Main image
26th July
2011
written by Steph

Lying in bed sick with horrible chest congestion that has kept me and Tony up half the night, wracking my body with skeleton-shuddering coughs that have done little to help me get a clear, deep breath, the timing is morbidly apt to discuss The Collector. Anyone who has read this book will understand the sinister parallels between my condition and that of Miranda Grey, the female character who captures the obsessive attentions of Frederick, the creepy central figure at the heart of Fowles’s novel.

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s backtrack a bit and give a bit of framework for those of you who haven’t experienced this bone-chilling, spine-tingling read. I have long wanted to read Fowles, but I admit to having been defeated during my two attempts to read The French Lieutenant’s Woman… While I dig its Victorian vibe, I never make it very far in before the overblown prose overwhelms me and begins to feel like drudgery and I move on to less impassable novels. I decided to give The Collector a shot after my friend Trisha blogged about having read it over the course of a weekend over at The Book Case many moons ago. Sometimes it helps bolster one’s spirits when heading into battle with an author when someone you know has actually had success with one of his books, no?

I actually read this book back in May, which goes to show just how far behind I am in my book reviews. All for the best, because I think this book would make me feel claustrophobic were I to read it while I myself am confined to my bed. It revolves around an odd man named Frederick who has always had a bit of a struggle to fit in with others, and has always been a bit of an outcast. On the fringes of society, Frederick is more comfortable observing the world around him rather than truly being a part of it all. An avid collector of butterflies (which he pins and keeps safely locked away in boxes), Frederick ultimately finds his attentions and imagination captured by a young, beautiful art student named Miranda. He dreams of claiming her and locking her away from the rest of the world as his prized specimen, and when he receives a windfall of money through the local lottery, Frederick finally has the financial means to attempt to make his dream reality…

When I picked this book up, I knew it had been billed as one of the first psychological thrillers (it was first published in 1963), but I was somewhat dismissive of its “fear factor”. First does not necessarily mean best, and I suppose I expected it to be rather tame, especially by modern standards. But I was wrong! This is a really creepy novel, even though it is largely devoid of violence. Instead, it is intensely psychological, and in many ways I think that may somehow be worse. The book is divided into three sections, the first and the last being told in retrospect by Frederick himself, and the middle portion being told by Miranda via diary entries she writes during her time with Frederick. By using these two devices, Fowles really allows us complete access into the minds of his characters, letting us fully experience Miranda’s nightmare firsthand, as well as seeing the world through Frederick’s horrifically skewed lens. It is not just that we as readers are spending time with these characters as we read, but are in fact plundering the deepest and darkest depths of their psyches. They infect us with their psychology and outlooks so that we begin to see the world not through our own eyes, but theirs. I was particularly impressed with Section II of the novel, which was narrated by Miranda. I have read some complaints about this section that claim it is boring because it merely recounts the same events of Section I, but this time from Miranda’s perspective. I agree that if one is looking merely for advances in plot, Section II may seem redundant and repetitive, but I personally thought it was really wonderful in part because of how completely and believably Fowles inhabits the character of Miranda. I believed that a young girl was writing the words I read, and the change in tone and voice in this segment was remarkable. I think it also augments one’s sense of terror, because it forces us to identify with the victim in a very personal way. We know prior to this that what Frederick is doing is wrong and horrible, but by exposing us to Miranda’s uncensored experiences and thoughts during this time, we are aided in the act of putting ourselves in her shoes and imagining what her ordeal was truly like. We witness first-hand her mental and physical decline while under Frederick’s care, and the descent really is terrifying. It was really smart and effective writing on Fowles part, I think,

I’m always interested when authors choose to write mystery/thriller novels in a retrospective fashion, because I think in many ways this format is very challenging. When used correctly, I think it can make for the most terrifying of reads because the best authors are able to use the device to slowly build tension by acknowledging that bad things are going to happen, so readers wait on tenterhooks for these tragedies to take place and shock us. The key is certainly not to reveal all your cards at the beginning and then to also make the journey to the ending still feel vital rather than simply running readers through their paces. I definitely think that Fowles does that really well here because even though you know from the get-go that things are going to end very badly indeed, I still couldn’t help but be horrified by how things ended. You don’t expect things to wind up happily, but the way Fowles leaves things to proceed in the future truly is chilling.

All in all, The Collector was a sneakily sinister novel. A book that steals its tendrils around you, having effectively trapped you with no means of escape by the time you realize what it really has in store for you. I started out skeptical, but by the end, it had convinced me of its power to scare its readers. If you have been curious about Fowles but have been uncertain of where the best place to begin might be, I think this is an excellent introduction to his writing. It is intellectual but accessible, and I certainly look forward (though I admit I’m also a  bit scared!) to see what else his books have in store for me.

Rating: 4 out of 5

19 Comments

  1. 07/26/2011

    This has been on my list for a long time because I do love well-written and creepy novels. I had no idea that Fowles shifts the point of view like that. Done well, that can be a really fascinating device, and it sounds like he does it well.

  2. 07/27/2011

    I did immediately made the connection with your chest congestion. I remember that while reading the book I was all too aware of my own breathing.

    I just bought The French Lieutenant’s Woman this weekend, when I was in Lyme Regis. It seems appropriate :)

  3. 07/27/2011

    One of my top 3 absolute favorite books is The Magus by John Fowles. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is also good but didn’t make my list. Somehow I couldn’t get through The Collector but maybe it’s because I saw the film just before reading it. The Magus is a hit or miss though. Appreciating it depends I think on what stage you are in your life when you read it.

