A few things that interest me about Jonathan Stroud’s The Screaming Staircase:
Describing the first haunted house we encounter, the narrator writes: “Papered walls, closed doors, dead silence. A piece of embroidery in a heavy frame: faded colours, childish letters, Home Sweet Home. Done years ago, when homes were sweet and safe, and no one hung iron charms above their children’s beds. Before the Problem came.” (p.24)
What I liked about this is that it sets us up to consider what we expect from our homes (in terms of safety and how that is manifested in belongings/art, etc.). This is a book in which we are not safe in our homes… kind of a familiar prospect in terms of urban narrative. Interesting.
the social meaning of ghosts
At the beginning of part II (‘Before’), the narrator begins: “Some people claim the Problem has always been with us. Ghosts are nothing new, they say, and have always behaved the same. There’s a story the Roman writer Pliny told, for instance, almost two thousand years ago. It’s about a scholar who bought a house in Athens. The house was suspiciously cheap, and he soon discovered it was haunted. On the very first night he was visited by the Spectre of a gaunt old man in chains. The Visitor beckoned to him; instead of fleeing, he followed the ghost out to the yard, where he saw it vanish into the earth. The next day the scholar had his servants dig at that spot. Sure enough, they soon uncovered a manacled skeleton. The bones were properly buried, and the haunting ceased. End of story. A classic Type Two ghost, the experts [-p.66] say, with a classic, simple purpose – the desire to right a hidden wrong. Just the same as you get today. So nothing’s really changed.
Sorry, but I don’t buy it. OK, it’s a decent example of a hidden Source – we’ve all known plenty of similar examples. But notice two things. First: the scholar in the story doesn’t seem at all concerned that he might be ghost-touched, and so swell up, turn blue and die a painful death. Maybe he was just stupid (not to mention lucky). Or maybe Visitors back in ancient times weren’t quite as dangerous as they are now.
And they certainly weren’t as common either. That’s the second thing. The haunted house in Pliny’s story? It was probably the only one in Athens, which is why it was so cheap. Here in modern London there are dozens of them, with more springing up all the time, no matter what the agencies do. In those days, ghosts were fairly rare. Now we’ve got an epidemic. So it seems pretty obvious to me that the Problem’s different to what went before. Something strange and new did start happening around fifty or sixty years ago, and no one’s got a damn clue why.” (pp.65-66)
What caught my eye about this explanatory section is:
– the haunting of homes/houses is a significant aspect of the story
– the telling of stories is part of the history of haunting in this story world
– ‘agencies’ are engaged in trying to solve/monitor/fix the problem that’s rife among peoples homes – a kind of bureaucratisation of hauntings
– the newness and the perpetuity of ghosts and hauntings is significant
the will to exist
“We stood facing the shape in silence. Never attack first. Always wait, draw out its intentions. Watch what it does, where it goes; learn its patterns of behaviour. It was so close now that I could make out the texture of the long fair hairs sweeping down around the neck; see individual moles and blemishes on the skin. It always surprised me that the visual echo could be this strong. George called it ‘the will to exist’, the refusal to lose what once had been. Of course, not all of them appear this way. It’s all down to their personality in life, and what precisely happened when that life came to an end.” (p.36)
This section connected (for me) with the paragraph below (under childhood agency) in which the narrator fights the ghost with her own will to live.
the power of emotions
Lockwood tells the narrator “you need to calm down, Lucy. She’ll feed off your anger super-fast, and grow strong.” (p.38) Lucy continues: “‘Yeah, I know’ I didn’t say it gradefully. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and then another, concentrating on doing what the Manual recommends: mastering myself, loosening the hold of my emotions. After a few moments I regained control. I withdrew from my anger, and let it drop to the floor like a discarded skin.” (p.38)
Interesting to me how emotions are conceived of here:
– ‘things’; objects which can be dropped or discarded;
– as being ‘animated’, in that they can grasp on to the person experiencing them;
– and, also, a potential source of energy for ghosts.
