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…