The Screaming Staircase: Spooky and fun (but no Bartimaeus)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Screaming Staircase by Jonathon Stroud YA fantasy book reviewsThe Screaming Staircase by Jonathon Stroud

LOCKWOOD & CO. is Jonathan Stroud’s second four-part outing. It follows on from the success of his BARTIMAEUS sequence (which comes highly recommended here at FanLit). Stroud specialises in alternate versions of London for children. In BARTIMAEUS it was a London of djinn-conjuring wizards. This time London is troubled by deadly ghosts. The Screaming Staircase is a pacey, exciting introduction to Stroud’s new London, but it lacks the sense of magic and humour that made BARTIMAEUS such a winner.

The story’s narrator is Lucy Carlyle, a young girl from the north of England who makes her way to London, seeking employment at a ghost-hunting agency. London’s ghosts are extremely dangerous, able to kill with a single touch and to paralyse potential victims with “ghost-lock”. Because only children can see the ghosts, most agencies are run by adults with children doing the leg work. But Lockwood & Co. is different. Anthony Lockwood is head of the agency despite being young enough to see the ghosts. Handsome and charismatic, he runs the show with total confidence and a dramatically sweeping coat.

Having been turned down by everyone else, Lucy tries her luck at Lockwood’s. Her talent for hearing and sensing ghosts sees her taken on as the third member of the agency, alongside Lockwood and his irascible assistant George. The team has a shaky start and a dubious track record. A near-fatal encounter with the ghost of a young woman ends with Lucy burning a house down, plunging the agency into financial peril. To save the agency the threesome must solve an ancient murder mystery, tackle England’s most haunted house and, most importantly, rescue their reputation.

The Screaming Staircase has a compelling plot with a continuous sense of spine-tingling, eldritch tension. The hauntings are chilling and the reader experiences the delightful unease of never knowing when something deadly might pop up. Stroud never shies away from an unmitigated disaster and his characters do things they really shouldn’t (no one likes a teacher’s pet, after all). There is humour too, although not the laugh-out-loud variety that Stroud pulled off in Bartimaeus.

Stroud’s real forte lies in embellishments. The most enjoyable aspects of The Screaming Staircase are the anecdotes of historic hauntings and the insight the reader is given into the hierarchy of ghosts, which can range from a relatively harmless Shade to a dangerous Poltergeist. But while these sorts of details popped up all the time in BARTIMAEUS, they are less prevalent in The Screaming Staircase. As a result the story is less-enchanting; a certain magic is missing.

The characterisation is also considerably weaker. Lockwood is likeable but there is no one that comes close to rivaling the pithy humour of the mischievous djinn in BARTIMAEUS. A cheekier relationship between Lockwood and Lucy would have been appreciated. At times Lucy disobeys Lockwood’s orders, but her defiance feels petulant and her awe of Lockwood verges on embarrassing. There is also something uncomfortable in her derision of the fat, unhealthy George, who serves as an awkward contrast to Lockwood’s svelte sexiness.

The Screaming Staircase is a fun and spooky ghost story that will no doubt entrance its young audience. But for a magic-obsessed adult, BARTIMAEUS wins every time.

Published in 2013. Age level 8-12. 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 Detection Agencies have cropped up to handle the dangerous work, and they are in fierce competition for business. 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? Readers who enjoyed the action, suspense, and humor in Jonathan Stroud”s internationally best-selling Bartimaeus books will be delighted to find the same ingredients, combined with deliciously creepy scares, in his thrilling and chilling Lockwood & Co. series.

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KATIE BURTON (on FanLit's staff September 2015 -- September 2018) was a solicitor in London before becoming a journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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2 comments

  1. For me, it’s Bartimaeus or nothing. I passed on this title because the plot summary didn’t sound like it was ripe for snark, and now I feel like that was the best choice. Thanks for taking one for the team, Katie!

  2. I’ve been wondering about this series since I have it on audio and I know everyone around here loves Bartimaeus.

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