“Not for ghost story aficionados” – Reality & Other Stories by John Lanchester

IMG_5Oct2021at084956Two minor points of qualification to begin: (i) as you can see from our reviews of Capital, How to Speak Money and The Wall, we tend to like what John Lanchester does, and that matters when it comes to his latest; (ii) if you are someone who regularly reads science fiction or horror fiction or tales of the uncanny, this may strike you a little as ‘literary author does creepy tales’. This needs a little bit of unpacking. There’s nothing bad here. It’s a good collection of creepy, mostly device-orientated uncanny tales. If you are of an unforgiving bent, however, and you read a lot of this kind of thing, it probably won’t be for you. This is a collection of ghost stories for people who have maybe occasionally dabbled with Shirley Jackson or Stephen King. This is not a ghost story collection for ghost story aficionados.

Eight short stories, then, that operate very much in the world we live in, the world of electronic devices, reality TV, a world in which people say “no worries” to the annoyance of grammar pedants, a world of international conferences, a world of annoying relatives with horrible opinions and even more annoying habits, a world of haunted selfie sticks and machines designed to take the pain away from every day life. Each is delivered with consummate skill (of the kind you’d expect from, say Peter Ackroyd, although the less said about Mr Cadmus, the better), none outstay their welcome and a small handful duck and weave with a certain amount of we would go as far as to say linguistic dexterity. Just about the only caveat is that which we alluded to in the previous chapter – if you’re the kind of person who is familiar with the ways authors can surprise when it comes to ingeniously manipulating the supernatural, you might see some twists coming.

For example, ‘Signal’, the ghost story which opens the book, features a country house (of the variety we’ve seen previously in Michael Faber’s excellent story ‘Deer Park’, by which we mean, occupied by all manner of the great, the good and the downright dastardly) visited by our narrator and his family. Over the course of a couple of days our narrator becomes troubled by a guest who seems to be spending rather a lot of time in the company of his children, despite seeming distracted and far away and obsessed with his phone. From the outset, you pretty much know the guest in question is a man who is not there, and the story is perhaps best approached as a kind of “how long will it take the narrator to catch up with the reader?” kind of a tale – but for all that it’s solid and unprepossessing and entertaining enough.

‘Coffin Liquor’ follows, in which a sceptical intellectual finds himself attending an international conference in a place famous for its vampires, wishing he was just about anywhere else. Wandering absent-mindedly through a nearby graveyard he seems to give offence to a local woman whilst downloading a copy of Great Expectations to his phone – and from there it all becomes a sort of literary It Follows: the text of Great Expectations changes to incorporate some kind of creature crawling out of the ground, and the story of this creature expands beyond the audio book into the translation of that day’s conference events and before you know it… well, we’ve all read ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ haven’t we? And what is that scratching at the door?

Pattern more or less established, Reality & Other Stories goes on to try its hand with an entertaining Kafka pastiche (‘Which of These Would You Like?’), a not altogether successful (because its end is slightly rushed) riff on the rapture in the form of ‘We Happy Few’, and a pretty damn astute horror movie twist on reality TV in the title story. The collection’s best story is arguably the most conservative – ‘Cold Call’ sees a busy working mother (quite forgivably) ignore her father-in-law’s cry for help (having, it must be said, painted a picture of him as a really annoying shitbag), only for the father-in-law to die and, you know, seek to maintain contact from beyond the grave. That’ll serve her right for indulging in a little bit of afternoon delight eh?

From there, we have ‘The Kit’ (a group of men on a farm buy a device to help them with the menial tasks that no one can really be arsed to do – it’s a story with a punchline and you may see it coming from a way off) and ‘Charity’ (about that aforementioned haunted selfie stick – provided you can get over the hokey set up, it’s good enough as a closer – and if you don’t think good enough is good enough, you’re not reading enough – good enough is better than we can hope for a lot of the time).

The main take-away from Reality & Other Stories is that even when the story surrounding it isn’t up to much (we’re looking at you ‘We Happy Few’), Lanchester is himself always entertaining. Here he is giving a veritable sermon on the mount about the state of the world in which we find ourselves:

“It’s lies and abuse and conscious deceit and ill will and anonymous trolling and hate and division and every kind of poison. An entire planet engaged in what amounts to a stupidity contest. The surge in stupidity is the driving force behind everything…”

He continues:

“Trump and Brexit and climate change, all of them made possible by lies and stupidity. Orban and Syria and the Law and Justice Party in Poland, and Putin stirring all of it, the worst of us in ascendancy everywhere. The dark rising. Everywhere you look…”

And:

“The dark in us rising, the dark outside us rising, and all of it being exacerbated by technologies that might as well have been designed to make it worse.”

If you read these and feel a sense of relief – the sense of relief you get these days when you realise you are in the company of a person who sees the world as it is, who understands, who isn’t a frothing loonbag given to venting their crazed opinions in ill-informed, badly written, unpunctuated vomit splurges all over social media (Martin Amis, we’re looking at you) – then it’s highly likely you’ll enjoy the afternoon or two you spend in the company of this book.

Any Cop?: We have certain reservations about Reality & Other Stories (in part because we can hear what better-read friends, better versed in these kinds of stories, will think), but those reservations aside, there is enough in the way of good writing, of occasional chills and spills and even sly laughs, to warrant the price of entry.

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