I had been looking forward to reading this collection of short stories for literally over ten years. I was first introduced to it via one of its stories, “Are You Too Late or Was I Too Early,” while taking classes for my Master’s Degree in the mid-2000s. That brief story, with its never-saw-it-coming twist ending, enchanted me. And Ray Bradbury, my all-time favorite author, wrote the introduction. How could I not enjoy the other 49 stories?
Well, it turns out that the book in total, and the individual stories, were less than I had hoped. To be clear, John Collier was a very skilled writer. Even though the stories were all written in the 1930s and 1940s (the book was first published in 1951), each one is tight and clean, not a word wasted. But they are uniformly dark, which became tiring. Virtually all of the characters are scoundrels, and if the protagonists were not done in by their own weaknesses and failings, they were defeated by antagonists who were even worse scoundrels than the protagonists.
Almost all of the stories have a twist ending, and not an O. Henry kind of twist. It became a kind of game to try to guess the actual ending. Once I realized that virtually every story was going to have that twist, I started picking out the clues Collier would leave that presaged the end. But there was little satisfaction in guessing right, or nearly so. Few endings provided a real surprise.
Oddly, there was one set of stories that did not have twist endings, and even showed a wry sense of humor missing from the others. These stories all included the Devil, and in each case, the protagonist triumphed, unlike the other stories, and Old Scratch got his comeuppance.
The stories reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the time when they were written. Racism is casual and common. Women are either harpies and dangerous, or stereotypical housewives, naïve and ignorant servants of their husbands.
And then there’s the cover (not Collier’s fault), a bizarre, bilious green dreamscape of men wearing ice skates, overcoats, and fedoras, and carrying overlong hockey sticks, that has nothing to do with any of the stories behind it. I got really tired of looking at it. What was the publisher thinking in selecting it?
I imagine that if I’d read just one or two of these stories, then had a long break from them, as if I was reading them in some magazine, I would have enjoyed them more, but 50 in a row became wearing, even when spread out over the course of several months.
John Collier was no doubt a skilled story-teller, but his work is also an acquired taste, and one that, after this full multi-course meal of it, I am not inclined to acquire.