The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud, was published in 2013 by Hyperion.
For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions. Lucy Carlyle, a talented young agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive.
I don’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed that the fantastic humor of Stroud’s Bartimaeus series was lacking in The Screaming Staircase. There’s a bit of humor thrown in by George, and this book desperately needs humor because of the tension and overall scariness of the atmosphere, but what I was expecting—Bartimaeus-like humor, etc.—was not what I got. I suppose I should be pleased, since it shows that Stroud can write more than one style, but I’m also slightly disappointed–although I know it’s unfair of me to expect every book Stroud writes to be like Bartimaeus.
I really liked the characters, despite the fact that nothing they did particularly stood out to me and they were overall extremely generic. George’s humor, as mentioned above, was much needed, and I liked the dynamic between the three of them (even if it was predictable due to their character types). I think the “Intelligent, Often Closed-Mouth Protagonist With The Mysterious Past” is way overdone, but I couldn’t help but like Lockwood despite of it.
I did really like the mystery, even if, like the characters, it was predictable. I’m glad that Stroud connected the first part of the plot with the second (although I think the killer’s identity is too obvious), and I love both the atmosphere that he sets up (the Red Room was the creepiest thing) and the world overall. Lucy has a spectacular moment at the end when her thoughts and mine completely matched and she did exactly what I wanted her to do and it was awesome. I hope she gets more dimensionality to her in future books, because I can see her completely stealing the show from Lockwood.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Ghosts and ghouls, scary situations and imagery.
Genre: Supernatural, Mystery, Young Adult (maybe mature Middle Grade if they can handle scary)
With the nail of my middle finger, I tapped the side of the glass; at once the smoke awoke, rippling outward from the point of impact, becoming thicker, more granular as it did so. As it separated, it revealed the object in the jar: a human skull, brown and stained, clamped to the bottom of the glass.
The ripples of smoke contorted, twisted; they took on the horrid semblance of a face, with blankly rolling eyes and gaping mouth. For a moment the features were superimposed upon the skull beneath. I jerked back from the glass. The face devolved into streamlike ribbons of smoke that swirled about the cylinder and presently became still.
The Screaming Staircase has characters and a plot that are a little too generic for me to really love it, but despite that I still like the characters and what Stroud did with the plot. I really liked the spooky, ghostly atmosphere, though, and the world that Stroud has created. I wish he had done a little bit more to make the characters stand out, however.