Forgotten authors No. 34: John Collier

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 24 May 2009 00:00 BST

For those of a certain age, John Collier was simply "the window to watch", as the TV commercials for the menswear store proclaimed. The other John Collier is the English writer, born in 1901, who became famous for his wonderful short stories. Setting out to be a poet, Collier was disappointed with the result and instead produced a strange novel, His Monkey Wife, a satire about an explorer who marries a chimpanzee. Two more novels followed, now both forgotten, but around them formed a body of uniquely sardonic short stories, often written for The New Yorker magazine. They were collected in many volumes, one of which, Fancies and Goodnights, was reprinted in 2003.

In some ways, Collier feels like a natural successor to Saki. His simple, sharp style brought his tales colourfully to life. "The Devil, George, and Rosie" starts: "There was a young man who was invariably spurned by the girls, not because he smelt at all bad but because he happened to be as ugly as a monkey." In his most famous story, "Evening Primrose", a failed poet bids the world farewell and moves into a department store, only to find that others have also moved there to escape the world. It was filmed for television as a Stephen Sondheim musical in 1966. Another story, "Green Thoughts", about a man-eating plant, is said to have become the basis for the 1960 film The Little Shop of Horrors, also made into a musical.

Collier was married to a silent-movie actress and moved to Los Angeles, where he contributed to many films and TV shows. His tales often had a fantastical element, and some were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a format they fitted perfectly. He contributed to the screenplays for The African Queen, and I Am a Camera, the basis for Cabaret, but within a decade of working in Hollywood, his output – typically – became much less original and interesting.

Collier was his own harshest critic, and once said "I sometimes marvel that a third-rate writer like me has been able to palm himself off as a second-rate writer", but there is no one quite like him. In 1972, The John Collier Reader, a collection of almost 50 first-rate stories selected by the author, was published to acclaim. How could you not love an author who writes a story entitled "Night! Youth! Paris! and the Moon!" Perhaps because he is so unclassifiable, Collier's books have all but vanished.

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