Monday, January 20, 2014

Virginia Andrews's Shocking Success

by Alison Flood)

Anybody else? … Actor Heather Graham at a press conference for the 2014 TV film of Flowers in the Attic. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Did anyone else out there have a Virginia Andrews moment in their impressionable youth? This intriguing Buzzfeed interview with the late author's family and her ghost writer Andrew Neiderman, who has been writing Andrews novels since she died in 1986, brought my early teenage years rushing back.

The interview is fascinating, particularly the details about the queen of gothic romance herself: usually confined to a wheelchair by "crippling spine, hip, leg, and neck problems", Andrews would type standing up at a chest-high desk, according to her editor. "She would be at that desk sometimes 10 to 12 hours writing. She once showed me the soles of her shoes where they were worn through and the bones were protruding on the bottom of her feet."

She was also, according to the editor, the figure of the teenage girl who inhabits all her stories. "She was that teenager. If you think about her emotional life and her experiences and independence – [of] which there was none – her life kind of stopped when she was about 14 or 15."

Remarkably, her death appears to have gone largely unnoticed by her army of fans, with Neiderman quietly taking on writing the novels – a massive 68, he says, at latest count. But most of all, the piece spooked me by taking me back to my early teens and the frankly rather suspect taste in books I had at the time.

I first came to Andrews via the bonkers and creepy My Sweet Audrina. "How did she die? Who was Audrina and who did she have to become? What was the secret that everyone knew? Everyone except sweet Audrina … " I was too young to comprehend the "secret" which traumatised Audrina – it's horrible; read the link above if you want to know – but was happily terrified by this gothic story.

My Sweet Audrina was being passed around at school, along with Flowers in the Attic (even if you haven't read it, you'll have heard of this one: children are locked in an attic, brother and sister incest ensues). I'd never read anything like them, and was briefly hooked. I read the rest of the Dollanganger books, charting the escape of brother and sister Chris and Cathy and their continuing relationship. As the Buzzfeed journalist puts it, "that you end up rooting in subsequent books for Cathy and Chris as a couple was simply mind-blowing".

Then I forgot about her, until today. I am astonished how many Andrews books are out there, mostly written by Neiderman. I am not sure whether to be disturbed or amused by her author description on Wikipedia: "Andrews' novels combine Gothic horror and family saga, revolving around family secrets and forbidden love (frequently involving themes of consensual incest, most often between siblings)." Consensual incest: what a niche!

Most of all, though, I'm kind of dying to see the new Flowers in the Attic TV film starring Heather Graham as the evil mother - and to hear from those of you who also have a shameful Andrews reading habit in your past. It can't only have been me: Flowers in the Attic sold three million copies in its first year on sale, after all. So show yourselves, and perhaps we can pick over why, exactly, we kept on reading these bizarre, badly-written, ridiculous stories. But then, as even her editor admits: "She had a particular style. You wouldn't call it a good style, but it was a style."