By the end of the first sentence of The Screaming Staircase, book one in Jonathan Stroud’s new series about teenage ghost hunters, I was irrevocably hooked:
Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say very 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.
With that one sentence, he establishes the tone of the book as smart and slyly funny, while also promising plenty of spooky fun. By the end of the second chapter, he’d already completely delivered on that promise: Despite reading the book on a beautiful, sunny August morning, the atmosphere was so very creepy and the imagery was so DOUBLE-CREEPY that for the rest of the book, I had the whole goose bumps/chills combo going in spades.
Obviously, I loved it.
A few decades back, ghosts inexplicably began to plague England, and as children are the most sensitive to their presence, it’s children who are given the oft-deadly job of hunting them. Despite her impressively strong Talent for hearing ghosts, and despite her somewhat Dickensian past, as a narrator, Lucy Carlyle is an everygirl. She’s easy to identify with, easy to empathize with, easy to root for and easy to like. But! That doesn’t make her at all bland: She’s a strong personality, she’s capable, brave, often cranky and judgemental, and perfectly willing to snark at her employer, Anthony Lockwood:
Lockwood tossed the folder aside. “Well, that was useful.”
“No, I’m being ironic. Or is it sarcastic? I can never remember.”
“Irony’s cleverer, so you’re probably being sarcastic.”
As he’s kind of a combination of Chrestomanci, Sherlock Holmes and Your Favorite Wiseacre, I give Lucy mega-points for being willing—and able—to do so: I think I’d be too dazzled by his charms (CHRESTOMANCI!) to be capable of quipping.
So! The characters are charming, the storyline is enormously satisfying*, and it delivers on the suspense, the action and the scares. What’s left? THE WORLDBUILDING. The cover art suggest Olden Times, right? Well, so do lots of the details in the text—reliance on lanterns rather than electricity; the interiors of the buildings; the use of swords; the brief-but-affecting moments in which ghost-hunting is portrayed as terrible child labor, rather than as a whiz-bang adventure—but, if you pay attention, you’ll pick up clues that suggest otherwise. References to Spam and television place it in the late-1930s at the earliest, and the dialogue makes me suspect that it’s actually set in an alternate version of the present...if not an imagining of the future. Which makes it all the cooler.
I guarantee that I’ll be handing this one out right and left: After all, it’s an easily described, high-interest story—Murder mystery! Ghost story! Teen entrepreneurs! Business rivalries! Midnight feasts!—and it’s absolutely fantastic across the board.
I AM SO EXCITED FOR THE NEXT ONE.__________________________________________
*Some of the details—specifically the Red Room and the hidden passageway with the seemingly never-ending staircase—reminded me of Scott Corbett’s Red Room Riddle, which I read a million years ago and which STILL occasionally gives me nightmares. I just ordered a used copy of it, and I’ll let you know if it stands the test of time.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.