BY ANDREW MOODY
I think we are just insects, we live a bit and then die and that’s the lot. There’s no mercy in things. There’s not even a Great Beyond. There’s nothing.
Frederick, an unloved, sexually awkward clerk whose hobby is butterfly collecting (with much in common with Norman Bates), falls in love with the sight of art student Miranda. After a massive win on the pools, he begins to plot an audacious kidnap. He buys a cottage some miles away from London in the countryside, creates a downstairs secure prison room (although filled with luxury furniture and a shelf full of books on art) and using the chloroform he uses on his butterflies, snatches Miranda for his “guest”. He feeds her, allows her toilet privacy, and in many ways is a perfect gentleman. But any attempt of escape is met with violence. To begin with Miranda tries in vain to question Frederick about the morality of his actions, but is met with a brick wall of blank, cold emotion. She has been dehumanised by a nihilistic psychopath, and worse is to come.
It’s despair at the lack of feeling, of love, of reason in the world. It’s despair that anyone can even contemplate the idea of dropping a bomb or ordering that it should be dropped. It’s despair that so few of us care. It’s despair that there’s so much brutality and callousness in the world. It’s despair that perfectly normal young men can be made vicious and evil because they’ve won a lot of money. And then do what you’ve done to me.
John Fowles’ chilling 1963 debut was an immediate critical and commercial success. It inspired both Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs and Stephen King’s most violent novel Misery. In Lambs Harris even uses the butterfly (moth) motif, but has his villain Buffalo Bill kidnap his female quarry to harvest their skin. Like Miranda, Bill’s first victim even writes him letters from the hole she’s kept in. In Misery the sexes are reversed and romance author Paul Sheldon is kidnapped to write his Number One Fan Annie Wilkes a book for him, or else. King even references “John Fowles first novel” as Sheldon attempts to make sense of his fate. These are but two of the novels and films influenced or inspired by the novel, making it one of the most important books of the early sixties. Fowles went on to write many masterpieces, including The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
In a horrible form of prescience, The Collector anticipated Ted Bundy’s modus operandi by using chloroform and a van to capture Miranda. Most grisly and famous of the serial killer fans of The Collector were Leonard Lake and Charles Ng who, in the mid eighties, kidnapped, tortured, raped, killed and videotaped up to 25 people, calling their plot Operation Miranda.
The novel is set into two narratives, Frederick’s from the first person and Miranda’s in epistolary form based on the diary she keeps while in captivity.
A film adaptation starring Terrence Stamp and Samantha Eggars was made in 1965, but critics noted how it was only shown from Frederick’s perspective. William Wyler turned down The Sound of Music to direct it. There have also been several stage adaptations.
The novel is clinical, slow building and ends with a genuinely horrifying climax (which I won’t give away). It has been in print since 1963 and remains a notorious cult classic. Miranda’s fate has been relived by numerous real life women, and numerous real life Frederick’s have gotten away with the same venal crimes as Fowles’ fictional characters.
I am one in a row of specimens. It’s when I try to flutter out of line that he hates me. I’m meant to be dead, pinned, always the same, always beautiful. He knows that part of my beauty is being alive. but it’s the dead me he wants. He wants me living-but-dead.
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