Book review

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (2013)

Book One of Lockwood & Co

Have you ever seen a ghost? No? No point answering this advert then:

Lockwood and Co., the well-known psychic investigations agency, requires a new Junior Field Operative. Duties will include on-site analysis of reported hauntings and the containment of same. The successful applicant will be SENSITIVE to supernatural phenomena, well-dressed, preferably female, and not above fifteen years in age.

Lucy Carlyle answers the ad. She is sensitive to supernatural phenomena and she would know that, having been born after the Problem. Of course throughout history there have always been ghosts but...

Here in modern London there are dozens of them with more springing up all the time, no matter what the agencies do. In those days, ghosts were fairly rare. Now we've got an epidemic. So it seems pretty obvious to me that the Problem's different to what went before. Something strange and new did start happening around fifty or sixty years ago, and no one's got a damn clue why.

And they aren't just amiable wisps of ectoplasm floating about the streets of south west London. These Visitors are dangerous and vindictive. You can die a painful death merely from ghost-touch. In fact there seems to be any number of ways you can die a gruesome death as soon as the sun goes down. In the face of rising panic the government has done what it can. There are curfews at nightfall and ghost-lamps in all the major cities. But really the only protections seem to be iron, silver, lavender and maybe running water. Oh well, there are salt bombs of course and magnesium flares but mainly you will be relying on that iron rapier that you wear at your belt.

One of the stranger aspects of the business is that children, at least some children, seem to be sensitive to these phenomena. Some can see the ghosts or perhaps their death glows, which is what Lockwood does. Sometimes the death glows are so bright he has to wear dark glasses even as he works at night. Some can hear the ghosts talking, or maybe screaming, or whispering. That's how Lucy works.

Adults are deaf and blind in this world. You can imagine how desperate they are, to get working children in to rid them of their hauntings. It's dangerous work but they're pretty cool these agency kids:

We put on casual clothes. Lockwood wore a long brown leather coat that emphasized his slimness and easy stride. George wore a hideous puffy jacket with high elasticated waistband that emphasized his bottom. I had my usual gear: coat, rollneck jumper, short dark skirt and leggings. We all wore our rapiers (in my case a spare one from the hall). These - and the cuts and bruises on our faces - were the marks of our profession and our status: people moved aside for us as we went by.

The Jubile Line train was busy and heavy with the sweet protective smell of lavender. Men wore sprigs of it in their buttonholes; women had them in their hats. All across the carriage, silver brooches and tiepins winked and glittered beneath the neon lights. We stood silent and serious as the train rattled through the tunnels on the five-minute journey to Green Park. No one spoke. The eyes of the crowd followed us as we alighted and set off along the platform.

Well alright, clearly George is never going to be cool, but there is definitely a small charge sparking between Lockwood and Lucy, and it can't be denied, they're a dream team, Lockwood & Co:

The sound was driving me mad. I pulled myself to my feet. It was hard to do it; it was hard to move or think. At my side, Lockwood and George did likewise. Blood was trickling from Lockwood's ear.

Like a drunken man, he grappled us by the collars, pulled us in close. 'Find the Source!' he shouted. 'It must be here. Somewhere in this room!'

He shoved us away. George stumbled and, as he did so, drew close to one of the silhouettes upon the wall. At once a translucent hand stretched out of the stonework beside him, long-fingered and bony, with white hairs on the arm and a frayed rope-end dangling from the wrist. It reached for George. Lockwood was faster; he wrenched a salt bomb from his belt and threw it at the stones. Grains ignited, burning green. The arm drew back. On the wall the shadow flexed and undulated furiously like a snake.

Brilliant. Love this series. Sharp story telling. Real people. Dry wit. Terrifying hauntings.


What can I read next?

You can read on about the activities of Lockwood & Co. There are the daily bread and butter issues that any psychic investigations agency has to wrestle with, and there is a more serious, long term matter that needs thorough investigation, so read them in order:

  • The Screaming Staircase
  • The Whispering Skull
  • The Hollow Boy
  • The Creeping Shadow
  • The Empty Grave (thanks, Alyssa!)

And if you enjoy Lockwood & Co you might like to have a look at this one by Chris Wooding:

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