Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Screaming Staircase

The Screaming Staircase
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 12+

If you like your ghost stories shaken, chilled, and brewed extra-dark, this book is the first installment in a series you have to read. It features a small firm of ghost-busters in a present-day, alternate London where a plague of paranormal visitors - known as the Problem - has been a national concern for several decades. Neighborhoods are protected by rills of running water, iron plates across thresholds, super-bright "ghost lights" that go off at intervals all night, and warning bells to summon people home before nightfall. For icier, ickier manifestations that can't be staved off by standard precautions, there is also a highly competitive market for Visitor-vanquishing agencies that employ mostly children - because kids are more sensitive to ectoplasmic emanations than adults. Lockwood & Co. is like these, except that it has no adult supervision. Its founder is a mysteriously parentless, charismatic teen named Anthony J. Lockwood, and his assistants are a chubby nerd named George Cubbins and a 13-year-old runaway named Lucy Carlyle.

Together, they face down ghouls and specters, armed with a range of more or less effective anti-ghost weapons: salt, iron, silver, a bit of lavender water, and when the need is great, Greek fire, also known as magnesium flares. Unfortunately, they haven't had very good luck lately. An encounter with the ghost of a vanished socialite, whose remains have been walled up for 50 years, has left them in debt, at risk of losing their license, and in possession of a clue to a murder whose culprit is now after them. The only way they can save their struggling agency is to accept an all but suicidal job from an iron tycoon who happens to own the most haunted house in Great Britain. Combe Carey Hall, in Berkshire, not only has ghosts out the wazoo, but it continues making more with all the fury of a long-pent-up evil. And now Lockwood, George and Lucy are expected to face the dreadful Screaming Staircase and the deadly Red Room without, repeat without, their most powerful weapon - Greek fire.

I've had issues with ghost stories in the past. When I was Lucy's age, I read Stephen King's The Shining and came within two hairs of never sleeping again. At about that same time, I chucked a copy of Haunted Heartland the length of a rather long room, not out of dissatisfaction with the scares therein, but as an involuntary reflex. I remember warning my friends not to read Christopher Priest's The Prestige in bed - and that's not even really a ghost story. And I believe it was the movie Jeepers Creepers that convinced me, sometime around age 30, to make a pledge to myself never to watch another horror movie as long as I live. But I had to make an exception for a book by Jonathan Stroud, whose fiction I have so far found to be richly rewarding. I'll admit, though, I had to pace myself reading this book. When I saw the spooky part coming with bedtime only an hour or so away, I closed the book for the night and resolved to come back to it during the daytime. I wisely made sure I had time to read a couple chapters of something else between finishing this book and going to bed last night. It's not that I'm chicken, but oy gevalt! There are some dark images in this book, including the answer to why they call the Red Room the Red Room, and likewise with the Screaming Staircase.

When you get to the end, though, it's really the living who are scarier than anything. The thrills and chills are all very well, but this book also works quite well as a mystery, and it promises more of the whole package in installments to come. Meanwhile, one can also look forward to more fun repartee between the main characters, conflict with the branch of Scotland Yard that oversees paranormal investigations, and perhaps - heck, knowing Stroud, it's practically guaranteed - a build-up of drama about what is causing the Problem and where that's all headed. I anticipate shivering over every book in the set.

This is the first book of the haunted "Lockwood & Co." series, which so far continues with The Whispering Skull, The Hollow Boy, The Creeping Shadow, and The Empty Grave. There is also a novella that fits into the series somewhere, titled The Dagger in the Desk. Jonathan Stroud is the author of many exciting, scary, and magical books for young adults, all of which - this series excepted - I have already enjoyed. They include the four-book "Bartimaeus" series (The Amulet of Samarkand, etc.), Buried Fire, The Leap, The Last Siege, and Heroes of the Valley. His work also includes four children's picture books, the novella The Ghost of Shadow Vale, and some nonfiction.

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