Columns > Published on February 3rd, 2012

LURID: Crazy, in Love.

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.


It’s February, and, as restaurants, florists and card-shops build up to their most lucrative day of the year, I have to ask, who’ll be your 2012 Valentine?

Do you have a soul mate, a perfectly balanced relationship in which they love you as much as you love them?  Are you completely reasonable in all your dealings with your lover?  Is every interaction logical and even-tempered? Do you feel calm and in control when you’re together? Do you feel entirely sane in their presence?  Do they feel the same way?

Or do you think either one of you might be the tiniest bit crazy, in love?

Love and insanity have always been equated in literature.  People fall madly in love, go insane with desire, are absolutely nuts about one another.  That’s meant to be a positive part of the experience. Nonetheless, writers over the centuries have recognized that love is an aberrant state of mind.  In As You Like It, Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) informs Orlando that  “Love is merely a madness, and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do”  - before offering to cure him of his lunacy.  Charlotte Bronte waxes lyrical on madness and love in Jane Eyre; passion for Mr. Rochester condemns Bertha to the attic and causes Jane to lament “I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs.”  In the 1970s, Marilyn French identifies love as “...Insanity. The ancient Greeks knew that. It is the taking over of a rational and lucid mind by delusion and self-destruction. You lose yourself, you have no power over yourself, you can't even think straight.”

In the twenty-first century, fMRI scans have shown that the first flush of love is, indeed, akin to temporary madness, and stimulates the same zones of the brain as gambling, drugs and violence - those associated with addiction, and lack of control.  Finally, science and poetry are on the same page.

While there’s plenty of overlap between the general symptoms of love and other psychological conditions (substance dependence, mood disorders, narcissism, paranoia, antisocial personalities, borderline personality disorders, dependent disorders, histrionic personality disorders and schizophrenia), there’s one syndrome that stands out from any other kind of fatal attraction: erotomania.  This is the delusional belief that another person - usually of a higher social status - is in love with you and is sending you secret, coded messages to that effect.  You flirt with them.  You think they’re flirting back.  They have no idea you exist.

This Valentine’s Day, go on, ask yourself, is this love that you’re feeling?  Is this the one that you’ve been waiting for?  Or are you suffering from the syndrome De Clérambault defined in 1921 as “psychose passionelle”?  Given that regular love is crazy and stupid at the best of times, how can you tell if you’ve crossed the line?

Thankfully, there are a number of Bad Books out there that deal with erotomania and - as when identifying psychopaths - serve as handy field guides.  Unlike movies, novels have the power to take us inside the protagonist’s mind, exploring their particular psychosis through the rhythms of their internal and external speech.  In the modern era, no one has nailed erotomaniac obsession quite like John Fowles in The Collector (1963).  This Bad Book is both a page-turner and a case-study.  When you finally put it down, you’ll know if you need to seek help, shoot yourself, or if you’re just suffering from the usual lunacy of love.

I will pin and mount you, like a butterfly...

Fowles’ first novel is truly lurid, as well as being a quiet classic.  It’s as much of a sweeping love story as his most famous work, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and asks the same questions about human attraction, and how we handle extremes of emotion, albeit within the framework of a horror story rather than a romance. 

The narrative takes us inside the mind of Frederick Clegg, a nondescript town hall clerk who would have lived a life of quiet desperation had he not been lucky enough to have a win “on the pools” (the UK’s football sweepstake).  This good fortune means that Frederick suddenly finds himself with the funds and the leisure time to make his private obsession a romantic reality.  He’s a long-time butterfly collector, and his new-found wealth means that he can set his sights on capturing a unique prize for his collection.

One is very crazy when in love. - Sigmund Freud

Fowles’ tight-lipped prose captures the insane levels of repression experienced by men of Frederick’s class at the time.  In 1963 Britain had just emerged from post-war austerity; a whole generation of young adults had grown up without ever acting on a whim, or acknowledging an impulse, or experiencing a desire that didn’t have to be buttoned down immediately.  The answer has always been “No.” To make their plight worse, the teenagers born just half a decade later experienced unprecedented prosperity and freedoms - flaunting them in their older siblings’ faces.

Naturally, when Frederick first spots Miranda, the beautiful, free-spirited young art-student, from his office window, it’s love at first sight:

I can’t say what it was, the very first time I saw her, I knew she was the only one.  Of course I am not mad, I knew it was just a dream and it always would have been if it hadn’t been for the money.  I used to have daydreams about her, I used to think of stories where I met her, did things she admired, married her and all that.  Nothing nasty, that was never until what I’ll explain later.”

