The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud is the first book in an exciting new paranormal adventure series.
About fifty years before our story begins, the citizens of the UK began experiencing what they now refer to as "the Problem." Ghosts started cropping up all over -- ghosts with the power to kill with a touch. Children are more sensitive to the presence of this paranormal threat, so in response to the Problem, underage crews of psychic investigators have sprung up. Using technical equipment and plenty of salt and iron, these agencies work to neutralize spirits before they can harm living citizens. Lucy Carlyle was part of one such team in a small town until one job went horribly wrong. Now, Lucy is in London. She's applied to all of the big agencies, but without references she can't find a place. Then she spies an advertisement for Lockwood & Company, a small firm that is currently hiring. Unlike most agencies, Lockwood & Co. consists of only a few underage investigators, no adult supervision. Lockwood, the charismatic head of the agency, takes Lucy on, and together with George, the slovenly third agent, they start working on the few cases that come their way. When a botched job results in a house fire and Lockwood and Co. is held liable for property damages, prospects look grim. Their only hope is to take a job at Combe Carey Hall, one of the most haunted buildings in Britain. The owner of the hall will wire funds to their account as soon as they arrive at the hall -- which is a good thing, because no other psychic investigators have ever survived a night at Combe Carey. Can Lucy, George, and Lockwood deal with the Red Room and the Screaming Staircase, or are they doomed to join the house's paranormal host themselves?
Generally, ghost stories are Not My Thing, but I'm such a big fan of the Bartimaeus Trilogy that I thought I'd give Stroud a chance to wow me (even though I found Heroes of the Valley a disappointing slog). I'm glad I did. Lockwood & Company feels like a return to Stroud's strengths: an alternate-history London with interesting backstory and world-building, strong, interesting, not always likable characters, plenty of action and adventure, and the promise of more in books to come. This series is pitched to a slightly younger demographic than his Bartimaeus books, but I'd say teen and adult readers can enjoy this just as much as the upper reaches of the middle-grade audience for whom the story is intended. The ghosts are scary enough to make the book gripping, but not so much that I was kept awake at night (and as I indicated, I'm kind of a wimp when it comes to horror books and usually avoid them), and there's a bit of mystery that some readers will be able to solve long before the final reveal. I'm looking forward to the continuation of this series -- it's one I'll definitely keep an eye on, and definitely recommend.
(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)