“Frailty was what Visitors fed on; frailty and loose emotions. Good agents needed the opposite: firm control and strength of nerve.” (p.111)
Also interesting is how thoughts and feelings are conceived – metaphorically as objects that can be set aside: “I …tried to rid my mind of thoughts as best I could. I set aside all the rushing, garbled feelings of the day-to-day.” (p.191)
emotions and place
“Ever since Marissa Fittes and Tom Rotwell conducted their celebrated investigations, way back in the first years of the Problem, finding the Source of a haunting has been central to every agent’s job. Yes, we do other stuff as well: we help create defences for worried households and we advise individuals on their personal protection. We can rig up salt traps in gardens, lay iron strips on thresholds, hang wards above cradles, and stock you with any number of lavender sticks, ghost-lights and other day-to-day items of security. But the essence of our role, the reason for our being, is always the same: to locate the specific place or object connected to a particular member of the restless dead.
No one really knows how these ‘Sources’ function. Some [-p.46] claim the Visitors are actually contained within them, others that they mark points where the boundary between worlds has been worn thin by violence or extreme emotion. Agents don’t have time to speculate either way. We’re too busy trying to avoid being ghost-touched to worry about philosophy.
As Lockwood said, a Source might be many things. The exact location of a crime, perhaps, or an object intimately connected to a sudden death, or maybe a prized possession of the Visitor when alive. Most often, though (73 per cent, according to research conducted by the Rotwell Institute), it’s associated with what the Fittes Manual calls ‘personal organic remains’. You can guess what that means. The point is, you never know until you look.” (pp.45-46)
“An ordinary person might have stood there, helpless, and let the Visitor work its will upon them. But I’m an agent. I’d dealt with this before. So I wrested savage, painful breaths from the frigid air, shook the mist clear of my brain. I forced myself to live. And my hands moved slowly towards the weapons at my belt.” (p.32)
This comes some pages after the woman employing them for the haunting this book opens on worries that they are too young for the job (pp.6-7). I like the agentic self-worth of the narrator; she is obviously young, but considers herself powerful. I like this and I find it interesting, too…
food and childhood
I couldn’t help noticing that these ‘agentic’ youths who are looking after themselves, self-employed and having to protect themselves from the adults of the world… also have a penchant for unhealthy snacks. Do children left to their own devices really always go for doughnuts and biscuits? Food as signifier of childishness… or something… not sure. Some examples of what I’m thinking include:
“Lockwood squeezed my arm. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow. Something will turn up. Let’s get home. I fancy a peanut-butter sandwich.’
I nodded. ‘Cocoa and crisps for me.'” (p.234)
When the VIP John William Fairfax visits… “I ducked back inside, where Lockwood was frantically plumping cushions, and George brushed cake crumbs beneath the sofa. ‘He’s here,’ I hissed.” (p.253)
“A week after our return to London, when we’d slept long and fully recovered from our ordeal, a party was held at 35 Portland Row. It wasn’t a very big party – just the three of us, in fact – but that didn’t stop lockwood & Co. from properly going to town. George ordered in a vast variety of doughnuts from the corner store. I bought some paper streamers, and hung them up around the kitchen. Lockwood returned from a trip to Knightsbridge with two giant wicker hampers, filled with sausage rolls and jellies, pies and cakes, bottles of Coke and ginger ale, and luxuries of all kinds. Once this lot was [-p.431] unloaded, our kitchen virtually disappeared. We sat amid a wonderland of edible delights.” (p.430) [Is the ginger ale a piss-take?!]
adulthood and the captains of industry
The relationship between adults and children in this novel is not a positive one. The narrator’s father died an alcoholic – and their only concern at his death was whether or not he’d return as a ghost (p.68). Her mother was too busy to give a damn. Her first supervisor kills five of her child friends through his neglect and fear – and nearly her, too. He is protected from taking responsibility for his actions by legal mumbo jumbo (pp.80-81). Then once she gets to London, she can’t cut through the red tape (created by that supervisor’s neglect) to get another job. Finally, the main sequence of events described in this novel revolve around adult misbehaviour and adult disregard of children. Inspector Barnes from DEPRAC comes across as stupid and unkind (p.157) and causes half their troubles.
