Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943
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 a chimp,” and “The candle, guttering beside the bed, was strangled in the grasp of a prehensile foot, and darkness received, like a ripple in velvet, the final happy sigh.” The first of these needs no explanation; the “happy sigh” of the second quotation, however—the last sentence of the novel—refers to the copulation between man and monkey, between husband and wife. It is easy to understand why Collier has been so often accused of misogyny: He is guilty of it.
Collier’s two other novels evidence the same disregard for women. Tom’s A-Cold (or Full Circle) was written as a futuristic novel set in England in 1995, a time when humankind, after some war, is reduced to a primitive existence in which fur-clad men bind together in tribes and steal women, literally by brute force, from neighboring rival tribes. The captured women are then traded and bartered, acquired and cast off, in the most savage ways. Moreover, women as objects do not enjoy any more respect than livestock owned by the men. The same antifeminism surfaces again in Collier’s third and last novel, Defy the Foul Fiend. Readers would be at fault, however, to dismiss Collier’s novels as a 1930’s expression of woman-hating; in all three works, men are revealed as enshrouded in their faults, blunders, stupidity, and wickedness just as women are covered in their silliness, weakness, phoniness, and post-Victorian hypocrisy. Women are exposed as deserving objects of contempt, but men fare no better.
Of the several dozen short stories which Collier wrote during a period of four decades (most of which were collected in The John Collier Reader), few are directly concerned with the relation between men and women as expressed in the novels. His best story is “The Chaser,” an exquisitely contrived piece in which a young man in love visits an alchemist’s shop to buy a love potion; the druggist informs the young man about another product he carries: a “cleaning fluid,” or “spot remover,” which is odorless, tasteless, colorless, and “imperceptible to any known method of autopsy.” This chaser, the reader learns slowly, will be the expensive product the young customer will surely and eventually return to purchase if he is foolish enough to buy the one-dollar love potion. In another popular and oft-reprinted story, “De Mortis . . . ,” a medical doctor new to a small town in New York, having moved there after marrying a native daughter, is thought by male acquaintances to have murdered his wife when they find him digging in the basement. These male friends then reveal the previous sexual indiscretions of the wife and contrive to help the doctor hide the murder since they deem it justifiable. At the end, it is learned that the woman is not yet dead, but the reader knows that she soon will be.
Collier’s domain is the short story, and to summarize these two typical examples is to understate his craftsmanship. The author’s works thrive because of his ability to create imaginative and farfetched plots, to turn phrases, to capture dialogue exactingly, and to involve the reader in the world of fantasy and the supernatural. All these qualities served him well in his work, usually as a collaborator, on Hollywood screenplays. The most successful of these scripts was The African Queen. He also wrote John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: Screenplay for Cinema of the Mind, which has not been produced.