Nov 22 2011 3:40pm

Twilight vs. Flowers in the Attic: Sick Sex Smackdown, Eighties Style

Twilight vs. Flowers in the Attic: Sick Sex Smackdown, Eighties Style

There’s a joke twittering around the Internet that pokes fun at Twilight and sequels, by characterizing them as a young girl’s tough choice between necrophilia and bestiality.

Zing! Though I never got around to reading Stephenie Meyer and her multi-volume vampire cycle, I absorbed enough, mostly from this Lucy Knisley cartoon, to get the joke. I’ve also picked up a few recurring complaints about the series over the years. I’ve heard people of the middle-aged variety saying the writing isn’t very good, the characters are about as deep as saucers, that the novels aren’t necessarily shining beacons of feminist literature. Also, the term “abstinence porn” came up.

(I rather like the sound of abstinence porn — it’s got rhythm. I feel as though someone should write a nursery rhyme or catchy jingle making heavy use of this phrase. Please let me know if you put one on Youtube.)

The criticism of Twilight may or may not be valid, but the sound of it is ever so familiar, because to my ear the complaining of we older, wiser, and more seasoned readers chimes along in perfect harmony with the things all the grownups were sayin’, twenty-some years ago, when I and my friends were nose-deep in V.C. Andrews’s Dollanganger Saga. This was, you may recall, a five-book series that began with Flowers in the Attic in 1979. The first book covers the childhood of two ill-fated lovers, Cathy and Christopher Dollanganger. Novel after novel followed this duo, through abuse, maimings, miscarriages, fatal fires, and other miseries, until both of them and V.C. Andrews had passed away. Even then the story lurched on, circling back to its beginnings with an 1987 ghost-written prequel, Garden of Shadows.

Flowers in the Attic  and its sequels have only the faintest whiff of a paranormal element: in times of crisis, Cathy has prophetic dreams. It was neither ghosts nor creeping Lovecraftian entities that were the source of the horror generated in these books, but rather a more Poe-like Gothic sensibility. The Dollanganger saga is about the persecution of innocent children by immensely cruel and powerful adults. It’s about love betrayed, and the way that betrayal warps people who might otherwise be good and content. It’s about the sins of one generation being compounded, viciously, in the next. These are not books about monsters that come from laboratory experiments, outer space or disturbed baby graves. They’re about the evil we find close to home, the interior rot that some of us really do spread, plague-like, to others.

(Communicable evil. Hmmm. That edges us back towards the sparkly vampires and lycanthropy, doesn’t it?)

The Dollanganger story begins with an idyllic nuclear family, headed by mom Corrine and dad Christopher, who love their four kids to pieces. Unfortunately, there’s something they love even more, and it’s their credit cards. When Dad is killed in a car wreck, the debts make it utterly impossible for Corrine — whose chief job skill is being decorative — to support her family. She throws herself on the mercy of her parents, a pair of religious fanatics with millions in the bank. 

Those parents. They tossed her out years ago. Disinherited her, too. Because she eloped! With her father’s half-brother, no less! So unreasonable.

Anyway, the grandparents do accept Corrine back into the fold, sort of. She brings the children to Foxworth Hall, slips them into an upstairs bedroom, and introduces them to her thoroughly terrifying mother. The women then tell the kids that Grandpa has to be softened up a little before anyone breaks it to him that his once-beloved daughter and not-so-darling brother had a brood. 

Once they’re up there, locked away in a quiet wing of the house, they stay there for an extremely long time. 

How does a series whose main characters are confined to one room and a big attic end up being so compelling that it’s not only still in print but it had a hold queue in my local library? Is it the writing? No. It’s very overblown, with lots of romantic flourishing and an “Oh!” on every other page. The characterization? Nothing special there either, although the prickly distrust between the adolescent Cathy and her mother does ring very true at times. Why did teen girls, me included, hoover these up like there was no tomorrow? Why are they all over Twilight now?

Well, of course, there’s all that sexual tension. The appeal of erotica, I assume, doesn’t need explaining.

