John Collier 1901-1980
English novelist, short story writer, poet, and screenwriter.
A versatile writer who is best remembered for his fantastic plots, Collier is almost equally famous in the mystery genre. His short story collection Fancies and Goodnights (1951) was selected for the “Queen's Quorum,” Ellery Queen's list of outstanding mystery collections. The wit, irony, and imagination in Collier's novels and stories is often compared to that of such writers as Saki, Ambrose Bierce, and Roald Dahl.
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 that carried across the Atlantic and helped land him a contract, in 1935, to write screenplays for RKO Pictures. His most famous Hollywood accomplishment was writing the storyline for the classic film The African Queen, starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. 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.
Collier's first novel, His Monkey Wife; or, Married to a Chimp, depicts a man who visits Africa, returns with a chimpanzee named Emily, and falls in love with her, eventually marrying her and moving back to Africa. While some readers and critics were shocked by Collier's portrayal of the interspecies love affair, others recognized in it Collier's talents for social criticism and satire, and the novel experienced great success. Collier's subsequent novels, Tom's A-Cold (1933) and Defy the Foul Fiend; or, The Misadventures of a Heart (1934), were less successful. While Collier's writing was always considered nearly perfect, critics found that this, combined with his wit and satire, were not enough to sustain novel-length fiction. Collier's short fiction, however, was consistently well received. His fantasy stories contain 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 his 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 Collier'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 Fancies and Goodnights, 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. In 1973 Collier published Milton's Paradise Lost: Screenplay for Cinema of the Mind, in which he recast and updated John Milton's famous epic poem into a screenplay format. Whether or not Collier intended the work to ever be filmed remains unknown. Critics praised Collier's efforts, although some noted that Milton's original depiction of his Genesis characters was lost amid Collier's attempts to further romanticize the story.
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. Critics often noted that Collier had a rare talent for writing perfectly crafted, highly stylized sentences. Marjorie Farber wrote in a review of The Touch of Nutmeg, (1943) “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.”