Friday, November 21, 2014

The Screaming Staircase

The Screaming Staircase
Jonathan Stroud
Hyperion, 2013  390 pgs
Grades 5-8
Lockwood & Co. series #1

Enter an alternate present day London where ghosts abound and only children and teenagers can sense and, therefore, exterminate them.  Lucy Carlye flees a devastating experience working for a ghost catcher in her rural community to London where she obtains employment with the sketchy Lockwood & Co.  Unlike bigger and more reputable agencies, Lockwood & Co. has no adult supervisors and is run entirely by its young proprietor, Anthony Lockwood and his esteemed, yet slovenly, partner George.  Lucy is blessed with the ability to hear ghosts, Lockwood with the ability to see ghosts, and George is an ace researcher.  After a bungled attempt to remove a ghost, Lucy obtains a locket from the menace's newly found skeleton, leading the youths to the mystery surrounding the ghost's death/murder.  Meanwhile, Lucy also, accidentally, while defending herself,  burns the house down.  Lockwood and Co. must pay for the damages, which proves to be an exorbitant sum.  Help arrives in the form of eccentric millionaire, John Fairfax, who offers to pay off the company's debts if they clean his notoriously haunted mansion of visitors.  The three ghost hunters must accept, leading them to the most dangerous mission of their lives, where they encounter the Screaming Staircase (of the title) and the famous and deadly Red Room (read the book to discover the origin of the room's name).  Things aren't what they seem and Lockwood & Co. gets more than they bargained for.  Eventually, a conclusion is reached, both cases come together in a satisfying course of events, and a creepy ending ensures that a new adventure (The Whispering Skull, 2014) awaits.

Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus series has long been one of my favorite series to recommend, specifically to Harry Potter fans who wish that Hogwarts could be just a little creepier.  His books are deliciously eerie, yet fantastic, creative, and funny all at the same time.  Stroud's latest series, Lockwood & Co., does not disappoint.  The book is filled with sinister ghosts, as well as humans, with a speedily moving and adventurous plot, all underlined with characteristic British humor.  The mood of the book feels Victorian and dark and it is always a surprise when Stroud throws in a modern touch, bringing us back to the present.  As in the Bartimaeus series, Stroud has young people working alone and fending for themselves through a dangerous life.  The three young people are fully developed and interesting characters and make the reader want to join up with Lockwood & Co. and live in that dusty old house with them, dangers and all.  This book will be a very easy sell to boys, but, featuring a female main character, makes it also accessible to girls.  The ghosts and fantastical elements are very believable, making the book a great choice for those who don't think they like fantasy.  Stroud never is never cheap with his writing quality and vocabulary choices.  He respects his readers and does not talk down to them.  This is a superbly written book that will challenge children, as well as entertain them and make their imaginations soar.  One warning: The book is a bit scary.  Sensitive children will find the Screaming Staircase the stuff of nightmares.  For kids who like horror, this is a wonderful choice.  It never gets too graphic or gruesome and is "just right" for middle grade ghost lovers.

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