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Reality and Other Stories


Reality and Other Stories

John Lanchester is a British author who is critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for his novels and nonfiction. In 2017, he wrote, of all things, a ghost story that was published in, of all places, The New Yorker. The name of that piece is “Signal,” which combines elements of the classic spirit tale with very modern technology. Lanchester has written several other works of short fiction since then, eight of which --- including “Signal” --- are collected in REALITY AND OTHER STORIES. This volume is not a long read, but it is a worthwhile and memorable one.

These stories, four of which are being published for the first time, share a similarity with Lanchester’s novels: their main topics are not approached head-on. Reading his work is akin to taking a quiet drive down a two-lane road before suddenly being t-boned by another vehicle without any warning at all. One might classify these tales as literary horror for no other reason than he liberally uses a number of horror archetypes. That doesn’t mean that Lanchester breaks new ground in the genre. It would be more accurate to say that he tills the same field but finds something unexpected and interesting.

"The tales in REALITY AND OTHER STORIES will provide readers unfamiliar with Lanchester’s style eight excellent examples of his storytelling approach and undoubtedly will cause them to seek out examples of his extended work."

“Signal,” which opens the collection, takes place in a very modern house where a family of four is invited to spend the New Year’s holiday. Michael, the host, has made a Midas fortune through finance or technology --- the narrator, his college friend, is never quite sure how. His house goes on and on, and there is one feature that weirds out his guests, not to mention the reader. It came with the house but should have been disclosed, as we learn by the end of the story.

Next up is “Coffin Liquor” (my favorite title in the collection), which introduces readers to a somewhat unsociable academician who is attending a conference in Romania where he is the smartest person in any given room, if only one would ask him. After visiting a local graveyard, he finds that his phone is not working properly. The same is true of the translation equipment in use at the conference. The difficulties spread, if you will, but only within his immediate sphere, with disastrous results. You might think you know where this is going (Romania? Hint, hint), but you would be wrong.

Lanchester does what seems to be a Kafkaesque turn in “Which of These Would You Like?”, but the story would not be out of place in a Stephen King collection. It concerns a man who is imprisoned --- he does not know why --- and is forced to go through a set of the same tasks each day, none of which seems to have a purpose. He finally figures out that they do.

“We Happy Few” takes place entirely in a coffee shop, where a group of irritatingly smug friends/colleagues regularly gather. On the day in question, they ponder the origin of a catchphrase that is suddenly all over the place and wonder how that happens. The discussion dovetails into the meaning of existence on a day when they might discover if they are correct. Speaking of irritating, in “Reality” we meet a young woman named Iona who appears on one of those reality shows where the participants are all thrown together and begin forming alliances with and against each other. Iona, who rightly believes that she is good at reading a room, discovers that such an aptitude is not always a strength.

Folks of a certain age will have an idea where “Cold Call” is going due to an exploration of the topic on an anthology series popular during the golden age of television. Lanchester gives the subject a modern and sinister twist in this tale of a woman who absolutely detests her father-in-law and helps us to understand why, even as he gets the last laugh on her. A similar twist is employed in “The Kit,” in which a household management device breaks down, leaving a father and his four adult sons almost helpless --- or something like it --- until Dad orders a new one. We expect something different from what they actually receive, but it makes perfect sense while also being frightening.

Speaking of frightening, ”Charity,” the final piece, fills the bill conclusively. A retired teacher working in a thrift store sells a modern but simple device to a former student. Readers of classic horror will guess almost immediately where the story is going but will enjoy the route that Lanchester takes to reach the destination. They will not forget it anytime soon.

The tales in REALITY AND OTHER STORIES will provide readers unfamiliar with Lanchester’s style eight excellent examples of his storytelling approach and undoubtedly will cause them to seek out examples of his extended work. Those already acquainted with him also will find much to love here if they can overcome any genre hesitancy they might possess.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 26, 2021

Reality and Other Stories
by John Lanchester