Soon after Lockwood, Lucy and George uncover an old grave containing a corpse bound by all the trappings to contain a malevolent spirit, the excavation site is robbed and a mirror of bone that kills whoever looks into it is stolen. With thieves, thugs, scavengers, murderers and opportunists all searching for the mirror, not to mention the trio’s sanctimonious rivals from a huge ghost hunting agency, there is little time to track down one of the most dangerous objects ever unleashed. Also, the mysterious skull in a jar hidden away in Lockwood’s basement has begun talking to Lucy, and it seems the spirit may know more about what’s going on than anyone.
The Screaming Staircase took us deep into the world of a Britain ravaged by the Problem, a scourge of ghosts that began without warning and refuses to abate. Unshackled from the necessities of backstory and scene setting that slowed the pace of the opening instalment, The Whispering Skull frees Stroud to let his flair for spectacle run riot, resulting in several deftly constructed set-pieces far more akin to true horror than the ghost house antics of the first book. The power of the Bone Mirror is similar to the cursed videotape in the original novel of J-Horror codifier Ring, each seeming to quite literally scare its victims to death. Additionally, the mirror possesses a hypnotic power that compels people to look into its cursed glass, whispering promises of secrets from beyond the grave and fulfilment of your heart’s desire. Neither does Stroud scrimp on the action, peppering the story with battles against deadly ghosts and hired mooks, along with one particularly audacious sequence that could easily have come straight out of a heist movie.
However, the book is not called ‘The Deadly Mirror.’ The skull in question is one George “liberated” from his former employers right before he was about to be kicked out the door due to his impolitic personality. Spiteful and sadistic, the skull revels in being as obtuse as possible when pried for information, and is just as happy to lead people to their potential deaths as it is to help them, if doing so will provide it entertainment through the suffering of others. It was revealed at the end of the first book to be a Type Three ghost, one that has full awareness of its surroundings and complete retention of its personality and memories from when it was alive, unlike the lost and angry spirits otherwise encountered. They are so rare that their very existence is the subject of much debate, and that one should choose to reveal itself without any sort of prompting will likely be an event the significance of which is yet to be fully explored.
Some character development surprisingly comes by the way of Kipps, the obnoxious supervisor of an investigative team that Lucy and the boys often come up against (“Being undiplomatic, I’d say he’s a pint-sized, pug-nosed, carrot-topped inadequate with a chip the size of Big Ben on his weedy shoulder”). Young supervisors are people with the same responsibilities as the adolescent agents, but with their extrasensory abilities having not long faded away after reaching adulthood, they are still dimly aware of encroaching spirits, but now lack the preternatural senses required to properly combat them, which goes some way to explaining Kipps’s apparent cowardice, if not his irritating attitude. Also, Lockwood finally allows his manufactured air of mystery to slightly lift and for once voluntarily reveals one of his closely guarded secrets, ending the book on a revelation that there’s no going back from and will almost certainly become a major aspect of the third novel.