I’m sick of historical fiction. I’m sick of contemporary fiction. I’m sick of realism and science fiction. Fantasy I watch with a wary eye. I don’t always feel this way but when I’ve read seven depressing meaningful middle grade books for kids in a row the old noggin screams for something enjoyable for once. And to place into this mental desert a book like The Screaming Staircase … well, it’s the best possible cure for what ails ye. A pleasure from tip to tail, this is the book you hand the advanced readers that claim they’d rather read Paradise Lost than Harry Potter. Smart as a whip, funny, witty, and honestly frightening at times, Stroud lets loose and gives readers exactly what they want. Ghosts, kids on their own without adult supervision, and loads of delicious cookies.
It all began with The Problem. One day, for no apparent reason, the dead started to walk amongst the living. Not just walk, but really wreak some serious havoc. Here are the facts of the matter. 1. If you see a ghost, run. 2. Don’t let a ghost touch you, or you’re dead. 3. Only kids can see ghosts. What are we to make of these facts? Well, it’s no surprise when ghost-busting operations hiring children start cropping up. Enter Lockwood & Company. Run by the charming Anthony Lockwood alongside his two compatriots Lucy and George the ramshackle operation is barely scraping by. Enter a job that goes particularly wrong when the kids accidentally burn down their employers’ home, and it would take a miracle to save the agency. Fortunately, a miracle shows up in the form of a very rich and powerful man. He’s hiring the three to take on the most haunted house in all of Britain. The catch? No one’s ever gotten out of it alive. Will our intrepid heroes take on the job, or is there more at work here than meets the eye?
There is no debate surrounding the joy one feels when reading this book. It is already beloved. Even without his popular Bartimaeus series, Stroud could have debuted with The Screaming Staircase and garnered legions of fans upon impact. That is not to say that it is without debate, however. Indeed, there is one point of contention that is raised when people learn of this book. In a word: audience. Can one honestly hand this book to a savvy 11-year-old reader without so much as a blink, or should you give it to a teen instead? In my experience I’ve noticed that before people have read the book they look at it and instantly assume it’s YA (young adult). Whether it’s the plot description or the cover or what have you it seems teen to them. However, once they’ve actually sat down and read the book cover to cover, most folks I’ve spoken to agree that it’s just fine for the juvenile crowd. Is there more blood than you can shake a stick at? Sure. But it’s ghost blood. Hardly the same thing. The closest thing I can compare it to is Joseph Delaney’s first book in The Last Apprentice series, Revenge of the Witch. Scary but not inappropriate, which is a delicate line to walk. It doesn’t hurt matters any that the kids in this book never give their ages. They’re on the cusp of adolescence, sure, but the fact that there are no allusions to crushes or palpitations of the heart is significant in its absence. It’s kind of the perfect thing to hand that kid who can’t stand even a whiff of romance in their fiction.
At its heart this is a great book to scare a kid with. Over the years I’ve noticed that love of horror begins at a very young age and never seems to go away. I used to have a four-year-old come to my reference desk in the library over and over asking for “scary” books. Pretty much as long as I could hand him something with a vampire or a monster on the cover, he was content. Once they start reading on their own, many kids gravitate to the Goosebumps section of their library. Low-key horror thrills, tailor made for the 7-10 year-old set. But as with all things, kids outgrow fads. They find Goosebumps babyish. They want something with a little more bite. So rather than hand them Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children quite yet, I need something that will run a finger down their spines without tripping wholly into teen territory. In the past the aforementioned Revenge of the Witch was my go to book. Now The Screaming Staircase will serve just as nicely.
One point that I’m in danger of not mentioning is the fact that the book is bloody funny. Who else could get away with a sentence like, “..George Cubbins, handsome as a freshly opened tub of margarine, as charismatic as a wet tea towel lying scrumpled on the floor”? Scrumpled. Delicious. Actually, Stroud is at his best when Lucy is describing George. “With his glasses off, his eyes looked small and weak – blinky and a bit baffled, like an unintelligent sheep that’s taken a wrong turn. But when he put them on again, they went all sharp and steely, more like the eyes of an eagle that eats dumb sheep for breakfast.” All throughout the story you are in Lucy’s head and though she is allowed to make her own fair share of stupid mistakes (no Hermione Granger she, thank heavens), you like her snarky sense of the absurd. Lucy actually acts as a kind of Watson to Lockwood’s Holmes, but not the bumbling Watson we’re so familiar with these days. She’s got a good head on her shoulders. You come to like her compatriots too, for that matter. A wittier crew you won’t find this year.
Above and beyond the humor, however, there’s much to be said for Stroud’s actual writing. As I mentioned before, you love the characters. The plot and mystery components play fair (and I admit that I didn’t suspect the true villain of the piece when I probably should have). But it’s the wordplay that gets me. Consider a sentence like this: “In fact, it wasn’t at all an ugly hallway; in bright sunlight it might have looked quite pleasant. But not so much now, with the last light from the door panes stretching out like skewed coffins on the floor in front of us; and with our shadows neatly framed inside them..” Or, later, my favorite part is when Lucy is naming her old partners in the ghost busting business. “We worked together. We had fun. We saved each other’s lives a bit. Their names, if you’re interested, were Paul, Norrie, Julie, Steph, and Alfie-Joe. They’re all dead now.” It’s just a little twist of the knife, but it gets the job done.
There are some moments of British-to-American translation that rankled me but will pass unnoticed by the general child population. Lucy is continually talking about “tea and cookies”, a phrase guaranteed to jar in the head of this particular Anglophile. My suspicion is that this was a true “tea and biscuit” book from start to finish, but that biscuits have an entirely different connotation in the States and as a result the word was switched. Other switches passed me by unnoticed, which is to their credit. Pity about the cookies. Still, it’s a remarkably mild complaint to make. Cookies schmookies. The book’s a pip.
You would be forgiven for thinking this book a work of historical fantasy fiction, were it not informing you left and right of its contemporary nature. Velcro holds the rapiers in place, for example. In another moment a television is mentioned. Yet there’s something classic in its form. I suppose you could technically call the story post-apocalyptic, if you consider the apocalypse in question The Problem. You could call it a straight up horror story. Or you could turn around and label it a mystery. And what about fantasy? It’s definitely in that genre as well. Howsoever you feel like labeling it, there’s one thing you can certainly label the book: good. It’s a delight from start to finish and after you’ve devoured it you find yourself craving more more more. For everyone then. Child, teen, adult, or slow shuffling specter, this is a book for you. Try it on for size.
On shelves September 17th.
Source: Reviewed from galley sent from publisher.
First Line: “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.”
Like This? Then Try:
- Enola Holmes: The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer
- The Invisible Detective: Paranormal Puppet Show by Justin Richards
- The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch by Joseph Delaney
- The Ear, the Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer
Alternate Jacket Art:
I’m always a fan of how other nations chose to illustrate their jackets. Thus far, only two others are available straight out of the gate, but they’re lovely.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Read the first four chapters here.
- Listen to some of the audiobook here.
- No one’s lost any time on this one. The book has already been optioned for a film.
The VERY excellent book trailer by the British publishers of this title is not to be missed. The best of its kind.