An intriguing collection of speculative, creepy stories
Household gizmos with a mind of their own.
Constant cold calls from unknown numbers.
And the creeping suspicion that none of this is real.
Reality, and Other Stories is a gathering of deliciously chilling entertainments – stories to be read as the evenings draw in and the days are haunted by all the ghastly schlock, uncanny technologies and absurd horrors of modern life.
I’ve always wanted to read more of John Lanchester’s work. I’ve been slowly acquiring many of his novels — for example, Fragrant Harbour and The Wall — but keep forgetting that I have them on my Kindle. I was lucky enough to get a DRC of this short story collection, and decided to dive right in. Initially, I’d intended to read a story every so often, between novels, but I ended up reading all of them in just a couple of sittings. I really enjoyed this collection.
Reality, and Other Stories is a short collection of modern ghost stories. Each has a faintly creepy, speculative or supernatural element. The stories examine contemporary life and the perils of technology, how easily it can distract and unmoor us, and how it affects the way we interact with each other and form relationships.
In the eight stories included in the collection, many of Lanchester’s characters are somewhat bookish or professorial, but they are also distinct — he’s not recycling simple tropes or archetypes. Each character is quickly and expertly drawn, and even though we don’t spend much time with them we come to know them rather well, and in many instances sympathize and root for them. Some of the stories have obvious supernatural elements (“Charity”, “Coffin Liquor” and “The Kit”), while in others the strange/speculative elements are never fully articulated or detailed (“Which of These Would You Like?”, “We Happy Few”, “Cold Call” and “Reality”).
In “Signal”, a family visits a wealthy friend whose sprawling country mansion for a holiday event, only to find it populated by a huge cast of guests. The host is somewhat absent-minded, and the father tries to find out the identity of one guest in particular, one who is making him very uncomfortable.
In “Coffin Liquor”, a professor struggles to remain engaged at a conference, attempting to find solace in audiobooks — but something might be wrong with the technology…
A prisoner is forced to answer a series of strange questions over and over in “Which of These Would You Like?” It’s a quietly oppressive story, one in which the protagonist has no idea why he’s incarcerated.
A group of academic colleagues meet in a cafe to pontificate and quietly mock people around them, in “We Happy Few” — one of the less-obviously supernatural/SFF stories in the collection, but ending with something strange and unsettling happening off-screen at the end.
“Reality” takes a look at reality TV, a modern obsession and (in some people’s opinion) a cancer on society. Our protagonist Iona is a contestant on a new show, but one that seems to be taking a long time to start. We see her calculating almost every action, movement and conversation. But what is really happening, here? Is she the hero, the villain, or a pawn?
Difficult family relationships form the kernel of “Cold Call”, in which a wife is left to deal with a demanding and cold father-in-law, the kids, and a legal career. As the father-in-law’s condition deteriorates, a desire for a break and some self-care takes a tragic, unfortunate turn.
“The Kit” is a very cool story, one with a great switcheroo at the end. A father is trying to keep his farm working, as well as his sons together and cared for. Some important piece of “equipment” needs replacing, and a decision is made.
The final story in the collection, “Charity” was a great closer — not only does it include a cursed item, but one that offers a critique of our narcissistic modern times, and is perhaps an allegory for how social media can be so damaging.
I really enjoyed these stories. Each offers something a little different, an interesting twist on many classic ghost story and speculative fiction tropes. Lanchester is a great writer, and his prose pulled me through each story. If you’ve never tried his work, then this collection could serve as an excellent introduction — although, with the caveat that his novels are not speculative, but more contemporary.