Youth, on the one hand, must live as adults – working the night shifts, going through job interviews, struggling to find work (chapter 6), and struggling to keep it etc.. The experience of one’s first job is unquestionably part of childhood in this world, but Lucy still describes Lockwood’s house as ‘puzzling’ – “a large house, filled with expensive, grown-up things, and yet there were no adults present anywhere.” (p.104)
Adults are entirely dismissive of the young, though – in spite of their need of them in this ghostly climate. After they set fire to a house they were supposed to be clearing of ghosts, a very negative piece is run in The Times on them, much of the criticism focusing on their youth (in spite of the youthfulness of this industry): “In the Problem Pages where prominent hauntings were covered daily, an article entitled INDEPENDENT AGENCIES: MORE CONTROL NEEDED? described how an investigation carried out by Lockwood & Co. (‘an independent outfit run by juveniles’) had resulted in a dangerous, destructive blaze.It was clearly implied that Lockwood had lost control. At the end of the piece a spokeswoman for the giant Fittes Agency was quoted. She recommended ‘adult supervision’ for nearly all psychical investigations.” (p184)
There is also some connection, in my mind, behind the failings of bureacracy, industrialisation and centralised government (in caring for the community) and the failings of adults in caring for children. Passages that caught my eye:
“It was generally accepted that the Problem afflicting the British Isles was a bad thing for the economy. The dead returning to haunt the living, apparitions after dark – these things had consequences. Morale and productivity were low. No one wanted late shifts. In winter, businesses closed mid-afternoon. But some companies did flourish, because they fulfilled a vital need. One of these was Fairfax Iron.
Already a leading manufacturer of iron products when the crisis began, Fairfax Iron had immediately set about supplying seals, filings and chains to the Fittes and Rotwell agencies. As the Problem worsened, and the government began to mass-produce ghost-lamps, it was Fairfax Iron that provided the vast quantities of metal required. This alone secured the [-p.253] company’s fortune. But of course there was more. Those ugly iron gnomes that people dotted around their gardens? Those naff ProtectoTM necklaces? Those little plastic bracelets with the smiley iron faces they put on babies’ wrists before they left the hospital? Fairfax products, every one.
The company’s owner, John William Fairfax, was in consequence one of the richest men in the country, up there with the silver barons, with the heirs of Marissa Fittes and Tom Rotwell, and with that bloke who owns the great lavender farms on the Linconshire Wolds. He lived somewhere in London, and when he snapped his fingers, the ministers of whichever government was currently in office scampered hot-foot to his house.” (p.252)
This theme of power, prestige, and the tanglings of bureacracy and central government are familiar from the Bartimaeus books, but here they connect with the failings of adulthood in some way. Interesting (interesting also SPOILER that Fairfax turns out to be one of the adult villains who threaten the survival of our young heroes.)
It’s a theme tangled with ‘the Problem’ itself; explaining the origins of the Problem, our narrator states: “In those days, ghosts were fairly rare. Now we’ve got an epidemic. So it seems pretty obvious to me that the Problem’s different to what went before. Something strange and new did start happening around fifty or sixty years ago and no one’s got a damn clue why.
If you look in old newspapers, like George does all the time, you can find mention of scattered ghostly sightings cropping up in Kent and Sussex around the middle of the last century. But it was a decade or so later that a bloody series of cases, such as the Highgate Terror and the Mud Lane Phantom, attracted serious attention. In each instance, a [-p.67] sudden outbreak of supernatural phenomena was followed by a number of gruesome deaths. Conventional investigations came to nothing, and one or two policemen also died. At last two young researchers, Tom Rotwell and Marissa Fittes, managed to trace each haunting to its respective Source (in the case of the Terror, a bricked-up skull; in that of the Phantom, a highwayman’s body staked out at a crossroads). Their success drew great acclaim, and for the first time the existence of Visitors was firmly imprinted on the public mind.
In the years that followed, many other hauntings started to come to light, first in London and the south, then slowly spreading across the country. An atmosphere of widespread panic developed. There were riots and demonstrations; churches and mosques did excellent business as people sought to save their souls. Soon both Fittes and Rotwell launched psychical agencies to cope with the demand, leading the way for a host of lesser rivals. Finally the government itself took action, issuing curfews at nightfall, and rolling out production of ghost-lamps in major cities.
