John Collier Essay - Collier, John (Short Story Criticism)

Collier, John (Short Story Criticism)


Collier, John 1901-1980

British short story writer, novelist, poet, and screenwriter.

A versatile writer who is best remembered for his fantastic tales of the macabre, Collier is almost equally famous in the mystery genre. His short story collection Fancies and Goodnights was selected for the "Queen's Quorum," which is Ellery Queen's list of outstanding mystery collections. The wit, irony, and imagination in Collier's stories is often compared to that of such writers as Saki, Ambrose Bierce, and Roald Dahl. Novelist Anthony Burgess in the May 23, 1980, issue of the London Times described Collier as "very much a writer of the 1920s and notable for lightly carried erudition, literary allusiveness, and quiet wit."

Biographical Information

Collier was born in London in 1901 to John George and Emily Noyes Collier. After kindergarten, Collier was educated privately. He began his writing career as a poet and was first published in 1920 at the age of nineteen. His focus later shifted to writing novels and short stories. His earliest novel, His Monkey Wife: or, Married to a Chimp, was published in 1930, followed a year later by his short story collection Epistle to a Friend. During the early 1930s Collier's fiction earned him a reputation for whimsy and caustic wit which carried across the Atlantic, and helped land him a contract, in 1935, to write screenplays for RKO Pictures. During the next thirty years, Collier continued writing novels and short stories, developed many screenplays, and was active in television. He died of a stroke in Pacific Palisades, California, in 1980.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Collier penned both fantastical and mystery short fiction. In his fantasy pieces one finds wit, irony, and creative plots that provide insight into human nature. One example, "Evening Primrose," is the story of a young poet who seeks sanctuary from the harshness of society. He plans to live in a large department store in seclusion but discovers that at night, after the doors close, the mannequins come to life. He finds their society as repressive, materialistic, and uncompromising as that of the real world. In another tale, "Thus I Refute Beelzy," a boy's imaginary friend comes to life to exact revenge on the boy's cruel and overbearing father. Collier's mysteries contain sophisticated characters who are often undone by their own wrongdoings, and clever plots with ironic and abrupt endings. In "Another American Tragedy" a young man plans to murder and then impersonate his wealthy uncle in order to change the old man's will in his favor. As part of the scheme he has his teeth removed, but real hardship begins for him when the family physician, who is currently the old man's heir, arrives on the scene with secret knowledge of the nephew's intent. Hints of misogyny also appear throughout the author's work, particularly in his mysteries. His tales of murder often portray troubled marriages in which husbands are motivated to kill their nagging or unfaithful wives and then hide the bodies in the basement. "De Mortuis," one of Collier's most famous and frequently anthologized stories from the Fancies and Goodnights collection, features a New York doctor married to a woman whom his friends know to be unfaithful. When they see the doctor patching his basement floor they assume that he has buried her. They pledge their loyalty to him and then share tales of the wife's escapades while, unbeknownst to them, the wife is actually returning home.

Critical Reception

Collier was very popular in the United States, where his most memorable literary pieces were collected in The John Collier Reader in 1972. Like many writers of fantastic fiction, Collier was largely ignored by scholars but received high praise from the public. Marjorie Farber noted in a review of A Touch of Nutmeg that "Collier handles clichés with the deft conviction of a poet." Many of his stories adapted for film and television—in some cases by accomplished directors such as Orson Wells and Alfred Hitchcock—are also celebrated by viewing audiences. Commenting on Collier, Anthony Burgess stated, "Though not a writer of the very first rank, he possessed considerable literary skill and a rare capacity to entertain. .. . He needs to be rediscovered."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Epistle to a Friend 1931

No Traveller Returns 1931

Green Thoughts 1932

The Devil and All 1934

Variation on a Theme 1935

Witch's Money 1940

Presenting Moonshine: Stories 1941

The Touch of Nutmeg, and More Unlikely Stories 1943

Fancies and Goodnights 1951

Pictures in the Fire 1958

The John Collier Reader (short stories, novels) 1972

Other Major Works

His Monkey Wife; or, Married to a Chimp (novel) 1930

Gemini: Poems (poetry) 1931

Tom's A-Cold (novel) 1933; also published as Full Circle: A Tale, 1933

Defy the Foul Fiend; or, The Misadventures of a Heart (novel) 1934

Milton's Paradise Lost: Screenplay for Cinema of the Mind (screenplay) 1973


John Collier (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: "Please Excuse Me, Comrade," in Ten Contemporaries: Notes toward Their Definitive Bibliography, second series, by John Gawsworth, Joiner & Steele Ltd., 1933, pp. 109-11.

