Lockwood & Co. 1: The Screaming Staircase
by Jonathan Stroud (Corgi, 2014)
It might seem somewhat incongruous to use the adjective ‘delightful’ on a novel based in a warped alternate reality where ghosts walk among us. Thus, I will refrain. Suffice it to say that The Screaming Staircase is the first of what promises to be a rollicking series. It is a ghost story like no other—creepy, just as you’d expect it to be, and funny, like you wouldn’t.
In an unspecified period, but possibly not far from our current times, England has been beset with the spirits of the dead. It has been about 50 years since these unwelcome guests have flitted ethereally about in the realm of the living. Some of them are harmless, but no less discomfitting for the fleshed-and-blooded, whereas others are singularly evil, bent upon causing harm. These dearly and not-so-dearly departed come out after sunset, stalking the streets, haunting houses and terrifying ordinary folks.
It appears as though this phenomenon has afflicted just England. Nevertheless, the English have taken it all in their stride. Curfews are in place after dark, with ghost lamps lining the streets and buildings being reinforced with iron. A night watch armed with ghost-fighting abilities keeps the streets safe. Psychic investigation agencies abound, whose agents are trained to find the source of the other-wordly infestations and neutralize them. Clearly these are troubled times in any case. But what makes it even more complicated is that generations of adults have now come to terms with having to depend upon children for their safety. For it is only children who can see and hear these psychic manifestations and, thus, only children who can hunt and neutralize them.
Our narrator, fifteen-year-old Lucy Carlyle, finds herself at the doorstep of Lockwood & Co., one such psychic investigative agency, in search of a job. But instead of the usual set-up with an adult supervisor, she finds an enigmatic, absentminded teenager Anthony Lockwook in charge, assisted by the book- and doughtnut-loving George Cubbins. The trio stumble from job to job, just about managing to keep themselves afloat, till they make a mistake that they can ill afford. In other words, unless drastic measures are taken, Lockwood & Co. faces closure. Thus, when the eccentric iron magnate makes them an outrageous offer, they have little option but to take it up. They must spend one night inside the supremely haunted Combe Carey Hall with its dreaded Screaming Staircase, and get out alive the next morning. Finer agents have failed in the task, so the decrepit Lockwood team’s chances are slim.
Stroud builds a solid, alternative reality that a reader can really sink their teeth into. The sense of children being sent to work to train as agents as young as five is a little disturbing, but it all adds to the world building. Despite being a ghost story and being full of foul creatures, with or without malign intent, The Screaming Staircase isn’t a terrifying book. Much of that is possibly to do with the ordinariness of ghosts in the setting. However, that is not say that you won’t jump out of your skin at the slightest noise if you end up reading late into the night.
The only minus point are the characterizations. Strangely enough, Stroud hasn’t managed to convince us in that department. First, it was hard to pin down the narrator as a teenager, a child, as she is called at one point. Part of this might have had to do with the fact that children in this world have had to grow up fast. Lucy is a fun narrator, but the point of her being the most sensitive as she was a girl was annoying and unconvincing. Neither does she seem to get much of the action—it was always the boys who ended up doing the important rapier-work. Lockwood seems an irresponsible and irksome personality; we’re told he’s charismatic, but I had trouble seeing it. He also needlessly withholds information from his colleagues for unspecified reasons, for which he bears no consequences. George was the only one I felt sympathy with, despite his messy personal appearance and habits.
Another tiny niggle was that the eponymous Screaming Staircase makes its appearance more than halfway through the book, and for the most part we are concerned with another mystery concerning a manifestation that Lockwood and Lucy deal with early on. That said, being a first book of a series, much of it was spent in setting up the scene. There is a bit too much description in places for my liking, but the writing is otherwise delectable. Stroud can get your spine to tingle with an innocuous sentence like: ‘It was only out of merest curiosity that I let my fingertips trail against the stonework as we spiralled slowly down’ (p.369). Nothing happens immediately, but you know it’s coming. Shiver!
Despite the earlier moaning, this was a tremendously fun read. Heartily recommend to anyone not easily spooked. This doesn’t have the side-splitting humour of Stroud’s Bartimaeus books, but it is a rare ghost story that makes you smile now and again.
Other books in the series:
Lockwood & Co. 2: The Whispering Skull