The only reason I picked up my copy of John Collier’s Fancies and Goodnights from the tumble of books on a table of bargains was that it had Ray Bradbury’s name on the cover. Bradbury wrote an introduction for the book, a collection of Collier’s short stories, and I have a weakness for books with introductions by authors I love. I imagine that they absolve me of any faint guilt that might arise from buying yet another book, offering as they do the convenient assumption that I will love any book that is loved by a writer I love.
Turns out that Collier is easy to love. His stories are mostly bizarre, but so cleverly put together that they stand solid in the mind and rarely waver. They remind me of Roald Dahl’s short stories—improbable, witty, deeply upsetting—and they are so well written, so sleekly memorable that I feel confident in assuming that they will make any person with the smallest ambition for writing fiction experience the momentary urge to crack their skull against the wall out of intense envy.
And he can do funny. Collier has sentences, passages, and entire stories that make me want to grab the shoulders of whichever person is closest and shake them and say, “You must listen to this! It’s so funny that I can’t stand it on my own.”
There are 50 stories in this book. Some of them are very brief and only take up a few pages. Some of them are a little longer. The most famous is probably “Evening Primrose,” an elegantly done piece of creeping horror about creatures who live in a department store and were once people. Many of the stories have an element of ridiculousness: a flimsy coincidence, an impossibly silly escalation of events, a twist of such perfection that I would normally expect to be thrown off in a huff of disbelief. There is a story about an angel, banished to earth by a scheming devil, who falls in love with a psychoanalyst. There is a story about a man who pretends to have an identical twin in order to marry identical twins and commit double infidelities. Collier has impeccable command of these absurdities. He sets them dancing in a way that is irresistible.
It’s very difficult for me to write intelligently about why I like Collier’s stories because I like them in a way that I don’t often like short stories. I prefer my fiction to produce some sort of realistic echo. I want the stories I read, even the most fantastical ones, to make me feel something recognizable, to drop a pebble down the human well of emotion and produce a discernible ping, to convince me to believe. Collier’s stories, for the most part, don’t do that, but they somehow still feel, surprisingly often, perfect. Belief seems unnecessary. These are amusements that ring your head like a bell, that absorb and divert and disturb and dress up in outrageous costumes to win a laugh, and they do this with such intelligence and grace that they start to make the real world look more like them instead of the other way around.
By Megan Kurashige