Steph Recommends: The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)

the-screaming-staircase-by-jonathan-stroud

A sinister Problem has occurred in London: all nature of ghosts, haunts, spirits, and Specters are appearing throughout the city, and they aren’t exactly friendly. Only young people have the psychic abilities required to see – and eradicate – these supernatural foes. Many different psychic investigation agencies have cropped up to handle the dangerous work, and they are in fierce competition for business.

A few points of clarification, because the book jacket, which the above (and below) is taken from is slightly misleading: ghost sightings have been recorded as far back as Ancient Greece; but hauntings, historically, have been the exception rather than the rule. Within the last 40 years, however, ghosts (et al,) have appeared in greater numbers and become a major menace in England.* More than the city proper is affected, although as London has a large population and naturally has a proportionately high number of, ahem, unsavoury deaths,** the concentration of ghosts and consequently the potential for multiple investigative agencies is correspondingly greater. Not all children can sense spirits – and it isn’t just seeing, either – but of those who have the ability, at least their financial future is assured, if not their longevity. Most adults cannot sense ghosts, although a select few, primarily (it seems) the very best of former ghost-hunters, retain some diminished ability.

In The Screaming Staircase, the plucky and talented Lucy Carlyle teams up with Anthony Lockwood, the charismatic leader of Lockwood & Co., a small agency that runs independent of any adult supervision. After an assignment leads to both a grisly discovery and a disastrous end, Lucy, Anthony, and their sarcastic colleague, George, are forced to take part in the perilous investigation of Combe Carey Hall, one of the most haunted houses in England. Will Lockwood & Co. survive the Hall’s legendary Screaming Staircase and Red Room to see another day?

Again, slightly misleading. One of the things I enjoyed about this story is that it doesn’t rush headlong into The Adventure, The One Adventure To Which All Else Is Sublimated. The words “Screaming Staircase” aren’t even mentioned until just over halfway through the book. We begin almost in media res, with Lucy and Anthony embarking on the fateful assignment which necessitates their taking on said staircase, but we also get Lucy’s life before she joins Lockwood & Co., a backstory which builds Lucy’s character, her familial and economic situation, and the world English situation in general. This is particularly important as the story utterly lacks dates. From the cover, I’d expected something semi-Victorian, but no, Lucy’s mother watches tv. Lucy’s family is decidedly working class, but (apart from the tv) in a way that could place the narrative any time within the past few hundred years. No wars are mentioned, no politicians. This is very much a realm of its own, with a vaguely old-time feeling. Or that may just be my assumption based on the lack of cell phones, internet, limited government oversight of certain businesses, and on the widespread social willingness to plunge children into hazardous work. Oh, and Lucy’s vocabulary and admirably complex sentence structure.

It is entirely fitting that the story begins with Lucy telling the reader that she is not going to tell us everything.

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. There, I’ve admitted it!

Lucy is not on a quest to change the world, she’s fully occupied in earning her own bread. Which she does with eminent practicality, a forthright manner, necessary albeit troublesome (according to her business partners) sensitivity, and a good dose of humour.

Humour is good. This is a terrifying book. It isn’t that you read expecting Lucy to die at any second. Lucy is no fool: she takes every rational precaution for her job; more than this, her voice is so vibrantly alive it doesn’t seem possible that she might die.*** The fear seeps in through the prose, sentence after sentence of smooth descriptions stealthily building up fear just behind your shoulder and whispering into your ear that when you look up from the book and open the door to get a glass of water, something might be waiting there.

Starting to read at 11 pm might not have been the brightest idea.

The detective elements of the story intertwined wonderfully with the ghost-hunting and business-running elements. This is a murder mystery, by the way, and fairly action-focused. The somber side of both murder mystery and anti-haunting life (or, more accurately, death) are touched on in a manner that is poignant and understated, and felt realistic to Lucy’s age and voice – not overwhelming the adventure, but not set aside as immaterial, either.

The story was utterly engaging (Lucy is the best, okay? Anthony and George are neat, but Lucy is undeniably the reason to keep reading no matter what time it is and what might be waiting just outside your bedroom door) but there are a few serious flaws. The first is fat phobia. George is the only one of Lockwood & Co. who is plump, and his physical appearance, not to mention certain facets of his personality, is described both more frequently, and more negatively, than either Anthony’s or Lucy’s. Part of this can be put down to Lucy’s poor first impression of George; by the end of the story, he is firmly established as more than the messy, fat comic relief: George is a committed experimenter whose keen mind and in-depth research save the lives of his partners and allow them to pursue ghosts fully prepared for what they are up against.**** He doesn’t lack in physical courage, either, or practical ability. His character develops nicely despite the limited time on-stage, so to speak, so it was especially disconcerting to hear the repetition of his fatness combined with the mildly antagonistic and occasionally derisive attitude Lucy initially adopts toward George.

The other flaw is that, as far as I could tell, race/ethnicity is never specified, which means that most readers***** will default to reading everyone as white. Which may be better than casting only servants and villains as POC, but feels just weird to read. Also it is a major oversight, seeing as London has an immensely diverse population and has for hundreds of years. There were POC in England in the 1100s, people! More than just a couple!

I’m hoping that those flaws will be amended in the next books in the series, which I will definitely read. Preferably when a friend is sleeping over. ****** Thanks for the rec, Steph!

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* Possibly in the wider world; the narrative perspective is confined to one realm, however, and one girl’s experience. Things may change in the later books in the series.

** Which is to say, murders and suicides. The manner of death has, or seems to have, an influence on the ilk, strength, and intention of the resulting spirit.

*** The potential for Anthony and George to go evil or die horribly, however…

**** George would make a great librarian. Seriously – the facts he can pull out of libraries and dusty archives while on a time crunch is hugely impressive.

***** And all cover artists, judging by the covers I’ve seen for this book.

****** Look, figuring things like who didn’t and who did it well in advance of the characters is all very good but that doesn’t make the writing any less scary.

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