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.
I think I read this ages ago, but I also saw the movie so now I can't remember for sure!
I find it intriguing to see if/how my reaction changed to books and movies I experienced in my 20s versus mumble-mumble years later.
I'd forgotten this book, but now that you've posted about it, I remember how much I enjoyed being scared by it. Thanks.
I read this years ago too, and refused to watch the movies. It bothered me deeply and I'm sure it's why I hate and I mean loath any horror story with children in it.
Great review, as always!
I saw the movie a while back. Not sure what mother could do that. Yep, 50 shades of smut is another case of sell a ton and who cares about the writing haha
I saw the movie, didn't read the book. It strikes me that many of these horror movies/books are actually based on true stories. That freaks me out.
Now,that's a blast from the past! I think I was in Jr. High when I read it. The emotional impact is indelible and I couldn't bring myself to watch the movie. Like you, I found I needed to talk about it as I read. Even now, it's reassuring to know that others were as affected as I was. That being said, what a stunning testament to the talent of V.C. Andrews!
Just reading your ranking list makes me anxious to return ;-)
I read it when I was a teen but remember thinking it was very strange. I have not tried it as an adult. I don't think I read the other books in the series though. Most of my friends loved those books--I was more the Shirley Jackson type.
Funny that you mention all this familiarity with the story, because I've never heard of this one - book or movie. I love psychological horror... but if it's the Twilight of horror, then... pass. :)
I read this when I was in my early twenties. It resonated with me a little better than it did you, but I was very young, and was an abused child in many of the same ways. I read them all - the series that follows the main character's life after they leave, and can honestly say the writing does not get any better. You are right that the voice and circumstances carry this book - and the others. I eventually outgrew - emotionally - the liking for the books; but they are largely romances, and I think a lot of women loved the story lines.
The movie did not convey the trauma of the situation. I think the movie put too much feel-good vibe into it, and ruined the devastating story concept.
I haven't read this and won't. Though I love horror, I'm particular about good fighting evil and winning in the end. Most of the authors on the list I didn't know. McCammon's Swan Song is better than the Wolf's Hour and Wilson's The Keep is better than The Tomb (if I remember correctly). I haven't read a good horror novel in a long time. I need to fix that. I'm glad you're reading a bunch!
I read it when I was 14 (yes, way too young for this tale) and then read the others in the series. It's like a train wreck - you feel compelled to watch these character's lives implode.
The movie was just horrible.
I read it as a teenager. It made me thankful that my family was not like this, lol. I've read the series she wrote up until someone else took over. Though the writer who did so was a better writer, somehow the books didn't have the same haunting flavor to them.
I haven't read the books, but saw the movie. I think the incest happened because the kids had to rely on each other for love and the physical kind is how they showed it. They knew no one would ever love them as they could each other and that nobody would ever understand what they went through. I thought it was so sad.
Thank you for reading all these books to bring us good horror. I appreciate your time and sacrifice, Shannon.
I do, as well. There are several books I've reread, and several I still want to.
When did you read it?
Good point. I think the one that really got me that involved a kid was Pet Semetary. Little Gage.
The kicker being that they DO sell. And the mother was awful. I think her indifference was more horrible than the grandmother's outright hostility. At least the grandmother was honest.
There's a lot of truth in fiction. I hate to think this was based on something real.
It's good to know I wasn't the only person who needed to talk through it like that. It was certainly disturbing.
I was right there with you, though I was reading Stephen King instead.
Really? I guess I always assumed everyone had. I knew it like Buffy or Dr. Who, where I just kept hearing about it until it felt pointless to watch.
A big part of me wants to know if there was ever any real vindication for these kids?
Good to hear on Swan Song and The Keep. Both of those are on the list to read, as well. I would definitely say you do not want to read this if you need that sort of ending. I was so deflated.
Part of me wants to read on, just to see if there's a positive ending in the future. One bad ending still left me with optimism that someone would pay.
I imagine the newer writer didn't have the deep, dark something that got this storyline started in the first place.
I agree. I wasn't as horrified at the incest as others were. They were left with only each other for that affection, and this developed pretty naturally from it.
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