At first, they occupy different sides of the class divide (she’s a doctor’s daughter).  Even after he wins the pools, he doesn’t feel worthy:

I knew it was ridiculous, people only married for love, especially girls like Miranda.  There were even times I thought I would forget her.  But forgetting’s not something you do, it happens to you.  Only it didn’t happen to me.

Like any ardent young swain unable to shake the feeling, Frederick plans a seduction.  Mostly inside his pent up imagination.  A virgin, he visits a prostitute (“I was no good. I was too nervous... she was old and she was horrible") and buys “some of those books you can buy at shops in Soho, books of stark women and all that” in order to acquire a sexual vocabulary for his daydreams.  He buys a nice van, with a bed in the back, and a pretty cottage in West Sussex, an isolated little seventeenth century number with a fortified cellar.  He adds insulating felt and elementary plumbing, plus a steel door and an alarm system.

All this time I never thought it was serious.  I know that must sound strange, but it was so.  I used to say, of course, I’ll never do it, this is only pretending.  And I wouldn’t have pretended like that even if I hadn’t had all the time and money I wanted.  In my opinion a lot of people who may seem happy now would do what I did or similar things if they had the money and time.  I mean, to give way to what they pretend now they shouldn’t.  Power corrupts, a teacher I had always said.  And Money is Power.

Although Frederick thinks he’s “only pretending”, he’s doing it in his van in the London streets close to Miranda’s home, and he’s got a chloroform pad (from his butterfly killing equipment) all soaked, fresh and ready in his pocket.  Inevitably, Miranda blunders into his net.

The first half of the novel consists of Frederick’s interior monologue: we ride with Frederick on his downward spiral of delusion.  He insists to himself that he has no sexual intentions towards the captive Miranda (“I didn’t think about the books or about her posing, things like that disgusted me”).  He tells her he loves her, and clings to the fervent hope that she’ll succumb to Stockholm syndrome, and fall in love with her captor. 

It’s not exactly a spoiler if I tell you they don’t get married and live happily ever after.

The second half of the novel relays Miranda’s fearful flutterings against the walls of her prison.  The story from Frederick’s perspective is a romance, albeit a warped one.  His desire for Miranda provides the organizing principle for everything he does, it gives his narrative structure and direction; the pursuit, the capture, the subjugation.  Love gives all his actions meaning.  Miranda has no such underlying purpose, and her version of events is very, very different.  Trapped underground (“I’m so far from everything. From normality. From light. From what I want to be.”), she suffers “endless panic in slow motion”, and, when her attempts to placate, cajole and escape come to naught, she ends in a state of “utter despair.”

The “He said, She said” aspect of the novel provides a great deal of its lurid tension, as does the fact that, like any other, this relationship goes through phases, from hope-filled beginning to acrimonious end, when familiarity has bred nothing but contempt.  Underground dungeon aside, this could be any love-match doomed from the get-go because one partner has unrealistic expectations of the other.

If you’re in the habit of smiling casually at strangers, on the subway or in a coffee shop, you should probably read this book.  And if you have even the slightest suspicion that your 2012 secret Valentine crush might be unrequited, The Collector is required reading, stat.  There’s also an excellent 1965 movie adaptation, starring Terence Stamp as Freddie and Samantha Eggar - who got nominated for an Oscar - as Miranda.

The Collector casts a long shadow over English and American novelists.  Stephen King openly acknowledges his debt in Misery; not only does he use Fowles’ alternating captor/captive structure, but he quotes a chunk from Miranda’s diary at the beginning of Part Three.  Buffalo Bill in Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs collects young women and stores them in an underground dungeon, and the promotional material for the movie was decidedly Lepidopterous.   Ian McEwan also deals with erotomania in his 1997 novel, Enduring Love.  Stripped of the gothic trappings of Fowles’ dungeon, McEwan’s work is lucid rather than lurid, a discourse on science versus poetry.  Nonetheless, he exploits erotomania to the full, even including a (false) scientific case study in his appendix outlining the the psychopathology of the condition.  It’s even possible to see echoes of Miranda’s railing against her captivity in Cathy Dollanganger, also condemned to a confined space, although Frederick’s careful preparation for his long-term guest makes Grandmother look like a bumbling amateur.

