Read a full summary of The Screaming Staircase, book #1 in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series, right here! This page is full of spoilers, so beware. If you are wondering what happened in The Screaming Staircase, then you are in the right place!
Special thanks to Dawn Shipman, a new BSR contributor, who wrote this great recap! Visit her website to check out the books she’s written and to keep up with news about her new releases. See the end of the recap for links to her Goodreads, Instagram, and Facebook accounts as well as a link to the book she’s published.
***** Everything below is a SPOILER *****
What happened in The Screaming Staircase?
There’s a Problem in England. For the last fifty years, ghosts have been haunting the country—and killing the living who get too close! Only children can see them and only trained, gifted young people can stop these undead Visitors. Into this harrowing world comes Lockwood & Co.
The Screaming Staircase, book one in the five-volume series, begins with Junior Field Operative Lucy Carlyle (the protagonist) and Agency Director A.J. (Anthony) Lockwood investigating a haunting at the site of a recent—seemingly accidental—death. Lucy’s keen ability to hear the ghostly dead leads them to discover the source of the haunting, and soon they are in serious trouble! They forgot to bring iron chains. To be safe from these restless Visitors, agents need iron, silver, salt bombs, or a powerful magnesium explosive called Greek Fire. Not wanting to return another day, Lockwood and Lucy decide to stay and hope their bags of salt, swords, and iron filings will be enough to protect them from the Visitor.
To remain active in the living world, a Visitor must have a connection to its former life—something that is still in the real world. To neutralize the ghost, this Source must be discovered and dispatched. This particular ghost—a girl—disappeared into a wall, and they know the Source must be behind the wall. While Lockwood begins tearing through the wall with a crowbar, Lucy keeps her sword out, forcing the ghost to stay back. The ghost is desperate—terrifying!
Lockwood breaks through the wall and discovers the skeleton of the long-dead girl, complete with a lovely gold chain still about her neck. The ghost attacks and Lockwood orders Lucy to get the Source while he keeps the ghost back. He and Lucy are flung to the floor by the ghost’s fury, and their circle of iron filings is disturbed—allowing an open door to the Visitor. Lucy does the only thing she can—she throws a canister of Greek Fire at the ghost. This pushes the ghost back but sets the room on fire. Lucy then throws a silver net over the corpse, and the ghost girl disappears, but she and Lockwood cannot escape because the flames have blocked the door. Lockwood breaks a window on this second story room. They will have to jump. At the last instant, Lucy returns to the skeleton, reaches under the silver net, and pulls the gold chain from its neck. With flames all about them and the roof collapsing, she and Lockwood fall out the window.
The book jumps back a few years and to the north of England, introducing readers to the young Lucy. It was apparent Lucy had psychic skills from a very early age. She was taken in as an apprentice to the local investigator and learned much, but a horrible accident leaves her unable to return to work. She leaves family and job and heads to London. Lucy applies at several different agencies but is not hired; becoming desperate, she applies to a small company—Lockwood & Co.—and is called for an interview. She meets Anthony and his assistant George and begins her interview with a test of her skills. She is frustrated with how the test is managed but still passes with flying colors and is hired.
Lockwood and George are very different. Both are only a little older than Lucy. She wants to like the one (Lockwood) and dislike the other (George) but does her best to get along with both. She also meets a strange and powerful ghost in an escape-proof jar, a horrible apparition George has kept for some time. Lucy is allowed to live at the house with Lockwood and George and quickly comes to enjoy her work with Lockwood & Co.
Back to the Fire…Lockwood and Lucy survive, but Inspector Barnes of DEPRAC (the Department of Psychical Research and Control), the government agency dedicated to tackling the Problem, arrives, informing them the homeowners are suing them for the destruction of the burnt house. Lockwood & Co. is the only agency that is not supervised by adults. Inspector Barnes sees this destruction of property—no matter how necessary to save lives—as a prime example of why adults need to be in charge. Lockwood & Co. has thirty days to pay the homeowners or DEPRAC will close them down.
Lucy soon discovers the necklace she took from the dead girl’s neck is the ghost’s Source. Forgetting she has it, she brings it into the house, and the ghost awakens her in the night, arms outstretched. Once they control the ghost, Lockwood and George are furious at Lucy’s breach of protocol, but they calm when they discover a message inscribed on the locket. In addition to her extraordinary Listening skills, Lucy also has excellent Touch, which means she can often feel what the Visitor is feeling by touching an object the person had when alive. Lucy knows beyond a doubt that the man who gave the girl that necklace is also the one who killed her. Despite how dangerous this Visitor is, Lucy has developed a certain connection with it. She knows this is not wise but can’t seem to stop herself. Lockwood sees an opportunity for good publicity if they can discover the killer, even after all these years. This could lead to more jobs and the ability to earn enough money to save the agency.
