John Lanchester

John Lanchester; illustration by Antoine Cossé

In Martin Amis’s novel Other People: A Mystery Story (1981), a woman with amnesia comes across the works of Jane Austen. “The same thing happened in every book,” she discovers. “The girl liked a bad man who seemed good, then liked a good man who had seemed bad, whom she duly married.” There are, needless to say, many writers about whom jokes like this can be made. (A friend of mine claims never to have read an Anita Brookner novel that doesn’t feature a scene in which the lonely protagonist resignedly scrapes food into the garbage after the failure of a potential beau to show up for dinner.) John Lanchester, however, isn’t one of them. Instead, his fiction appears strictly to observe the old Italian adage that “a fat pope follows a thin pope,” with each book a reaction—deliberate or otherwise—to the one before. That includes his new collection of what are being billed as ghost stories. (“Not exactly the right term, but close enough,” Lanchester has said.)

His first novel, The Debt to Pleasure (1996), rather corroborated Humbert Humbert’s theory in Lolita that “you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” The narrator is Tarquin Winot—gourmet, aesthete, polymath, colossal snob, and, as it turns out, serial killer—who journeys from England to France interspersing reminiscences with fastidious recipes (“Take two pounds of assorted rockfish, ideally bought somewhere on the Mediterranean in a quayside negotiation with a leathery grandfather and grandson team”) and lordly thoughts on such subjects as “the fallacy of the idea of the biographical fallacy.” Only gradually does it become clear why so many of the people he’s known are no longer with us. The novel—by turns sinister, informative, and very funny—won two big British literary awards and seemed to announce the arrival of a new virtuoso in literary pyrotechnics.

But then came Mr Phillips (2000), an unshowy third-person narrative about a day in the life of a middle-aged accountant. Having not told his wife that he’s just been laid off, Mr. P spends the day wandering around London looking at the sights—more of them young and female than might be deemed advisable in a novel today. Even so, his main impulses are mathematical, as he carefully works out how much of the average human life is spent doing nothing (16.375 percent) or the statistical probability of dying in any given minute (1 in 49,200,000). Admittedly Mr. Phillips, like Tarquin, is a man with a secret. Yet the contrast between their secrets—mass murder and losing a job as an accountant—only serves to emphasize the difference between the two books.

A novel set in one place on one day was followed by Fragrant Harbor (2002), which spans sixty years and several countries, and has four narrators—one with a secret that he keeps until near the end. The central focus, however, is on the history of Hong Kong, where Lanchester grew up as a banker’s son when it was still a British colony. As the novel moves from pre-war complacency, through the Japanese invasion of 1941, and on to the territory’s postwar emergence as a global trading center, he handles the abundance of material with the deftness of a pro. Nonetheless, there’s something of the highly polished literary exercise about the book, as if it’s dutifully filling the gap where John Lanchester’s Hong Kong novel had to be.

After that, we got a hefty clue as to why secrets were figuring so heavily in his work, when he turned to nonfiction for the memoir Family Romance (2007). Lanchester had always known his Irish mother had been a nun. What he didn’t learn until she died in 1998 was that she’d been one for fourteen years. Or that on meeting her future husband when approaching forty, she recognized that he might consider her too old to provide the big family he wanted, and so she used the birth certificate of a sister nine years younger to apply for British citizenship. From then on, her new age remained on all official documents and she was stuck with a lie she couldn’t unsay. As a child (her only one), Lanchester felt his mother’s “psychic territory was marked with ‘Keep Out’ signs.” Now he’d come to understand how this had informed his fiction: “One of the things I have noticed about my novels, in the course of writing this book, is that they all concern people who can’t quite bring themselves to tell the truth about their own lives.”

In what seemed like a reaction to that realization, his next novel was the avowedly Dickensian Capital (2012), a deserved British best seller about a disparate group of people living on the same London street in 2007–2008. The daunting omniscience of the book’s narrator allows him to tell the truth not just about the inner lives of its characters but also about the economic and social forces acting on them as the city’s apparently unstoppable boom heads toward bust.


It was while writing Capital that Lanchester impressively turned himself into something of an expert on the financial system, breaking off to write I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010). The book is aimed squarely at readers who don’t understand high finance—i.e., most of us—with plenty of good jokes and anecdotes. But it’s also animated by a genuine anger at the stupidity of the supposedly clever people who caused the 2008 crash. The chief culprit, he suggests, was a “mystical belief” in the markets, disguised—so cunningly that it fooled its own adherents—as an impeccably rational and mathematical understanding.

