cover image Reality and Other Stories

Reality and Other Stories

John Lanchester. Norton, $26.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-393-54091-8

Lanchester (The Wall) returns with a modest collection of supernatural or vaguely dystopian tales that are constructed with cool precision, but fail to produce chills. The most engaging is “Coffin Liquor,” whose narrator, a prickly economics professor, resembles the snobbish misanthrope of Lanchester’s diabolical The Debt to Pleasure. The professor is attending a conference in Romania with such talks as “What economists can learn from Vlad the Impaler,” when the dark magic of literature and myth seeps into his hyperrational life. Another success is “Signal,” which cleverly recasts the restless ghost story as an allegory of technological dependence. “Charity,” about a cursed selfie stick whose malevolence seems to spring from colonial crimes, societal standards of beauty, and human vanity, is murkier. The title story, about a purgatorial reality television show in which the competition never begins, has some subtle observations about behavior within a crude genre, but like several others (“We Happy Few” and “The Kit”), feels undercooked. The conclusion to another ghost story, “Cold Call,” illustrates the fine line between horror and silliness. Lanchester is too good a writer—ironic, observant, worldly—not to imbue these tales with some degree of charm and pathos. Still, they feel more like exercises than genuine experiences of terror. (Mar.)