The girl who’d owned the necklace was killed fifty years earlier. They discover the likely killer is still alive, but DEPRAC is not able to prove anything, and the man is released. Someone breaks into their home/office and tries to steal the locket but is not able to because Lucy has it. The burglar escapes. Meanwhile, they are approached by an extremely wealthy man, Mr. Fairfax, offering them a lucrative project—more than enough to cover their debt. Several things sound funny (and dangerous) about the offer, and George and Lucy want to discuss it, but Lockwood overrides their concerns and accepts the job.
Lockwood is acting a bit sneakily but won’t answer any of their questions. Two days later, they are on their way to Combe Carey Hall—one of the most haunted places in all of England. They were warned in particular of two places in the Hall—the Red Room and the Screaming Staircase. The place has been known to be haunted for hundreds of years—far longer than the current Problem. Terrible things have happened in the past.
Upon arrival, Lockwood is still acting strangely, but things become terrifying that night as they begin their investigation. There are powerful Visitors EVERYWHERE, though the magnificent staircase seems very peaceful. The arrive at the infamous Red Room and can feel the evil, though the room itself is empty. Once in the Red Room, though, the room begins to bleed! Red liquid oozes out throughout the room. It is horrifying enough that they decide to leave, reconsider their options, and try again later. But when they try to open the door to get out…it is locked. They are the only living people in the building. But the door is locked, and they cannot get out. The room is filling with blood, and they know if they are touched by it, they will die.
After horrors and more horrors, Lucy discovers a way out of the room through a hidden passageway near the only window. They all fall through into darkness just as the room overflows with blood and end up in a narrow, stone corridor, filled with cobwebs, a sure sign of Visitation, but at least the blood is gone. They go along the passageway and come to a spiral staircase leading down. Lucy slides her hand along the stone wall as they descend and begins to sense things—the stamping of boots, the scrape of swords, the voices of many men. Someone is moaning in fear and pain. Then the screaming begins! Lucy pulls her hand away, and the sounds cease. But only for a moment. The screams return and become louder. They’d thought the legendary screaming staircase was the one in the main building, but it must have been this old, derelict one. No one else can hear the screams.
Suddenly Lockwood stops. He’s realized something and says he’s been such an idiot. George tries to figure out what Lockwood is talking about, but Lucy can’t stand any of it. Suddenly both Lockwood and George can also hear the screaming. They begin running down the narrow, twisting stairs, and now they can see things, too. Hooded shadows run with them along the walls, keeping pace with them, the screaming tearing into their skulls. They hit the floor and collapse. The screaming is driving them all mad, but Lockwood orders them to find the Source. The Visitors are the ghosts of monks who’d been murdered hundreds of years earlier. Their pain and rage had infected the entire building over the centuries, causing the ongoing hauntings.
How did The Screaming Staircase end?
There is a well at the bottom of the staircase—the well the monks had been thrown into all those centuries earlier. The terror of the place is affecting them all, but Lockwood holds his team together. They throw all their remaining iron and magnesium flares and chains into the well, along with a lighted match. The explosion knocks Lucy, George, and Lockwood unconscious.
They come to slowly and try to get out of the now-silent building. Lockwood begins to tell them what he’d just realized on their journey down the staircase. Their employer, Mr. Fairfax, had set them up. He was the one who’d locked them in the Red Room. Why? It was him, all those years ago, who’d given Lucy’s ghost girl that necklace, then killed her. Lockwood explains how he came to that understanding, and suddenly, there is Fairfax himself, with another man, holding a gun! It appears there is no way out for them now, and Lucy is struck with an idea—a terrible idea, but the only one she can think of. They know too much; Fairfax will certainly kill them.
Fairfax still wants the locket, and Lucy offers to give it to him. What he doesn’t know is that the ghost itself is still there, attached to the locket…her Source. Lucy holds it out and opens the container that imprisons the ghost. It erupts from the glass and goes straight into the arms of the evil Fairfax. Fairfax is killed once and for all.
DEPRAC arrives to clean up the mess, and Lockwood & Co. are rewarded for purging the terrible Combe Carey Hall and its Screaming Staircase.
George, Lucy, and Lockwood have a party to celebrate. They run out of soda, so Lucy goes down to the cellar to get some more. She bumps into the glass jar containing George’s ghost. This Visitor speaks to her in an eerie voice. “Lucy…I’ve been watching you.”
To find out more, read Book 2 in Lockwood & Co., The Whispering Skull.
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