THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE by Jonathan Stroud
England has a “Problem.” And it’s a big one.
Around 50 years ago, a mysterious event occurred, which has left the country haunted by specters, spooks, and other supernatural beings. The hauntings begin at night, and every sane person wears protective charms to repel spirits and makes sure to be safe at home well before the supernatural power surge that comes at midnight. Because these ghosts aren’t just creepy—they’re deadly. And the only people who can fight them are kids.
Lucy is one of these kids, a girl with a talent for ghost-fighting: She can hear the voices of the dead, and when she touches something that belonged to a person who died, she can experience fragments of that person’s memories. She’d like to work for one of the big, fancy ghost hunting agencies—the ones that were founded back when the Problem started—but instead, she finds herself settling in as an agent at Lockwood & Co., a ramshackle agency run by a couple of kids instead of a team of grown-ups. Suave, elegant Anthony Lockwood and grouchy, sloppy George Cubbins quickly become Lucy’s misfit family, and the three of them manage to scrape a living banishing phantoms until a case goes terribly wrong, leaving the agency on the brink of disaster. Their only hope to keep the agency alive is to tackle one more high-publicity case: to spend the night in the most haunted house in England and solve the mystery of its screaming staircase. Lucy knows they’ll be lucky if they make it out alive, forget actually finding the source of the haunting, but ghost hunting is all about facing lost causes.
What makes it a great readaloud: This is the perfect Halloween series, full of terrifying ghosts (including a very creepy skull in a jar who will figure largely in the book’s sequels) and haunted places. Lockwood & Co. are a likable bunch of misfits who manage to fit together perfectly—while Lucy is maybe the flattest of the characters in this first book, there’s enough action that her minimal character development here probably won’t bother you. In our house, we’re big fans of asking “What if…?” so alternate histories make very appealing readalouds, and this book has great questions: What if ghosts were real? What if they were dangerous? What if kids were the only ones who could stop them? This first book in the series can definitely stand on its own, but if you love it, you’ll be happy to know there are four more books that follow.
But be aware: Some of the spookier scenes may be too much for sensitive kids—there are some genuinely frightening moments sprinkled throughout the book.
Quotable: “When you go out hunting wicked spirits, it's the simple things that matter most. The silvered point of your rapier flashing in the dark; the iron filings scattered on the floor; the sealed canisters of best Greek Fire, ready as a last resort...
"But tea bags, brown and fresh and plenty of them, and made (for preference) by Pitkin Brothers of Bond Street, are perhaps the simplest and best of all.
"OK, they may not save your life like a sword-tip or an iron circle can, and they haven't the protective power of a sudden wall of fire. But they do provide something just as vital. They help keep you sane.”