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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