  4. 07/27/2011

    When I read this I was also horrified by the realities and implications of the story. It’s been such a long time that I only really remember the creeping feeling of dread that I got while I was reading, but I did close the book and think that it was a really masterful way of telling that particular story. I agree with you that this was a book that was just tight with tension and psychological horror. Great review on this one, Steph. I hope that you and Tony are feeling better very soon!

  5. the collector is one of my favorites–i read it for the first time in high school as a summer reading assignment and was SHOCKED that it was so good for an ‘assigned’ reading. i still have my high school copy (i nicked it!) and reviewed it online back in 2009. the mirror scene at the end was utterly creepy! hope you and t are feeling better. :)

  6. Oh wow, this looks really really good. I like the concept BECAUSE it seems a little thick and in its slowness it probably provides the best layout for what it’s trying to accomplish. Glad you eventually got into it and even happier that you finally posted about it.

  7. 07/28/2011

    I hope you get better soon Steph. I read Fowles’s The Magus and French Lt’s Woman many years ago, but never read this one. I do like psychological novels that play with your mind, so I will add this one to my TBR. I seem to remember enjoying his others, but The Magus is intimidatingly thick.

  8. 07/28/2011

    I recently discovered Psychological Thrillers and I loved them. I can’t wait to read this one.

  9. 07/28/2011

    Wonderful review, Steph! I keep seeing ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ at the bookstore, but haven’t picked it for some reason. ‘The Collector’ looks like a wonderful book from your review. It is interesting that the tone of the narrator changes significantly when the narration passes on to Miranda. It looks like Fowles is a very talented author. I will add this book to my ‘TBR’ list. Thanks for this wonderful review :)

  10. 07/28/2011

    Great review — you got me all shivery in anticipation!! Shamefully, I had no idea Fowles did more than TFLW so I appreciate you for putting this on my radar. It sounds so creepy and so good — I’m going to try to tackle this in the winter.

  11. 07/28/2011

    This one sounds so good!

  12. 07/30/2011

    I’m glad you finally posted about this — I didn’t even know that you had read it — but so sad that you are feeling sick!

    The entire book creeped the hell out of me and as always I loved your take.

    feel better lady!

  13. 08/03/2011

    I’ve heard of the French Lieutenant’s Woman but haven’t read anything by Fowles. Creepy sounds good. Especially on a hot muggy day. Hope you are recovering!

  14. 08/04/2011

    @ Teresa: I think you’d get a lot out of this novel; there’s so much to dissect and you’re such an astute reader. I think The Collector is all the more impressive as it was Fowles’ first novel!
     
    @ Alex: I think I would go mad reading this book while confined to bed! I hope you enjoy TFLW… as I said, I have had no luck with it, but even I would probably pick up a copy while visiting Lyme Regis. It does seem the perfect souvenir!
     
    @ Mrs. B.: I definitely want to try The Magus at some point, and I vow to one day conquer TFLW as well! The Collector was too good not to try some of Fowles’ other books!
     
    @ zibilee: The feeling of dread that Fowles manages to create really does creep up on you as you read, until it’s so overwhelming you both want to stop reading AND keep going to see how things turn out. It was great!
     
    @ nat: Oooh, what a devilish choice for assigned reading in high school! I think most schools would find it too incendiary these days to assign, which is a shame, because I think it’s just the kind of book that is a high-quality read but also really enjoyable!
     
    @ Pam: This book starts off slow, for sure, but it picks up the pace quite effectively such that I didn’t feel like it dragged at all. I so rarely feel like books are the perfect length but I wouldn’t change a thing about this one!
     
    @ Annabel: I think my copy of The Magus that I own is an e-copy, so hopefully that will make it less intimidating! I always find I have more success with chunksters when I can’t actually tell how big they are! ;)

  15. 08/04/2011

    @carolinareads: This is definitely a different beast than most modern Psychological Thrillers as it’s not concerned with gore or violence, which I think a lot of these novels do have these days, but it still feels very threatening and scary. If you’re a fan of the genre, you certainly need to consider this required reading! :D
     
    @ Vishy: All I know about TFLW is that it is supposed to have some kind of awesome ending… the problem is that I keep “ending” the book prematurely because I get so bored by it! Gah! Must try it again at some point…
     
    @ Audra: The winter will be the perfect time to read this book. Hole up with a mug of something warm and get cozy, because you will be riveted!
     
    @ Kathleen: It was good! I’m so glad! :D
     
    @ Trisha: Ugh, the sickness is the worse, and while I’ve improved much in the past week, it’s frustrating that I still have this dread cough hanging around. I just can’t quit it! :(
     
    @ sakura: Having now read this, I feel like I will expect all of Fowles’ books to become creepy at some point… which I have no idea whether that’s a valid expectation or not, but I have my eye on him! Clearly he is not an author to underestimate!

  16. 08/05/2011

    Like you, I gave up on the French Lieutenant pretty quickly, but this book sounds so intensely creepy. And I still have no idea what it will all be about.

    I have to say you also have a knack for building up the suspense with your blog posts :D

  17. 08/05/2011

    Also, hope you are feeling better now.

  18. 08/08/2011

    @ Nishita: No idea what’s wrong with my immune system, but nearly three weeks later and I’m still sick! Not nearly as bad as I was before, mind you, but certainly not in my tip top shape! Hate it! But this book was fantastic, and so even if you haven’t had any success with French Lieutenant, you should give this one a try. Seriously creepy!

  19. 09/12/2011

    Oh I love this book! In fact it will be appearing on my blog in a few days under my “a book I have read the most number of times” challenge post.

    If you liked this you MUST read The Magus! Seriously, it’s long but it’s SOOOOO worth it!

    Glad you enjoyed this :)

Leave a Reply