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John Collier

John Henry Collier (May 3, 1901-April 6,1980) was a British-born writer best known for his short stories, many of which appeared in the New Yorker during the thirties, forties and fifties. They were collected a 1951 volume, Fancies and Goodnights, which is still in print. Individual stories are frequently anthologized in fantasy collections.

He contributed to the screenplay of The African Queen along with James Agee and John Huston. He received the Edgar Allen Poe Award in 1951 and the International Fantasy Award in 1952.

His short story, Evening Primrose was the subject of a 1966 television musical by Stephen Sondheim.

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 Shop).

A point of his style 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 they joys were not restricted by the censorship code. It is therefore impossible to describe the transports with which Alice flew to emrace 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 unmainly. 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."

John Collier died in 1980 in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California.


Selected Short Stories

Hon. John Collier (1850-1934) is also the name of a British painter in the Pre-Raphaelite style.