Half a century after its publication, The Collector still resonates in news headlines, a reminder that erotomania is a very real phenomenon.  Back in De Clérambault’s day, the diagnosis was almost exclusively given to middle-aged females, with little or no sexual experience, who were thought to be seeking some kind of father figure (often their supervising clinician - the one doing the diagnosing).  At one time, the condition was thought to be extremely rare, with less than 100 cases reported worldwide.  However, even with increasingly open attitudes to sexuality (in theory, leading to less of the kind of repression and denial that can trigger De Clérambault’s Syndrome), there is a rising interest in the diagnosis, and it is increasingly applied to male patients, not just histrionic spinsters.

There seem too be far too many Collectors out there.  Ten year-old Natascha Kampusch was kidnapped off the street in Vienna in 1998, and forced to spend eight years in captivity in a cellar behind a steel door.  In 2009, the world was shocked by the discovery of another Austrian, Elisabeth Fritzl, confined in a walled-off area of her father’s basement for twenty four years, during which she gave birth to seven children and suffered one miscarriage.  Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped in 1991 at the age of eleven and imprisoned in a shed on the property of Philip and Nancy Garrido.  Eighteen years and two children later, she was finally rescued. There have been similar cases in the UK, France, Italy, Columbia and Argentina in recent years - and these are just the ones that reach the public eye.  No one knows how many unwilling cellar-dwellers there are out there.

Room: A Novel

Emma Donoghue rips key tropes from these headlines, mixes them with The Collector, and adds a dash of V.C. Andrews’ hallmark ‘children in jeopardy’ jitters for her Room: A Novel (2010).  Just as Justin Cronin’s The Passage is a post-modern mash-up of existing vampire and apocalypse tales, Donoghue’s prose is pure bricolage, every detail as well-worn as the cork flooring disintegrating beneath the feet of Ma and Jack as they pace the confines of Room.

Donoghue plays peek-a-boo with the whole concept of erotomania as something at once familiar and uncanny.  The novel is narrated by five year-old Jack.  He’s never known anything other than Room, and the small window on the world offered by a TV set, and he delights in relating the simple banality of his routine.  He’s unaware that the erotomania of Old Nick, the rarely-glimpsed captor, has defined his extraordinary existence.  To establish his own brand of domestic bliss, Old Nick borrowed heavily from Frederick Clegg’s playbook, luring a student into the back of his van with a story about a non-existent injured dog, and whisking her off to a specially-reinforced chamber.  This being the Noughties, not the Sixties, Old Nick has no qualms about doing the nasty with his captive on an at-will basis, and she’s soon pregnant.  Like Elisabeth Fritzl or Jaycee Dugard, Ma has no choice but to give birth, but soon finds that Jack provides a positive center for her limited world.

Obsession oozes from Old Nick into Ma’s and Jack’s behavior.  After seven years in Room they manage to escape, but their rigidity of thinking, so vital to survival in captivity, creates a whole new set of challenges as they struggle to adapt to Outside.  The abnormally close relationship between mother and son comes under scrutiny; Ma has continued to breastfeed Jack, to the distaste of many.  Ma can’t believe the questions about this from a TV interviewer (“In this whole story, that’s the shocking detail?”), nor can she understand why many people (including her father) look upon Jack as ‘devil’s spawn’.

Donoghue’s writing is coy; all the really sordid and scary details of the captivity and rehabilitation are pushed away from center-page, beyond the reach of her five year-old protagonist’s comprehension.  Although Jack’s kidiomatic chatter grates after a while, it allows the adult reader to fill in the gaps from their own recall of the news stories.  While The Collector drags the reader through the full flower of Clegg’s erotomania (including his intentions towards Marian in Chapter Four), Room: A Novel, allows us, like Jack, to peek through our fingers from the back of the closet at the shadowy form of Old Nick.  You need a strong stomach to get through Fowles’ dark masterpiece, while Donoghue’s book is accessible even for the faint of heart.

Erotomania has no known cure.  Sufferers can be plagued by delusions about the same unrequited love object for a lifetime, or they keep transferring their warped affections from one object to another until they find someone who will sustain the illusion of loving them back.  If you read one of these Bad Books and recognize your own miserable, unreciprocated love life in one of the characters, well, good luck with that.

So, as you reserve that miserable table-for-two, place your order for a half-dozen over-priced roses, and pick out a greeting card that achieves an acceptable balance of lewd proposition and realistic expectation, your romantic sanity or lack thereof boils down to a couple of key questions:

  • Do you think you're going to too much trouble to secure the Valentine of your dreams this year, or too little?
  • Are you laying in supplies at the chocolatier, or Home Depot?

Are there any other books you'd recommend about lurid love obsession? Share 'em in the comments below.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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