'My tales are not bizarre,' she says. 'Reality is'

I really feel sorry for my characters because I put them through hell," admits novelist V.C. Andrews. "I don't like happy endings."

Indeed. In Flowers in the Attic, her first novel, published 11 months ago, four children are locked in the attic of the family mansion so their dying grandfather will not learn of their existence and disinherit their greedy mother. The children are the products of an incestuous liaison between the mother and her half uncle. After three and a half years in the attic, the two older children, Chris and Cathy Dollanganger, commit incest themselves. Their sadistic grandmother puts tar in Cathy's hair and tries to poison all four children with arsenic-powdered doughnuts. The ending is not happy.

Though few critics could accuse Andrews of lacking a vivid imagination, the Washington Post reviewer opined, "Flowers in the Attic may well be the worst book I have ever read." That malediction did not affect sales. Flowers has moved more than 3 million copies in paperback, an incredible figure for even a gothic blockbuster. In Andrews' equally sinister sequel, Petals on the Wind, the plot not only thickens but positively curdles. It has sold 2.7 million copies and has been on paperback best-seller lists for four months. Now both are being issued in hardcover by Simon and Schuster, reversing the usual process. Cleo Virginia Andrews also reversed her name and adopted initials, at her publisher's suggestion, to hide her female identity. Whatever the tricks of the trade, she has become one of America's fastest-selling authors.

That's both a financial and personal victory for Andrews, who has triumphed over the kind of providential affliction often found in her books. At 56, she has spent most of her life as an invalid in her Portsmouth, Va. home, the victim of progressive arthritis, which she believes began with a traumatic fall down a flight of stairs when she was 15. Stiffened joints confine her to crutches and a wheelchair. She must stand at her desk in order to write. Still, she often works eight hours at a stretch. Her only companion is her mother, Lillian. Yet Virginia shuns sympathy. "I'd rather be like Jacqueline Susann," she says. "She had cancer and kept it to herself. It might have stigmatized her books."

Despite her handicap, Virginia has led a surprisingly active life. Born in Portsmouth, she completed high school with the help of private tutors and managed to make a living as a commercial artist and portrait painter. She taught herself to embroider and sew, and makes most of her mother's dresses. In 1963, a few years after the death of her father, William, a machinist, she and her mother moved to St. Louis and then to Arizona to be near one of her two brothers. Returning to Portsmouth at the age of 48 in 1972, Virginia decided to change careers. "I always thought that when I got older I'd like to be a writer," she says. So she bought an electric typewriter and every night she ground out 30-40 pages. Her first sale, entitled "I Slept with My Uncle on My Wedding Night," was to a confessions magazine. (Avuncular capers are a favorite Andrews theme.): Her novels were rejected with dismaying regularity; after her ninth book was turned down, she got an agent. That did the trick: Pocket Books bought Flowers for an advance of less than $10,000.

Andrews now commands six-figure advances, and has already sold one of her rejected novels to Pocket Books. The third volume of her Dollanganger saga, If There Be Thorns, will be published in the summer of 1981. She revels in her fan mail and the new friends who have come into her life. She is flattered by gentlemen callers, but discourages any serious romance while waiting to see if an operation suggested by her doctors will allow her to walk freely again. She dreams of directing her own films and traveling around the world. "Everyone tells me I can't do it because of the steps," she says. But she's determined. "I couldn't live without fantasy," she says. "I can lose all my problems and make things the way I want them to be. That's what you do when you write a book. You play God."