“I can claim to be tolerably detached on the subject of ghost stories. I do not depend upon them in any way; not even in the sordid professional way, in which I have at some periods depended on murder stories. I do not much mind whether they are true or not. I am not, like a Spiritualist, a man whose religion may said to consist entirely of ghosts. But I am not like a Materialist, a man whose whole philosophy is exploded and blasted and blown to pieces by the most feeble and timid intrusion of the most thin and third-rate ghost. I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. But I am not at all certain that they succeeded even in that; and I suspect that their greatest successes were elsewhere. For it is my experience that the village idiot is very much less credulous than the town lunatic. On the other hand, when the merely skeptical school asks us to believe that every sort of ghost has been a turnip ghost, I think such skeptics rather exaggerate the variety and vivacity and theatrical talent of turnips.” ~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, May 30, 1936.
So if GK (and Shakespeare) were willing to suspend disbelief and leave a little room for ghost stories, so can I. And Lockwood & Co. The Screaming Staircase is an entertaining sort of ghost story. I’m not saying Mr. Stroud’s middle grade ghost novel is a true ghost story, but it is, within its own rather odd universe, believable and amusing and maybe even thought-provoking.
Lucy Carlyle leaves her provincial village after a ghostly disaster to go to London to find a job with one of the prestigious Psychic Investigation agencies there. She ends up accepting a position with Lockwood & Co., an agency staffed and run entirely by children. The three investigators at Lockwood & Co. are Lockwood, the owner of the agency, George Cubbins, his sloppy and nerdy assistant, and the intrepid Lucy herself. The subject of their investigations is The Problem, an infestation throughout Britain of ghosts, haunts, spirits, ghouls, specters, and other psychic phenomena. Only young people have the ability to sense and possibly eradicate these hauntings, but everyone is endangered by their ghostly presence. In fact, being touched by a ghost is usually fatal.
A bit of mild cursing (h—, d—, and the like) mars the otherwise excellent writing and subtle humor woven throughout the story. Lucy is a versatile and insightful narrator, and Lockwood himself, while somewhat enigmatic, is an engaging character. Since this novel is Book One of a series, the author preserves some mysteries about both Lockwood and about The Problem itself, presumably to enliven other books in the series. In the meantime in this book, we are introduced to a London in which children use iron chains, silver seals, and salt-bombs to fight off malevolent spirits bent on righting old wrongs and harming the still-living.
The book ends with the following hint (from a captured ghost) about where the story might be headed in terms of plot and theme:
“I can tell you things, you see. Important things. Like this: Death’s coming. . . . It’s nothing personal. Death’s coming to you all. Why? Because everything’s upside down. Death’s in Life and Life’s in Death, and what was fixed is fluid. And it doesn’t matter what you try, Lucy, you’ll never be able to turn the tide—”
I am definitely curious enough to read the second book in this series, Lockwood and Co. The Whispering Skull, due for release in September, 2014. Lockwood and Co. The Screaming Staircase was the winner of the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Speculative Fiction for 2013.