Book Review – Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester

books, reviews

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

It’s been a while since I last logged into NetGalley. It’s mainly because I hate the pressure of it. I would always get overexcited and request loads of books. Then I’d never be able to read them in time and feel guilty. I lost access to a lot of books and, consequently, my rating went down. So, I walked away and decided to read the books I wanted to buy. Then I realised that NetGalley were offering audiobooks. How perfect? I find it much easier to fit in an audiobook in my schedule. So, I went on and requested a bunch. This was the first one that I got and I was really happy. I’d been interested in this collection but, I admit, I’d been left scared after The Wall didn’t really do much for me. Could this collection be as good as it sounded?

John Lanchester is a baby boomer. Even if you didn’t know this already, you will by the time you’ve finished Reality and Other Stories. Lanchester’s first short story collection is a series of so-called modern ghost stories that deal with our obsession with technology. I mean no offence to Lanchester by describing him as a boomer but these stories show a lack of understanding of technology in modern society. It’s especially obvious given that it was released in 2020, a year in which technology is one of the only things keeping people connected during the pandemic. Far from destroying society, technology and social media is a force of good provided it is used correctly. Just look at Gen Z and the power of Tik Tok for proof.

This was obviously written as a Black Mirror-esque look at the dangers of becoming too reliant on technology but it lacks the nuance of Charlie Brooker’s show. Brooker understands that technology has far-reaching possibilities but that human beings have an unnerving ability to take things too far. Lanchester’s collection seems to want to suggest that all technology is bad. It also lived within the realms of possibility. That’s what makes it so horrifying. Reality and Other Stories removes itself from reality slightly too much for it to have the same effect. It’s just not scary and, in many places, just seems silly.

Of course, it also doesn’t help that none of these stories feel particularly original. It’s as if Lanchester has taken the ghost stories we’ve heard for years and just added a telephone or the internet to modernise it. It kicks off with a couple visiting a rich friend and the mysterious man who takes an unhealthy interest in their kids. It’s so clear what’s going here that the final reveal just doesn’t hit. This feels like such a parody of a ghost story. It’s a shame because it starts the collection off with a whimper rather than a bang.

No short story collection is ever 100% perfect and there are certainly highs and lows here. Of the 8 stories, 2 are pretty good and could be developed further into fantastically chilling tales. There are a few other fun concepts in there but most of them just feel as though they are lacking. There is an interesting story that channels Dickens and features a haunted audiobook which I could definitely see working in a longer format. However, there aren’t really any stories here that really stand out. I don’t think any of these stories will haunt me from a horror or a social perspective.

This collection isn’t awful by any means but it does promise much more than it can give. Its mistrust of technology feels outdated and out-of-touch. It feels overly preachy and was difficult to really get behind. Then there’s the ghost story aspect. I understand that it’s meant to be more unnerving than straight scary but it just lacks the killer twists that these types of stories need. It’s difficult in the post-Black Mirror age that we just expect more from technological horror stories. Instead, we get arguments that were better suited to 10 years ago. Technology is constantly moving forward and we’ve moved way beyond our fears about selfie sticks.

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