Bare Bones: “The Screaming Staircase” (novel)

Bare Bones: “The Screaming Staircase” (novel)

bare bones jonathan stroud lockwood & co character ageWhat: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (novel).

Why: Ghost story as ghost stories should be. You know, with actual ghosts.

Spoiler Alert: Low | Medium | HIGH!


London in an alternative universe. Over the past decades, ghosts have become a very real and increasingly worrisome Problem with a well-deserved capital P. They don’t just go bump in the night, either: direct contact will kill a living person. The catch? Only children can see the ghosts and fight them.

After a hunt in her hometown went deadly wrong, teenager Lucy Carlyle comes to London looking for a new job. Of the many ghost hunter agencies in the city, only the obscure Lockwood & Co will have her. Possibly this is because its only agents are Anthony Lockwood himself and his assistant George Cubbins, and both are Lucy’s age.

Their first hunt together ends apparently successful but with enormous collateral damage in the shape of a burnt-down house and a liability suit to match.

When their backs are against the wall, help is offered from a source that is as unexpected as it is unlikely. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and so the trio sets off to investigate what may be the most haunted mansion in England.

Story Skeleton

The Lockwood & Co series is clearly aimed at young adults, but that doesn’t mean is doesn’t pack a punch for older readers. The plot is not too complicated, especially when you have read too many whodunits, but interesting enough to be entertaining. Extra reality credits for not glossing over the reality of authorities that crop up after a major incident!

I loved the haunting scenes. They were delightfully detailed and at times scarier than some adult horror novels I have read. Stroud’s twist of ectoplasm being lethal when touched adds an extra dimension of urgency that makes the danger posed by intangible ghosts a lot more real.

The only mild irritation was caused by the protagonists not acting their age. Teenagers behaving like miniature adults is a common issue in YA stories. Yes, these children have seen more of the world and are to some extend battle-hardened, but that excuse only goes so far.

Lesson learnt

Fourteen-year-olds don’t perceive the world as adults do. It jars me when such a young character acts like they are well into their thirties. That just feels wrong.

Even if a character involved is experienced, young brains function significantly different than the adult brain. Most notably, the younger a child, the less understanding they have of danger.

Just look at young adult drivers: they tend to over-estimate their ability to control the car. They are more likely to speed or make misinterpret the situation, resulting in a higher-than-average chance of being involved in a car crash. (There is a reason insurance companies charge young adult drivers more.)

YA protagonists are often shown making risk calculations, but those calculations are based on what their adult creator knows of life. A teenager may not stop to consider that risk, or even realise there is a risk in the first place. Even if they do, they may not think to take precautions that an adult would consider self-evident.

Of course, in YA stories the protagonists should be the same age as the intended audience. Likewise, some stories require the author to write characters much older than themselves. Nothing wrong with that, but do your research.

Age is more than a number on a character sheet: it represents a mind-set. So before writing characters much older or younger than yourself, find out how real people that age regard the world. Once you’re past 25 yourself, you’d be surprised how much you don’t remember about being a teenager!

More Bare Bones reviews here.

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