Goodreads: The Screaming Staircase
Series: Lockwood & Co. #1
Fifty years ago, the dead stopped staying dead. An entire industry has sprung up with the purpose of eradicating the ghosts that can not only drive people mad but also kill them. Only children, however, have the ability to see and hear the specters and only one agency works without any adult supervision—Lockwood & Co. As a result, the company has a poor reputation, but when a rich patron offers Lockwood one of the biggest cases in the nation, their future seems assured. That is, if they can survive the ghosts of the infamous Screaming Staircase.
The media seems a little oversaturated with the supernatural right now and I admit I wondered when I picked up The Screaming Staircase whether anyone really needed yet another story about professional ghost hunters. Jonathan Stroud’s name reassured me, however, and I went ahead and took the plunge. Now I’m only upset because I have to wait until next year for the sequel.
The Screaming Staircase is one of the most engrossing middle-grade books I have read in a long time. The story grabs readers from the start, introducing them to a modern-day Britain both familiar and strange. Strange, of course, because of the normality of ghosts walking about the living, but also because modern conveniences such as cell phones do not seem to exist. The blend reminds me a little of Harry Potter—readers can situate themselves in a world they recognize as their own, but increased danger arises from the lack of immediate access to information and to other people.
Lucy Carlyle, the narrator of the story, will no doubt charm readers, too. She is spunky and bold, but not deficient of common sense. She acts when she needs to, but also retreats when she needs to. Seeing someone make smart decisions in books can sometimes seem rare (especially when the supernatural is involved), so watching events unfold through her eyes proves a real treat. Her character is also a testament to Stroud’s skill—he does not need to rely on nonsensical choices to drive his plot.
Lucy also provides the perfect counterpart to the more dashing and reckless Anthony Lockwood. Rich and slightly mysterious, he might seem like a character readers have met before. Stroud, however, makes Lockwood his own man. He proves likable and funny, a good person to have at your side while fighting ghosts, but also a good friend. I cannot be the only reader hoping for a future romance in this direction.
Rounding out Lockwood & Co. is the slightly overlooked George Cubbins. He does not normally fight ghosts, instead doing research for the group, so the book cover skims a little over his existence. The book, however, would not be the same without him. Slightly weird and slightly unkempt, George grounds the trio in real normalcy. He insists that the group share baked goods equally, provides the catalyst for everyday squabbles over things like the state of the bathroom, and yells at Lockwood when he makes stupid decisions. If anything makes the world of Lockwood & Co. seem real, it is George. He’s like that old roommate you’ve heard tell of.
Some readers, of course, might be hesitant to pick up a book focused on ghosts, especially one that posits their existence in the same world in which readers live. I admit that ghost stories scare me and I usually shy away from anything that looks like it will keep me up all night. However, I actually read The Screaming Staircase alone in my room with the main light off sometime after midnight. The difference for me between this book and something like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is the nature of the ghosts. They can drive people mad, but their main threat is physical, meaning that not only can you fight them and contain them but also that you can run from them.
The Screaming Staircase is a thrilling start to a new series sure to delight fans not only of Jonathan Stroud and but also of middle-grade fantasy and urban fantasy. Fast-paced and full of action, it draws readers into its richly-drawn world so tightly that they may not want to leave.
Summary: In the town of Bixby, five special teenagers called Midnighters discover they have one extra hour of the day, one hour starting exactly at midnight when every other human freezes in his or her tracks. The only problem: darklings also walk at this hour, and they like to eat humans. The Midnighters have developed ways to fight the darklings using metal and their special skills, but it seems as if the darklings have found human allies—and they can hunt at all the other hours of the day.
Review: As a beginning disclaimer, I read this book without having read the first book in the series. I was, in fact, oblivious that Midnighters is a series at all. Nothing on Touching Darkness says “Book 2,” and there are not even any review quotes that say something to the effect of “a stunning sequel!” Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Midnighters title is much larger and more noticeable than the Touching Darkness, which I only saw after having been suddenly enlightened to the fact that this book belongs to a trilogy.
One conclusion we can gain from this story is that I have my moments of being singularly unobservant. But it also reveals that Touching Darkness is great as a standalone. I was halfway through the book before I meandered over to Goodreads and discovered I had been missing the first part of the story all along. There are a few vague references to the fact that Jessica had previously fought the darklings and now they are all deeply afraid of her, but I was able to shrug this off as an eccentric back story. Otherwise, the book is full of enough background information that I had no difficulty understanding what Midnighters are, who all the characters are, or what types of things they do to fight the darklings.
Interestingly, this does lead one to question whether there is too much background for readers who choose, quite sensibly, to read the stories in order. Perhaps it could all come across as old news to anyone who reads straight through the trilogy, but it is doubtless a helpful reminder to anyone who puts a bit of space in between reading the first and second books.
Touching Darkness, as a standalone, is a very creative, creepy, and suspenseful work. Images of evil crawling things and humans that will hunt others down for money stand out on the pagers and will bring horrible visions to those reads this book late at night—even if the space in which darklings are able to materialize seems to be fairly localized. Westerfeld, as always, manages to create a unique, fascinating, and still believable world. In fact, a lot of focus is put onto how numbers and math can explain Bixby’s oddities.
The characters in Touching Darkness are also skillfully drawn. The focus is on the five Midnighters, all of who have distinct personalities to match their personal Midnighter talents. Together they have an intriguing and complex dynamic that readers will enjoy watching develop. Whether they are actually likeable, however, will be up to personal taste, as even they become testy with and annoyed by each other. I personally did not really relate to any of them, although I could see each of their merits. My favorite character may actually have been Jessica’s younger sister, whom I hope will have a larger role in the next book.
Touching Darkness was a fun, eerie adventure with a lot of action. It does not have the same urgency as Uglies, however, and even though there are a few loose ends, the third book does not even have to be read for it to feel like a complete story. A very solid book, but not mind-blowing.
Published: March 1, 2005
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