The stories are uneasy rather than frightening, in the manner of MR James. In fact, “Coffin Liquor” – in which a snobbish academic has his Great Expectations audiobook ruined by a malevolent spirit – is a fine tribute to the master. Lanchester is more barbed: those most likely to be haunted are smug academics and people who say “no worries”. He is also socially alert; the tensions and disconnections of modern families are nicely illuminated. Lanchester conjures a sad shadow world all the more scary for being a mirror image of our own.
Engaging, and full of Lanchester’s usual intelligence and cultural observation, this collection is as plausible as it can be given the tongue-in-cheek nature of its spookiness. It works best in the uncanny region where supernatural effects seem to overlap with the nature of the technology itself.
Reality and Other Stories is tightly written, sometimes chilling, and frequently funny. As a collection, it is let down by a sense of sameness doesn’t quite feel deliberate enough. Some of the stories – such as ‘Charity’, which chugs along entertainingly until it reaches a baffling and inconsistent conclusion – seem like filler. Still, the book has its gems, which will shine all the brighter for a reader simply dipping into the collection rather than consuming it from beginning to end.
If 2020 has sometimes felt like living in an alternate universe, in which its exhausted inhabitants have grown inured to shocks and surprises, then it is a relief — of sorts — to turn to John Lanchester’s uncanny tales and find plenty there to disquiet. Reality and Other Stories is the first short fiction collection from Lanchester, a sequence of very clever, very modern “entertainments” that play on our 21st-century obsession with technology, with time, and with ourselves. Masters of suspense such as MR James, Isak Dinesen and Robert Aickman are all influences here, as is the comedic horror of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.
This is a return to form, with echoes of his darkly funny first novel, The Debt to Pleasure (1996), about a food obsessive with a sinister side. The best story here is Signal, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 2017. It’s a masterfully crafted traditional ghost story told from the view of an exhausted father of two screen-addicted children who takes his family to spend New Year’s Eve at his rich university friend Michael’s remote estate in north Yorkshire. There, they encounter a tall stranger who shows them how to connect to the internet. Lanchester mixes relatable, everyday observations with surreal twists, building to a chilling conclusion.