Reality, and Other Stories by John Lanchester

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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.

The above is the blurb that accompanied John Lanchester’s latest offering, a short story collection that has a brilliantly haunting cover and apparently eight chilling entertainments within. Unfortunately this book may have delivered on the cover but it didn’t on the scares, or the uncanny or anything chill worthy… I could have read this book sopping wet and in a draft, and still not have got any chills, just a case of mild annoyance.

I completely understand that John Lanchester is a fabulous raconteur, he’s a Booker nominated author and multi-award winner, whilst also being a regular contributor to the New Yorker; but for me, Lanchester’s home, where he does his best work is in literary fiction. Some writers are born to write horror, John Lanchester in my opinion was born to write great literary works – and on this offering I hope he returns to the latter.

I did enjoy his writing in this collection, his skill and deft touch is evident in every story and is present on every page. Lanchester’s prose is beautiful and what we expect, and he does at times pull the reader into the story; but it’s the execution of the scares, of the chills and the uncanny (where this collection has been promoted highly as having) is where these stories fall down.

Unfortunately Lanchester resorts to the same techniques in the majority of these stories. He pulls the reader in (tight and engaging prose), then, more often than not drops the twist or inserts the horror right at the end. Due to his constant use of this tool, you know somethings coming, and so the whole story loses its impact and power, in a number of these stories you would half expect Lanchester to say BOO at the end.

Signal – This was a story that brings obvious comparisons to Shirley Jackson (tell me what creepy house story doesn’t – she’s pretty much cornered the market there). Our protagonist his wife and two children head away for a New Years celebration at a friends house, it’s your typical haunted house trope that doesn’t really add anything new. When they arrive our protagonist soon becomes unsettled by a tall man’s growing obsession with his children. There are some dark undertones in this one which drive our protagonist through the story, but where it could venture down this disturbing route, Lanchester pulls back the reigns and chokes the story and the possible horrors. The story was enjoyable, like sitting back and watching a favourite show or film, finding comfort in something familiar. But the ending was almost laughable and it lost all the tension that Lanchester had created, as mentioned above I thought he was about to say BOO!

Coffin Liquor – This is told in a diary format of a man at a conference. The device of the diary helps to add additional tension as we know he is here for a week so as we get further into the piece we know things are going to get worse (Chekhov’s Gun – Dramatic Principle). The main protagonist in this story is a bit of a bastard, so I found it hard to engage with him, I wasn’t invested in his plight and that’s where the story lost it’s impact for me. It deals with the supernatural and a haunted audio book. Yes a haunted audio book. I’m not kidding you.

Which of These Would You Like? Now this story I really enjoyed, which focuses on a man behind bars who has no idea (or that’s what we are lead to believe) why he is there or what he has done to be imprisoned. It’s a delicately woven piece that builds to a fabulous conclusion. I found the voice of the protagonist in this story beguiling whilst at times pained, and this deft touch by Lanchester aids in pulling the reader into the drama. The tension Lanchester evokes here with a mundane task adds to our protagonists ongoing physical and mental torture, it’s a horrid idea which is put across well. This is probably the only protagonist that I connected to in all of the stories in this collection, many of the stories have a middle class protagonist and I found them quite alienating if I’m honest. But this one, this was great!

We Happy Few – a very intellectual piece which I have to say I had a grip on but not totally. A group of lecturers sit in a coffee shop and complain about the way society is heading, if it’s all some part of a grander plan, they talk of various intellectuals and their thoughts on how the world works, what makes it the way it is, and if there is some other reality going on. I couldn’t connect with this story for some reason, it seemed more of a one sided social commentary, it just wasn’t for me.

Reality – I’ve read this before in Salt Publishing’s Best British Short Stories 2019. Lanchester focuses the reader on something that has become the norm in our society, reality television. We follow our protagonist as she wakes in a deserted house and moves around making sure she’s acting as she wants to be perceived by the watching public. As the day / days progress other housemates arrive to cause some dramatic dynamic shifts within the group. Again the author leaves it to the end to throw in the twist of the story and knowing that it’s coming again in my opinion does the story a disservice.

Cold Call – this follows a female protagonist, a mother with two children and an absent husband (he’s a film producer – spends a lot of time away) so she is in essence a single mother, with a very stressful job. Then throw into the mix an ageing father-in-law who she’s having to care for and we’ve got a situation that is close to breaking point. I won’t ruin anything, but you could read the ending of this one a mile off.

The Kit – a family are waiting for replacement parts for a machine (or that’s what we are lead to believe) that’s broken down, when they get what they need, life returns to the new normal for them – again the twist comes at the end and I also found this story quite forgettable.

Charity – a charity shop akin to Stephen King’s ‘Needful Things‘ takes centre stage. An old selfie stick is donated by a woman who is clearing out her late husbands possessions, this one focuses on body image and is pretty creepy, I’d possibly say it’s the best story in the collection, because it’s the only one with a tiny bit of unease and dread in it.

So, as a long time horror reader, Reality, and Other Stories is in my opinion not a horror collection. ‘Chilling’ it is not. if you went into this thinking it was weird fiction (think Sarah Hall) then maybe it might have stood up better to review, but when you come out of the blocks with a blurb saying it’s chilling, I at least want to feel like I’ve opened the freezer. Unfortunately I had high hopes for this collection having read some of Lanchester’s other works, his skill as a writer is undeniable, but I feel that Reality, and Other Stories falls way short of the mark.

Reality, and Other Stories is published by Faber and is available here.

John Lanchester

John Lanchester was born in Hamburg in 1962. He has worked as a football reporter, obituary writer, book editor, restaurant critic, and deputy editor of the London Review of Books, where he is a contributing editor. He is a regular contributor to the New Yorker. He has written four novels, The Debt to Pleasure, Mr Phillips and Fragrant Harbour, and Capital, and two works of non-fiction: Family Romance, a memoir; and Whoops!: Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay, about the global financial crisis. His books have won the Hawthornden Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Prize, E.M Forster Award, and the Premi Llibreter, been longlisted for the Booker Prize, and been translated into twenty-five languages. He is married, has two children and lives in London.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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