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John Collier (writer)

John Collier (May 3, 1901 - April 6, 1980) was a British-born author and screenplay writer best known for his short stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker from the 1930s to the 1950s. They were collected in a 1951 volume, Fancies and Goodnights, which is still in print. Individual stories are frequently anthologized in fantasy collections. John Collier's writing has been praised by authors such as Anthony Burgess, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman and Paul Theroux. He was married to early silent film actress Shirley Palmer.

Early life

Born in London in 1901, John Collier was privately educated by his uncle Vincent Collier, a novelist. When, at the age of 18 or 19, Collier was asked by his father what he had chosen as a vocation, his reply was, "I want to be a poet." His father indulged him: over the course of the next ten years, Collier lived on an allowance of two pounds a week, plus whatever he could pick up by writing book reviews and acting as a cultural correspondent for a Japanese newspaper. During this time, being not overly burdened by any financial responsibilities, he developed a penchant for games of chance, conversation in cafes and visits to picture galleries. He never attended a university.

Poetry to novels and short stories

For ten years Collier attempted to reconcile the intensely visual experience opened to him by the Sitwells and the modern painters, with the austerer preoccupations of those classical authors who were fashionable in the 1920s. He felt that his poetry was unsuccessful, however: he was not able to make his two selves (whom he oddly described as the "archaic, uncouth, and even barbarous" Olsen and the "hysterically self-conscious dandy" Valentine) speak with one voice.

Being an admirer of James Joyce, Collier found a solution in Joyce's Ulysses: "On going for my next lesson to Ulysses, that city of modern prose," he wrote, "I was struck by the great number of magnificent passages in which words are used as they are used in poetry, and in which the emotion which is originally aesthetic, and the emotion which has its origin in intellect, are fused in higher proportions of extreme forms than I had believed was possible." The few poems he wrote during this time were afterwards published in a volume under the title Gemini. While he had written some short stories during the period in which he was trying to find success as a poet, his career did not take shape until the publication of His Monkey Wife in 1930. It enjoyed a certain small popularity and critical approval that helped to sell his short stories. As a private joke, Collier wrote a decidedly cool four-page review of His Monkey Wife, describing it as an attempt "to combine the qualities of the thriller with those of what might be called the decorative novel," and concluding with the following appraisal of the talents of its author: "From the classical standpoint his consciousness is too crammed for harmony, too neurasthenic for proportion, and his humor is too hysterical, too greedy, and too crude."

His stories may be broadly classified as fantasies, but are really sui generis. They feature an acerbic wit and are usually ironic or dark in tone. Like the stories of P. G. Wodehouse, they are perfectly constructed and feature a brilliant literary craftsmanship that can easily escape notice. His stories are memorable; people who cannot recall title or author will nevertheless remember "the story about the people who lived in the department store" ("Evening Primrose") or "the story in which the famous beauties that the man magically summons all say 'Here I am on a tiger-skin again'" ("Bottle Party").

A characteristic point of his style is that the titles of many of his stories reveal (or at least telegraph) what would otherwise be a surprise ending.

Two examples, both from "Over Insurance," may illustrate his style. The story opens:

Alice and Irwin were as simple and as happy as any young couple in a family-style motion picture. In fact, they were even happier, for people were not looking at them all the time and their joys were not restricted by the censorship code. It is therefore impossible to describe the transports with which Alice flew to embrace Irwin on his return from work, or the rapture with which Irwin returned her caresses.... It was at least two hours before they even thought about dinner.... Whatever was best on his plate, he found time to put it on hers, and she was no slower in picking out some dainty tidbit to put between his eager and rather rubbery lips.

They become distressed at the possibility of each others' death, and agree that their only consolation would be to cry. However, they decide that it would be better to cry in luxury. Irwin observes:

"I would rather cry on a yacht," said he, "where my tears could be ascribed to the salt spray, and I should not be thought unmanly. Let us insure one another, darling, so that if the worst happens we can cry without interruption. Let us put nine-tenths of our money into insurance...."

"And let us," cried she, "insure our dear bird also," pointing to the feathered cageling, whom they always left uncovered at night, in order that his impassioned trills might grace their diviner raptures.

"You are right," said he, "I will put ten bucks on the bird."

Other media

In the succeeding years, Collier traveled between England, France and Hollywood. While he did continue to write short stories, as time went on he would turn his attention more and more towards writing screenplays.

