12 February 2014

The Haunted Craft

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud (pp 464, Doubleday 2013)*

There is so much in this novel to acclaim. Several devices Stroud uses deserve exposition. This review aims to satisfy both.

1. Introduction

If you are like me and hate spoilers, the few details I include below might anger you. This, then, is a mild-spoiler warning: I try not to discuss unguessable plot elements; but I mention important details readers may want to discover personally. I analyse some devices Stroud uses to construct the proper atmosphere and ensure his words spill physically into the reader's imagination but I do so with minimal reference to the text. This may cause ambiguity. But any who read the book--and I advise it--will soon see what I mean anyway.

2. Craft

I talk a little now about the writing craft and Stroud's skill with its tools. The Screaming Staircase is built in such smooth incremental steps that only those searching actively for its building blocks will notice them.

Fictional stories must be coherent. Every fantastical element, every unreal or surreal feature, must make sense between the first and last pages. If an author achieves that, disbelief can be suspended long enough for readers to feel immersed and involved. This is not a new idea. But it is rarely executed well. Stroud belongs in that rare group.

2.1 Contrast

One technique Stroud uses is contrast. To build a credible world-foundation, Stroud offers relatable details readers will be intimate with--hot cups of tea, fields of wildflowers, and the hanging suspense during twilight as evening deepens into night. As he adds this imagery the reader feels secure, reassured that Lucy's world is solid.

Lucy is the main protagonist. Her adventures raise careful juxtapositions between dusky landscapes’ familiar serenity and the stalking fears she faces. Stroud writes: "It's a pretty place of wild flowers" (p 72). This nostalgic phrase is destroyed in its very iteration because the reader knows the flora grows only where plants are not trodden. Where Lucy lives, where there is no traffic to tread on plants, it is unsafe. Stroud, then, sets up the reasons for the reader's later fears by ensuring even the most wonderful images are haunting.

2.2 Suspense

To conjure fear equally with safety means readers are easily shocked. Stroud's technique allows him to raise unexpected emotions. On many pages, one's lips twitch at the corners, ready to smile in triumph. On fewer pages those smiles are allowed to be grins because Lucy and her friends overcome a conflict. It does not take long to realise, however, that Stroud is unafraid to deflate expectations: one is never certain that victory will be Lucy's. This creates suspense throughout the novel because defeat is always suspected.

2.3 Character Arcs and Empathy

Another device to reinforce this tense emotional meandering is written into the characters. Lucy is not arrogant. In other stories, protagonists are sometimes allowed to be arrogant because the writer knows there will be no killing-off, no tragedy to strike the hero. This is not true of The Screaming Staircase.

Although the brilliant structure makes it obvious Stroud is in control throughout, his penmanship gives the impression the characters are never in control: instead they are real people who must choose between impossible options and are ultimately governed by forces stronger than each individual.

This promotes empathy, and readers will find they care what happens to the characters. When readers care, any turbulence feels much bigger and rumbles throatier than just a few printed words. The plot, then, is a tense one and the book is difficult to put down.

3. Conclusion

As a final point, I am considered to be an adult now. But that arbitrary distinction did not inhibit my enjoyment of this novel, which is tense, scary, and funny. Lucy's is an adventure in a world so familiar, though inevitably strange, that one cannot help wishing to join her, hoping it is possible, and worrying that both might happen.

*I received The Screaming Staircase for free as a review copy.

Created: 2 February 2014. Version 1.0.

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