(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

At their best, John Collier’s works are lightly satiric, elegantly styled pieces, ironic, sardonic and bizarre, though occasionally unexpectedly grim. Their dialogue is deft, their style economical and clever, their plots subtle, swift, and memorable, their outcomes surprising. They expose the shallow vanities of contemporary manners, mores, and sentimentality. They involve sharply observed studies of the inanities, conflicts, and power plays involved in male-female relationships, and the greed, hypocrisy, and pretensions of professionals, tradesmen, Hollywood types, and even gentlemen. His doctors promote absurd cures (one even disembowels a patient for personal gain); his dentists rationalize pulling every tooth in one’s head for the right fee; his psychiatrists explain away the Devil; his industrialists are hardened sadists and his gentlemen profligate dandies; and his artists pander to prevailing tastes or find themselves victims of the system. The scientist in “Man Overboard” pursues a sea monster and then flying saucers, while the one in “Youth from Vienna” seeks the fountain of youth. Sometimes Collier’s language debunks, as in the description of one character’s ideals as “as lofty as the bridge of his nose” or of a girl “who lives chastely with her Lee-Enfield, her Ballard, her light Winchester.” Often Collier will interject a formal and brilliantly contrived sentence with a Victorian tone, sometimes to call attention to the dichotomy between true elegance and vulgar pretense, sometimes to underscore the false face behind which ill-will hides. Whatever his approach, Collier’s genius for understatement and for deft characterization creates a world of magic and power in which human disaster, sexual attraction, and everyday vice are subjects of black humor, irony, and satire.

A number of Collier’s stories juxtapose the ordinary and the supernatural and in particular involve deliberate or chance encounters between people and diabolical tempters or fallen angels. Many of these tales, like others in Collier’s canon, set in opposition the logical and the emotional or psychological, with logic being the mainstay of the Devil and his cohorts (“I have reason on my side,” sneers the Devil) and emotion an unfathomable but dependable motivator of human action. Collier’s hell seems very familiar and is even mistaken for Buenos Aires in one tale. His universe, according to another story, is really a pint of beer, whose bubbles contain separate worlds.

The Devil and All

The collection The Devil and All contains some of the best of the Devil stories. “The Possession of Angela Bradshaw,” a light spoof on the “new morality,” tells of a respectable and a rather ordinary young lady of unquestionably superior upbringing, a Miss Bradshaw, who inexplicably begins to “swear like a trooper” and recite scurrilous doggerel verses, which horrify her parents and repel her fiancé. An attempted exorcism fails and only an agreement to allow the young lady to marry a presentable young poet will persuade him to give up possession of her. Gazing into her eyes had resulted in his literally “possessing” her body—and heart. “The Right Side” and “Halfway to Hell” both begin with suicides. In the first, a young man contemplating a plunge off a bridge is stopped by a helpful devil who provides a vision of fiends enjoying the lewd pleasures of Totenham Court Road and souls trapped in the circles of hell. A damp and chilly dance hall proves a most cunning condemnation: an eternity of boredom. In the second, the suicide has chosen to taste all the little pleasures of life before making a grand farewell in response to a jilting, but when provided a view of hell through its Piccadilly Circus underground entrance, he schemes to tempt his demon escort with a powerful drink described as “liquid fire” and to keep his soul from hell.

In “After the Ball,” a hulking, brutish demon, desperate to join hell’s “Infernal” football league, must capture a soul for his would-be team to kick around; he goes after an upright bachelor whose rectitude leads the Devil in a hellish dance until the would-be victim’s marriage; then the wife’s greed and infidelity do what the fiend never could alone: damn his soul.

Pictures in the Fire

The title story in Pictures in the Fire, depicts Hollywood as the center of contractual arrangements with the Devil, a Hollywood agent selling the souls of his clients in film options, and a finicky actress so distracting that the Devil himself fails to renew an option for a soul. In “Bird of Prey,” the Devil is a monstrous bird who spawns an equally monstrous offspring, whose vocal imitations lead to domestic malice and damnation. “Hell Hath No Fury” depicts what happens when a fallen angel and a humanized fiend become roommates and what types of men they attract. “Fallen Angel,” in turn, demonstrates the power of psychological jargon and Freudian analysis to transform angel to housewife and the foulest fiend into a “tailless” boring Wall Street success. Such stories call attention to the number of Devil/hell/fire related expressions, such as “damn and blast you,” “a devilish situation,” “hellishly dull,” “carry you to Hell for tuppence,” “fought like a demon,” and “getting on like a house on fire.”

The last two tales in the Devil set fit in with another common Collier concern: the effects of women on innocent mankind. Many (but not all) of Collier’s women are obsessive, selfish tyrants or greedy, sexually driven manipulators, whom The New York Times critic Thomas Lask describes as “predatory, blood-sucking, life-throttling and generally plain nasty.” Even when they are more positive figures, they have disturbing, disruptive effects on poor males. In other words, there is a misogynistic edge to many of the stories. “Sleeping Beauty” is among the most negative of the lot. In it, an educated young man of erudite diction, charmed by a beautiful but sleeping young lady in a carnival act, spends a fortune to buy the act, pay off despicable relatives, and hire a medical specialist to revive her. Her awakened persona, however, is that of a rude and vulgar slut, whose every word grates on sensitive ears and who is only ravishing when returned to silent slumber. Mrs. Beaseley, of “Incident on a Lake,” is a domineering tyrant who destroys her husband’s happiness at every opportunity but who is finally done in by an even more beastly creature than she. The innocent-seeming beauty of “If Youth Knew If Age Could” is really the corrupted plaything of a rich old man.

“De Mortuis”

Collier’s husbands murder wives or vice versa. In “De Mortuis,” a doctor repairing his basement floor learns of his young wife’s lascivious behavior from sympathetic male visitors who think he has murdered her and approve; when her return seems to confirm his newly aroused suspicions, he cements her corpse in the cellar. Readers hear only his sweet invitation for her to see his handiwork in the cellar; all the rest is implied. The horror of the tale comes from the speed with which an educated and presumably human doctor accepts the hearsay evidence of rude, bragging bumpkins and acts on it, without even providing his wife a chance at rebuttal or defense. In “Back for Christmas,” a henpecked Dr. Carpenter miscalculates his wife’s...

(The entire section is 3054 words.)