Short Story Spotlight: “The Chaser,” by John Collier

John Collier’s piece isn’t a horror story in the genre’s traditional fashion, but it still taps into a feeling of horror. Rather than try to terrify its reader with grotesque creatures or unseen forces, “The Chaser” reveals the potential monstrosity behind humanity’s most passionate desires.

The story begins as a man named Alan Austen enters the office of an older man who sells “certain mixtures,” ranging from the lethal “life-cleaner” to the most potent love potions. It so happens that Austen seeks the latter and hopes to improve the condition of his romance. His interaction with the old man is fairly low-key, as the elder explains the effects and consequences of the concoction, yet by the end of the transaction the old man is assured he has gained a repeat customer.

Much of the horror in Collier’s story comes from its sense of foreboding. We can see that something will go terribly wrong (love potions seem to invite catastrophe in literature), but it’s not clear what the catastrophe will be. The entire situation is unsettling because of what the text doesn’t explicitly show. Rather, we are shocked when we realize the horror isn’t what happens but rather what will happen; we discover a menace even though the conversation isn’t menacing at all.

This story deserves further credit for provoking volumes of thought about the things we want in an average life. As Austen learns how the potion will satisfy his desires, we’re forced to wonder just how far we’re willing to go to fulfill our wishes. Obviously, a potion isn’t a practical technique outside of fiction, but its use reveals how manipulative we can be in our own attempts. At the same time, the story encourages us to confront the consequences of our actions as we make those attempts. Like Austen, we often don’t think that our efforts might end differently than we expect, and we further learn that a person who tries to be “helpful” may still end up being the villain.

Collier elicits our horror by evoking the sinking feeling that accompanies sudden realization. By the time the story concludes, we understand that evil can spring from bad pursuit of good intentions. We begin to recognize that there are “potions” in our own lives, and we think a little harder about whether we should use them.

“The Chaser” may be found in 50 Great Short Stories, ed. Milton Crane (New York: Bantam Classic, 2005), as well as in Collier’s own Fancies and Goodnights (New York Review of Books, republished in 2003). A Google search may also reveal free copies temporarily published online by various universities for academic purposes. A full bibliography for the story may be found here.

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