Book Review: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

screaming-staircaseWhen the dead come back t haunt the living, Lockwood & Co. step in…
For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts – some very dangerous indeed.
Lucy Carlyle, a young psychic investigator, hopes for a notable career. Instead, she finds herself joining London’s smallest, most ramshackle agency, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have a last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in the most haunted house in England, and trying to escape alive.
Set in a city stalked by spectres, The Screaming Staircase is the first in a chilling new series full of suspense, humour, and truly terrifying ghosts. Your night will never be the same again…

‘The Screaming Staircase’ is a supernatural mystery novel, and as such I need to provide a general disclaimer: I scare incredibly easily. I have to close my eyes at choice moments in ‘The Mummy’ and the only jump scare in ‘Donnie Darko’ made me scream. I couldn’t read ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ at night without hearing Hollows in the wind outside. For comparison, the friend who lent the book to me laughed when I asked her if she found it scary.  The chances are that this book will not scare any adults who are not quivering jellies such as myself. I can’t speak for the intended age group, but as a 12 year old who was afraid of the dark I would’ve been terrified.

As plots go, ‘The Screaming Staircase’ is pretty standard of YA fiction. A trio of plucky youngsters fighting the battles that adults cannot, or will not, fight against terrifying forces. It’s no surprise when the two cases Lockwood & Co are investigating overlap. Even the ghosts are pretty stock standard: victims are pushed down stairs and walls drip with blood. Stroud did create a legitimate reason for useless adults: they can’t see the ghosts. They can be attacked and killed by them, but the most they can do is sense an ominous presence. I think Stroud did a good job of capturing the tensions that would arise when a threat could only be seen and stopped by minors, and the ways that adults would attempt to control the situation even at such a disadvantage. Lockwood, Lucy, and George are talented psychics and ghost hunters, but they are also underage and their independent agency is often passed over because of their lack of adult supervision. Because of the lack of an adult mentor in the narrative, the three children tend to display an uncommon level of maturity, Lockwood especially. This is beautifully counterbalanced with the amazing levels of immaturity that the trio can display, particularly when they squabble in life-threatening situations.

Stroud also appears to have put an incredible amount of forethought into this novel and its sequels. While the ghosts weren’t anything new (she writes, hiding under her blankets) Stroud definitely researched paranormal phenomena before beginning ‘The Screaming Staircase’. The rules of ghost hunting are firmly established in the novel, and there’s no contradictions regarding the abilities of the ghosts or ghost hunters. The ghost –fighting methods are firmly established, from using iron to ward off ghosts to drinking tea and chewing gum to ward off the creeping fear generated by haunted houses. Stroud also alludes to developments in future novels concerning how ghosts rose in number and how Lucy’s psychic talent could be a key to the mystery. There are also hints that the government might be trying to enable adults to fight ghosts, or be exploiting powerful ghosts for profit or psychic power. While solving a case Lockwood & Co. discover and steal a strange pair of goggles that I suspect will turn out to be some sort of ghost seeing device.

All in all, while the plot points of ‘The Screaming Staircase’ were very predictable, Stroud creates excellent backstory and witty characters that more than make up for it. I’m looking forward to reading the next books in the Lockwood & Co. series to see if my suspicions are correct. I’m giving an overall Fear Rating of 4/10, accounting for my friend’s utter lack of dread and my need to close all the windows after finishing the book.




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