Authors: John Collier

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist, short-story writer, and screenwriter

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Epistle to a Friend, 1931

No Traveller Returns, 1931

Green Thoughts, 1932

The Devil and All, 1934

Variations on a Theme, 1935

Presenting Moonshine, 1941

A Touch of Nutmeg, and More Unlikely Stories, 1943

Fancies and the Goodnights, 1951

Pictures in the Fire, 1958

The John Collier Reader, 1972

The Best of John Collier, 1975

Long Fiction:

His Monkey Wife: Or, Married to a Chimp, 1930

Tom’s A-Cold, 1933 (also known as Full Circle, 1933)

Defy the Foul Fiend: Or, The Misadventures of a Heart, 1934

Drama:

Wet Saturday, pr. 1941

John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: Screenplay for Cinema of the Mind, pb. 1973

Screenplays:

Sylvia Scarlett, 1936 (with Gladys Unger and Mortimer Offner)

Elephant Boy, 1937 (with Akos Tolnay and Marcia de Silva)

Her Cardboard Lover, 1942

Deception, 1946 (with Joseph Than)

Roseanna McCoy, 1949

The African Queen, 1951 (original screenplay)

The Story of Three Loves, 1953 (with Jan Lustig and George Froeschel)

I Am a Camera, 1955

The War Lord, 1965 (with Millard Kaufman)

Poetry:

Gemini: Poems, 1931

Nonfiction:

Just the Other Day: An Informal History of Great Britain Since the War, 1932 (with Iain Lang)

Edited Text:

The Scandal and Credulities of John Aubrey, 1931

Biography

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.{$I[AN]9810001312}{$I[A]Collier, John}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Collier, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Collier, John}{$I[tim]1901;Collier, John}

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.

BibliographyKessel, John J. “John Collier.” In Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, 2: A. E. Coppard to Roger Zelazny, edited by Everett Franklin Bleiler. New York: Scribner’s, 1985. A brief introduction to Collier’s fantasy fiction, commenting on selected works of fiction and placing him within a context of fantasy writers.Lachman, Marvin S. “John Collier.” In British Mystery Writers, 1920-1939. Vol. 77 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. Lachman explores Collier’s skill in writing about domestic murder and malice and praises his economical style, his clever turns of speech, and his “small miracles of characterization.”Milne, Tom. “The Elusive John Collier.” Sight and Sound 45 (Spring, 1976): 104-108. Milne discusses Collier’s career as a film writer and provides a brief analysis of his fiction.Richardson, Betty. John Collier. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Richardson provides a comprehensive survey of Collier’s life and milieu, poetry, novels, screenplays, and short fiction to argue that Collier was a radical, a craftsman, a visionary, and a clever and iconoclastic social satirist unappreciated in his time but worthy of revaluation today. Born into a world of Victorian values, he was skeptical of twentieth century dogmas and ideologies that he feared restricted human behavior and crippled human aspirations. Richardson concludes that Collier’s “witty, jaunty, honest, and clear-sighted” writing will endure and blames his neglect on his unusual variety of literary forms, changing critical tastes, his publication in popular journals, and his own personal modesty.Theroux, Paul. Sunrise with Sea Monsters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. Theroux praises the heroine of His Monkey Wife, Emily the chimpanzee, as “sensitive, witty, resourceful,” and personable, and he argues that humans pale beside her. He says that Collier attacks “the jaded twenties types” as “true apes” in need of a “simian redeemer.” He finds the misogyny in Collier’s tales “wickedly cheerful” and “irresistible” and Collier himself “one of the great literary unclassifiables … another synonym for genius.”Vanatta, Dennis. The English Short Story: 1945-1980. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Brief discussion of Collier’s fantasies; including discussions of “Evening Primrose,” “Witch’s Money,” and “Three Bears Cottage”; comments on Collier’s precise style that is often marked by excessive cleverness.
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