REVIEW: THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE / AUTHOR: JONATHAN STROUD / PUBLISHER: CORGI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
After accidentally burning down a client’s house on a routine operation, professional ghost hunters Lockwood, Lucy and George run the risk of going out of business until a wealthy industrialist miraculously turns up on their doorstep with a lucrative offer that could save their careers. Only problem, the assignment is to clear the most haunted building in the country, and it’s pretty much a suicide mission.
In a Britain suffering under the ravages of a ceaseless plague of ghosts that began some 50 years previously, the front line of defence is psychic investigation agencies that employ people born with various abilities allowing them to perceive the supernatural visitations. However, as people approach maturity their Talents begin to fade, and so the only people suited to properly combating them are children. When the story talks about the agents who have been killed battling ghosts, it takes a second to remind yourself this means little kids.
The standard state of affairs is for an older investigator whose Talents have waned to supervise the younger agents, but the central trio run an independent operation without adults, giving them the advantage of no interference but the downside of issues with getting people to take them seriously. Even though it’s clearly established that supervisors are just as prone to making fatal errors of judgement, any mistakes on their part are blamed on them being kids playing at being adults.
Although the series is called Lockwood & Co, it’s actually Lucy’s perspective from which the story is told. Her portrayal of herself is of a teenager self-assured but not arrogant – a dislike of girls with inflated opinions of their own appearance is evident – and in the first section of the book where George is absent, she comes off as very much the Watson to Lockwood’s Holmes. George’s dishevelled appearance is at odds with his meticulous attention to detail when researching the causes of hauntings, and he proves himself slovenly but reliable. Lockwood, however, remains somewhat inscrutable, seemingly in part by his own design. He intentionally keeps things from his colleagues to satiate his penchant for drama by revealing them at suitably theatrical junctures, while several moments intentionally allude to the obligatory mysterious past that likely involves, yes, dead parents. There is a very fine line between mysteriously enigmatic and irritatingly reticent, and Lockwood runs dangerously close to crossing it.
The story’s world-building is well thought out; big business is now industrial ironmongering that produces swords, chains and myriad other metallic implements to combat spirits, accompanied by the manufacturing of ghost-hunting equipment such as salt bombs and magnesium flares, and farming fields of lavender that wards off ghosts. The central areas of large cities are crisscrossed with open channels of running water to prevent spirits crossing, while at night incandescent lamps periodically light up the streets to discourage visitations. There’s a very Victorian atmosphere to the story – the use of swords and elemental incendiaries practically gives it a steampunk feel – and were it not for technological details anchoring it in the modern day you could easily imagine it being set around the turn of the last century.
The pacing of the story is a little off; the opening sequence could easily be half the length and is followed by a long section detailing Lucy’s backstory and how she came to join Lockwood and George that, while interesting to read, doesn’t add anything substantial to the narrative that couldn’t have been dropped in elsewhere. The book only really gets going once the intrepid trio reach the decaying halls of a country mansion and navigate the Gothic claustrophobia of its haunted rooms, twisting corridors, hidden passageways and the titular flight of steps. Things happen with enough speed and intensity that you need no incentive to keep turning pages, least of all Stroud’s annoying habit of ending chapters in the middle of a scene.
A decent start to a new series, The Screaming Staircase has its flaws, but is ultimately a satisfying read that can be enjoyed by those outside its young adult target demographic.