Alan Austen, a young man who is passionately in love with a young woman who is indifferent to him, comes to the establishment of a mysterious old man who deals in magic potions. Austen has been told that he can buy a potion that will make the object of his affections fall madly in love with him. The old man shows little interest in the financial profit to be gained from selling Alan a love potion. Instead, he devotes most of his sales talk to recommending a potion that he calls a spot remover or a life cleaner, a powerful poison that is undetectable in an autopsy.
Without ever saying so directly, the old man is suggesting that the time will inevitably come when Alan will want to murder the woman whom he now loves so desperately. The potent poison costs five thousand dollars for a single teaspoonful, and the love potion costs just one dollar. Alan cannot believe his good fortune. He seeks the old man’s assurance that the love potion will be effective. The old man ruefully assures him that it will make the woman fall so completely in love that she will cling to Alan and make him her sole interest in life.
After their marriage, the young woman will want to know everything that Alan is thinking, everything that he has done when he was away from her, and everything that he intends to do when he leaves again. She will demand all his attention. She will be insanely jealous. The reader gradually gets the picture of a suffocating relationship that would drive anyone to distraction, even to thoughts of murder. This is not the picture that Alan visualizes, however, because he is held so tightly in the grip of passion that he can think of no greater happiness than to be in the company of his loved one perpetually.
Alan finally purchases the vial of love potion for one dollar. The old man assures him that he only deals in such potions to establish customer relations. People who want love potions are invariably young and have little money. Later in life, when they are more affluent, they will come back to him to buy his real moneymaker, the tasteless, undetectable poison that will rid them of the hated, clinging, sexually unappealing, aging spouse.
Alan seizes the vial, thanks the old man enthusiastically, and says, “Good-bye. ” The old man replies, “Au revoir,” a French phrase that might be translated into English as, “I’ll be seeing you. ” Themes and Meanings John Collier’s message in “The Chaser” is clear, although he never states it in words: Love is only a temporary illusion. People fall in love and believe it will last forever. While they are in the grip of this illusion, they will do anything to obtain possession of the loved one.
Once the illusion has dissipated and grim reality has intruded, the former ardent lover realizes that he or she has tied himself or herself for life to a stranger who may be totally incompatible, and who does not fulfill all the wonderful expectations the illusion of love initially created. At that point the lover has two choices: either to remain in a loveless relationship and live a life of pretense or to find some means of obtaining freedom. In “The Chaser,” the old man emphasizes the fact that the young man’s loved one will cling to him so tenaciously that he may have to use drastic means to free himself from her clutches.
She will make herself disagreeable by demanding all his time and attention. Because the price of the love potion is so cheap and the price of the chaser, the vial of undetectable poison, so exorbitant, Collier implies that it is easy to fall in love and to get married, but very difficult to extricate oneself from such a legally, socially, and morally binding relationship after discovering that marriage is often monotonous, expensive, overly demanding, and sexually unsatisfying.
Collier was cynical about human beings in general and wrote several stories in which a husband kills his wife. A good example is his “De Mortuis” (1951), in which an unworldly middle-aged man, who finds out that the beautiful young woman he married is notorious as the town slut, decides to murder her and bury her body in the basement. Many of Collier’s short stories deal with human wickedness. He exposes both his male and female characters as being greedy, selfish, dishonest, immoral, and sadistic.
In fact, it might be said that Collier’s dominant theme was human depravity. His misanthropy and pessimism would have prevented him from becoming a popular writer if he had not had the wisdom to leaven his stories with humor. Collier resembles Ambrose Bierce, whose The Devil’s Dictionary (1906) cynically defines marriage as “The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two,” and love as “A temporary insanity curable by marriage or the removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder. Collier would certainly have agreed with these definitions, as well as with most of the other definitions in Bierce’s bitterly cynical book. Like Bierce, Collier made his grim philosophy palatable to the average reader by sprinkling his stories with humor, a humor that was often based on the contrast between fact and fantasy, between expectation and outcome, between illusion and reality. Like most humorists, he had a great deal of melancholy in his temperament. His humor is laughter in the dark. Style and Technique In this exceptionally short work, Collier uses a strictly objective technique.
He briefly describes the two characters and the setting in the opening paragraphs, then lets his characters tell the story almost entirely through their dialogue. This technique is perfect for the author’s purposes, because he wants his message to dawn on the reader without his having to spell it out. It is interesting to observe how Collier displays his technical virtuosity by suggesting the debilitating effects of long years of married life while respecting the classic Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action.
The entire story unfolds in only a few minutes and is confined to a simple setting. It contains only two characters, and these two are sharply contrasted so that it is easy to visualize both and to imagine how their voices sound. One is young, the other old. One is idealistic, the other realistic. The young man is governed by his passions; the old man has been disillusioned by long years of living and is governed by the cold light of reason. The young man is interested in love; the old man is only interested in money.
The young man has his whole life ahead of him but acts as if he is pressed for time; the old man obviously is at the end of his life but acts as if he has all the time in the world. Collier often wrote unrealistic stories with realistic settings. He was noted for putting his genii, jinns, sibyls, demons, and ghosts in contemporary Manhattan and London apartments. The old man in “The Chaser” is a mystical character who belongs in a medieval folktale. What is he doing in twentieth century New York? Characteristically, Collier does not bother to explain how this sorcerer ended up here.
Collier did not expect most of his stories to be taken seriously. This paradoxical element contributed to the quixotic humor to be found in most of his fiction. Collier’s style is light, witty, whimsical, playful. He plays with literary conventions, and his fiction is full of literary allusions, hints of connoisseurship, sophisticated dialogue, and French words and phrases. He invariably sounds cultured, worldly, and well educated. He was born in England and had the tastes and values of an English country gentleman.
He often has been compared to writers such as Noel Coward, P. G. Wodehouse, and W. Somerset Maugham, all of whom wrote about upper-class people who were far more interested in manners and money than morals. The world they wrote about was at its zenith in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The Great Depression and World War II had a sobering effect on the tastes of American and European readers, and Collier, along with many other sophisticated writers, experienced a sharp decline in popularity as a result.