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."
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.
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."