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Story Collection Puts A Ghostly Spin On Digital 'Reality'

WW Norton

A year ago this week, I sent my students off on Spring Break: That was the last time we were physically present in a room together. We returned after break, reconstituted as pixels on a laptop screen, each of us in our own little Zoom frames, Nietzsche's "prison house of self" for the digital age.

I'm grateful to be able to teach online and stay safe, but on the evenings when this semester's classes end and we all wave goodbye, and then, suddenly, everyone disappears — it all feels a little uncanny. No wonder, John Lanchester's collection of tech-y ghost stories seems especially appealing right now.

In Lanchester's collection, Reality and Other Stories, the supernatural manifests itself through cell phones, social media, computers, reality tv shows, and smart houses. "Signal," the opening story, was originally published in The New Yorker and it's a standout: an eerie homage to Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

The story derives its power from the intertwined resentment and cluelessness of its first-person narrator — a lowly literature professor who travels with his family from London for a big house party at an old college friend's remote estate. The narrator tells us that his friend, named Michael, is a financier and he's now "the kind of rich that even other people who were rich considered rich."

When the narrator, his wife, and two young kids arrive at Michael's manor house, they're met "by no one at all, apart from a very, very tall man ... who was looking at his mobile phone as if he was struggling to get reception, and more interested in that than in any other form of human interaction." Rude, but not uncommon. The narrator and his wife soon settle in with the other guests to enjoy gourmet dinners while their two kids are left to their own devices.

Or, rather, the house's devices. The manor house, we're told, was filled with "gadgets" and "buttons" to control the reclining spa seats and the "curtains in the home cinema." The kids sporadically mention to their parents that when they have trouble with a gadget, the very tall man turns up to silently help them. "Looking back," says our narrator, "all I can say in my defense is that it would have been very inconvenient to pay more attention to my sudden sense of unease. Easier to keep my head down and concentrate on having a good time."

By the time the parents realize that the tall man who's so solicitous of their children is, shall we say, an Uninvited Guest, it may be too late to make a run for the exit doors.

Another creeper here, called "Coffin Liquor," resuscitates an ingenious literary form I thought had expired decades ago: I'm talking about the academic satire/tale of terror. Writer James Hynes perfected this hybrid starting with novels like Publish and Perish which came out in 1997; but academia's ability to laugh at itself has withered in more recent times.

"Coffin Liquor" is a gruesome academic tour-de-farce; a riff on Dracula accessorized with audio books and apps. Our narrator, a pompous economics professor, has traveled to an unnamed Central European country for a conference. Upon arriving, though, he discovers the conference is a joke, larded with papers with titles like: "What economists can learn from Vlad the Impaler."

Seeking to escape this onslaught of academic word salad, the narrator takes a tour of local places of interest, which, naturally leads him to a graveyard. There, he makes the mistake of downloading a copy of Dickens' Great Expectations onto his smart phone while standing on the grave of a feudal overlord rumored to be a vampire. Who doesn't know never to do that?

The eight tales in Lanchester's 'Reality and Other Stories' are meant to entertain, to take you out of yourself for a space — and that they deftly do.

The eight tales in Lanchester's Reality and Other Stories are meant to entertain, to take you out of yourself for a space — and that they deftly do. Be forewarned, though: One of the most disturbing stories here touches on our own fearsome times.

In "We Happy Few," a group of young philosophy professors sits around a coffee bar talking about the state of the world. They focus on social media as being responsible for the "surge in stupidity [that's] the driving force behind everything getting worse ... " One of the professors even suggests that social media may be the tool of a demon, "some force or agency ... leading us towards doom and destruction, towards the dark." The others scoff. If you've ever seen the classic Twilight Zone episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," you know this doesn't end well. It's a backwards compliment to Lanchester to say that this is one story I sort of wish I hadn't read.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.