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Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1) by Jonathan Stroud

In the grab bag of genres, ghost stories rank in the top as student favorites. If it's a scary book, usually eager hands snatch or fight over it like banshees. "The Screaming Staircase" is an entertaining ghost story that has plenty of action, humor, creepiness, strong characters, and a somewhat predictable mystery. Jonathan Stroud is one of those writers that understands cadence and has a strong command of words. He is so good at word choice, sentence structure, and descriptions I get completely lost in the story and can't put his books down. He's on my list of "dinner-burning authors." Ones where I get so lost in the imaginary world that I forget dinner on the stove, don't hear my husband talking, and basically become an insensitive ghost to those around me. I'm the opposite of the children in Stroud's tale whose youth give them extreme psychic sensitivity to ghosts as compared to adults allowing them to see and hear them.

Fifty years ago a ghost epidemic threatened the population. People were dying from being touched by ghosts, that only children could see. A rash of agencies rose to protect the populace with adult supervisors of children hunting ghosts. Not everyone has the ghost-seeing talent and the dangerous work meant high mortality rates. When Lucy Carlyle interviews for a job she names all the agents she worked with followed with, "They're all dead now." Lucy, a talented agent at hearing ghosts, takes a job at Lockwood & Company run by Anthony Lockwood, gifted at seeing ghosts, and his partner, George Cubbins, an amazing researcher. She likes the fact the two run a company with no adult supervisors. The threesome soon learn that their talents complement each other making them a powerful force at catching ghosts. The problem is they are not always careful or think through things properly. When they burn a client's house down, their company is threatened with bankruptcy, until a wealthy man comes challenging them to rid ghosts from the most haunted house in the city that he owns. Others ghost hunters have tried this before. No agent has ever survived a night in the house. But this doesn't stop Lockwood & Company taking the case.

Stroud creates an alternate world that has a gothic, Victorian type setting that echoes Sir Conan Doyle's writing. There are mobiles and pizzas that give it a modern flavor; yet the descriptions of buildings and homes have a gothic bent along with Lockwood's paranormal artifact collection. A creepy, dark atmosphere is created that works well with the ghostly thriller. My only complaint is that the mystery was too predictable; however, the unique ghosts save it from being boring. Stroud mixes intense moments with light humor to strike the right balance for readers. "Miasma's intensifying," I said. "My limbs were heavy, my brain tugged by alien emotions of futility and despair. The taste of decay was bitter in my mouth. I took another mint to freshen things." Nothing like a mint to counter a bad smell. I was just in Mumbai, India and chomped on mint gum to help with the god-awful smell of urine and sweat at the airport. Wish it could have helped drive away the flies. I ended up not breathing through my nose. The mint didn't cut it.

The premise of only children seeing ghosts will appeal to kids because it gives them a skill adults don't have and power over grown-ups - the group that usually has authority over them. Parental authority can be a source of angst and this story is a way to vicariously reverse roles. Or it allows the kid to be not only in-charge, but the hero who gets to protect the adult versus the other way around. Or maybe it is a way to prepare for adulthood when the reader will protect others. The reader can interpret and absorb the premise in whatever way he or she wants creating that visceral element in literature that appeals to deep emotions in readers that elude definition.

The novel's beginning structure is not conventional, but it worked for me. Stroud spends the first 50 pages hooking the reader into the story with little backdrop and descriptions of characters. I didn't really get a clear picture until the flashback into Lucy's past. The hook is full of action and enough hints that I didn't get confused and was willing to go with it. At one point the point of view changed to "we" where the narrator sounds like she's giving the reader a how-to manual on how to catch ghosts. Some might think it slows the pace or doesn't get into the mystery fast enough. I'm not so sure. I like it when an author takes a risk and tries something different. I even wondered what it would have sounded like if he'd switched to 2nd person narration so that it would really have a how-to feel. I only thought of that because of another author using that style in an adult book. It would probably have been too confusing for young readers. But I digress.

A few plot points are not wrapped up and I'm sure the author is saving it for the sequel.  Lucy's story arc involves learning to trust people she works with and by the end the three seem to be a team that can verbally disagree with each other but who have each others backs.  Lockwood's past is not explained and neither is George's. Enough is given to satisfy the reader into making his or her own assumptions but it seems clear that more is to come. I heard the movie rights were bought for this book. Sounds like fun, but I am more eager to read book two of Lockwood & Co!

4 Smileys


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