[In the following essay, Collier presents a sardonic discourse on writing prose.]

As a writer, my position is a difficult one. I cannot see much good in the world, nor much likelihood of good. There seems to me to be a definite bias in human nature towards ill, towards the immediate convenience, the vulgar, the cheap: a sort of stick whose fall into darkness must be the end of every rocket-like ascent from pleasant, grunting savagery. I cannot therefore believe very enthusiastically in myself or in my fellow men, for we are past the starry stage. I would rather probe the beating heart of humanity with a bodkin than with a pen. And, as the love borne to Mary by her lamb is said to have been of the responsive kind, it is hardly to be expected that the sheep will love one who bears them no sort of goodwill. In fact, to be perfectly frank, I have become so ill-natured, that, looking on their Press, their pylons, their picture-palaces, their politics, I no longer feel in earnest remonstrative mood, like a little self-constituted good shepherd, nor inclined to the brisk satirical bark, like the frisking dog; but I rub my hands, and say, "Hurry up, you foulers of a good world, and destroy yourselves faster. Flock to be clerks and counter-jumpers and factory hands. Eat your tinned food. Build yourselves more of the houses, reachme-downs, faces, lives, which express your single soul so well. Read your newspapers: they will tell you you are all right, that you should breed. They would tell the rats so, if they grew up to be certified readers. Spoil every good thing that stands in the way of trade, and praise every ill thing that can be made and sold, for, for the time being, it gives you license to spawn the more. You evil sheep, whom Shakespeare would...

(The entire section is 811 words.)

Iris Barry (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: "Tales with the Spice of Genius: A Book of John Collier's Exquisite, Galvanic Stories," in New York Herald Tribune Books, January 26, 1941, p. 2.

[In the following review of Presenting Moonshine, Barry, an English critic, praises Collier's "exquisite" writing style and his handling of supernatural and abnormal subject matter.]

This gifted writer, whose novels are warmly cherished by an inner circle of admirers, has gradually earned much wider fame through his short stories. Since he writes like an angel that has browsed on the finest pastures of English literature, this is only proper. His exquisite and vital style combined with a strong dose of cynicism...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: "Fantasticated," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2053, June 7, 1941, p. 273.

[In the following review, the critic finds inconsistent quality among the stories in Presenting Moonshine but considers some to be representative of Collier's best writing, calling them "spacious and artful and . . . nicely matched by . . . [their] demure precision of language. "]

Mr. John Collier is something of a rare bird. He does not make himself heard frequently, but his note is a distinctive one. Presenting Moonshine is a collection of twenty-four short stories, and as a collection it has about twenty-four times as much character as most such volumes. His is...

(The entire section is 856 words.)

Marjorie Farber (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "A Touch of Madness," in The New York Times Book Review, January 23, 1944, p. 6.

[Below, Farber presents a favorable review of The Touch of Nutmeg.]

Clifton Fadiman is to be congratulated on his premonition that "one of the things this sad world needs" is a new collection of Collier stories. For in Mr. Collier's fantasy world of devils, murderers and angels there is a strictly ordered justice. The murderer is not always caught, I must admit (unless he happens also to be a genteel sadist with a habit of rearranging people's lives), but the immoral—the dishonest, the unkind, the pushers and devourers of others—these are always punished, and sometimes very...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Struthers Burt (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "Lineal Descendant of Saki," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXVII, No. 6, February 5, 1944, p. 15.

[In the following review of The Touch of Nutmeg, Burt asserts that Collier is most successful in the horror genre while his fantasies are flawed, lacking the classic form and content of folk and fairy tales, which Burt argues "cannot be tampered with, or experimented with, or modernized, or improved upon. "]

John Collier has an extremely pretty wit, usually bland, unexpected, and deceptive, which is the best kind. In America it would be described as "poker-faced" or "dead-pan"; in John Collier's original country—England—it might be spoken of...

(The entire section is 1228 words.)

H. H. Holmes (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "Presented by John Collier," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, November 25, 1951, p. 3.

