The strangest V.C Andrews fact is that her books have continued to churn out, nearly 30 years after her death. (Thanks, ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman.) But for this list, we’re reaching back to Andrews’ own work — because those nuggets of Gothic fantasy are, and always will be, the weirdest.
The only thing Andrews’ books have in common with today’s most popular YA novels is the theme of survival, by any means necessary. But Flowers in the Attic doesn’t take place in a dystopian future; its drama unfolds in the attic of a mansion filled with anger, lies, incest, child abuse, and murder (did anyone who read that book ever look at powdered-sugar donuts the same?)
Oldest sister Cathy is perfecting her ballet technique and getting it on with her brother, Chris. But then her long, blonde hair incites the ire of her cruel grandmother, who drugs her and slathers her hair in hot tar. She could have just chopped off our fair heroine’s locks with scissors (which eventually has to happen anyway), but that wouldn’t have been dramatic enough, would it?
Back to cheery Foxworth Hall for this one. When Grandma cuts off the attic food supply, Chris and Cathy are forced to get gruesomely creative to feed their malnourished younger twin siblings. The only options are to eat the mice they’re sharing quarters with ... or eat each other. Even Andrews isn’t dark enough to push her characters into cannibalism, but the Dollanganger kids come mighty close when Chris opens a vein and lets the little ones drink his blood.
After the events of Flowers sequel Petals on the Wind, which follows the Dollanganger siblings following their attic escape (to recap: the twin that survived the attic, Carrie, kills herself; Cathy becomes a ballerina and has multiple marriages and affairs but all the men die; Chris becomes a doctor and pines, Lannister-like, for his sister), If There Be Thorns is almost low-key. Almost.
Thorns focuses on Cathy’s two sons, particularly the more troubled younger one, Bart. Bart befriends the MYSTERIOUS OLD WOMAN NEXT DOOR, and her evil butler, who reveals the woman’s identity (duh, it’s Chris and Cathy’s mother) and gives the boy a journal that belonged to Malcolm Foxworth, his woman-hatin’ great-grandfather.
We never really got to know Malcolm while he was alive — other than that he’s the reason the kids have to be stashed in the attic, because if he finds out about ‘em, Mama Dollanganger will lose her inheritance — but he’s plenty sinister from beyond the grave. The power of his words is so great that nine-year-old Bart experiences a violent, Damien-in-The-Omen personality shift, going so far as to attempt to drown his adopted sister in her kiddie pool.
Hey, it was a glamorous thing to do in the 1980s! His career change comes after he builds a complete replica of mansion/prison Foxworth Hall — one of many buildings that burns down, conveniently taking out a major character or two as the series progresses. Other recurring themes in Andrews books, besides incest and religious fervor: 1) accidents that leave the victim paralyzed; 2) breast cancer; 3) extreme wealth vs. extreme poverty; 4) ballet; 5) twins. The first two directly relate to Andrews’ own experiences, since she herself was confined to a wheelchair due to rheumatoid arthritis, and battled breast cancer until her death in late 1986.
Luke Casteel might’ve been West Virginia “hill scum,” but dammit, he was resourceful! Also, fertile, which meant his scheme to sell off his five children — including the daughter, Heaven, who reminded him of his dearly departed first wife — for $500 a pop yielded him plenty of moonshine money.
A lot of crazy stuff happens in the Heaven sequel, which echoes the events of the Flowers series in so many ways. There’s a rich family with a fancily-named estate and a twisted past, nobody’s parentage is what it seems to be, forbidden affairs and attractions abound, etc. etc. But absolutely nothing happens in any Andrews book, ever, to rival the moment when Heaven’s beloved half-brother is ripped to pieces while rushing to help Luke from a rampaging animal while both are working at the circus. It’s kinda Heaven’s fault, for distracting her father while pulling a move from Cathy Dollanganger’s playbook: dressing up exactly like her dead mother. But still. Death by tiger mauling, in a book set largely in the West Virginia mountains.
Andrews’ epic, soap opera-tastic standalone novel packs every flavor of darkness imaginable into its pages. It’s a page-turning smorgasbord of horrifying tragedy, jaw-dropping cruelty, and insane mind-fuckery. In other words, it might be Andrews’ greatest achievement as an author, other than popularizing the book-cover style that consisted of a “keyhole” front, with a cutout that opened to reveal a lurid painting of faces beneath.
It focuses on a young girl named Audrina whose older sister, also named Audrina, is dead, but is otherwise superior to Audrina #2 in every way. Desperate to bring “the first and best Audrina” back to life, Audrina’s father encourages her to hang out in the dead girl’s room, rock in her chair, and, like, absorb her essence:
I squeezed my eyes shut and heard the wind chimes clamoring louder, much louder now... I told myself, as I’d told myself before, that there was nothing to be afraid of. The dead couldn’t harm anyone. But if they couldn’t—why was I so terrified?
I heard Papa’s soft voice outside the locked door. “You do have her gifts, Audrina, you do...”
“Papa,” I wailed for one last time, “please don’t make me...”
“Oh,” he said heavily, sighing, “why do I have to force you? Why can’t you just believe? Lean back in the rocker, put your head against the high back, hold the chair arms and begin to rock. Sing if it helps to wash your mind clean of fear, of worries, of desires and emotions. Sing and sing until you become an empty pitcher...”
Oh, yes, I’d heard this before. I knew what he was doing. He was trying to turn me into the First Audrina...
In the book’s final moments — after, let’s see, births, deaths, broken bones, seductions and tender love affairs, poisonous sibling rivalry, people being pushed down the stairs, nightmares, post-traumatic rape flashbacks, miscarriages, suicides, at least one coma, and so much more — we learn that there was only one Audrina all along. ONLY ONE AUDRINA! Even if we suspected all along (which, OK, we all did), it’s a bombshell turn of events that neither the Casteels nor the Dollangangers, for all their own insanities, could hope to live up to. Slow clap for that one, V.C.