Monday, November 14, 2016

"Witch's Money" (1939)

Story by John Collier not available online.

John Collier was a British story writer admired by Ray Bradbury, Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Paul Theroux, and many others. He won an International Fantasy Award for his 1951 collection, Fancies and Goodnights. Not surprisingly, there's an air of the horror story here—which has nothing to do with the supernatural, only human stupidity verging on depravity. In the small and remote Spanish village where the story takes place, an arrogant American bohemian appears one day. The story is told third-person from the point of view of a lifelong village resident, Foiral, who instantly decides the American is a lunatic, but a different kind of lunatic, one he hasn't seen before. The American exclaims over the aesthetic points of the village, which are too familiar to Foiral to mean much. Then the American wants to rent Foiral's second home, which is vacant and untended. Foiral loses patience with the madman quickly, turning him down. Then the American offers to buy it, offers to pay too much, and produces cash to hold as security. This changes everything. When the American returns a week or two later, he pays Foiral the balance with a check. Foiral is naïve of such things, but humors the American. Later, he asks for the money in cash. The American is brusque and dismissive, telling Foiral to go to a bank and cash the check himself. This requires a daylong journey and Foiral, who is confused by the bank procedures, ends up opening a checking account. A week later he takes another day to travel to the bank, where he closes the account. The bank withholds a nominal fee, as banks will do. This enrages Foiral, who asks the American for the amount of the fee. Again the American rudely brushes off Foiral. Foiral and his friends conspire to steal the American's checkbook and they do what must be done to get it. Once they are in possession of it, they believe themselves wealthy and begin to spend and borrow money liberally. The story ends as the group takes yet another day to travel to the bank to convert the checkbook into cash. The last scene is the doomed and foolish group entering the bank. This story reminds me of Paul Bowles stories, probably because of the exotic foreign setting combined with the cruelties. It also has elements of a social morality tale, showing how irrational beliefs about money can corrode the soul. It's cold and clinical, observing alarming behavior without comment, simply reporting, though it gets well inside the head of Foiral. At the same time, it makes us guess about the exact nature of the ignorance, it is so deeply inside his head. The action can be swift, with all things changing at once, even when the characters they are happening to remain unknowing of their fates, which we see all too clearly.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier

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