Teenage British ghostbusters… need I say more? I’ve been a fan of Jonathon Stroud’s writing since I picked up the first book of the Bartimaeus Trilogy many years ago and started laughing out loud in the bookstore. I was thrilled to discover that Stroud was back at it with a new series, this time about one of my favorite topics—ghosts!
The Screaming Staircase is the first book in Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series. It takes place in a modern British setting in which history has been altered by the emergence of The Problem—several decades ago, the appearance of ghosts increased drastically and their deadly touch became a serious threat to society. To combat this threat, a number of ghost-hunting agencies emerged, employing psychically sensitive children and teenagers to investigate hauntings. Lockwood & Co. is one such agency, though unlike the others it employs no adult supervisors or managers, allowing the teens to fend for themselves.
Lucy Carlyle has come to London to start a new life after experiencing tragedy at her last agency job. There she meets Anthony Lockwood, a fiery and charismatic orphan determined to hold his own against the larger adult-run agencies. Rounding out the trio is the portly and sarcastic, but exceedingly studious, George Cubbins. Together, these three teens fail miserably at their various ghost-hunting assignments. After one particularly explosive attempt, the team is forced to take on an especially dangerous case in order to recoup their losses, hoping to solve a decades-old murder mystery along the way. But they quickly learn that ghosts aren’t the only ones they have to fear….
I found Stroud’s depiction of ghosts particularly fascinating. These apparitions come in a variety of types and classes, depending on their strength and the way they manifest. There’s even a glossary at the back of the book to help you keep track of them all. A number of moments in the story are truly scary, with particularly disturbing descriptions of unsettling Visitors and drawn out scenes of slow-mounting dread. If you’re prone to nightmares, I don’t recommend reading this book right before bed.
Ghostbusting aspects aside, The Screaming Staircase also has some strong elements of detective fiction, which as I’ve discussed before is closely entwined with the gothic. There is something of the Sherlockian about Lockwood, as he quietly gathers clues throughout the story and then rattles off an intricate account of the logic and reasoning that led him to discover the murderer at the end. The story also incorporates a number of detective tropes, such as the red herring and a twist ending.
But though Lockwood is the leader of this little band, and the one who ultimately puts everything together to solve the mystery, it is Lucy who is truly the star of the show. As a girl, she is often assumed to be overly sensitive and weak by friends and enemies alike. But while she is certainly unusually sensitive—in the psychic sense—she is anything but weak. Lucy’s highly developed psychic skill of Listening allows her to form a strong connection with the ghosts, and her intuition leads to some surprising discoveries. This first book only hints at the extent of Lucy’s powers, much of which she doesn’t yet understand herself, but I expect we’ll see her psychic skills develop and she’ll come into her own as the series progresses.
While eminently suitable for young adults and even middle grade readers, The Screaming Staircase still has plenty to offer for adult readers of any age. I can’t wait to get my hands on the second book, and I would definitely recommend this series to anyone who loves the thrills and chills of ghosts and ghostbusting.