The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
This was a really cool story idea and a fun read. I'm a huge fan of classic horror, particularly really creepy ghost stories. While this is a modern published book, it has a favorably classic vibe. The ghosts in this book are portrayed in the most harmful of ways. They aren't just shades who have forgotten they are dead and harmlessly roam the world of the living. Instead, they have great potential for injuring and even killing humans. As a result of the "Problem", a huge rash of ghost hauntings that no one can explain, a group of organizations have been created to confront this issue. Because children have heightened senses and abilities to perceive the ghosts, they are used to do most of this dangerous work, under the supervision of adults.
Antony Lockwood has decided to cut out the middleman. He started an agency of his own, with no adult supervision. His one partner is George, but he interviews and takes on Lucy as an assistant. Lucy has a troubled past work experience in the north, where most of her crew were killed in a haunting that turned out to be worse than it seems. She decided to take off on her own and ends up in London to find a place with the big ghost-hunting agencies. She has gone from agency to agency, rejected as an employee, but finds a home with Lockwood and Co.
Each child has distinctive abilities. Lucy is able to hear the dead, and she also can touch things and feel the emotions of the person who owned the object. Lockwood can see death glows (where people were violently killed) and has very keen eyesight for spectral information. George is a superb researcher. Together, they make quite a team. However, the government agency who oversees hauntings has it in for them, because they don't like the idea of children going off on their own dealing with ghosts.
Lucy forms a strange connection to the spirit of a murdered girl (a fifty-year-old unsolved murder case) in a local house. They barely escape her vengeful ghost alive, but the house is burned as a result. The resulting fine and bill from the owners could put them out of business. When a wealthy industrialist hires them to investigate his very dangerous haunted mansion, they can't say no. Even if the whole situation seems mighty fishy.
I listened to the audiobook, narrated by British actress Miranda Raison (she was on MI-5), and her voice was excellent. She has good pitch, and is talented at modifying her voice for both male and female voices. Also, able to convey anger, menace, age, pomposity, and humor by varying her voice. Each character sounds different. I would recommend listening to this, because it feels even more eerie in the audio form.
The writing is very good. I am a big fan of juvenile/middle grade stories because they are imaginative and are designed to keep a readers interest (young readers tend to have a shorter attention span). I especially like the ones that demand the attention of the reader, and stimulate their curiosity and intellect. Such is the case with this book. Stroud had taken the tried and true subject of ghosts, and given it a unique spin. I love the fact that he has created plenty of fictional references from the leading ghost hunters of the original time of the inception of Ghost Hunting. The kids consult these books and apply the crucial knowledge gained to do their work and keep themselves alive. Not only does Stroud add layers to the concept of hauntings, he gives it his own spin, with the idea of things like 'ghost-touched' and "death-glow". I also like how he elaborates on the various accoutrements of ghost-hunting and protection against ghosts.
The tension is very well done. The encounters with ghosts build in such a way to keep the reader on the edge of her seat. Each encounter is progressively more scary, and the trio's experiences in the haunted manor is not something you'd want to read before bedtime. It's kind of freaky and disturbing to think that children are put in these dangerous situations, while adults sit by on the sidelines and stay safe! But the kids are best equipped to see the ghosts, so they can act quicker and more decisively in hauntings.
I definitely recommend "The Screaming Staircase" to fans of ghosts literature of all ages. I think this book is intelligent enough to satisfy both an older and younger reader, and as I said earlier, it has a nice old school ghost story vibe that would make the Patriarch of the genre, MR James proud.
Overall rating: 4.5/5.0 stars.
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