Review: Lockwood & Co – The Screaming Staircase / Author: Jonathan Stroud / Publisher: Doubleday Childrens / Release Date: August 29th
Britain is suffering from the Problem, the isles terrorised by hauntings and ghostly presences. To combat this, various agencies have been created; their agents are children, those who have the abilities to see or hear the spirits, abilities that fade with age and experience. Lockwood and Co is one such group; consisting of three teenagers without adult supervision, the team are down on their luck despite their talents, and when a case goes spectacularly wrong, the team find themselves at risk of losing everything. All they need is one ghost, one haunting that will reach the public eye, make them the money they need to pay their debts and stay in business.
The Screaming Staircase is narrated by Lockwood agent Lucy Carlyle who, after a tragic accident in her Northern hometown, has traveled to London seeking employment. Although none of the big agencies will take her on, Lockwood is eventually happy to do so, given the loss of his previous assistant. Together with George – key researcher and provider of food – Lucy makes up our trio.
A book that could have been little more than a teenage version of Ghostbusters, The Screaming Staircase is lifted into originality by the empathy of the narration. If Lucy is worried, so too is the reader; Lucy finds amusement, and even a cynical reviewer can raise a smile; if Lucy is afraid, so are we. Jonathan Stroud has created a likeable character, one who it’s easy to get attached to and care about; by making her narrator, he pulls us deep into the events of the book.
Although a story for young adults, The Screaming Staircase has a few unsettling moments; the ghosts are scary, yes, but it’s often the approaches to the haunting – creeping up stairs, not knowing what’s round the corner – that provide the greater tension. There are times when the story can seem relatively simple and there are a couple of twists that older readers may see coming, but the conclusion is a satisfying one much in keeping with the overall tone of the novel. The world is vividly realistic, although the year in which it is set is never specified. It often seems to be late '60s or early '70s, while at other times it feels like a post-Second World War Britain – perhaps we’ll find out more in later books.
That’s a minor quibble, one that doesn’t detract from, but actually adds to, the mystery of the story. Overall, The Screaming Staircase is a sublime combination of scares and excitement, all of which makes it the perfect ghost story for its target audience.