Book discovery is one of the hardest processes, particularly so for dark fiction. Everyone has their own specific tastes, their own brand of terror, and it can be quite difficult to find an opinion you can trust for book recommendations. How else do you find new authors, new books, things perhaps that are not on your radar?
I have always liked BookExpo (a trade show for librarians, book sellers, and book bloggers) for that. This year, the open-to-the-public day of BookExpo was changed to a separate BookCon event. I’ll save you my full rant (for that, check my personal site), but I will say that it was not a great day for book discovery. I did, however, manage to score a single Advanced Reader Copy . . . of the second book in the Lockwood & Company series, The Whispering Skull, by Jonathan Stroud.
I have read The Screaming Staircase, which is the first book in the series. The books are a middle-grade (although marketed as YA in some places, I’m told) paranormal fantasy with dark themes–set in England (London, to be exact), the world was suddenly beset by all manner of ghosts fifty years prior, and children are the guerrilla fighters who keep society safe from the horde. Why? Because only children are sensitive enough to sense the specters. They are employed as ghost hunters, hired by ghost hunting houses and supervised by adults.
Lucy Carlyle, the protagonist of the series, is a girl with a particular sensitivity to ghost voices. She comes to London, intent on being hired by a reputable house, but ends up working for the mysterious Anthony Lockwood in house with no adults, no money, and only one other employee, a researcher named George. Let the spooky ghost hunting hijinx ensue.
After reading The Whispering Skull, I can definitely recommend this series for middle grade readers of dark fiction. It manages to keep the action appropriate for the grade level, but it still offers genuine scares and tension. This is not a safe world–children die regularly enough during hunts. There are ghosts and untrustworthy adults. In many ways, this a vaguely Victorian Supernatural for the middle grade set (if Dean and Sam only hunted ghosts)–the paranormal rules established in other novels/television shows/movies are used here. The salt, the iron. Of course, there are many Lockwood & Co. world-specific weapons as well, which is nice.
The characterizations are strong. It’s easy to get to know Lucy, Anthony, and George. Well, perhaps not Anthony–he is, after all, mysterious. However, he does come across as quite likeable and rational. The writing and plots don’t talk down to middle grade readers and gives them good, swashbuckling adventures.
Here’s a quick excerpt from The Whispering Skull:
The original apparition still floated about ten feet or so from the edge of the iron chain. [...] I could see the bones on the arms and legs, and the connecting knots of gristle. The wispy edges of the shape had solidified into flecks or rotted clothing: a loose white shirt, dark tattered breeches ending at the knee.
Waves of cold radiated from the ghost. Despite the warm summer night, the dangling toe bones has frozen into glittering shards of frost.
If I were using a Dark-o-meter (scale of 1 to 10), I’d give it a solid 7, which is just what you want for the reader level. Just scary enough.
That said, I do take issue with Lucy’s relationship to other females in the novel, which has nothing to do with its dark content but is still relevant. To wit, Lucy does not like other girls. Early on in this particular novel, Lucy has some interaction with a teenage girl who is a “sensitive.” She describes her as “floaty” and “wet looking,” and Anthony is trying to calm her down after an encounter with a ghost. Lucy says, “My personal impulse would have been to slap the girl soundly around the face and boot her moaning backside out into the night. Which is why he’s the leader, and I’m not. Also why I have no female friends.”
As a woman, I have always hated to hear women denigrate other women, to set themselves apart from other women–to equate the act of being female to something bad, something frivolous, or something stupid or catty. Don’t we have enough problems without turning on each other? So, perhaps if your horror loving middle grade reader embraces the Lockwood & Co. series, be aware you may need to do some work to counteract that particular attitude in the novels. Otherwise, go forth and be scared!
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