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