A book for the beach: The Collector by John Fowles

Beach Reading Book

No book will make you appreciate the great outdoors more than this creepy locked-room horror story

Frederick Clegg is a loner. Isolated from society, he spends his time trapping butterflies in jars and watching them die. He's obsessed with the rare breeds, the special ones. The more magnificent the butterfly, the greater his desire to possess it.

When he catches sight of the beautiful art student Miranda Grey, the stage is set for his terrible transition from collector of butterflies to girls. Miranda is the perfect specimen. Delicate, captivating, gifted and in love with life, she's the prize catch. Fred is overcome by a sudden desire to pin her, to own her, to hold her up against the light and study her in ravenous detail.

For a professed novice, he plans Miranda's kidnap in delicious detail, following her around for weeks, establishing her whereabouts on an hourly basis. He purchases a house with a cellar which he converts into a guest room and a van with a storage compartment, ideal for catching prey. He builds new doors and secret corridors. He buys an incinerator to burn dirty clothes and destroy any evidence of his guest. He cancels the gardener and tells the vicar he wants nothing to do with the local village ensuring nobody will visit. They'll be alone. He's meticulous and tenacious, and the unsuspecting Miranda never stands a chance.

Nothing will make the reader appreciate their summer quite like John Fowles' debut novel, published in 1963. Dark, creepy and claustrophobic, it compels a gratitude for expanse and freedom.

Captor and victim take turns detailing their points of view and we're first given an insight into the mind of a man whose transformation to kidnapper seemed inevitable from the very beginning. Fred is especially terrifying because he seems oblivious to his own perversion and to the harm he inflicts on others. In many ways, he's the perfect psychopath. He believes he's Miranda's host and not her captor. He watches her, but he's not a stalker. She's his guest and not his victim. She has everything she needs in her room except a key, so why is she so unyielding, so ungrateful?

In a further attempt to draw sympathy from the reader, Fred blames class distinctions for his actions. If he wasn't common and uneducated, he wouldn't be isolated from his peers. If he wasn't angry and alone, he wouldn't need to kidnap the likes of Miranda: beautiful, wealthy, popular, just to get her to notice him. He's not a predator, but a man dealt an unfair hand and forced to act accordingly.

Fowles invites us to defy his main character's excuses and read between the lines, and the facts paint a more chilling picture. Fred doesn't accidentally abduct Miranda, there's a sense that he's been leading up to this event his whole life. He doesn't keep her in a guest room, but locks her in a sound proof dungeon. He doesn't extend her stay, but has no intention of ever letting her go. He doesn't want her to love him because he's common, he wants to possess her sexually. He paints himself as a prude – "No one will understand, they think I was just after her for the obvious. Things like that disgusted me" – but he's in fact a weirdo, a pervert in the making, a deviant, who is only able to relate to women if they're tied up or unconscious.

Mid-way through the book we're united with the victim, and Miranda's voice reinforces our view of the collector. She is young, childish and spoilt; she rants and rages against her restraints, but she's terrified of Fred and has every reason to be.

Miranda's section of the novel is comprised of rambling diary entries and reminiscences about a past life from which she has been forcibly removed. She misses her friends, college, art, relationships, but most of all she misses her freedom. Like Fred's butterflies, she's slowing suffocating in her underground cell. "'It drives me mad. I feel as if I'm at the earth's heart. I've got the whole weight of the whole earth pressing in on this little box. It grows smaller, smaller, smaller. I can feel it contracting. I want to scream." She remembers her sister, a boyfriend, past holidays, trips to the river, the sunshine, fresh air, apple trees. She knows that life's going on around her and it's almost too much to bear.

Miranda's story ups the ante between cat and mouse, but it also generates an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia which permeates the pages of the book. As she struggles to breathe in Fred's stifling and artificially-lit cellar so does the reader. The effect is deliberate and it's the crux of the novel. Never has freedom tasted so exquisite! Never has the sea seemed so blue, or the sand so golden. How we take for granted the ability to dip our toes into the water. How glorious to feel the sun warming the skin. To be able to go anywhere we want to go. To look around and see vast expanses of open space. After all, if you remove free will, what else is there in life?

Nothing. And perhaps that's why Fred is one of literature's most evil characters.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Mary Andrews, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 5th August 2014 13.50 Europe/London

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