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The Stories In 'Reality' Have Some Bite

W.W. Norton

You don't have to be a full-on Luddite to have a healthy fear of technology. Anyone who's seen movies like Ringor Videodrome, or television shows like Westworldor Black Mirror, might find themselves a little creeped out by the gadgets, programs and apps that have taken over our lives, especially over the last year. (Zoom has entered the chat.)

In his new short story collection, Reality, British author John Lanchester considers the dark side of technology, from smartphones to selfie sticks. It's a smart book, scary as hell, and also a whole lot of fun.

The collection begins with "Signal," about a family of four who are invited to a vacation at the opulent house of a wealthy friend ("Michael was loaded, seriously and unambiguously loaded. He was the kind or rich that even other people who were rich considered rich"). When they enter, they encounter a tall man staring at his phone, looking as though he's trying in vain to find a Wi-Fi signal. As the vacation progresses, the father is increasingly creeped out by the attention the tall man seems to be paying his children, and is even more creeped out when it turns out the man might not be what he seems.

It's a terrifying story that showcases Lanchester's gift for pacing — the story hums along at a quick pace, without any wasted words. The ending is chilling but not cheap; Lanchester never overplays his hand for the sake of shock value.

Scary in a different way is the title story, which follows an actress and model named Iona who participates in a Big Brother-type reality show. She's the first person there, but feels sure she knows what her fellow housemates will be like: "It went unstated that they would be attractive young people, because, well, it was obvious that that was the whole point." When the other contestants arrive, Iona grows concerned that she's about to be shunned, singled out for reasons she can't quite understand. "[W]hen you spent time there you came to think that everything about the villa was the opposite of what it seemed to be," she explains, "that good feelings were full of hate, that friends were enemies, that laughter was violence, that there was no such thing as love."

The story's conclusion is understated, which makes it even more terrifying; there are no monsters, no murderers, just Iona's escalating paranoia. Lanchester makes great use of humor in the story — one character, asked what a frittata is, describes it as "an omelette that's gone wrong on purpose" — which catches the reader off guard, making the underlying terror all the more intense. He also has a keen understanding of psychology, and how humans function (or don't) in unnatural situations.

Lanchester tackles telephones in "Cold Call," about a lawyer who has an unhappy relationship with her husband's father, Gerald: "I have never encountered a fact or anecdote or any form of evidence that a more annoying person exists or has ever existed or ever will exist ... In the last decade, I have never had an interaction with my father-in-law which did not involve me wanting to murder him." Gerald calls the lawyer and her husband frequently, sometimes for no particular reason, and after he injures himself in a fall, the couple sign him up for a Life Alert-style emergency response service.

This only makes the calls increase, and when the lawyer ignores a call one day, the consequences prove disastrous. The story has echoes of old Twilight Zoneepisodes, though it's not at all derivative; Lanchester puts an interesting spin on it. It's old-fashioned horror, which proves refreshing in an age when a lot of horror favors the gory over the spooky.

Lanchester is clearly having fun in 'Reality,' and the fun is contagious. He doesn't take himself too seriously, but he commits to every premise, and follows through with unfailingly elegant writing.

Not every story succeeds at the same level — "The Kit," about a farmer and his sons who grow dependent on a machine that cooks, cleans, and does other assorted housework, has a twist ending that's hard not to see coming from a mile away. Still, it's written well, and marked with Lanchester's dry wit. Other stories in the book, like "Coffin Liquor," combine psychological horror with arch humor, to great effect.

What's refreshing about Realityis that Lanchester doesn't turn alarmist or preachy in the way he writes about technology. There are no "It sure was better back then" vibes; it's clear he doesn't see technology as a problem in and of itself — it's the people holding the smartphones, not the gadgets themselves, that wreak havoc on the world, he seems to say.

Lanchester is clearly having fun in Reality, and the fun is contagious. He doesn't take himself too seriously, but he commits to every premise, and follows through with unfailingly elegant writing. This is the kind of horror book that's perfect to read, say, by candlelight after a winter storm has knocked out your electricity (Ask me how I know!) — it's as endlessly entertaining as it is legitimately frightening.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.