John Lanchester’s first book of short stories sees the author taking an intriguing step into the supernatural. The eight tales are billed as “very modern ghost stories” with a focus on contemporary technology. Yet while the stories in Reality may concern themselves with the technological accoutrements of our 21st-century lives, the overall effect often skews closer to the comfortable traditionalism of classic ghost stories.
The opening story – and one of the strongest – is “Signal”, which perfectly captures the cosy mood and knowing humour at work throughout the collection. The narrator, his wife Kate and their two children visit a wealthy friend to see in the new year; the adults, delighted by the prospect of a restful few days in a luxurious house, are too distracted to take much notice of the mysterious “tall man” who keeps hanging around the kids. The tale’s creepiness is enhanced by its lavish setting, and the many funny asides prove memorable. (Where another author might have the narrator tell us what Kate’s expression conveys, Lanchester flips the cliche simply by making her speak it aloud: “Kate looked at me. ‘This is a look of mute reproach’, she said.”)
In “Coffin Liquor”, our narrator is a pompous and avowedly sceptical professor attending a conference in Romania. While he’s determined to avoid any intimation of the supernatural, Watkins finds the theme invading everything from the conference programme to his favourite Dickens audiobooks. Again, the format is recognisable (Watkins keeps a diary of his miserable “holiday”) and the humour makes it deliciously entertaining.
The premise of “Charity” doesn’t sound promising: a haunted selfie stick is donated to a charity shop. While the narrator is, indeed, something of a bore (his “sub-erotic” excitement about his manager being a younger woman ought to have seen the sharp end of an editor’s scalpel), the story exploits the “cursed object” trope to its full potential. In a collection of stories that seek to say something about the horrors of modern life, “Charity” makes the most salient points – and they’re not about technology at all. Instead, its haunted centrepiece is an unlikely conduit for the dark legacy of colonialism.
However, not every story in the collection treads a familiar path. An unexpected highlight is “Reality”, which follows a young woman as she wakes up on the set of a reality TV show. As she meets her fellow contestants, she is always aware of the camera’s gaze, calibrating her every move according to the reactions of an invisible audience. For many readers this will sound like hell, and by the story’s end it might seem that interpretation is not far from the truth… One might argue that “Reality” is not a horror story at all; despite that, it is undoubtedly the most horrifying.
Another of the collection’s more experimental stories is “Which of These Would You Like?”, a short dystopian piece in which a prisoner is forced to choose items from an increasingly horrifying “catalogue”. Its lack of detail renders it rather flat. The opposite is true of “Cold Call”: while it returns to the realm of the traditional, it does so less successfully than “Signal” and “Coffin Liquor”, partly due to an excess of information about the narrator’s personal life (and also because the ghostly threat does not read as particularly terrifying).
“We Happy Few” depicts a group of pretentious friends whose conversation has all the depth of your average Twitter spat, and I was happy to leave them behind at its end. Meanwhile, “The Kit” vaguely recalls the more domestic of Robert Aickman’s stories, particularly “Growing Boys”, but is undermined by the fact that its twist is clearly apparent from the beginning.
Reality is not a ghost story collection for ghost story aficionados, and it’s likely that the bulk of its readers will pick it up because of the author’s literary cachet. I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism – as a fan of both genres, I usually find it interesting and pleasing when writers of literary fiction turn their hand to horror stories. The collection isn’t an unqualified success, but it makes for enjoyably spooky bedtime reading as the nights draw in.
Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester is published by Faber & Faber (UK) and W. W. Norton (US).
Buy the book: US