Some part of our “Why this, of all things?” refrain is probably unanswerable unless you are, in fact, a young adult. (And if you are, then you know, okay, and you don’t need the answer.) But heck, I’ll take a stab at it: when you get past the age where you’re capable of believing there’s something carnivorous and hairy under the bed, you don’t then lose your capacity for fear. The monsters go, and in their place, lucky you, you get to start imagining real calamities: losing your parents in a car wreck, becoming destitute, having someone you love turn on you, or doing something so shocking that the community ostracizes you. 

What’s it like to experience violence, imprisonment, sexual assault? These are questions that become vitally important to girls as they become more independent.

Assuming you’re lucky enough to have had a reasonably non-harrowing childhood, you go through a stretch of development after the belief in magical creatures wears off and before you’ve had a chance to hone your threat-assessment skills in the real world.  Fiction bridges the gap by letting readers experience the unthinkable. Gothic fiction, with beatdowns from Grandma and weird, porny not-quite-rape scenes and poisoned pastries, lets us experience the unimaginable in the literary equivalent of 3D and surround sound, with the emotional intensity cranked to MAX.

What does Flowers in the Attic  have? There’s the spooky house, for one thing. There’s the money-can’t-buy-you-love moral lesson, embedded in the tantalizing prospect that the four little shut-ins will one day be filthy rich, if they can just keep their grandfather from finding out about them. There’s the grandmother, who’s every bit as scary as Dracula. There are whippings, starvation, attempts to disfigure the kids, and daily reminders that the four of them are inbred Devil’s spawn. There’s mouse-eating and child-death, revenge, forgiveness, and...um...brother-sister incest. 

Cathy and Christopher begin as innocents, but as soon as they meet Grandma, they’re treated to her certainty that they are lustmonsters, primed and ready to follow in their mother’s uncle-marrying footsteps. This seems pretty paranoid when Cathy is only twelve, when they’re initially locked up. But as she and Chris are forced to pass through adolescence in close proximity, with nobody else to turn to, as they are made to rely on each other as a couple does, as they take on a parental role in raising their younger siblings, sexual feelings do, inevitably, arise.

The abstinence porn factor in Flowers in the Attic doesn’t get drawn out for nearly as long as it does in the Twilight books. There’s a bit of that, to be sure, but Chris doesn’t have the restraint of an Edward Cullen.

A few weeks ago, you might recall, I laid out some pretty hefty complaints about the sex scene in Stephen King’s It. And what I learned from Tor.com visitor comments was that the scene was a deal-breaker for many, many readers besides myself. So here’s a bit of a poser: I argued that King’s otherwise lovely and nuanced horror novel failed at the point where the Losers’ Club in It has a big ol’ consensual gang bang with Beverly.

Yet in Flowers in the Attic, which is inferior to It in innumerable ways, the sick sex scene works. 

Why? For one thing, Cathy and Chris aren’t OMG, ten years old! For another, they damn well know they shouldn’t. They’re set up to fail, but they fight the urge before and they regret it bitterly afterward. They don’t have a particularly good time losing their virginity... it’s not some multiple orgasm extravaganza. There’s no romantic love payoff, either. Finally, the experience leaves Cathy all messed up when it comes to things like good, evil, love, lust, and the religious faith that is part of what’s sustaining her through their long imprisonment.

Andrews, quite simply, had a better grip on women and sex. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this series emotionally honest, and I’m not saying the Chris/Cathy scene mirrors everyone’s first time — that would be awful, and cynical, and untrue. But the messiness of Cathy’s attitude to sex and the way it ties into her years of abuse does have an odd veracity to it. Is it because Andrews, being a woman, had a better grip than King on what female readers would believe? And be scared of? Probably, yes. 

These books aren’t great, and they don’t hold up to critical scrutiny. But they do entertain. They do so by inflating and sensationalizing the very real and very primal fears of young readers, and specifically of women stepping out to claim their space in a world that they know, perfectly well, isn’t entirely safe or welcoming.

Is it the same with Stephenie Meyer? You’ve read her — you tell me.

A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on Tor.com — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.

Chris Palmer
1. cmpalmer
I remember the Flowers in the Attic phase, but I never read them. I actually tried to read Twilight, but only got a few chapters in (but I'm adult male, so I can be forgiven for that).

