“She closed the book. ‘Tell me about yourself. Tell me what you do in your free time.’
I’m an entomologist. I collect butterflies.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I remember they said so in the paper. Now you’ve collected me,’ ” – The Collector, John Fowles
I have consistently had quite the to-read list since I finished grad school. One of the top horror novels on that list was The Collector by John Fowles, published in 1963. Set in London, this psychological horror novel is told from the perspectives of Frederick Clegg, a withdrawn young man who collects butterflies and plans the kidnapping of women, and Miranda Grey, a young art student who he kidnaps. Four parts compose this novel; Part 2 retells some of the events of Part 1 from Miranda’s perspective, and the other three parts are told by Frederick.
In Part 1, we meet Frederick Clegg. He shares details about his experiences growing up and his interest in collecting butterflies. He expresses his loneliness as he leads up to the setting of the story. In one section that has still stuck with me, he fantasizes about kidnapping a woman who would gradually fall in love with him while trapped in his home. He becomes enamored with Miranda, a student who he begins to stalk throughout the city. He is convinced that he loves her and that she could love him in return.
When his fixation on Miranda becomes more pronounced, he prepares his farmhouse for her presence: he takes noise-cancelling measures, increases security, and increases isolation from his neighbors and anyone else who may venture through the area. He also buys new clothes for Miranda in her size and the colors he sees her wear the most. He prepares the cellar for her capture, and he is ready to collect her. He lies about an injured dog nearby to distract her. He uses a pad soaked in chloroform to drug her, and he drives her to his home to lock her in the cellar.
When she regains consciousness, Miranda panics and demands to be released. She tells him her family has no money, so it is no use keeping her hostage for a ransom. Frederick tells her the father of one of her schoolmates put him up to it, but she does not believe him. Realizing she is not dealing with a stable person, Miranda backs down and attempts to compromise with him instead. He bargains with her to stay a full month. Her demands include art materials, records, toiletries, fresh fruit and vegetables, exercise, and sunlight. Frederick agrees to do his best to provide everything she needs.
As the days count down to Miranda’s agreed-upon release, she devises (and attempts) a variety of ways to escape. She is caught every time, and Frederick grows more and more angry with her. He believes she is acting difficult and becomes more and frustrated that his fantasy is not working out. When the date on which he promised to release her arrives, he refuses to let her leave. She becomes more desperate to escape: she tries everything from trying to seduce him to trying to kill him. Even her attempts at getting a message of her captivity to the outside world are intercepted. When she continues to fail, she further resigns herself to her prison. Miranda gets sick with what she believes in pneumonia. and she implores him to take her to a hospital. He does not trust her and ignores her pleas. When he notices she is visibly getting worse, he is conflicted with himself and the risk of exposure that would come with getting her medical attention.
Part 2 features the timeline after the capture in Part 1, but it is told from Miranda’s perspective. Part 2 is told in an epistolary format from the diary she keeps while in captivity. Most entries are from her diary, but others are in interview format or in desperate, feverish prose. She reflects on her life and wonders how her family and friends must be feeling from her disappearance. She tries to find ways to empathize with Frederick, but she eventually decides she is not capable of forgiving him or loving him. She compares their situation to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She begins referring to him as Caliban, a monstrous figure who is obsessed with Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. The narrative becomes less precise and clear as the days progress, demonstrating Miranda’s state of mind as she becomes not only more hopeless for escape, but more physically ill.
In Part 3, Miranda’s illness quickly worsens. Frederick continues to deny the seriousness of her condition and avoids taking steps to getting her medical help. One day, when he returns from a walk, he finds her dead. He takes her body to the cellar and cuts off a lock of her hair to store away in his collection. Shortly after, Frederick plans to burn all evidence of Miranda’s presence (including the photographs he took of her against her will). He plans a suicide so they would be together. Part 3 ends with Frederick falling asleep as he imagines his plans for the next day. There really is no better way to share the state of this character than the final lines of this chapter:
“She was waiting for me down there. I would say we were in love, in the letter to the police. A suicide pact. It would be ‘The End.’ “
Following these morbid lines, the narrative transitions into Part 4, the final chapter. As it turns out, he does not go through with this plan. He reads her diary and sees in her own words that she never loved him. He retrieves her body from the cellar and buries her under some apple trees. At the end of the novel, he considers a new girl he sees in town who resembles Miranda and would fit into her clothes. He contemplates how he would do things differently this time; he decides not to rush things until his home is better prepared.
It takes a lot to give me shivers at my current level of horror tolerance, and this novel did it again and again. This novel is not scary because of anything supernatural or far-fetched. As we are well aware, this could happen (has happened, is happening) anywhere at any time. The changes in points of view added even more layers to the deranged and desperate nature of this situation. This book featured easily-read prose, which made it a pretty fast read. I love a good villain-as-narrator perspective, and this was one of the most effective point of view strategies I have read. I feel that Miranda’s part of the story would have been better if it had not been so thorough, however. At certain points, the recounting of the parts I had just read became too repetitive.
Now that I have read The Collector, I am curious to find out if it inspired The Silence of the Lambs. Frederick kidnaps young women for his emotional obsessions, but Buffalo Bill kidnaps women to achieve a goal to complete his identity. The connection of the butterflies and moths led me to this comparison initially, so I plan on finding out if there is a connection with these stories. Overall, I am so glad a copy of this book finally found its way into my life. It is a perfect example of something that is both truly terrifying and masterfully crafted, as all great horror novels are.
Until next time,