John Collier (fiction writer)

John Collier

John Collier, c. 1970s
Born (1901-05-03)May 3, 1901
London, UK
Died April 6, 1980(1980-04-06) (aged 78)
Occupation Short story writer, screenplay writer
Nationality British

John Henry Noyes Collier (3 May 1901 – 6 April 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. Most were collected in The John Collier Reader (Knopf, 1972); earlier collections include a 1951 volume, the famous Fancies and Goodnights, which won the International Fantasy Award and remains 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, Roald Dahl, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Wyndham Lewis, and Paul Theroux. He appears to have given few interviews in his life; those include conversations with biographer Betty Richardson, Tom Milne, and Max Wilk.


Born in London in 1901, John Collier was the son of John George and Emily Mary Noyes Collier. He had one sister, Kathleen Mars Collier. His father, John George Collier, was one of seventeen children, and could not afford formal education; he worked as a clerk. Nor could John George afford schooling for his son beyond prep school; John Collier and Kathleen were educated at home.[1] He was privately educated by his uncle Vincent Collier, a novelist.[2] Biographer Betty Richardson wrote:

He began reading Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales at three; these began a lifelong interest in myth and legend that was further stimulated when, in his teens, he discovered James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890-1915). An uncle, Vincent Collier, himself a minor novelist, introduced the boy to 17th and 18th century literature. Collier particularly admired Jonathan Swift, and an 18th-century satirist's view of life became his own. From his first work to his version of Paradise Lost, Collier saw humans, flawed but with potential, everywhere contaminated by narrow creeds, institutions, coteries, vanities, and careers.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] He never attended university.[4]

He was married to early silent film actress Shirley Palmer in 1936; they were divorced. His second marriage in 1945 was to New York actress Beth Kay (Margaret Elizabeth Eke). They divorced a decade later. His third wife was Harriet Hess Collier, who survived him; they had one son, John G. S. Collier, born in Nice, France, on May 18, 1958.[1]



He began writing poetry at age nineteen, and was first published in 1920.[5]

For ten years Collier attempted to reconcile intensely visual experience opened to him by the Sitwells and the modern painters with the more austere preoccupations of those classical authors who were fashionable in the 1920s.[3] 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.[4]

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."[4] The few poems he wrote during this time were afterwards published in a volume under the title Gemini.[3]


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.[2] Biographer Richardson explained the literary context for the book:

His Monkey Wife is the last among light early-twentieth-century fantasies that include G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson (1911), and Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928). Collier's book, however, appeared immediately after the economic crash and the start of the Great Depression in 1929, when the tone of the literary and intellectual world darkened. While his novel was well received, it did not achieve the fame of the earlier fantasies. ... Much in this novel echoes, without Swift's bitterness, the contrast between Gulliver and the rational Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels (1726). Collier's style, however, is playful; he borrows heavily from Joseph Conrad, parodies the style of Thomas De Quincey ... and otherwise sustains the light and artificial tone by literary borrowings throughout.[1]

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."[6] Author Peter Straub has done the same with fake, negative reviews, in admiration of Collier.

His second novel, Tom's A-Cold: A Tale (1933) was grim, depicting a barbaric and dystopian future England; it is mentioned in Joshua Glenn's essay "The 10 Best Apocalypse Novels of Pre-Golden Age SF (1904-33)."[7] Richardson calls it "part of a tradition of apocalyptic literature that began in the 1870s" including The War of the Worlds: "Usually, this literature shows an England destroyed by alien forces, but in Collier's novel, set in Hampshire in 1995, England has been destroyed by its own vicesgreed, laziness, and an overwhelming bureaucracy crippled by its own committees and red tape."[1] John Clute wrote,

Radically dissimilar to his most familiar work is Tom's A-Cold ... a remarkably effective post-HOLOCAUST novel set in the 1990s, long after an unexplained disaster has decimated England's (and presumably the world's) population and thrust mankind back into rural barbarism, a condition out of which the eldest survivors, who remember civilization, are trying to educate the young third generation. The simple plot plays no tricks on the reader... Throughout the novel, very movingly, [Collier] renders the reborn, circumambient natural world with a hallucinatory visual intensity found nowhere else in his work. Along with Alun Llewelyn's The Strange Invaders (1934), Tom's A-Cold can be seen, in its atmosphere of almost loving conviction, as a genuine successor to Richard Jefferies's After London (1885); and it contrasts markedly with [Collier's] earlier No Traveller Returns (1931) ... a harsh dystopian novella set in a deadened world."[8]

