4.9 out of 5 stars
The Screaming Staircase is the first novel in the Lockwood and Co. supernatural-thriller series written by British author Jonathan Stroud. It was first published in 2013 and follows a trio of teenaged ghost hunters as they try to solve the murder of a young woman they discover in the recesses of an old home in London. They are soon threatened financially and professionally, and finally find themselves with the task of cleansing the most haunted building in Britain in a race against time to find the truth and save themselves. It’s written from the point-of-view of fifteen-year-old Lucy Carlyle, the newest member of Lockwood and Co. whose only other members are the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and his not-so-enthusiastic friend George Cubbins.
I went into this novel with an open mind. The cover stood out to me among all the other YA novels on the shelves at Asda and I was very much in the mood for a good ghost story when I purchased it. Thankfully, the story didn’t disappoint.
The stand out feature of this novel was most certainly the characters. They are the strongest and most entertaining characters I have read about so far. Each one of the main trio stood out as equally as the next but with their own key features that made them unique and enjoyable among the growing crowd of people you get to meet throughout the novel. Even the villains are so eloquently described and so vividly created that it’s incredibly easy to picture what they could look like and picture them all interacting.
Naturally, the first character to focus on is the narrator, Lucy. Not much is given away about Lucy at first because you’re thrown right into the thick of an investigation during the first chapter. Instead, you get to see Lucy and Lockwood in the environment that they focus the best in – a haunted house in the middle of foggy old London. As Lucy, Stroud introduces you into this alternate version of London and the lore that has been spread around in this ghost invested world. He doesn’t give away too much information, just enough to make the reader feel as though they are apart of the investigation. Lucy is an intriguing character because she is so bright yet lacks the common sense that you would really hope someone putting their life at risk nightly would have. She is a very mature young girl, tough and witty and, as I said before, very bright. She knows how to wield a rapier, she knows a lot about ghost hunting and has a very special gift in her ability to sense the emotions of the ghosts and hear the sounds from their past and current lives. But it’s her lack of common sense that makes her an even more interesting character to follow. She steals a necklace that was discovered on the corpse of the ghost they were trying to get rid of, keeps it with her as a secret and puts the team in danger so many times that it’s a wonder that they made it to the end at all. Even towards the end of the novel she makes one more mistake that made me want to tear my hair out but it’s with that mistake that the novel leaves off. Lucy is fifteen years old and it’s in those moments that you realize that fact.
Lucy also has a subtly relationship with Antony Lockwood that I found adorable. Lockwood is the charismatic, charming and intelligent young man who fronts the team. I believe he’s about fifteen years old too and has already been through one of the most grueling events a child can go through – losing both his parents. Not much more detail is ever given about the fates of Lockwood’s mother or father but it’s obvious throughout the book that his secret about them is what makes him such an amazing character to watch develop. He’s aloof at times and darkly dangerous at others. It’s like watching someone flip a switch – one moment this character is happy, the next he’s unfocused and the next he’s furious. He reminds me very much of the version of Sherlock Holmes portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC series. He’s a gentleman when the moment calls it but is essentially still just a kid inside. His relationship with his two teammates varies throughout the novel to the point where constantly feuding Lucy and George finally stand with one another when Lockwood’s antics of leaving them out of the loop gets to the point where he has gotten them into such a deadly situation they have no idea how they’re going to get out alive. George was a pre-established member of the team and he and Lockwood bounce off one another in their interactions. You can tell that it’s a good friendship they have and that’s delightful to read – I just wish there were more sections like that. His relationship with Lucy is always one of mixed feelings. Stroud has created a subtle air of tension between the two that I really enjoyed – I’d say it’s like a romance yet at the same time it’s like they’re family. They argue a lot and both are quick to point out where the other’s gone wrong yet, Lockwood especially, are both just as quick to praise a job well done. It’s not thrown in your face when hints of romance start to show up, it’s simple and barely there but it’s cute and I commend Stroud for not making Lucy’s voice one of a love sick little girl.
The final main character is George and he was one that I had a love-hate relationship with. He’s intelligent, there is no denying that. But he’s also rude and standoffish, he has poor hygiene and eats too much. He felt like the obligatory nerd character. Like Kim Possible and Ron Stoppable had Wade, Lucy and Lockwood have George. He’s very studious, liking to research into cases before they dive headfirst into them, and becomes a fountain of information when the team needs him most. However, his often callous attitude makes him easily disliked and he and Lucy often butt heads.
Each of the characters that the trio come across that could be considered villains are each described so vividly from their canes to their beady eyes that you can picture them all so easily. They fit the roles of villains very well and their mannerisms throughout the story when Lucy gets to interact with them are so creepy that they had my spine shivering with anxiety.
The pacing in the story is mixed. The beginning starts off well – it’s nicely spread out so that you don’t get overwhelmed with information, the ghost interaction is terrifying and it’s left practically on a cliffhanger. But that’s where the story has it’s first fault. At this point we’re thrown into a flashback – an origin story for Lucy. It’s slow and awkward as if it was thrown in at the last minute. I’m not saying that it wasn’t interesting learning how Lucy found herself in London and how she got to be with Lockwood and George, but it could have been done so much better. It drags on for a long while until the action finally kicks in once more and the suspense and tension and shoved at you at such a surprising moment that it definitely packs a punch. Unfortunately, it takes a very long time for the titular staircase to ever make an appearance – it’s there and gone within 100 pages.
From halfway through the novel, I had my suspicions on just what direction the story was going to go in and as much as a lot of my assumptions turned out to be correct, the story did manage to throw in surprises that really did catch me off guard. Subtly plot twists and information are given at moments you least expect them and they make the tale so worth reading.
So all-in-all, The Screaming Staircase was amazingly good fun. It wasn’t perfect in the slightest but Stroud has created a new world with endless possibilities. There is so much foundation for a broad and decent series with well-developed characters that I would recommend picking up this novel as soon as possible – and it’s sequel The Whispering Skull.