Review: Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester

Review: Reality and Other Stories by John LanchesterReality and Other Stories by John Lanchester
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Genres: horror, short stories
Pages: 192
on March 9, 2021
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Ghost stories for the digital age by the Booker Prize–longlisted author of The Wall.
In 2017, inspired in part by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the acclaimed English novelist John Lanchester published a ghost story in The New Yorker. "Signal," an eerie story of contemporary life and the perils of technology, was a sensation among readers—and since then Lanchester has written several more.
Reality and Other Stories gathers the best of these, taking readers to an uncanny world familiar to fans of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. Household gizmos with a mind of their own. Mysterious cell-phone calls from unknown numbers. Reality TV shows and the creeping suspicion that none of this is real…
Reality and Other Stories is a book of disquiet that captures the severe disconnection and distraction of our time.

My Review:

If you like the kind of horror that is featured in The Twilight Zone, those stories where it doesn’t exactly feel like horror until that sudden twist at the end – “It’s…it’s a cookbook!”

So rather than being in your face – or in your roiling stomach – this is a collection where the stories kind of sidle up to their horror aspects, give it a nod, nod, wink, wink, and then wham just before you turn the page to the next story.

And a couple lay an egg. But then that’s true for any collection where even when the concept as a whole has a lot of appeal to a lot of readers, one or two stories don’t work for everyone. And usually not the same one or two stories either.

The first story, “Signal”, was one of my favorites in the set. It’s kind of a haunted house story, and it manages to be both creepy and sad at the same time. The ending was kind of Sixth Sense in more ways than one, and also, I just love stories where it seems like it’s going one way but then the sadness just slaps you at the end, as it does here.

“Charity”, the last story in the collection, was the one that contained the most outright horror aspects, and also felt like it threw itself back to some of the classics like Lovecraft. At the same time, it’s a bit more like revenge on Lovecraft rather than homage, as the cursed object that forms the center of the story is an instrument of revenge by people who Lovecraft would never have given the time of day. “Charity” is also a story whose plot is fairly easy to predict from the opening but still manages to chill the reader at the end.

The story that is sticking with me is “We Happy Few” because it honestly scared me twice, once in its implications and then again in its result. Howsomever, from other reviews of this book it seems that this story did not resonate with a lot of readers, and I kind of understand why. The characters in the story are extremely unlikeable. At the surface level, this is about a bunch of junior academics sitting in a coffee shop complaining about absolutely everyone around them. Their observations are, for the most part, no deeper than a teaspoon. And yet, when one of them posits that the reason that the world seems to be getting crazier – and it really is if you consider things like Trump, Brexit and the COVID mask deniers and the anti-vaxxers – is that social media is designed as a system to appeal to the worst part of human nature and to ultimately make people less clear thinking and less intelligent. Which is a very scary thought in real life. In the story, the implications were instantaneous. And kind of awful.

While on the one hand it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch of people, on the other, it’s more than a bit chilling.

Escape Rating C: Out of a collection of eight stories, the three listed above were the ones that I either enjoyed or that stuck with me or a bit of both. Of the other five, I thought that “Coffin Liquor”, “The Kit” and the title story “Reality” were okay but not more than that. Also “Reality” absolutely confirmed my conviction that reality TV shows are one of the circles of Hell.

I think that a lot of people are going to find “Cold Call” really chilling, but I got annoyed with it, or with the actions of the characters in it, at the very beginning and just couldn’t stick with it. “Which of These Would You Like?” didn’t have enough setup or enough detail to work for me. It’s weird rather than horrifying and there just wasn’t enough there, there.

Everyone’s reading mileage is going to vary on this one, so if you like Twilight Zone-esq horror, give this a try.

Last but not least, the UK cover at left has a completely different vibe from the US cover. The US cover feels like it touches more on the SFnal aspects of the stories, while the UK cover has more of a horror feel to it. And your mileage may vary about that as well.