I'm reading through three lists of best horror with two friends (DeAnna Knippling and M.B. Partlow), posting reviews as we go. (For more information, including a list of the books, see this post.) To see the books I've reviewed so far, you can view the list at the end of this post where I rank them.
This week I'm reviewing Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews.
This is one of those books that's so well known that I felt like I'd already read it. Only, I hadn't. Hearing about it is one thing. Reading it is a different beast. I didn't expect to like it. From seeing parts of the movie, I thought I had the feel of it, but I didn't fully.
I finished this book a couple weeks ago. A lot of these books have faded away after I read them, but this one has stuck with me. While it's not the best book ever, what it makes you feel can't be erased. I tried to put my finger on how I could like it, while also acknowledging the lack of initial writing skill. What it comes down to is that V.C. Andrews was a gifted storyteller, but not yet the best writer. I'm sure her writing developed as she went, but as this is the only book of hers I've read, I can't say.
The story arc is what provides the greatest impact. We go from a happy, perfect little family, with supportive parents and pretty well-behaved kids, to a horror-fest of neglect and evil.
The gist of the story is that the father dies, and the mother takes them to her childhood home, where she allows her own mother to lock them in the attic under the pretense that they will be out quickly, once she has convinced her father to love her again, and to forgive her for her sins. Sins I won't go into here, because they're revealed to the reader at about the same pace as they're revealed to the narrator of the story, the oldest girl of the family.
As an adult going into this, I knew it couldn't be that easy. But the kids don't know that. Even as an adult, I had no idea just how long these kids would be locked in the attic. I knew it had to be a whole book's worth of time, but for all I knew, the pacing would be different.
At first, I couldn't understand how the mother was the bad guy. Obviously it was HER mother that was the issue. While that's partially true, the real gut punch is a mother's indifference, especially in direct contrast to how she treated her children in the beginning.
This story wasn't scary; it was heartbreaking. The horror lies in the fact that children are neglected by their mothers every day in real life. Children are locked in rooms, in attics, in basements, sometimes even in cages. There's a famous case cited in Psychology texts about a child kept in a single room, whose mental development was deeply impacted by this. This horror is built slowly and naturally in this story, with the reader holding out hope that something will change, that someone will do something. There were parts I read with a hand clinched. I kept finding myself having to talk to my husband about it, because I knew what was coming, but it was taking me too long to get there. Would I have felt the same way if I weren't a mom? If I'd read this in high school like everyone else? I have no idea. What I do know is that the theme of incest was not the worst part for me. That's what everyone shrieks about (or whispers about), but I was far more affected by the evil indifference and selfishness of the two mothers depicted in this book.
I was a bit annoyed in the beginning, because the youthful narrator tried to give background and set the story through quite a bit of info dumping that didn't seem to fit the narrative or dialogue in places. This continued to a lesser extent through the rest of the book. I decided to wave that aside and continue. Once you get to the meat of the story, the pace accelerates. And the issue with the story is that the author wants us to figure out the awful truths and secrets this family hiding, which means she has to find a way to convey that through a naive young girl's experiences while locked in the attic.
There were places where I just wanted to fast forward. This was a combination of unnecessary material being kept in the book, possibly for length, and the need to see these kids get out of this situation and/or get some sort of revenge or vindication.
The character voice is pretty well done. It's told by the eldest daughter. The confusion of puberty, added to being stuffed into an attic and left behind by someone you love, is thoroughly developed in the pages of this book.
Again, I didn't expect to like it. I thought it would be fickle and tacky. But the heart behind it, the horror anyone who has loved and been deceived can imagine, was worth the read, even if the writing style wasn't. I've seen it compared to soap operas and melodramas, which is true enough, but writers need to know storytelling as much as writing dynamics, and this is one way to see that.
I would compare it to Twilight, in that the author had a compelling story to tell, but didn't necessarily have the genuine writing ability to convey it just right. Still, that didn't stop either author from selling tons of books, which goes to show that the story itself goes a long way, even in the absence of fully developed writing talent. I did have to shut down the editor in me to get through, but I was WILLING to do that in order to get to the end.
Speaking of the end, I wasn't terribly fond of it. But I can't say more without giving things away. Just that I was disappointed.
I'm having a hard time figuring out the ranking, but I'll rank it somewhere between where I think its impact on me places it versus where the writing quality would place it.
My new rankings:
1. The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
2. The Bottoms (Joe R. Lansdale)
3. Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
4. A Choir of Ill Children (Tom Piccirilli)
5. The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2010 (Paula Guran)
6. The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection (Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling)
7. Those Who Hunt the Night (Barbara Hambly)
8. Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror (Ellen Datlow)
9. The Stranger (Albert Camus)
10. Dead in the Water (Nancy Holder)
11. The Damnation Game (Clive Barker)
12. The Wolf's Hour (Robert McCammon)
13. Berserk (Tim Lebbon)
14. Prime Evil (Douglas E. Winter)
15. Best New Horror, Volume 1 (edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell)
16. Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews)
17. The Tomb (F. Paul Wilson)
18. Shadowland (Peter Straub)
19. Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)
20. The Imago Sequence (Laird Barron)
21. My Soul to Keep (Tananarive Due)
22. Penpal (Dathan Auerbach)
23. World War Z (Max Brooks)
24. From the Dust Returned (Ray Bradbury)
25. The Red Tree (Caitlin R. Kiernan)
26. In Silent Graves (Gary A. Braunbeck)
27. The Cipher (Kathe Koja)
28. Drawing Blood (Poppy Z. Brite)
29. The Doll Who Ate His Mother (Ramsey Campbell)
30. Hotel Transylvania (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro)
The next book I'll be reviewing is Naked Lunch, by William S. Boroughs.
Have you read Flowers in the Attic? What did you think? Did you read it as a teen or an adult? Do you think that colored your view of it?
May you find your Muse.