A once grand castle, mansion or monastery (or some other religious establishment), now decaying with the burden of its secrets; a virginal maiden with undiscovered aristocratic parentage and the handsome yet tormented hero who tries to save her; a seemingly empathetic associate who is secretly helping the villan, who is obsessed with aforementioned maiden… essentially dark and twisted “fairy tales”, gothic fiction offers its audience a romanticised view into the disturbing and sinister temptations of human nature.
Preteen girls are especially drawn to this genre – look at how popular vampire romance novels and stories about witchcraft are among this age group, for example – and I was no exception. I was 11 years old when I came across Heaven by V.C. Andrews on my mother’s bookshelf, and the haunting tale of the smart and beautiful hillbilly girl who searches for her long-dead mother’s family remains one of my favourite books.
American gothic fiction writer Virginia Andrews, better known by her pen name V.C. Andrews, is the Tupac of the writing world – she has produced more work since her death than when she was alive. Upon her death from breast cancer in 1986, Andrews is said to have left more than sixty pieces of unfinished manuscripts in various stages of progress. Her estate hired ghost writer Andrew Neiderman to complete the novels, which have since sold over 100 million copies in 95 countries, making the V.C. Andrews name synonomous with gothic fiction.
Below is an examination of the skills and techniques that make Andrews one of my writing role models. Warning: may contain spoilers.
Family sagas and gothic fiction, also referred to as gothic horror, are usually two separate genres on the bookstore shelf, their only connection their alphabetical proximity; Andrews blended them into one terrifying category and made it her own.
Every family has skeletons in their closet; some skeletons will never be exhumed, while others will haunt their descendants with a murderous vengeance for generations. Andrews excels at re-creating the confusion of being old enough to grasp the pieces of a family mystery yet too young to fully assemble the puzzle, and the anguish of coming of age and realising that you’ve inherited all of the baggage associated with the family enigma.
Incest – sometimes consensual, sometimes committed unknowingly, sometimes neither – is an infamously recurring theme in Andrews’ novels; but what passes for “romance” in the halls of Foxworth Hall, Farthinggale Manor, Whitefern and beyond could also be considered tragically doomed forbidden love, à la Romeo and Juliet. The lovers, for example Heaven and Troy of the Casteel family series, often endure numerous psychological horrors (individual and mutual) together and are drawn to each on a profoundly intimate level so that, despite knowing the relationship is immoral, the reader still hopes they’ll find a way to make it work anyway.
Extreme wealth VS extreme poverty is another common theme in Andrews’ novels. The Dollanganger children of Flowers in the Attic are left destitute following the sudden death of their father, forcing their mother to return to her estranged parents, which ultimately sets the childrens’ three year captivity into motion.
The religious undertones of Andrews’ novels are also hard to ignore. For example, the cruel and foreboding grandmother in Flowers in the Attic refers to her grandchildren as the “devil’s spawn”(as all four children are the product of their parents’ incestuous uncle/niece relationship), and abuses them for acts she considers “sinful”; and in My Sweet Audrina, the religious contention that people are either inherently bad (or “evil”) or inherently good (or “pure”) can be seen in the rivalry between the sweet, tortured Audrina and her promiscuous and manipulative cousin/ half-sister Vera for their father’s affections.
When asked about the poverty and greed, incest, and other horrors in her novels during an interview with Washington Post, Andrews said: “I don’t think anything that appears wonderful and shiny on its surface doesn’t have a dark side to it. There is no beauty without ugliness, and no enjoyment without suffering; we have to have the shade in order to see the light, and that is all I do in a story, put my characters in the shade – and try before the ending, to have them in the sunlight.”
A mother who leaves her children to starve in an attic for three years, a father who sells his five children for five hundred dollars each, an entire family that represses their daughter’s gang rape from her memory through gaslighting… ultimately, the horror in Andrews’ novels is so terrifying because it’s possible.
2. POINT OF VIEW
First person point of view is one of the most effective ways for writers to connect with their audience. The use of pronouns such as I, my, we, us, make the emotions felt by the narrator more personal and the action occurring feel more immediate.
By writing from the perspective of the character experiencing the trauma, Andrews uses the emotive provocation of first person POV to its full advantage.
3. SERIES STRUCTURE
Andrews’s works are usually grouped into series of five books following a specific formula:
- Book One, Book Two and Book Three in a series are about a central female character;
- Book Four is about that character’s child or another close family member descendant from that character;
- Book Five (and the finale of the series) is a prequel explaining how the events of the first book came about, and is centered around a relative from whom the first central female character is descended, usually her mother or grandmother.
This series structure is a brilliant approach to the family saga genre, and especially ones that inclues such dark themes. The first central female character develops organically over the course of the first three novels in the series, so the reader naturally becomes emotionally attached to her. The revelations in the prequel (the fifth book in the series) feel just as personal to the reader as they to do to the central character.
But perhaps more significantly, this stucturing of the series allows for character back stories to be explored, themes to be expanded upon, and foreshadowing to be fulfilled.
Popular among females as young as 11 years old and as mature as sixty five, Andrews’ readership is also noteworthy, as very few genre-specific authors are able to appeal to such a broad age demographic.
Younger readers, who are caught beween adolescence and adulthood, are able to identify with the protagonist and her difficulties with identity, sexuality, peer acceptance and familial relationships; older readers are able to re-experience the intense emotions of this age from the safety of their maturity, and both age groups are simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the horror that the characters inflict upon each other, which is far more frightening that any supernatural-based horror.
It has been three decades since Andrews passed away, and most of her original work may no longer be distinguishable from ghost writer Neiderman’s writing; but what Andrews left behind will continue to shock readers for generations to come.
Flowers in the Attic, 1979, Simon & Schuster, US
Heaven, 1985, Simon & Schuster, US
Dark Angel, 1986, Simon & Schuster, US
Fallen Heats, 1988, Simon & Schuster, US
Gates of Paradise, 1989, Simon & Schuster, US
Web of Dreams, 1990, Simon & Schuster, US
My Sweet Audrina, 1982, Simon & Schuster, US
Forbidden Sister, 2013, Simon & Schuster, US
Roxy’s Story, 2013, Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, US