"Collier handles clichés with the deft conviction of a poet."
-- Marjorie Farber
Born in London in 1901, John Collier was the son of Emily Mary Noyes and John George Collier. He had one sister, Kathleen Mars Collier. John's father worked as a clerk and could not afford schooling for his children beyond prep (ages 8-13) school, so John Collier and his sister were educated at home. His beginnings were humble, but he had one very interesting ancestor. His great-grandfather was physician to King William IV.
John Collier began reading at a young age and his lifelong interest in myth and legend began when he read Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales when he was just three years old. His interest was further stimulated when, in his teens, he discovered James Frazer's The Golden Bough. An uncle, Vincent Collier, himself a minor novelist, was a pivotal influence in John's education and introduced the boy to 17th and 18th century literature. Collier particularly admired Jonathan Swift and soon the 18th-century satirist's view of life became his own. From his first work to his version of Paradise Lost, Collier saw humans as imperfect in some way, sullied by narrow creeds, institutions, cliques, and vanities, while imbued with crafty intelligence as well as subtle and often cunning potential.
At the age of 18 or 19, John Collier was asked by his father what he had chosen as a vocation and he replied, "I want to be a poet." His father indulged his aspiration and 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. He was first published in 1920. 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 university.
For many years Collier attempted to reconcile intensely visual experience and the modern poets with the more austere preoccupations of those classical authors who were fashionable in the 1920s. He felt that his poetry was unsuccessful, however, because he was not able to make his two selves — the one, "archaic, uncouth, and even barbarous" and the other, "hysterically self-conscious dandy" — 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 as a novelist and short story writer did not take shape until the publication of His Monkey Wife in 1930. Light and playful with an artificial tone, it enjoyed a certain small popularity and critical approval that helped to sell his short stories.
His second novel, No Traveller Returns (1931) was a science fiction novelette or chapbook in which the protagonist 'slips on a mathematical banana skin' and finds himself projected into a parallel dimension or timeslip where scientific meddling has destroyed animal life, and humans from our plane of existence are trapped for food and eaten.
Tom's A-Cold: A Tale (1933), his third novel, was also a story depicting a barbaric and dystopian future England, but contrasted sharply with his previous shorter work. The world in Tom's A-Cold was not deadened, but is being reborn, supported by elder survivors who are trying to educate the young. It was part of a tradition of apocalyptic literature that began in the 1870's including H.G.Wells' The War of the Worlds. However, in Collier's novel England has been destroyed by its own vices and not alien forces.
His forth and last novel, Defy the Foul Fiend; or, The Misadventures of a Heart, was published in 1934. This Dickensonian story tells the tale of an illegitimate son of an irresponsible and irascible nobleman, who is abandoned on the doorstep of his uncle to make his way in a somewhat tilted modern world.
Not as a novelist, John Collier is remembered for his short stories written between 1932 and 1958 for which he received numerous awards and which were adapted for many television programs and movie screenplays.
His stories may be broadly classified as fantasies, but are really a genre unique to Collier. They feature an acerbic wit and are usually ironic or dark in tone. There are moments of outrageousness; occasional sexual naughtiness far beyond Thorne Smith in sophistication; and endings that snap with waspish humor. Perfectly constructed, each story demonstrates brilliant literary craftsmanship that can easily escape notice. 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. Collier's genius conjures effects that continue to captivate readers long after the titles of his stories are forgotten. Who could forget "the story about the people who lived in the department store" (Evening Primrose), 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)? Striking and memorable and often haunting, the stories linger on.
In 1935, Collier moved to California, under contract to RKO and began writing screenplays. He would remain an active screenwriter for the next thirty years as well as do substantial writing for television. His first screenwriting assignment was the adaptation of Compton MacKenzie's novel Sylvia Scarlett (1925). With a meandering storyline and basically unsympathetic characters, the film flopped at the box office and somewhat impaired Katharine Hepburn's public image at the time.
Collier promptly returned to Britain, where he had greater success with his subsequent endeavor, Elephant Boy (1937) for Alexander Korda's London Films. Korda had hours of film that had been shot in Burma, but no script! Just a director with his crew, shooting endless shots of elephants with a few pictures of a small boy. Collier suggested a way to make the footage cohere into a story and made a star out of the boy. After these two unorthodox starts to screenwriting, Collier was on his way to a new writing career.
He returned to Hollywood sporadically during the 1940's and 50's, but continued to write prolifically for film and television. His most notable contribution was the screenplay for the classic Bette Davis melodrama Deception (1946). He also penned original material for The African Queen (1951), which was not used in the final print. One of his short stories, The Chaser, had the distinction of being the only episode of Twilight Zone (1959) First Season, not written by either Rod Sterling, Charles Beaumont, or Richard Matheson. Other Collier stories were used effectively in Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955) and Tales of the Unexpected (1979). His last major film work was, in tandem with Millard Kaufman, The War Lord (1965) — a medieval Technicolor romance starring Charlton Heston. For most of the decade, Collier labored on an adaptation of John Milton's Paradise Lost, which ended up in book form, but never made it onto the screen. Collier divided much of his remaining life traveling between England, France and the U.S.. He also lived for a while in Mexico.
He was married to silent film actress Shirly Palmer in 1936, but they later divorced. His second marriage in 1945 was to New York actress Beth Kay (Margaret Elizabeth Eke). They also 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.
Near the end of John Collier's 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." John Collier died of a stroke on April 6, 1980, in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California. As noted motion-picture writer and longtime friend Paul Jarrico observed in an April 13, 1980 memorial speech, "Collier wrote with infinite effort to create a style that seems effortless. By many, he is considered a writer's writer."