[H. H. Holmes was a pseudonym of William A. P. White. White was an American critic, science fiction writer, and co-founder of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Below, he offers a positive assessment of the stories in the collection Fancies and Goodnights, citing their skilled narrative technique, imaginative force, and excellent prose style.]

Any reader who has ever read so much as a single story by John Collier needs to be told nothing beyond the facts that this volume contains over 170,000 words by The Master: all of the twenty-four stories...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

William Goyen (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "Whimsical and Bizarre," in The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1951, p. 5.

[Goyen is an American critic, short story writer, and novelist. In the following review, he contends that Fancies and Goodnights contains a "savagery of humor and coldbrained irony " yet is infused with tenderness and sympathy for the human condition.]

The special readers who are John Collier's constituency—and no doubt many, many new readers—will relish this collection of his odd and whimsical and bizarre stories and pieces [titled Fancies and Goodnights]. There is in Mr. Collier's stories a cruelty, a savagery of humor and cold-brained irony which our time...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Basil Davenport (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "Unlike Other Tales," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXIV, No. 51, December 22, 1951, p. 16.

[In the following review of Fancies and Goodnights, Davenport identifies the fine line Collier draws between the macabre and the funny, concluding that he "remains the master of an irony so perfectly balanced that his horror is hardly ever quite free of humor, nor his humor of horror. "]

If you have read any of John Collier's stories, then all I need to do is tell you that [Fancies and Goodnights] contains fifty of them—the entire contents (one story excepted) of his out-of-print and eagerly sought-after collections, Presenting...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Thomas Lask (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Chimps, Manikins, People Too," in The New York Times, November 25, 1972, p. 29.

[In the following review of The John Collier Reader, Lask praises Collier's craft as a fantasist but finds that the collection's juxtaposition and quantity of stories emphasizes the writer's weaknesses.]

It is doubtful whether his publishers have done John Collier the good they intended in assembling in one volume such a generous selection of his work: a lengthy novel, bits from another, 47 short stories. He is a writer better served in small takes. One tale in The New Yorker provokes an appreciative chuckle. But 47 of them or even a decent fraction of that number induce a...

(The entire section is 942 words.)

William Abrahams (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "The Devil Wore Spats," in Saturday Review of the Arts, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 6, 1973, pp. 80, 84.

[Abrahams is an American author and editor. Below, he considers the pieces included in The John Collier Reader to be engaging and enjoyable reading.]

It is twenty-one years—twenty years too many—since we have had a book from John Collier, and that, Fancies and Goodnights, a collection of fifty of his stories, was in considerable part drawn from two earlier collections. This is one writer, evidently, who is determined that his admirers won't suffer from a surfeit of his work. But twenty-one years are twenty-one years, and famished Collierites,...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Eric Korn (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Monkey-tricks and Minor Devils," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3850, December 26, 1975, p. 1533.

[In the following review, Korn offers a negative assessment of The John Collier Reader.]

It is for his short stories that John Collier is—at the moment—best known. There are several overlapping collections: The Devil and All, Demons and Darkness, Pictures in the Fire, Presenting Moonshine, Fancies and Goodnights, The Touch of Nutmeg. The recurrence of brimstone about the titles will doubtless strike you, and indeed a depressing number of these stories feature fiends, devils, or the Devil. There are also a few angels. Unlike ghosts, devils have no...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Betty Richardson (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Short Fiction: The Forms," and "Short Fiction: The Themes," in John Collier, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 72-89, 90-105.

[Richardson is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Collier's short fiction.]

A John Collier story is recognizable; it is unique. Most of his approximately fifty stories are reprinted continually, and they seem contemporary, even those first published some thirty years ago. Collier is not a realist, but, unlike Lord Dunsany, with whom he has been compared, he does not exploit the supernatural for its own sake, nor, like Saki, is he writing about horror simply to horrify....

(The entire section is 10567 words.)

Further Reading


Burgess, Anthony. Introduction to The John Collier Reader, by John Collier, pp. xi-xv. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.

Discusses Collier's literary reputation and writing style.

Field, Louise Maunsell. Review of Presenting Moonshine, by John Collier. The New York Times Book Review (26 January 1941): 7.

Positive review of Presenting Moonshine. Field observes that "John Collier's short stories provide a tacit and ironic commentary on certain phases of the modernity-worship period from which we are just emerging."

Kessel, John J. "John Collier." In Supernatural Fiction Writers:...

(The entire section is 206 words.)