Book Review: Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase is supposedly for middle grade readers and young adults, and I know my most morbid friends and I would have absolutely adored it at that age, when we spent our afternoons trying to get possessed by spirits in the church basement during Girl Scout meetings. However, it’s such a sophisticated and downright scary book that I think older teenagers and even adults who read it would not feel like they were reading a children’s book below their league. (I am, of course, a hundred percent in favor of older people reading all manner of kid’s books without a hint of shame.)   The Screaming Staircase is a supernatural thriller which is scary, funny, and intriguing to the very last page.

Jonathan Stroud introduces us to a modern London full of ghosts. In fact, the whole world is experiencing “the problem” of a dramatic rise in hauntings, for reasons yet undisclosed – and into that London he’s introduced our young teenaged narrator, Lucy, and the the indomitable Lockwood & Co. Part of “the problem” seems to be that adults are not sufficiently attuned to ghostly disturbances and therefore aren’t too effectual in ghost hunting. But kids are more susceptible to paranormal behaviors. Just like with suspected hauntings in the real world, there might be some presence in a haunted house but only someone with psychic sensitivity can make any sense of it. In The Screaming Staircase, sensitive kids are apprenticed to ghost hunters as the eyes and ears of operations or they work as night guards in important parts of the city after curfew has been put in place after sunset. Lucy starts out as one such apprentice, but quickly learns that adults are cowards and often unprepared, even when they’re supposed to be in charge. Reeling from a ghost-busting gone horribly wrong, she joins up with Anthony Lockwood’s agency, where the entire operation is run by young teenagers out of a London townhouse full of weird artifacts, sword play in the basement, and a mess of tea and biscuits.

Lockwood himself is dashing, clever, and positively brimming with enthusiasm to get rid of ghostly “Visitors” and make a name for his unorthodox little company. George, his chubby and sarcastic young coworker who researches things from a safe distance, cooks and conducts experiments on a haunted skull even when he’s taking a bath. George doesn’t inspire Lucy’s confidence quite so much at first, but Lockwood & Co give her a home and a way to channel her ability to hear Visitors into a sense of purpose. Together, the three of them take on a haunted house case which should just be a routine exorcism. Things go awry, as they so often do. They are unprepared, they find a mysterious dead socialite by accident, and they end up burning their client’s home to the ground. And that’s when The Screaming Staircase really gets going. Lockwood must agree to investigate the incredibly haunted estate of one of the richest men in the country – a fellow in the iron business does a good bit of business when supernatural disturbances become part of the daily forecast – and the three young ghost hunters get in way over their heads at Combe Carey Hall once they start digging deeper into the mysteries of its past. Blood pours down from the ceiling. Children from other agencies have disappeared mysteriously or been found dead the next morning. And yes, there is a staircase which wails and screams with violent medieval memories. Lucy, George, and Lockwood will have to rely on little more than their wits, their rapiers, and each other when they come face to face with the afterlife and realize that things are quite confusing enough on this side of the mortal veil.

When I say that I would have loved this book as a young teen, I want to make it clear that I was a creepy, weird little lass. The Screaming Staircase is scary. Ghosts in Stroud’s world range from spooky phantoms seen near gallows-trees to full-fledged nightmares attacking kids in their bedrooms. There’s horror in this adventure, but what a fun adventure it is! Ghost stories for children sometimes run the risk of being too old-fashioned (like Constable & Toop, which I enjoyed but which might not grab the attention of Middle Grade readers accustomed to high stakes and snappy dialogue) or too high-tech and superficial. Lockwood & Co seems to be a series which will fall comfortably in the middle of these two generalizations to give us riveting action and relatable characters while still retaining some of that old-time-y ghost story atmosphere. I love the fact that agents use rapiers to parry with spirits and the inclusion of folkloric beliefs like the protective qualities of iron and various spiritual artifacts. The hauntings themselves are appropriately motivated by untimely deaths and unfinished business, so fans of ghost stories for both kids and adults will recognize some of the patterns which move the novel’s plot along. I like traditional ghost origins, though, and was perfectly content to wonder vaguely at “the Problem” without wishing it had been entirely spelled out for me. Maybe in future books Stroud will give us the logistics of his haunted setting, but the story doesn’t suffer for his skirting the issue.

While the ghosts and haunted houses might seem straight out of a Gothic novel, the characters are decidedly modern. I challenge any reader to put this book down not wanting to hang out with Lockwood. He’s just so cool. George, too, is so much fun to read about. Lucy immediately dislikes his mocking manners, but I usually find that the sarcastic side-kick turns out to be my favorite character in any book. He acts as a great voice of unfortunate reason, but also turns out to be brave and loyal. Huzzah for a sidekick with depth! Lucy is surly, but eager to do a good job, and I found that I could easily relate to her character. There’s plenty of background to her past as a strongly attuned psychic, and despite life’s hardships she just wants to put her talents to good use. Of course, this being a children’s book, there’s a hint that there might be something more to Lucy’s powers. That’s not my favorite literary tradition of all time; kids do not always need to find out they’re destined by to save the world, sometimes they should be just a normal sword-fighting psychic trying to save London from supernatural foes… But, once again, the threat of “specialness” didn’t ruin the book for me.

