JOHN COLLIER “Evening Primrose.” Short story. First published in 1940. Collected in Presenting Moonshine (Viking Press, 1941) and more famously in Fancies and Goodnights (Doubleday, 1951; Bantam 1953). Reprnted many times. Adapted as both radio (three times on Escape, CBS) and television plays , the latter a musical by Stephen Sondheim (ABC Stage 67, November 1966).

   I read this again last night for the first time since High School and delighted in it on several levels.

   First, Collier’s prose, rich in lines like, “I felt like a wandering thought in the dreaming brain of a chorus girl down on her luck.” and “Their laughter was like the stridulation of the ghosts of grasshoppers.”

   All in service of Collier’s dark whimsy as starving poet Charles Snell takes up residence in a stately old Department Store of Byzantine aspect (“Silks and velvets glimmered like ghosts, a hundred pantie-clad models offered simpers and embraces to the desert air.”) only to find it already haunted by the Living. Or the nearly-living, once-humans like he, who permeated themselves into the store years and ages ago, and gradually lost touch with their own humanity.

   The one exception is Ella, a foundling adopted by the reigning Grande Dame of this society and used as a servant. Still human and in her teens, she has fallen in love with the Night Watchman, much to the chagrin of our poet-narrator. And when discovered, her love raises the venomous ire of the nearly-living, who summon The Dark Men, setting up a conflict that pits our narrator and the Night Watchman against…

   It’s a short tale, perhaps a dozen pages, but Collier packs a whole sub-world into it, reawakens the spirit of those grandiose old emporiums (for those who remember them) and makes it real, even as he sketches out characters who – well, “come alive” doesn’t really fit here, so I’ll just say they become convincingly inhuman under his skillful pen.

   Even better, Collier touches on the alienation common to fantasy readers, evokes it, embraces it and rejects it without wasting a single comma. I remember being profoundly moved as a teenager by Evening Primrose’s Truth. As an adult I was just as moved by its Beauty.