The title refers to a line spoken by Edgar in King Lear; the outcast Edgar (the son of a fictional Gloucester) pretends to be a madman named Tom o' Bedlam and says to the deranged King, who is wandering on the windy heath, "Tom's a-cold."[9]

His last novel, Defy the Foul Fiend; or, The Misadventures of a Heart, another title taken from the same speech in King Lear as Tom's A-Cold, was published in 1934.

He received the Edgar Award in 1952 for the short story collection Fancies and Goodnights, which also won the International Fantasy Award in 1952.

Writing style

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.[10] 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"), or the one in which "the mean father, who refuses to believe his son, is gobbled up, with only one foot in a shoe left on the stairs" (Thus I Refute Beelzy).

Betty Richardson wrote:

His talent has been compared with that of Lord Dunsany, S. J. Perelman, Anatole France, Sax Rohmer, James Branch Cabell andto Collier's dismayH. H. Munro (Saki). ... Bradbury described Collier as a combination of W. Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, and Evelyn Waugh. The many comparisons point to the difficulty of describing Collier's distinctive style, especially in his stories, which are cool, economical, and witty. As noted motion-picture writer and longtime friend Paul Jarrico observed in a 13 April 1980 memorial speech, Collier wrote with infinite effort to create a style that seems effortless. By many, he is considered a writer's writer.[1]

David Langford described Collier as "best known for his highly polished, often bitterly flippant magazine stories... [His] best stories are touched with poetry and real wit, sometimes reminiscent of Saki's. There are moments of outrageous Grand Guignol; the occasional sexual naughtiness is far beyond Thorne Smith in sophistication." Langford praises Collier's "smiling misanthropy."[11] Similarly, Christopher Fowler wrote in The Independent, "His simple, sharp style brought his tales colourfully to life" and described Collier's fiction as "sardonic."[12] John Clute wrote, "He was known mainly for his sophisticated though sometimes rather precious short stories, generally featuring acerbic snap endings; many of these stories have strong elements of fantasy..."[8] E. F. Bleiler also admired Collier's writing, describing Collier as ""One of the modern masters of the short story and certainly the preeminent writer of short fantasies." and stating that The Devil And All was "one of the great fantasy collections".[13]

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 other's 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."

This see-sawing between the sublime and the batheticfrom "simple and happy" to a family movie; from joys and transports to "rubbery lips"; from luxuries and yachts to "ten bucks on the bird"is an example of the effects that Collier's genius could conjure. The story descends through bathos to absurd tragedy when Alice and Irwin secretly plot to murder the other in order to be the one alive to enjoy the tears and the luxury.

Other media

In the succeeding years, Collier traveled between England, France and Hollywood.[2] He continued to write short stories, but as time went on, he would turn his attention more and more towards writing screenplays.

Max Wilk, who interviewed Collier for his book Schmucks with Underwoods, tells how, during the 1930s, Collier left the home he owned in England, Wilcote Manor, and traveled to France, where he lived briefly at Antibes and Cassis. The story of how Collier wound up going to Hollywood has been mistold sometimes, but Collier told Wilk that in Cassis,

"I saw a fishing boat I rather liked, and I wanted to buy it. They wanted 7000 francs. And I wondered where on earth I could find that much money. And would you believe, right then, some little girl came riding up on a bicycle to hand me a telegram....[sic] It was my London agent wanting to know, would I go to Hollywood to work for eight weeks, at $500 per week?... And I went out to California, and they were waiting for me. Delightful experience. A picture called Sylvia Scarlett, at RKO. George Cukor was the director. I'd scarcely seen a motion picture in my life; I didn't know a thing about screenwriting. In point of fact, it was something of a mistake. Hugh Walpole had told George I'd be right for the job. George thought Hugh was talking about Evelyn Waugh." [14]

The film Sylvia Scarlett starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Brian Aherne, and Edmund Gwenn; it was the comic story of a widower, his daughter Sylvia who disguises herself as a boy, and a con man; Collier's collaborators on the script were Gladys Unger and Mortimer Offner.[15] Wilk writes that the film was considered bizarre at the time, but decades later, it enjoys a cult following.[16]

Collier landed in Hollywood on May 16, 1935, but, he told Wilk, after Sylvia Scarlett he returned to England. There, he spent a year working on Elephant Boy for director Zoltan Korda.