“If it worked, denial would be the best thing in the world,” Lanchester wrote in Family Romance, adding that “sometimes it does, more or less.” When it came to the crash, though, denial didn’t only not work; it was a central cause. Quoting the journalist Roger Lowenstein, I.O.U. points out that according to the mathematical model on which the bankers pinned their unwavering faith, “had the market been open every day since the creation of the Universe, the odds would still have been against its falling that much in a single day.” But Lanchester also took a stern view of our own culpability, ending with a plea that we “start thinking about…whether we really need the things we think we do…. In a world running out of resources, the most important ethical, political, and ecological idea can be summed up in one simple word: ‘enough.’”

And as it transpired, the ecological was where Lanchester went next, by tackling another subject where denial is both tempting and disastrous.1 But as you might imagine by now, this was accompanied by a new turn in literary direction, with the journalistic realism of Capital exchanged for speculative fiction. The Wall (2019) is set in the near future when there’s a concrete wall around Britain’s coastline to keep out people known as “the Others,” who are fleeing the consequences of a climate catastrophe known as “the Change.” The book, he has said, is based closely on our current trajectory in the fervent hope that it doesn’t come true.

Like every young Brit, the narrator Kavanagh must serve two years as a Defender on the Wall—where, he accurately tells us, “Days don’t vary much…. There isn’t much narrative.” This means that at first the book is slightly forbidding, if authentically claustrophobic. (More than halfway through we learn that Kavanagh’s first name is Joseph, making him an appropriately Kafkaesque Joseph K.) Then, as if in reaction to itself, it suddenly bursts into almost Hollywood levels of action. Kavanagh’s boss proves a murderous traitor who engineers a successful invasion by a group of Others, the improbably brutal punishment for which is that Kavanagh and two colleagues are put to sea in a lifeboat. From there, they battle high seas and pirates in what’s often a surprisingly straightforward adventure yarn, albeit with a distinct undertow of melancholy. Again, Lanchester is enough of a pro to deliver several exciting set pieces, but even so, this section of the book perhaps recalls the verdict he once passed on a Timothy Mo novel: “Some readers…may find its…action-packed un-boringness to be somewhat stylised and voulu.”

Meanwhile, underlying the dystopia is a huge generational divide. “None of us can talk to our parents,” Kavanagh writes during his Wall days. “The olds feel they irretrievably fucked up the world…. You know what?… That’s exactly what they did.” Or, as another of the younger characters puts it, “There was our parents’ world, and now there is our world.”

Which brings us, by way of the usual Lanchester contrast, to Reality and Other Stories. Although not all eight tales feature ghosts, they do share a general sense of spooked unease at the effects of digital technology, for which the supernatural provides both narrative structure and metaphor. And this, of course, is an unease likelier to be felt by the “olds”—among them the fifty-nine-year-old Lanchester himself, who in 2017 explained, over nearly nine thousand words in the London Review of Books, why “I am scared of Facebook.”2 Today’s digital natives can indisputably claim, “There was our parents’ world, and now there is our world.” Yet when it comes to digital technology, could it be the “youngs” who are in denial about the dangers facing them, the way the olds in The Wall were about climate change? Not only does this collection suggest a firm “yes,” but it does so in a way that neatly suits ghost stories. After all, it’s a genre in which—maybe most famously in The Turn of the Screw—the young are often the prime source of jeopardy precisely because they’re less aware than adults of what’s weird and what’s dangerous.


Take “Signal,” the first tale in the book and one of the most orthodox ghost stories, adhering as it does to the model put forward by M.R. James (1862–1936), the English medievalist widely considered, including by Lanchester, to be a leading exponent of the form.3 “Let us…be introduced to the actors in a placid way,” James advised,

let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

In “Signal,” the ordinary business consists of an unnamed academic narrator taking a comically fraught train journey with his wife, nine-year-old son, and seven-year-old daughter to spend the New Year at his rich friend Michael’s mansion. On arrival, they briefly see “a very, very tall man” searching for a phone signal with “an air of complete coldness and disconnection, as if he couldn’t care less whether we lived or died.” Nonetheless, all goes well for a day or two, as the carefree parents leave their carefree children to amuse themselves. Whenever he’s reunited with his kids, however, the narrator is increasingly alarmed to hear how much time they’re spending with the tall man, especially when they tell him that he took them to the swimming pool still carrying his phone—and even more alarmed when Michael says there’s nobody of that description among the guests.

On New Year’s Eve, the narrator sits guard in the children’s bedroom, but mysteriously can’t speak or move when the tall man enters and hunches ominously over their beds with that phone of his. (“I felt as if there were nothing left of me but a compound of fear and helplessness.”) The next morning, he hires a driver to take the family away from the danger, although the children can’t see what the fuss is about. As they set off, the driver informs him that the mansion’s previous owner, now dead, had been an uncommonly tall man, whose two great loves were his children and his gadgets. And with that, what should the narrator see as he looks back at the house but the menacing silhouette of the tall man in the children’s bedroom window still trying to get a phone signal.