BTW, I suggest "Eminence Front" by The Who as a basis for an "Abstinence Porn" song (same cadence). Even the "It's a put on" line works.
Chuk Goodin
2. Chuk
I remember those books being hugely popular when I was younger, but I stopped after the first one. This article about them is probably better than that whole book. (I was going to say the whole series, but I haven't read them.)
That said, I haven't read Twilight either, although I was in the room when my kids watched the first movie. So I guess my point here is that I am totally unqualified to discuss either of these series. :-)
3. dwndrgn
I'm not sure they are the same in this. I'm not the best judge of either one - I read Flowers In the Attic once but never continued and I read Twilight the series once.

But the 'fandom' of each is different - as you say, the Andrews fandom was a fascination with horrible things, kind of like the fascination for watching the scene of a car wreck. I think the fascination in the Twilight world is for the chaste romance (a la Romeo & Juliet) and the conflicts between two very different love interests.
Chris Palmer
4. cmpalmer
Reading the series description for the Dallanganger Saga makes it sound like an adult (or YA), non-humorous version of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
5. mochabean
I am female, was in 7th grade when Flowers in the Attic came out, read the whole tawdry series, read all the Stephen King I could get my hands on at the same time-- I feel like this post is targeted right at me. And I love that what I thought would be a fun look back at a campy trash-fest was also a really thoughtful piece. I meant to comment on IT as well -- I loved the book, and agree the "coming-of-age gang bang" is more than a little problematic, but much more so to my adult self than to the young teeenager I was when I first read it. Same with Flowers in the Attic. This article really gets at why that is the case. Thanks so much.
Alyx Dellamonica
6. AMDellamonica
I did have Lemony Snicket in mind, a bit, when I wrote that description, empalmer. (But I wasn't exaggerating either!) And Chuk, thank you--I'm glad you enjoyed this.

Mochabean, it sounds like we read a lot of the same things 20 years ago.
7. LC
I've never thought of Flowers in the Attic and Twilight as being remotely close to one another. My brain didn't even make the connection. But, having read both series twice (though Flowers was read at least 10 or 15 years ago), I can see where you're going, at least with the "why do they read it" factor. Sex is interesting to teenage girls. They can't openly express this the way boys do. So, I'd agree that this exploration of "darker" sex topics is exactly what does it. I like the term "abstinence porn," too. Because really, that's what it is. It's all the unresolved sexual tension without the sex...at least until they have sex. Hmm...this has given me a lot to think about. I may have to re-read Flowers soon with this new outlook. Thanks for something to think about.
Claire de Trafford
8. Booksnhorses
I can't say that I ever went through this phase as a teenage girl. I remember the books coming out and had some vague idea that it was about incest (ick) and being locked up (double ick). The synopsis above makes me glad I didn't read them, they seem a vague step above reading about Fred and Rosemary West. Having said that, I didn't understand teenage girls when I was one and I don't think I've gotten better with age!
Alyx Dellamonica
9. AMDellamonica
There's no one thing that every single person's into, Claire (obvious statement, I know). And there are many other flavors of teen morbid. I'd put S.E. Hinton's books in a related but totally different category, for example.
Sky Thibedeau
10. SkylarkThibedeau
I wonder if the same could be said of Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in 'Pride and Predjudice'? Of course it was written in a time and culture when everything was 'abstinence porn'. Probably the same cultural mores the Grandmother in the 'Flowers' books was trying to conserve.
Alyx Dellamonica
11. AMDellamonica
Hmmm. I don't know that it's quite the same thing. I'd argue that the point in the case of P&P is the emotional growth of the characters, whereas in the Dollanganger Saga it's more melodramatic, and the erotic charge of the sexual content is much more on the page--not so much in readers' minds.
Nicole Lowery
13. hestia
I made this exact comparison to my husband a while back when teachers and parents started grumbling about the all the girls reading Twilight. I mean, Flowers in the Attic is so much more twisted, and we turned out all right, didn't we?

I read a great essay online years ago that compared Flowers in the Attic with Judy Blume's Forever. It contrasted Flower's dark and messy sexuality with Forever's positive but somewhat clinical take on first love and first sexual experience.

