The Screaming Staircase, Jonathan Stroud’s latest book, is one that you will most certainly not want to miss, and as the first of a new series, now is the perfect time to get on-board.
Stroud is one of those people who have the rare talent of making you laugh out loud whilst your arms still have goose bumps from fear, dropping witty quips slap bang in the middle of a potentially fatal situation in a way that somehow only makes the story more believable. I read Jonathan Stroud’s earlier bestselling series, The Bartimaeus Trilogy, when I was in my mid-teens and immediately fell in love with his uniquely hilarious writing style. The sheer level of depth Stroud puts into creating a crazy, fantastical parallel world for his stories is impressive and had me immediately hooked on his books. Stroud’s latest young adult supernatural thriller, The Screaming Staircase, is no exception.
The first of the Lockwood and Co. series, The Screaming Staircase is set in London, but it’s not the city that you or I would be familiar with. It’s a London that has long been plagued by ‘The Problem’. By dark, the streets are walked by unwanted Visitors. They prowl the streets (which have a gothic tinge reminiscent of Victorian London) when most normal living people are safely tucked up in bed. Oh, and the Visitors happen to be dead. For whatever reason, the spirits of the deceased have taken to returning and only some of them are (relatively) harmless. Seen clearly only by children, but capable of killing anyone of any age, these Visitors are not the type you’d be inclined to offer tea and crumpets to. Talking of types, whilst type-one spirits aren’t much of a problem, type-twos have intent, and type-threes… Well, let’s hope you won’t ever meet a type-three.
Luckily for us, a charismatic, independent team of young agents is on hand to deal with the Visitors: Lockwood and Co. (Although they don’t happen to have the best track record, as far as their past cases go.) These characters are incredibly vibrant, and although, admittedly, they do fit some relatively predictable type castes (the eccentric hero, the ballsy heroine, and the geeky third member), they are far from two-dimensional. (Which is probably down to Stroud’s quirky narration and surprising interpolations of humour, more than any real development of character; my only criticism). Lockwood himself is charismatic, aloof and a little bit batty, whilst his partner George remains a constantly irritating presence and grows only a little more bearable with time. The story follows the young protagonist and newest member of Lockwood and Co., Lucy Carlisle, as she finds her feet as a professional agent in London. Although, as the only company run entirely without adult involvement, Lockwood and Co. isn’t quite what she expects. Lucy’s opening words sum up the tone and direction of the book well:
‘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’.-Jonathan Stroud, The Screaming Staircase.
The format of The Screaming Staircase is gorgeous; the layout of each page is extremely thoughtful and immersive. The attention to detail, from small, black and white illustrations at the opening of each chapter, scratched and distorted almost like a woodcut, to the two crossed swords below every page number, is refreshing. If you’re still dying (no pun intended) for more when you get to the end, there is also a comprehensive glossary of all the technical thingymabobs you need to know when dealing with a Visitor. (Just another example of the brilliant depth of technicalities included in Stroud’s fantastical reality.)
If you liked The Screaming Staircase don’t forget to keep an eye out for its sequel this September, just in time to get you warmed up (or perhaps suitably chilled might be more appropriate) for Halloween.
I rate this book a solid 4 out of 5; if the characters had been slightly more developed throughout it would be more. I highly recommend picking this one up, whether it’s for yourself, or perhaps to read to someone a little bit younger – in age, if not at heart. It really is a brilliant read for both adults and young people – although neither is exempt from nightmares. Anyone can be drawn in by Stroud’s hilarious horror story – after all, no one is safe from The Problem, adult or otherwise. As you might already know, Visitors feed on fear and strong emotion, so as you read, you should probably watch out.