A long time ago, way back when TV Guide still published articles worth reading, I read an essay written by Stephen King in which he discussed criticism of his stories especially as far as children were concerned and the fact that there are very scary elements in even the most beloved of childrens stories.
Consider the Brothers Grimms stories. Snow White has an evil Queen/stepmother who has homicidal jealousy over the main characters unrivaled beauty, and it has quite a few grisly details that still give little children nightmares
the huntsman slaying a pig and removing its heart to take back to the stepmother as proof of Snow Whites death
the evil Queens transformation from cold beautiful woman to old and ugly crone
and the whole business with the poisoned apple.
Ditto for Hansel and Gretel. Although it has its fantasy angle of the edible house and the siblings eventual triumph over the kid-eating witch, it has its really disturbing aspects, as well. A selfish stepmother who hates her husbands kids
a stupid father who willingly goes along with the dump the kids in the woods scheme
the cannibalistic witch
.Not all sweet and innocent bits of childrens literature, to be sure.
I hadnt really thought about the horror aspects of kids books in a long time, even though for eight years I ghostwrote quite a few kid-lit stories that, in my view, were not all that great because the author studiously avoided anything dark or scary in her too-sweet, too-cute stories.
Although Victoria Andrews Flowers in the Attic is most definitely not a childrens book, its impossible to read this first entry in what is known as The Dollanganger Saga, in which Cathy Dollanganger narrates a chilling story of loss, family secrets, and incest in 1950s America, without noticing that some of the dark themes of fairy tales can be explored in more adult-oriented material.
Written in the first person voice, Flowers in the Attic takes one of the central themes of dark childrens stories the loss of a parent and takes the reader into a bizarre and claustrophobic world in which old resentments and disturbing family histories lead to various bizarre and tragic incidents. The narrator, a now grown-up Catherine, recounts the events that followed the death of her beloved father in a car accident. Her mother Corinne Foxworth Dollanganger, distraught by this unexpected tragedy, takes Cathy, her brother Cristopher, and twins Cory and Carrie, back to her parents house.
It isnt exactly the best of moves, though, for Corinnes parents, one of whom is at deaths door, had disowned her when she got married. And while both of the elder Foxworths are not very welcoming or loving to Corinne or her four children, its the grandmother who fits perfectly into the evil relative archetype of stories a la Snow White. For instead of giving her own flesh and blood warmth, compassion, and what Shakespeare called the milk of human kindness, the grandmother converts the attic of her huge house into a prison in which the Dollanganger children will languish in for three long years.
Andrews premise of a grandmother evil enough to lock four kids two of them teenagers in an attic (no matter if its large enough to fit two beds in) for a long time is chilling enough; it gets really dark when the novel explores just what happens when Christopher and Cathy have to deal with their raging hormones in their confined little world. Cathy describes her entire family unit as being extremely striking, and even though at one point Christopher tells her that brothers never think of their sisters as they would about other girls, they drift into an intimate relationship that neither expected but neither can resist.
Incest, of course, is one of the really dark aspects of Flowers in the Attic, and perhaps its perversely one of the reasons its been so widely read. The subject matter is one of societys stronger taboos, yet considering the amount of Incest/Taboo stories at such sites as Literotica it draws a lot of readers in. The difference here, of course, is that Andrews, who died in 1986 of breast cancer, doesnt write sex scenes that veer toward the pornographic extremes seen in Literotica, and she mixes in elements from family sagas and Horatio Alger from poverty to wealth stories as well.
The novel is also about greed and how it can lead even a mother to go along with the imprisonment of her own children. Corinnes behavior in Flowers in the Attic veers sharply from that of a loving mother/grieving widow to money-grubbing collaborator; she promises Christopher, Cathy, Cory and Carrie that their stay in Foxworth Manor is only temporary, then, in exchange for a huge fortune dangled in front of her greedy eyes, abandons all attempts to extricate them from the grip of the grandmother, even denying their very existence.
Although Gothic horror isnt one of my favorite genres, I have to admit that when one of my best friends suggested I read Flowers in the Attic, I immediately agreed to do so. And, despite my aversion for some of the topics within the novel, I found myself both repulsed and intrigued by the combination of deceit, murder, and forbidden love, partly because in some ways taboo subjects are compelling to read about, but mostly because Andrews had a gift for prose that made the presentation of such a dark and disturbing tale palatable. Some of the material is a bit over-the-top at times, true, but her choice to tell the story from Cathys point of view and her easy-to-digest writing style more than compensate for the literary excesses in Flowers in the Attic.
Of course, this novel isnt for everyone. Readers younger than, say, 15 shouldnt even know about this book, although some of its fans probably have read Flowers in the Attic in their early teens anyway. Prudes and people who cant separate reality from willing suspension of disbelief should also stay away from this and the other novels in the series, especially if depictions of murder (one character is poisoned) and consensual sex between siblings are off-putting.