Story Collection Puts A Ghostly Spin On Digital 'Reality'

Mar 10, 2021

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. - Maureen Corrigan

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.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The question of whether we control technology or technology controls us is a familiar one. But bestselling author John Lanchester gives that question a spooky spin in his short story collection, "Reality, And Other Stories." Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: 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 techie ghost stories seems especially appealing right now. In Lanchester's collection called "Reality, And Other Stories," the supernatural manifests itself through cellphones, 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' "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 are 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 were 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 audiobooks 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 smartphone 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. 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. 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.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Reality And Other Stories" by John Lanchester. On tomorrow's show, we speak with Jon Batiste. He's the music director and bandleader on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." And he composed, arranged and performs the jazz in the animated film "Soul." In New York after George Floyd was killed, he led peaceful protesters in hymns and songs. Now he has a new album called "We Are." I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED YOU")

JON BATISTE: (Singing) We done a lot of living. We working overtime. Don't need another million. You got that gold mine. I love the way you living 'cause you're so genuine. You got that something special. Didn't you know? I just need you, you, you.

(Rapping) Met you when I was a little nappy head boy. And I never put down my alto saxophone. Buckjumpin' down on the boulevard, I couldn't wait to blow my own horn. It ain't wrong for you to play along, playing this song till you die. Come on. Come on.

(Singing) In this world with a lot of problems, all we need is a little loving. Thank you. Thank you. Oh, you make me. Thank you. Thank you for your love. We done a lot of living. We working overtime. Don't need... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.