A few points did make me raise an eyebrow and wonder about certain choices. The Americanization of Stroud’s British terminology was inevitable, I suppose, but for a book which talks about changes in temperature all the bloody time it was distracting to stop and wonder why these kids were speaking in degrees Fahrenheit during otherwise bone-chilling scenes. The major villain of the story isn’t revealed as a scoundrel until late in the book, so some other unpleasant characters are sprinkled throughout to act as antagonists to our intrepid heroes. Unfortunately, the rivalry between Lockwood & Co and another group of agents seemed shallow and petty to me. It’s always great fun to watch an arrogant twit make an idiot of himself so that protagonists can have revenge upon him later, but the bully and his cohorts were too one-dimensional to add much to the story besides a glance at why big agencies with adult supervision aren’t nearly as awesome. There’s also the gore-factor. I love scary stuff, but visceral grossness really bothered me as a youngster (and it still does). There are a few little descriptions here – not lengthy ones, but vivid – which would have certainly fueled some scream-worthy nightmares a decade ago. I hope that anyone who picks up The Screaming Staircase reads the cover blurb and flips through it before dedicating a night to getting lost in the story. It’s such an engrossing read you won’t want to quit halfway through, even though you might regret it later when you start hearing a steady drip-drip-drip in your dreams.

I heartily recommend Lockwood & Co to anyone who liked the charismatic characters in Artemis Fowl, as well as the mix of modern and old fashioned adventure. Spooky kids who liked The Graveyard Book but want a little more action will love it, as will anyone who wished that superstitions and sword fights were still part of every day life. Any grown-up anglophiles who want a straightforward ghostly adventure will also enjoy The Screaming Staircase. I hope Stroud will continue to write about the exploits of Lockwood & Co, even though this book ended very nicely without too many loose ends. There’s a lot to explore in his version of London, and I want to explore it with Lucy and her friends.

My review of the second book in the series – Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull can be read here.

All Hallow’s Read Suggestions: YA and Children’s Books

I’ve got excuses for the scarcity of reviews this month, and they’re waiting at the end of this list.  But first, here are some random books amongst the dozens which I’ve been recommending to young readers as Halloween approaches.  I encourage all of you to participate in Neil Gaiman’s invented holiday known as All Hallow’s Read, which we celebrate by making presents of books which scared us; or creeped us out; or made us tiptoe up the stairs a little faster with a chill on the backs of our necks.  Give those books to friends of yours who should share your fear.

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Some of the books I’ve chosen truly terrified me, while others had a great spooky atmosphere without actually causing nightmares.  There’s a Hallowe’en book out there for anyone who enjoys the holiday, no matter how brave they feel in the darkness.

1. The Graveyard Book and Coraline by Neil Gaiman.

The editions with illustrations by Dave McKean are the best.  Wonderfully spooky stories for middle grade readers and above.  Coraline has been a classic for ages.  It has a black cat, a mysterious old house, a scary parallel world, monstrous grown ups, a mouse circus, and the terrifying threat of having buttons sewn on as eyes.  The Graveyard Book is Gaiman’s retelling of Kipling’s The Jungle Book but it’s set in a graveyard with ghosts and vampires raising the young hero as opposed to animals.  It’s one of my favorite books to recommend to children who can handle a bit of gloom; there’s a reason it won the Newbury Award, people!  I will say that the opening scene of The Graveyard Book is really grisly and disturbing, but if you can get past the first chilling chapter you’re in for one of the most atmospheric and well-told ghost stories published in the past decade.

2. Constable and Toop by Gareth P Jones

An old-fashioned style of ghost adventure book which came out earlier this month, Constable and Toop reminded me of the books by Eva Ibbotsen I used to really like as a child.  It’s spooky and charming, starring likable heroes who have to combat darkness with tenacity and luck.  Sam Toop’s dad is an undertaker with a mysterious past, and young Sam hangs around a lot of dead folk.  It’s not just corpses who demand his attention, though; Sam can see ghosts and they’re desperate for his help because something’s going terribly wrong with the haunted houses in London.  Constable and Toop is a dark Victorian adventure through London with enough violence to be scary without turning into an absolute gore-fest.

If you liked Constable and Toop, go find old copies of  Eva Ibbotson’s Dial-A-Ghost and Which Witch?  I like them even better.

3. Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough

I’ve already written a review of Long Lankin, which you can read here.  It’s properly terrifying, exactly the sort of horror story which haunts my nightmares and makes my blood run cold.  Even though the main characters are young children, this is definitely a book for teenagers – the plot is inspired by a disturbing English folksong about horrific murders, and there plot is dark and twisted.  The atmosphere of a decaying English estate in the 1950s with something evil lurking just out of sight is so chilling and vivid.  Even though Long Lankin doesn’t actually take place near Halloween it’s the perfect book for someone who wants to stay up all night quaking with nerves, but who isn’t necessarily keen on big splashy gore and nonstop action.  This is the eeriest book I’ve read in ages, and if you’re looking to give an All Hallow’s Read gift to someone who really wants (or deserves) to be scared, this is a good choice.

4. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

This is another one I’ve already reviewed.  Really creepy found photos are combined with a dark and mysterious plot to make a unique sort of YA horror novel.  I think the first half of the book is a little more Halloween-y than the second, and in my review I explain why I was disappointed with the story’s direction, but it’s got really uncanny photographs of ghostly children and some great scary scenes.  I would give this one to teenagers who like to find weird objects in thrift shops and make up scary stories about them trying to gross each other out.

5.  The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff.

Not only does The Replacement have a great Halloween party scene with some dead girls dressed up as themselves to hide amongst the living, it’s also a great example of how a small-scale YA horror novel can be just as gripping as one in which the whole world is at stake, as long as it’s written by the right author.  I loved Brenna Yovanoff’s take on the changeling myth – I mean, can we talk about how the cover alone shouts “hey, Sarah, read me right now!”?  Her story about a changeling boy trying to protect his town from the monstrous faery-creatures who influence the area is scary, entertaining, and somehow very moving, too.

Since I’m the sort of person who spends Halloween midnights waiting for faeries at crossroads, I really enjoyed this book and thought that the teenage angst and moral dilemmas worked very well against such a sinister background.

6. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury is always a great bet, and I actually gave this book to a friend on the first All Hallow’s Read after Gaiman declared it a holiday.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is technically a YA/children’s book, but adult Bradbury fans usually love it, too.

I think this passage from the book sums up the tone of writing and easily explains why it’s a great Halloween read:

“For some, autumn comes early, stays late through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ’s birth, there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years, with no winter, spring, or revivifying summer. For these beings, fall is the ever normal season, the only weather, there be no choice beyond. Where do they come from? The dust. Where do they go? The grave. Does blood stir their veins? No: the night wind. What ticks in their head? The worm. What speaks from their mouth? The toad. What sees from their eye? The snake. What hears with their ear? The abyss between the stars. They sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenxy forth. In gusts they beetle-scurry, creep, thread, filter, motion, make all moons sullen, and surely cloud all clear-run waters. The spider-web hears them, trembles-breaks. Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.”  (source of quote, because I can’t find my copy of the book.)

(If you liked this – I hear Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree is great but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.  Any opinions?)

7. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

This is another new book which came out in October, and one by a favorite YA author of mine.  You can read my full review here.

Vicious vampires + a believable heroine + snappy one-liners + the coolest explanation of vampirism in YA fiction right now (oh dear I hate temperature puns) = an excellent addition to the growing vampire mythology.  This book is grisly and violent.  If you really want to get into the spirit of things, read it right before you go to a Halloween party.  Just don’t freak out if, when you wake up from your drunken haze, all the other party goers have had their blood sucked dry.

8. The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

Read my original review of this book here.

Again, this YA horror novel is not necessarily Halloween themed, but it’s so densely atmospheric and dark that October’s the perfect time to read it.  Wooding’s book takes place in Victorian London, but unlike Constable and Toop, this one is relentlessly frightening and meant for teenagers rather than middle grade readers.  It contains great villains, complex musings about the nature of evil, the terrors of bedlam, and plenty of fog.  Give it to steampunk readers looking for a break from the gadgets, and old fashioned goths who aren’t afraid of monsters hovering above one’s bed at night.  (This book made me scream out loud in my sleep two nights in a row when I first read it as a freshman in high school.)

9. The Tailypo

I will never forget the first time I heard this story read allowed in my elementary school library class.  It’s about a hermit who cuts off a creature’s tail, and then the creature stalks him repeating “I’m coming to find my tailypo” until it finally eats the hunter and his dogs on a dark night.  The stuff of my earliest nightmares.

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Apologies and excuses:

This has been a very busy October for yer dedicated Captain o’ these pages, what with my escapades at The Boston Book Festival and various nerdy adventures on land  and by the sea.  My moments of freedom have been few and far between, and while I’ve read at least ten books since finishing Rooftoppers I haven’t yet managed to write a half-decent review.  There’s quite a tempest loomin’ on the horizon of my bookish future as well, as the holiday season is approaching, so the good ship Bookshop has been battening down the hatches for the busiest months of the year.  My reviewing energy may dampen a little in the near future, but never fear.  Neither hell nor high water, nor indeed a plague of paper cuts from wrapping paper, can keep me away from saying stuff about books for long.