How I’ve Hurt Myself with Literature: Flowers in the Attic and The Girl Next Door
All of this started with young adult books.
When I was a young adult, none of my teachers could coerce me into reading at my “age level.” I was reading (and half-understanding) Stephen King. I eventually found Daphne Du Maurier, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, and many others that helped to define my developing mind.
I abhorred and rejected school reading lists. The very idea that I should read to the lowest common denominator – when I was doing very well with Moby Dick, thank you very much – seemed absurd. And yet, a handful of titles kept pace with me because they stayed on those abominable lists, promising that they were readable to any age. To these books I felt, in some measure, guilty. They seemed universally accepted, and I was nothing if not a part of the universe of readers. It should never have taken me this long to read them. But read them I have. Some of them.
One of these books was Flowers in the Attic. Why anyone recommended this book to a youth is beyond me, but I remember hearing about it often.
You can imagine why.
The book is about four children – products of incest – locked in the attic and waiting for their grandfather to die so their mother may inherit his estate. The children are promised that this wait will take days, and it ends up taking years. Years during which their developing sexuality conforms to the limited space provided, and nature takes its horrific course.
It took me a while to discover how or why this book grabbed my attention. One of the characters, upon exploring their manor, frustratedly mourns that he could find no mysteries in the old house. The main character realized We are the secrets. That gave me a hook into the story: it’s a Gothic novel from the point of view of the secret, like Jane Eyre as told by Mrs. Rochester.
What also held my attention was the particular cruelty of imprisoning children during a most complicated and confusing development, and how their psyche must necessarily warp to fit those awful confines. The cover of the Kindle addition is pink, for chrissakes, and shows a brother and sister on the verge of kissing.
I left the book feeling so dreadful that I went to Google and asked it: Find me the most brutal horror novel ever published.
I found what I was asking for, but maybe not what I wanted. I found a book that doesn’t easily shake itself from the Etch-a-Sketch of one’s memory.
I found Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door.
This story was a fitting continuation from Flowers in the Attic. In The Girl Next Door, a pair of sisters are imprisoned in a 1960’s bomb shelter and subjected to unspeakable tortures by the neighborhood boys and an insane single mother. It’s told from the perspective of a preteen neighbor, who spends ¾ of the book uncertain of his feelings regarding the imprisonment. He is passively culpable in its continuation, and is keenly aware of the part he plays.
Without intention, I’d found another story where budding teenage sexuality developed in a horrifying ecosystem of shame, pain, and dread. The protagonist’s thoughts lingered constantly in a quagmire of misunderstood sexual desire. No matter how the book ended, you could feel the inevitable self-destructive emotional history digging under the skin of his future like a blade. This was a story where no one could forgive or redeem themselves.
What affected me most in The Girl Next Door? The protagonist always wanted to see how far it would go. Morbid fascination haunted him, kept him silent. His escalating terror, and culpability in its continuation, mirrored my experience of reading the book. How far would the author go? How far would those boys and the mother go? Ketchum makes the reader feel as passive and responsible as the protagonist.
A foray into young adult literature led into some of the darkest shit I’ve ever encountered. Being a kid is scary. You don’t understand the world, the tallest among you is king, and adults wield unspeakable power.
I think that kids are the best protagonists. They have more to fight against than anyone. The difference is, they usually win. They didn’t do so well here.