It was a very perceptive look at why Flowers in the Attic was so much more popular with girls than Forever was. (And no, it wasn't because teen girls have rotten taste in books!)

I have a feeling the Twilight books fill something of that same need today.
Alyx Dellamonica
14. AMDellamonica
I remember Forever primarily as a rape book... or am I mixing it up with something else?
15. punko
hello there. what a great article. my first andrews novel was 'heaven' - i was nine or ten. i will never forget lying on my parents' bed, sobbing while reading of the terrible events she had to endure. heaven's lonliness, her confusion, and her heart. i read twilight in my thirties because i like chess and i noticed the chess marketing in the book shop at the time 'breaking dawn' was being released. i hadn't heard a bit about it before then, but i thought it was going to be a novel that combined chess and vampires - and that would have been fucking cool. alas, it was vampires and love and hooked me in, just as surely as andrews, so i understand the parallels you are drawing. i hate twilight bashing, i think it's so lazy. one thing that both meyers and andrews create is atmosphere and tensions and feeling - it's a skill. i recenlty saw a quote from king comparing twilight and harry potter which included the typical kinds of belittling that accompanies traditional ideas about women and sex (and shhhhh, romance. oh, to be such a lowly creature! 'tis tres embarrassing, we all know, and we are all dreadfully ashamed as we should be, mr king). i don't think it would be great to only read andrews or meyers, but is it ever seen as positive to limit oneself? thanks for the comparrison.
Alyx Dellamonica
16. AMDellamonica
Oh, gosh--I'd forgotten Heaven! After the Dollangangers the one I remember best is My Sweet Audrina.
17. SherriePetersen
We must be close in age because I devoured those V.C. Andrews books in 7th grade and eagerly awaited each new saga. I've actually been looking for them in used book stores because I want to reread them as an adult to figure out why they captivated me so much. Undoubtedly part of the appeal was that my mother didn't want me reading them :)

Your insight in this post was fabulous. And like you, I have not read the Twilight books.
Alyx Dellamonica
18. AMDellamonica
I'm 42, Sherrie--the answer to everything, at least for a few more months.
19. Puck
Well, I've read Twilight but not Flowers in the Attic.

While I dsiliked Twilight for the general themes and messages it sends, my main issue was how it's main character Bella was shown. Everyone loved her, apart from the villains but even they wanted to drink her blood. She is meant to smart and kind but comes across as selfish, dumb and more than a bit useless.

I can agree with your post to a point, because the bashing for Twilight for being what it is does get annoying. However a fair amount of the hate is aimed at the main character being, well to use the overused terms, a Mary Sue.

I can stand vampires that glitter, I can stand stand plot-holes and I can stand many things. But do not try to tell me that someone so whiny, stupid and selfish is loved by all. Also don't say a character has a quality but then fail to show it, or simply make everyone else dumber than a rock.
21. Kimi
I also have a bit of a comment. While I'm not entirly sure I think your point is that by exploring dark sexuality readers feel horror and then want avoid the same situations in Flowers in the Attic. But with Twilight girls want to be the main character, they want to live her life. I think that's really a different way of reading and can be less healthy then the strong avoidence engendered by Flowers.
Alyx Dellamonica
22. AMDellamonica
I think they want to explore, imagine, and come to grips with a range of sexual ideas, fantasies, and situations, Kimi. I wasn't arguing that this process was any less valid with TWILIGHT than with FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC.

I think most of us, if pressed, would cop to having one or two desires that could be considered unhealthy. Using fiction to grapple with them is never, as far as I'm concerned, a bad thing. Then again, I write fiction. I would say that!
23. Dustinthemorningsky
I've read the Twilight books. There's plenty to dislike about them that a lot of other people have already gone into exhaustive depth over (flat characterization, the anti-feminist themes, Bella being a moron, etc). I never felt the sexual tension in the books that people like to talk about. I think it was because I was busy laughing at the descriptions. I believe Meyer did capture a the feeling of helplessness, and a lack of control extremely well however. (I also think she did this on accident.)