The story certainly achieves the transition from domesticity to out-and-out spookiness in the approved M.R. James way. As in The Turn of the Screw, we’re left tantalizingly unsure whether the children were really in danger. Here, though, the allegorical and narrative elements of the story don’t feel wholly in sync. For much of “Signal,” the tall man seems to represent the Internet itself, accepted by the kids, worried about as a predator by the grown-ups. In the final scene, he becomes simply a conventional ghost making a conventional climactic appearance in a ghost story.

There’s a similar conflict between narrative and apparent meaning in “Charity,” another tale in which comic realism gives way to the sinister. The narrator is a retired teacher, Mr. Potter, working in a thrift store where Lanchester has much fun with his bafflement at modern fashions. One day Alice, a former pupil, comes in and buys a recently donated selfie stick—once she’s explained to Mr. Potter what a selfie stick is. Trying it out, Alice duly sucks in her cheeks and loves the resulting picture. Months later, she returns to the shop, shockingly anorexic but still bursting with enthusiasm for the stick: “It’s like it knows how I want to look.”

At this stage, then, the story seems a well-ordered allegory about the effects of Instagram and the like. But as it develops, we learn the stick was originally bought in Congo by a descendant of Belgian colonialists and began its life-wrecking career by convincing him that the pictures he took were terrific too—even though he was getting fatter and sicker until he died of a heart attack, selfie stick in hand. After Mr. Potter retrieves it from Alice—another youngster unaware of the dangers she’s facing—he unwisely takes a selfie of his own (his first, obviously). It shows “the head of a skeleton—my skeleton. My eyeballs were hanging out. Maggots were writhing all over the bones of my skull.”

This is, I think it’s fair to say, not how he wants to look. So is the stick a commentary on social media, an anticolonialist avenger, or a reminder of mortality? Or is this just the sort of scary big finish that ghost stories are required to have? It wouldn’t matter so much if Lanchester were being purely playful. But although that’s one of the things he’s being, “Charity,” like “Signal,” suffers from a final scene whose playfulness undermines rather than accompanies what the story elsewhere implies is a weightier purpose.

A more satisfying marriage of narrative and meaning comes in the title story. A young woman called Iona gets out of bed and, opening the wardrobe to choose her clothes, carries out “complex calculations about…what the audience would want and how to give it to them while acting as if she weren’t thinking about them.” Luckily, “she knew the rules of seeming.”

Sure enough, Iona is part of a Love Island–style reality TV series in which six very good-looking people in very small bathing suits consciously try to look unself-conscious, even though they’re being “filmed, surveilled, watched and judged and assessed and ranked for popularity.” This story, too, ends with a twist: the participants are in Hell and will remain there forever. Yet in this case, the twist feels like a chilling confirmation of what’s gone before rather than a sudden striving for a spectacular finale. Lanchester captures the language and thoughts of the characters with a pin-sharp accuracy that suggests he’s spent an unexpectedly large amount of time watching Love Island. But he also makes the point—or better still, allows it to emerge—that the “reality” of reality television is much like that of online life, where people perform heightened versions of themselves while pretending not to, and that there may be no escape from that hell either.

The best story of all is the one that most completely encapsulates the book’s concerns, influences, and techniques. “Coffin Liquor” features the journal of an academic at an economics conference in Romania, and, again, one ghost definitely haunting it is M.R. James, with his predilection for pedantic academics who pride themselves on their strict rationalism.

Among Lanchester’s favorite James stories is “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” in which the pedant is Professor Parkins. Having proclaimed himself a “convinced disbeliever in what is called the ‘supernatural,’” Parkins stays in a hotel where his convinced disbelief is inevitably tested to the breaking point. In Lanchester’s version, the academic is the similarly named Professor Watkins, an economist whose science-based skepticism rises to the level of broad comedy and whose prose has a snootiness to rival Tarquin Winot’s in The Debt to Pleasure.

To Watkins’s (nonsupernatural) horror, the main subject of the conference turns out to be the relationship between economics and the humanities. His worst (nonsupernatural) fears are then realized when one of the introductory speakers is

a female Eastern European literature professor in early middle age who had hair with a blue streak in it and purple glasses. Also bangles…. The ostensible subject of her speech was the continuing contemporary importance of myth, but from the point of view of a properly trained mind—i.e., mine—there was no content at all.