None of this actually solved the Problem, of course. The best that could be said was that, as time passed, the country got used to living with the new reality. Adult citizens kept their heads down, made sure their houses were well stocked with iron, and left it to the agencies to contain the supernatural threat. The agencies, in turn, sought the best operatives. And because extreme psychic sensitivity is almost [-p.68] exclusively found in the very young, this meant that whole generations of children like me found themselves becoming part of the front line.” (pp.66-68)
“He tossed the magazine across. It consisted of endless photographs of smartly dressed men and women preening in crowded rooms. ‘You’d think the Problem would make people consider their immortal souls,’ Lockwood said. ‘But for the rich, it’s had the opposite effect. They go out, dress up, spend all night dancing in a sealed hotel somewhere, thrilling with horror at the thought of Visitors lurking outside… That party there was thrown last week by DEPRAC, the Department of Psychical Research and Control. The heads of all the most important agencies were there.'” (p.128) [NB this is when we get our first impression of DEPRAC, and the negative image is later accentuated by the difficulties caused for our heroes by DEPRAC Inspector Barnes.]
“We ducked out across the road, stepping over the open drain, or ‘runnel’, of running water that separated the pavement from the tarmac. The wandering dead were known to dislike moving water; consequently narrow runnels crisscrossed many of the great shopping streets in the West End, allowing people to walk in safety well into the evening. Earlier governments had hoped to extend this system across the city, but it had proved prohibitively expensive. Aside from ghost-lamps, the suburbs fended for themselves.” (p.198)
Examining old editions of the Richmond Examiner, the narrator comments: “I soon found it contained more local fetes, lost cats and best-kept allotment competitions than I could have believed existed in the universe. There was quite a bit about the Problem too, the nature of which was beginning to be discussed. I found early calls for ghost-lamps to be erected (they eventually were) and for graveyards to be bulldozed and salt-sown (they weren’t: it was far too expensive and controversial; instead they were simply ringed with iron).” (p.202)
The adult supervisors are clearly of little to no use in this book. In fact, the narrator’s first supervisor gets five of her friends killed. She refers to another supervisor later in the following terms: “He had four or five [-p.204] medals pinned to the breast of his jacket, and in the pommel of his rapier was a glittering green stone. Not that he could use the sword much these days. I guessed he was about twenty, so his days of active service were behind him. His Talent had mostly shrivelled up and gone. Like my old leader, Jacobs, and all the other useless supervisors choking the industry, all he could do now was boss the kids around.” (pp.203-24)
[On the subject of useless supervisors, NB also p.423]
In their final moments with Fairfax, she shows him as a captain of industry who was murderous behind doors: “I was watching the old man’s face as I spoke; I saw how his eyes drew tight in pleasure, how his mouth curled sensuously into a secretive half-smile. And something about the expression, fleeting as it was, opened a cracked and dirty window for me onto his truest, deepest nature. It was something he generally kept hidden beneath the bluff, bombastic veneer of the captain of industry; it even underlay the dry regret of his long confession.” (p.414)
In the end, however, Fairfax is not exposed to be a murderer and the government agency do a coverup to avoid scandal: “‘I’m just sorry,’ I said after a while, ‘that Barnes made you lie about Fairfax. He should have been publicly revealed for what he was.’
‘I couldn’t agree more,’ Lockwood said, ‘but we’re talking about a very powerful family here, and one of the most important companies in England. If their top man were exposed as a murderer and scoundrel, there’d have been [-p.432] terrible repercussions. And with the Problem worsening daily, that’s not something DEPRAC was prepared to consider.” (pp.431-432) This does all cause Lucy, the narrator to “wonder what else DEPRAC’s concealing” (p.432) – something that may be teased out in a second book?….
Stories and research
There is also another, more minor, theme that interests me – the use of stories and the importance of research in the outcome of events in this world. NB, research: pp. 140-147; 204; 211; 390
stories, eg.: 189, the many newspaper articles, etc.
Ref: (italics in original) Jonathan Stroud (2013) The Screaming Staircase. Doubleday: London