of like The Good Son, and if they could somehow de-age Macaulay Culkin and get him to play Bart in the forthcoming Lifetime version of this, I would be all in on it.
     I don't have a ton to say about this book. It dials down the crazy and plods along, but as a reader you're invested enough in the characters to want to see what happens. Bart's mischief and mental problems are interesting albeit repetitive, and the central mystery of what exactly is going on with the neighbors is pretty engaging if somewhat obvious. Jory isn't the most exciting narrator, but he works well enough, and the ending is a nice bit of Andrewsian mania that puts a fitting cap on the whole series. Or at least it would have, if not for...

Book 4: Seeds of Yesterday

     I won't mince words here: this book sucks. Suuuuuucks. Let me summarize the first hundred pages for you: several years after the previous book, the family has a reunion, and Bart plans his birthday party, but can't stop being an asshole to everyone. There, I just saved you some time. Thorns may have been plodding, but Seeds of Yesterday is positively glacial. It's just chapter after chapter of people bickering endlessly. It's like someone recorded all the worst parts of my childhood and condensed it into a novel that made me question my sanity when I saw that some people absolutely LOVE it. I beseech you: don't listen to them. Seeds of Yesterday is one square city block of garbage, and the block is hot. You see, V.C. Andrews died in the process of writing this book (bored to death, perhaps), and a ghostwriter finished some unknown portion of it. And as much as I hate to rag on a fellow writer, the difference in quality between this and the previous novels is so glaring that I can't imagine ever wanting to read one of the ghostwriter's (76!) books written under Andrews's name. V.C. Andrews was by no means a perfect writer, but she was John Steinbeck compared to the guy that replaced her. I hope his work improved after this, but I'll never know.
     Seriously, nothing happens in this book. The most interesting characters are all dead by the time it starts, and their replacements are mostly vanilla sad sacks. Even the usual Andrews vileness tapers off, as if she realized there were no more taboos to break. Sure, there's some marital infidelity, but that's relatively small potatoes compared to the full scale potato famine of filth that came before. Instead, we get an endless cycle of Bart being a dick, everyone getting mad at him, then him being nice for a minute, then him going back to being a dick, etc. It is THE WORST. The most interesting thing in the entire book is the shockingly cavalier attitude everyone seems to have about Chris and Cathy being a brother/sister/husband/wife. Their sons' girlfriends all know about this and are totally cool with it! Bart has an issue with it, but Bart has an issue with everything. It's just so weird and nonsensical.

     Apart from just being a snoozefest, the biggest slap in the face of all involves a character that is allegedly Chris and Cathy's long-thought-dead uncle, who returns to the USA from the isolated monastery he's been staying in for decades since being injured in a skiing accident. I can't believe I just typed that sentence. Anyway, throughout the novel, all sorts of terrible and tragic but still mostly banal things keep mysteriously happening, and we're led to suspect the uncle. So, in the end, was he guilty? We never find out; he just sort of leaves and that's the end of it. ARE YOU F*CKING KIDDING ME??? I almost hurled the book across the room in my rage. I couldn't believe that I sat through over 300 pages of descriptions of ball gowns and arguments over Christmas presents and garden luncheons only to find that the one central mystery of the book would be left completely unresolved. Then everything just ends abruptly, as a ton of things happen in like ten pages, and we're out. Obviously Andrews's death had a severe impact on this book, but given the plot I can't imagine it would have been much better even had she survived the writing process. This dead horse wasn't just beat; it was pounded into fine granules of sand and broken down on a molecular level. Seeds of Yesterday gets the full Jay Sherman.

Book 5: Garden of Shadows

     Nuh-uh. No way. Haven't read it, don't plan on it. It's a prequel, it's mostly ghostwritten, it doesn't fit with established continuity and I already know the big twist, so I have zero desire to read this. Maybe someday, but probably not.
     You might think that wraps up The V.C. Andrews Experiment...but you'd be wrong. DEAD WRONG.    You see, when I was first reading the comments about Flowers in that A.V. Club article, one sentiment that had a modicum of popular support was that, if one of Andrews' works should be adapted to film, it should be My Sweet Audrina, the only book of hers without some sort of sequel and allegedly quite a disturbing little number.

Book 6: My Sweet Audrina

     I didn't know what to expect from My Sweet Audrina, and I had equal senses of anticipation and dread when I picked it up to read it. The plot summary on the dust jacket sounded fascinating, and the fact that the book seemed generally well-regarded was encouraging. On the other hand, I was going in blind, and suspected that the title character was going to end up banging her dad at some point, so there was some element of reticence on my part when I read that first page.
     However, having finished it, I have to say that it was...pretty rad, actually! The storyline was more dense and mysterious than the previous works, and it was fun putting together the puzzle pieces and figuring out what the hell was happening (why are all the clocks in the house set to different times? Why does Daddy keep forcing Audrina to sit in the spooky rocking chair? Why is Vera the most horrible human being in existence?). The conversations between people didn't read like they had been translated from English to Martian and back again, and though there were several horrifying and graphic events in the book-even though it mostly concerns children, it is the most adult of the Andrews book I've read-the tawdriness is kept in check and very little seems completely gratuitous. It's an engaging tragedy, and though "enjoy" is a difficult word to apply to such a bleak and relentless story, I'm glad I read it. I definitely understand the enthusiasm for it, and though I wouldn't recommend it to the squeamish, I'd love to see Lifetime take this one on. There's no dad-banging though, so if that's what you're here for, then I apologize for the inconvenience.
     So that that. I crawled through the muck of five V.C. Andrews novels and emerged alive if not unscathed. It is somewhat amusing that, because of this experiment, I'm on pace to read more novels this year than the last few years put together. Such is the power of entertaining trash, I suppose. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go shower for, like, three days straight.

Joey Marsilio also wrote one very non-incesty book, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior. You should check it out, or he'll end up going the full Jay Sherman.


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