book reviews, England, ghosts, historical fantasy, historical fiction, historical mystery, Jonathan Stroud, Lockwood & Co, MG, MG fantasy, MG fiction, middle grade, middle grade fantasy, middle grade fiction, mystery, The Screaming Staircase
Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in messing them all up.
“When the dead come back to haunt the living, Lockwood & Co. step in . . . For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions. Lucy Carlyle, a talented young agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive.”
I wasn’t sure whether I would like this one, but I did; it was creepy and humorous at the same time, though not that scary. I found The Screaming Staircase very readable and also very entertaining, with an interesting and somewhat original set-up and a compelling narrator, Lucy Carlyle. The cover is hideous, though; there could have been something much better and more Gothic feeling, if that makes sense. I initially thought that the book was set in the 19th century, but I quickly realized it wasn’t when there was mention of a TV set; this partly due to a somewhat misleading review in the New York Times (the other book featured there is in fact set in the 19th century). The reviewer keeps referring to them both as “Victorian”, when of course The Screaming Staircase is not.
Anyway, I found the book very amusing in terms of snappy dialogue and back-and-forths between the characters, mainly between Lucy and Lockwood, the young manager of the organization. Such as: “Well, that was useful.” “Really?” “No. I’m being ironic. Or is it sarcastic? I can never remember.” “Irony’s cleverer, so you’re probably being sarcastic.” I really enjoyed this exchange, and the friendship between Lucy and Lockwood in general.
The book drew me in almost immediately; it started off with a fast-paced and breathless action sequence without much explanation, later going back to tell the story of how Lucy arrived in London and was hired by Lockwood & Co., also providing some much needed explanation for the premise of the novel, with the ghostly and ghastly “Visitors” that have become a problem in recent years, causing eradication agencies to spring up. Of course, children have the most psychic abilities, and so they are the ones doing the work. The drawback to middle grade novels is that kids are almost always the heroes and heroines, no matter how improbable the situation. Like, really, kids would not become the sole ghost-ridders in a situation like this. But such is the nature of middle grade; the kids are the ones who are better and smarter than the adults, and they are the ones who will ultimately triumph and (perhaps) save the world. It’s quite appealing, and I think accounts for some of the charm of Harry Potter.
The Screaming Staircase is also very readable in terms of texture; the paper and the font are both quite nice. I also really liked the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, which were appropriately dark and shadowy. The book wasn’t that scary though, and it was very easy to read and get through. The Screaming Staircase is nothing special, nor was I expecting it to be, but it was a fun read, a good mix of the light and the dark. I really enjoyed the two main characters, as well as George, the other member of the agency. The villains were great too, and the book was quite creative and absorbing as the characters tried to solve the mystery and save the agency with humor and chills.