"Korda took me into a projection room, and we sat there watching hours of film that had been shot in Burma...[sic] without the advantage of any script! Just a director with his crew, shooting film of elephants. So we saw elephants coming this way, elephants going that way, charging, retreating...[sic] Endless elephants! And there were some shots of a little boy, about three feet tall, a charming little creature. That would be Sabu.... Korda and I saw all this huge amount of film, and after about three hours of it, he began to utter hideous cries! What could he possibly do with all this goddamned film?"[17]

Collier suggested a way to make the footage cohere into a story and to make "a star out of that little boy, Sabu." After these two unorthodox starts to screenwriting, Collier was on his way to a new writing career.


Collier returned to Hollywood, where he wrote prolifically for film and television. He contributed notably to the screenplays of The African Queen along with James Agee and John Huston, The War Lord, I Am A Camera (adapted from The Berlin Stories and remade later as Cabaret), Her Cardboard Lover, Deception and Roseanna McCoy.


Adaptations of his stories

His short story "Evening Primrose" was the basis 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, including "Back for Christmas," "Wet Saturday" and "De Mortuis" were adapted for the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.



John Collier died of a stroke on April 6, 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."[6]

Collections of Collier's papers



Short story collections

Other works

Selected short stories


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Richardson, Betty (2002). "John Collier". In Darren Harris-Fain. British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers, 1918-1960. Dictionary of Literary Biography ; vol. 255. Detroit: Gale Group. pp. 30–36.
  2. 1 2 3 4 The Editors of Time Life: "Editors' Preface", Fancies and Goodnights, pages viv-xii. Time Life Books, 1965.
  3. 1 2 3 Editor: jacket blurb, Defy the Foul Fiend, back cover. Penguin Books UK, 1948.
  4. 1 2 3 Hoyle, Fred: "Time Reading Program Introduction", Fancies and Goodnights, page xv-xix. Time Life Books, 1965
  5. 1 2 Sauter, Dale (1999). "John Collier: An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center". Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  6. 1 2 Paul Theroux, Sunrise with Seamonsters. Houghton Mifflin Books (1986): 303.
  7. Glenn, Joshua. "The 10 Best Apocalypse Novels of Pre-Golden Age SF (1904-33)". Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  8. 1 2 Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (1993). "Collier, John". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St Martin's Griffin. p. 243. ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
  9. Shakespeare, William. "King Lear". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  10. Gilmore, Chris, "Collier, John (Henry Noyes)", in St. James Guide To Fantasy Writers, ed. David Pringle, London, St. James Press, 1996, ISBN 1-55862-205-5, (pp. 120-2).
  11. Langford, David (1993). "Collier, John (Henry Noyes)". In John Clute. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St Martin's Griffin. p. 1268. ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
  12. 1 2 Fowler, Christopher (24 May 2009). "Forgotten authors No. 34: John Collier". The Independent. Independent Print Limited. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  13. E. F. Bleiler, The Guide To Supernatural Fiction. Kent, Ohio : Kent State University Press, 1983. ISBN 0873382889 (p. 117)
  14. Wilk, Max (2004). Schmucks with Underwoods: Conversations with Hollywood's Classic Screenwriters. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. pp. 128–129. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  15. "Sylvia Scarlett". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  16. Wilk, Max (2004). Schmucks with Underwoods: Conversations with Hollywood's Classic Screenwriters. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. p. 129. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  17. Wilk, Max (2004). Schmucks with Underwoods: Conversations with Hollywood's Classic Screenwriters. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. p. 130. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  18. "Birds of Prey". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  19. "Nattmagasinet (Evening Primrose) Norsk tv fra 1970". Filmfront. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  21. Collier, John (October 7, 1939). "Back for Christmas". The New Yorker. New York: Condé Nast. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  22. "Back for Christmas". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  23. Martin Grams, Jr. and Patrik Wikstrom (2001). The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Publishing, 135. ISBN 0-9703310-1-0
  24. Back for Christmas

Further reading

External links

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