Watkins decides to avoid such “otiose humanities-based pseudo-scholarship” by plugging his translation earpiece into his smartphone and listening to a Dickens audiobook instead. Rejecting A Christmas Carol for its regrettable “supernatural apparatus,” he settles on Great Expectations—except that when he does listen, the original story seamlessly veers into a non-Dickensian account of some sort of supernatural monster slithering toward Pip.

In the M.R. James tradition of clever people coming up with absurd rationalizations, Watkins decides that “somebody at the audiobook company has been playing a joke.” So, “in the mood for…some bracing plainspoken self-evidently true atheism,” he moves on to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Unfortunately, even there the tale of the monster continues, to the point where it starts hissing the words “listen…listen…” Taking to his hotel room in “unease, even fear,” what should he hear outside his door but “the movement of a body…slithering along the floor” and a hissed “listen…listen…” We last see him in a London mental hospital with his fingers in his ears shouting, “I can’t hear you.”

Clearly this, too, follows the James pattern of the old pedant getting his comeuppance for his smug rationalism. But given that the protagonist in denial is an economist, Lanchester may also be hinting at a more contemporary resonance. In I.O.U. he quotes Alan Greenspan telling the House Oversight Committee that the 2008 crash had revealed “a flaw” in his model of “how the world works.” As Lanchester remarks, “That’s a hell of a big thing for a man like Greenspan to find a flaw in.” Yet this is precisely what Professor Watkins’s experiences at the conference reveal to him, even if he prefers putting his fingers in his ears to admitting it.

The resemblance between Watkins’s narrative voice and Tarquin’s, meanwhile, is a reminder of another, related theme central to The Debt to Pleasure: that being clever and highly cultured can lead to a damaging sense of moral superiority. (Even as a child, Tarquin had a “burgeoning suspicion that my artist’s nature isolated and separated me from my alleged fellow men.”) So might taking a lofty view of digital technology have similar dangers? It’s a question that the story tellingly entitled “We Happy Few” confronts head-on.

In it, four university lecturers sit in a tucked-away alcove in a coffee shop and essentially moan about how terrible everything is, except for them. They limber up by sneering at the waitress for saying “No worries” when they thank her for their coffee. (“It’s not like you’ve gone for an MRI.”) From there, they move on to denouncing “anyone who voted for Trump. Everyone who voted for Brexit. Anyone who watches reality TV.” Judging from what Lanchester has said and written elsewhere, they also deliver the nearest the book contains to an author’s message:

If you imagined some force or agency in the world that was leading us towards doom and destruction, towards the dark, and then you imagined what kind of tools and technologies it would use, you’d come up with something like social media.

And yet this is an author’s message delivered by characters the author depicts as rude, annoying, and intolerant—and who eventually receive their own spooky comeuppance. Such ambivalence recalls Robert Frost’s supposed (and, I’d argue, not unflattering) definition of a liberal as “a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

Or, again, is it all a matter of generational difference? There’s perhaps a final clue to the book’s unease about digital technology—and why that unease is so often linked to ghosts—in the story “Cold Call,” the narrator of which is a high-flying lawyer whose infuriating father-in-law seems to be trying to contact her from beyond the grave. As a result, she starts to ignore the phone—not because she believes it will be him (although she should), but because she’s “frightened of seeing something that wasn’t possible.” Lanchester first heard this notion forty years ago from a friend explaining why he didn’t walk through a particular building at night. It shows up in The Debt to Pleasure, too, where Tarquin avoids going into a darkened house not out of the fear of seeing “a ghost per se” but out of “the fear of seeing something that was impossible.” Yet it’s also a perfect fit for Lanchester’s aim—triumphantly achieved—of restoring a due sense of eeriness to our current reality. Most people under about thirty may take the digital world entirely for granted. But for those of his generation (and, full disclosure, mine), much of what they see every day would, not so long ago, have been considered as unnervingly impossible as meeting a ghost.

According to H.P. Lovecraft, the best ghost-story writers are not “occult believers” but materialists. This is because to occultists “the phantom world is so commonplace a reality that they tend to refer to it with less awe, remoteness, and impressiveness” than those for whom it represents “an absolute and stupendous violation of the natural order.” And, in the end, it may not be going too far to say that for those over fifty, the blurring between old-school tangible reality and online life (a blurring “so commonplace” to the younger generation of digital believers) has represented exactly that. In a British interview for the book, Lanchester talked of “the unsettlingness, the eeriness of…[he holds up his phone]…these things.” He then (slightly mis)quoted E.O. Wilson, saying that we have “paleolithic brains, medieval institutions and godlike technology,” and argued that “it’s the space between them in which the uncanny lies.”