Study Guide

John Collier

John Collier Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Collier (KAHL-yur) rightfully belongs to the first rank of minor writers of short fiction in the twentieth century. He was born in London, England, in 1901, into a family of accomplished professionals. The son of John George Collier, the writer was educated privately. Collier never attended a university or earned a degree, although learned readers of his fiction will discern allusions to William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri in his work and would never suspect his lack of formal education. His early inclination was toward poetry, and indeed he wrote and published poems while still in his early twenties. Leading a truly cosmopolitan life, Collier lived for lengthy periods in London, France, California, New York, and Virginia.

Collier’s fiction is consistently recognizable for its bent toward the supernatural, its obsession with fantasy, and its surprise endings. Reviewers have most often compared his works to those of Edgar Allan Poe and O. Henry; beyond that, comparisons can scarcely be made with any genuine authenticity. Collier probes the ironic and humorous, the macabre and diabolical. He uses contrivance and satire, and he often fictionalizes real-life murder stories. His reason for writing is always to make a point about human nature and existence, and the ghosts, angels, demons, jinn, and alchemists who inhabit his work serve only as means toward this end.

Collier stopped writing poetry around the time he turned thirty, focusing his attention primarily on fiction. Indeed, during the 1930’s he published three novels and a significant portion of his short stories. Of these works, his first novel, His Monkey Wife, published in 1930, proved his most important contribution to literature. The story is that of one Mr. Fatigay, a harmless, nondescript teacher of English in Africa who falls in love with and eventually marries a precocious chimp named Emily; he does so after ending his long engagement to Amy, the 1930’s version of the Victorian lady. The novel is full of witticisms of the day. Its success and survival, however, depended greatly upon the shock effect wrought by two sentences from the concluding chapter: “Behind every great man there may indeed be a woman, and beneath every performing flea a hot plate, but beside the only happy man I know of—there is...

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John Collier Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Born in London to a once-well-to-do family, the son of John George and Emily Mary Noyes Collier, John Collier was educated privately. His uncle Vincent, author of a single novel, guided his education, beginning with readings of Hans Christian Andersen and continuing with the major Victorians, including Charles Darwin, Edward Gibbon, and John Stuart Mill. Having begun writing poetry at age nineteen, Collier, despite parental opposition, went on to become the poetry editor of Time and Tide during the 1920’s and 1930’s. He was a determined writer, an avant-garde intellectual, who managed to survive on an income of two pounds a week, supplemented with money earned writing regular book reviews and acting as foreign correspondent in London for a Japanese newspaper. Eventually, tired of city “squalor,” he moved to the country, where he continued writing regularly in a variety of forms. Then in 1935, he moved to Cassis, France, but his novels and short stories had already earned for him a literary reputation for wit and whimsy that led to a contract with RKO Pictures Corporation in the United States. There, he wrote screenplays and became active in television production for a thirty-year period. A number of his important stories were written between 1937 and 1939, many, he claimed, to help alleviate his financial problems. During that period, he lived in a variety of places, including Oxfordshire and London (1937), Cassis, France (1938), Paris, Ireland, and Manhattan (1939-1940), and Hollywood (1942-1953), whose extravagant lifestyle fascinated him but whose inhabitants aroused his contempt. He published a series of stories in a flurry of effort in the 1950’s. He married Harriet Hess in Mexico, on May 25, 1954, and then, finding himself gray-listed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), settled in France, where he devoted time to horticulture. His son, John G. S. Collier, was born in Nice. In 1979, Collier returned to California, where he lived first in Santa Monica and then in Pacific Palisades. He died of a stroke in Pacific Palisades on April 6, 1980.