April 28, 2013

Book Rec: Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud


This is a hugely enjoyable fantasy-adventure page-turner and first-rate post-flu cranky-convalescent distraction.  I hesitate to call it ‘horror’ since the squick factor is pretty low—low enough even for me—but it does have some very unfriendly ghosts.  Being murdered can do that to a person.  And on the subject of page-turning, I recommend you set aside enough time to read the last hundred pages in one go.  Once our intrepid ghost-stalkers enter the Red Room at Combe Carey Hall, the most haunted private house in England, you are not going to want to put the book down till the end.  I was given an ARC:  I notice the book’s not actually out till August.  But you can still put it on your TBR list.

The England of Lockwood & Co has a Problem:  ‘. . . Something strange and new did start happening around fifty or sixty years ago, and no one’s got a damn clue why. . . . you can find mention of scattered ghostly sightings cropping up in Kent and Sussex around the middle of the last century.  But it was a decade or so later that a bloody series of cases, such as the Highgate Terror and the Mud Lane Phantom, attracted serious attention. . . . At last two young researchers . . . managed to trace each haunting to its respective Source . . . and for the first time the existence of Visitors was firmly imprinted on the public mind.’  So far so conventional.  But (as I keep saying when I’m wearing my author hat) there are no new stories, only good, bad or indifferent retellings of old stories.  This is a good retelling.  The world-building does that excellent thing where the out-there goofballery of the set-up leads to clearly sensible and practical applications:    ‘We ducked out across the road, stepping over the open drain or “runnel” of running water that separated the pavement from the tarmac.  The wandering dead were known to dislike moving water;  consequently narrow runnels crosscrossed many of the great shopping streets in the West End, allowing people to walk in safety well into the evening.  Earlier governments had hoped to extend this system across the city, but it had proved prohibitively expensive.  Aside from ghost-lights, the suburbs fended for themselves.’ Lockwood & Co are three kids—you’re washed up as a ghostbuster field agent by the time you reach voting age—Anthony Lockwood, the narrator Lucy Carlyle, and George Cubbins the library geek.  (This ‘modern’ London has electricity and telephones, but no computers and no internet.  If you want to do research, you go to the library, and Lockwood & Co’s records are kept in box files.)  And they have the Talent.

But things keep going wrong for them:  ‘Yes, the Mortlake Horror was driven out, but only as far as Richmond Park. . . . Yes, both the Grey Spectre of Aldgate and the entity known as the Clattering Bones were destroyed, but not before several further . . . deaths.’  Which is why Lockwood decides to accept an obviously crooked commission from the extremely wealthy and also extremely creepy owner of Combe Carey Hall.    And then of course things go even more wrong. . . .



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