Bella spends the vast majority of the series utterly helpless and unable to exert any meaningful force on her situation. Part of it is simply because she's a human having to deal with vampire problems, but it's also a decent metaphor for things like laws, or even parents that become oppressive during a time when the girls really want their autonomy. Even if it's to do things everyone else disagrees with.

In the end, one of the things I like is that Bella decided to stick to her guns about what she wanted, even if I heavily disagreed on what it was she wanted. (Right for the wrong reasons I suppose.)
Alyx Dellamonica
24. AMDellamonica
There's something to admire in stubbornness and self-knowledge, definitely!
Elizabeth Barnett
25. denelian
i remember the Flowers books [i read the first 3, i think, before the parallels with my real life became just too much, le sigh] and i was tricked into reading Twilight.
the appeal of the first was the horror of helplessness and the hope for revenge, the second is [i think] even easier to understand;

to whit: what the HELL have we been telling teenage girls with this bullshit "ab-only" education? why, that boys are utterly unreliable, only want girls for sex, will do whatever they can to GET it, then abandon the girl and move on to another.
in the middle of this CONSTANT deluge of "boys can NEVER love you!" enter Edward and Bella. Bella isn't a PERSON, she's an avatar for the reader what is Edward, but that thing we're all told we're SUPPOSED to want, that Prince Charming who'd give it all up for love of YOU?

the execution leaves much to be desired, and i've read MUCH better versions... but the basic issue is right there. girls are told, day in and day out, that their ONLY worth is sexual, which is a damned huge amount of pressure to put on anyone when they're still going through puberty! but not only is their only worth sexual, but it's an absolutely LIMITED worth - once they've had sex, they're worthless, and they'll only get through it IF they've been lucky enough to find the one guy who will keep them afterward...
our culture is rather sick, you know? and Twilight is a good representative of it. sigh.

"Flowers" caught the fears of the early 80s really, really well, whatever it's other flaws; Twilight's done the same, with the current issues, mores and ideals.

i've tried to refrain from Twi-bashing, apologies if too much of that aspect came through.
Alyx Dellamonica
26. AMDellamonica
I think your argument's very well thought out, Denelian. I'm a bit removed from the ab-only education, both by my generation and the fact that I'm in Canada. But I suspect you are very right.
27. Merrii
So... the reason they stayed even though they "escaped" only a short while into the story was so they could have that whole raunchy relationship? (Seriously disliked the rape-appologistic tones that I recall from that story: Yes you raped me, but I am a strong woman and only needed to kick you in that spot you showed me... but because I did not resist it was not rape.)

From what I recall of the book, they were laughing about talking about how they were going to leave and never doing so because their life was so great. (Okay, yes... fear of the unknown can be quite powerful.) And even with how much freedom they had, they never once made any attempt to improve their situation; avoiding informing anyone that they're sneaking around the house.

So this is what young-women want... to be abused, raped, psychologically battered... nvm, just... I'm recalling this as an insanely broken story now.
Alyx Dellamonica
28. AMDellamonica
Merrii--well, having read it fairly recently... yes. The apology for the rape was flimsy to the point of being specious. But I'm not saying most young women want to actually abused, raped and battered in the real world. I'm saying these things loom large on our consciousness when we become sexually aware and in fiction we create safe (if distasteful) places to examine them.
29. Neisha Chetty
Hi. I am not as eloquent as you are. I know many of you love the books. But Petals on the Wind is equally brilliant. Look at little deeper. How could Julian have commited suicide if he was paralysed neck down? Why did cathy have sex with Paul when she was with Chris. And she puts a candle in the attic to let the house catch on fire, the incident that bart dies. She must tell them she loves them before they die so they can forgive her. Bart dies before that.and how did She know how many doughnuts Carrie consumed? The package was empty. Pay attention to the words Spanish Moss 'love the clung and clung until it killed'. Analyse this book using Chris as your mentor. He questions things. Contact me
30. ColParker
Amazing essay. All the girls I knew as a kid read these books. My sister read them. My wife read them. Like most men I did not read them, but knew the basic plot points and couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why they were so popular. And that was 30 years ago. Just saw the trailer for the new movie and started wondering all over again. Actually searched for "flowers attic why so popular" and found this blog. Fantastic insights. Really well written.

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