Having moved to Hollywood in 1935, Collier wrote most prolifically for film and television. He contributed notably to the screenplays of The African Queen along with James Agee and John Huston, the Elephant Boy, The War Lord, I Am A Camera originally Goodbye to Berlin remade later as Cabaret, Sylvia Scarlett, Her Cardboard Lover, Deception and Roseanna McCoy. He received the Edgar Award in 1952 (for the story "Fancies and Goodnights") and the International Fantasy Award in 1952. His short story "Evening Primrose" was the subject of a 1966 television musical by Stephen Sondheim, and it was also adapted for the radio series Escape and by BBC Radio. Several of his stories were adapted for the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Death

John Collier died in 1980 in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California. Near the end of his life, he wrote, "I sometimes marvel that a third-rate writer like me has been able to palm himself off as a second-rate writer."

Bibliography

Novels

  • His Monkey Wife: or Married to a Chimp (1930) (currently in print, ISBN 0-9664913-3-5)
  • No Traveller Returns (1931)
  • Tom's a-Cold (1933) (published in the U.S. as Full Circle)
  • Defy the Foul Fiend: or The Misadventures of a Heart (1934)

Short story collections

  • Green Thoughts (1932)
  • The Devil and All (1934)
  • Variations on a Theme (1934)
  • Presenting Moonshine (1941)
  • The Touch of Nutmeg (1943)
  • Fancies and Goodnights (1951) (paperback reprint currently in print, ISBN 1-59017-051-2) (Note: later editions have more stories than earlier ones. The one presently in print is the latest version including all later additions. (The John Collier Reader and The Best of John Collier contain a few stories not in any edition of Fancies and Goodnights.)
  • Pictures in the Fire (1958)
  • The John Collier Reader (1972) (includes His Monkey Wife in its entirety, chapters 8 and 9 of Defy the Foul Fiend, and selected stories)
  • The Best of John Collier (1975) (precisely the same as The John Collier Reader, except that His Monkey Wife is not included)

Other works

  • Gemini (1931) Poetry collection
  • Paradise Lost: Screenplay for Cinema of the Mind (1973) An adaptation from Milton that was never produced as a film. Collier changed the format slightly to make it more readable in book form.
  • Sleeping Beauty: This short story was used as the basis for James B.Harris' 1973 fantasy film Some Call It Loving AKA Dream Castle, the screenplay written by Zalman King.

Selected short stories

  • "Another American Tragedy" — A man murders an aged rich relative and impersonates him to change the will in his own favor- only to discover he isn't the only one who wants the old man dead.
  • "Back for Christmas" — originally published in the December 13, 1939 issue of The Tattler this story has been dramatised many times: once for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, three times for the Suspense radio series (Peter Lorre portrayed the main character in the first broadcast in 1943, the 1948, and 1956 broadcasts both starred Herbert Marshall), as well as once for an episode of Tales of the Unexpected.
  • "Bottle Party" — A jinn (genie) tricks a man into taking his place in the bottle.
  • "The Chaser" — A young man buying a genuine love potion cannot understand why the seller sells love potions for a dollar, but also offers a colorless, tasteless, undetectable poison at a much, much higher price.
  • "Cancel All I Said" — A couple's young daughter takes a screen test. The couple's lives are torn apart by the studio head's verbal offer to make the child a star.
  • "Evening Primrose" — Probably his most famous; about people who live in a department store, hiding during the day and coming out at night.
  • "Interpretation of a Dream" — A man experiences disturbing and serial dreams of falling from the thirty-ninth story of the skyscraper in which he works, passing one story every night. In his dreams he looks through the window and makes detailed and veridical observations of the real-life inhabitants as he passes.
  • "Over Insurance" — A loving couple puts nine-tenths of their money into life insurance and becomes so impoverished that each decides to poison the other, unaware that the other has made the same decision.
  • "Special Delivery" — A man falls into love with a department-store mannequin. This was later adapted for an episode of the 1960s TV series Journey to the Unknown, retitled "Eve", which starred Dennis Waterman and Carol Lynley.
  • "The Steel Cat" — Inventor uses his pet mouse to demonstrate his better mousetrap to an insensitive prospect who insists on seeing the mouse actually die.
  • "Three Bears Cottage" — A man tries unsuccessfully to poison his wife with a mushroom as retaliation for serving him a smaller egg than the one she served herself.
  • "The Touch of Nutmeg Makes It" — A man tried for murder and acquitted for lack of motive tells his story to sympathetic friends.
  • "Youth from Vienna" — A couple, whose careers (tennis player and actress) depend on youth, are forced to deal with a gift of a single dose of rejuvenating medicine that cannot be divided or shared. This story was the basis for "The Fountain of Youth," a 1956 pilot for a proposed anthology series, produced by Desilu and written, directed, and hosted by Orson Welles.
  • "Thus I Refute Beelzy" — An odiously rational father is confounded by the imagination of his small son.

Footnotes

References

External links

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