Roald Dahl did a thorough research on ghost stories and came up with a not-so-surprising conclusion. Female authors penned some of the scariest tales in that genre. It wasn't hard to figure out the reason, as malevolence would be traced to emotions. They could be grief, also a tragedy. It would also be a case of a wrongdoing unresolved over time. Dahl, who made his name in Children's literature, did try his hand in Horror fiction. He himself admitted that he didn't do well at all. It didn't discourage him from completing his research, where he was able to create a short list of his favorite ghost stories.
Many fans of the genre would guess Susan Hill to be included in Dahl's list, but they were surprised to see Rosemary Timperley on the top of the list. "Harry" was probably her masterpiece, about the narrator recalling how her life turned to the worst after she saw her young daughter playing with a young boy (or so she thought). It happened in broad daylight, prompting some readers to wonder if the narrator, a rather watchful mother, was losing her mind. Timperley ended this mind-playing story with three probable scenarios, yet readers may think of a fourth one. There was no doubt that she lost it, as she believed that Harry took away her young girl after school was over. It could be a stranger who was interested in missing children, it could be a relative of Harry's.
Dahl listed A.M. Burrage, who relied on observation for his scary stories. "Playmates", for instance, revealed how solitude could enable any person, young or old, to get in touch with dead people. And you thought that M. Night Shyamalan first conceived such a premise. John Lanchester seemed to be inspired by Burrage, as "Signal" had similarities with "Playmates". The author of this short story did come up with an original premise, of how gadgets could be the life and death of us.
It happened one night
"You say hello, you chat for a bit, and then you ask for the Wi-Fi password. It's just one of the rules.”
The narrator began his story in King's Cross, which was the same place where Harry Potter finds his true destiny. The boy wizard discovered magic while the narrator and his (young) family were brought to a remote English countryside. Lanchester kept on teasing his readers, as Henry James came to mind at this point. And then the startling realization that there won't be any signal. The Wi-Fi turned out to be choppy and weak. And a very tall, sour man greeted the guests.
Michael wasn't really the narrator's friend, but he knew him from way back from university. They were once roommates, and he would compare him to a prized furniture in the household. It was an odd comparison, but he looked forward to a holiday where he and his wife don't have to think about the kids. And Michael's palatial home had every kind of game for them. Lanchester's description of every room would be reminiscent of Price Prospero's walled abbey, yet the tall man wasn't interested in any of Michael's guests. He wanted to spend more time with the kids, and it had something to do with a phone call.
"Signal" could allude to technology, and how it made many people more isolated than ever. It could turn some of them into living dead without being aware of it. Lanchester would hint that the author might be the only one who was truly alive, even if he was envious of his former roommate's gazillions. Money won't buy happiness, without a doubt. As a matter of fact, someone in the humongous turned out to be the saddest guest. The open ending would leave readers guessing: Did the unanswered phone calls saved the narrator and his family from what might be a fatal accident? Maybe. Lanchester might be thinking of a sequel to this short story, as the fog could conceal lots of stories. And some should be better left unsaid.