The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud

Three young teenagers sent to spend the night in an extremely haunted house that no one’s survived, a house with a room that bleeds and a screaming (obviously) staircase. What could possibly go wrong?

Fifty years ago, ghosts came back. Well, they’d always been around, sort of, but now they’re back in massive numbers, and they’re dangerous–they kill people. No one’s sure why they’re back, but exorcism is big business–so big, in fact, that there are agencies specially set up specifically to deal with The Problem. Oh, but there’s one slight catch: only kids can see ghosts. Once they age out, they’re useless, so they start training young.

Enter Lockwood & Co., London’s smallest ghost investigation agency. It’s made up of Anthony Lockwood, the leader; George Cubbins, the obnoxious, slappable know-it-all; and Lucy Carlyle, the newest recruit. Lockwood and Lucy are investigating an ordinary (or is it?) house haunting when things to terribly wrong. The house burns down, Lockwood gets taken off in an ambulance, and the homeowners are demanding reparations: £60,000 in four weeks, or their agency is getting shut down. They don’t have that kind of money; and to make things worse, after the whole fire debacle no one’s hiring them.

Then fortune smiles upon them: an extremely wealthy man asks them to investigate his manor, Combe Carey Hall. It’s the most haunted house in Britain, and no one’s survived the night in the west wing of the house. One of the rooms bleeds, there’s a staircase that screams, it’s dangerous and mysterious and just what they need–Fairfax is willing to pay them enough to save the agency.  They’re desperate for the money, but can they survive the night in a house that wants them dead?

I don’t know about you, but I love children in peril stories, and this book is so much fun. It’s a supernatural thriller with a good story, better characters, and a great mythology. Over a dozen types of ghosts populate the pages, all of them familiar but with a new, more sinister edge. Oh, and just a FYI: it’s classified as a kids book, but don’t let that throw you off. Johnny TremainThe Wizard of Oz, and Treasure Island are all technically kid’s books as well. It’s well-written and engaging, and if you’re looking for a ghost story, a thrill, or just something highly entertaining, give The Screaming Staircase a try.

Favorite Line:

“Oh, he’d sue us, all right,” Lockwood agreed. “But who cares?”

Don’t read if: you can’t stand rapiers, salt bombs, skulls in jars, lockets, or that one guy who always eats all the donuts.

 

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

Sunshine’s in trouble. Big trouble. I mean, she’s chained to a wall in an abandoned house, food for the vampire in the room. Except, wait. He’s chained to the wall, too…

Years back, the Voodoo Wars happened: The Others (vampires, Weres, etc) rose up against the humans. Humanity won, mostly, and now there’s an uneasy peace, but there’s always a fear that the violence might start up again.

Rae Seddon (Sunshine to her friends) is a coffeehouse baker, and she likes her life. She likes her friends, her apartment, her job, her family (well, mostly); but one night she just wants some peace. So she heads out to the old cabin her grandmother owned, out at the lake. It wasn’t as dumb an idea as it sounds: after all, she’d gone there a lot as a kid, and since the Wars things had been pretty quiet there. But something went horribly wrong, and now she’s wearing a ridiculous dress and chained to a wall, waiting to become the vampire’s next meal.

Except he has no interest in food. He’s a prisoner, too, and refuses to give their captors the satisfaction, and he and Sunshine manage to escape. In daylight.

A vampire. In daylight. And it’s all Sunshine’s doing…

Anyway, after they get back to civilization, they part ways and never expect to see each other again. All she wants is to go back to her old life and pretend the whole chained-to-a-wall thing was just a bad dream. But their captors know something happened, something beyond a simple escape, and they want to know precisely what they missed. And now Sunshine’s a target, and it’s going to take everything she has to get out of this alive.

I love this book. It’s kinda dark and moody and the world is fascinating. Sunshine is a great heroine–reluctant but determined. It’s a vampire book without really being about the vampires. It’s the story of a young woman who gets stuck in a terrible situation, doing her best to get out of it, who just wants life to go back to normal. Be warned, though: it’s not a YA and in a few places it’s darker than most other vampire books out there.

McKinley’s long been a favorite author of mine, for her ordinary heroes who don’t really want to be heroes, but do it anyway because someone has to; for her female protagonists who are resilient and capable and have agency; for the atmosphere and history and realism of the world-building. Her ability to write books where you know the world existed before the story began, and will continue after the story ends, is absolutely incredible. I really hope you give this book, and all the rest of her work, a try.

Favorite Line:

I wondered what you’d have on the side with a plate of Deep Fried Anxiety. Pickles? Coleslaw? Potato-strychnine mash?

Don’t read if: you dislike baked goods, table knives, ugly vampires, mysterious landladies, or wounds that won’t stop bleeding.

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

No good deed goes unpunished, as poor Richard is about to find out…

Richard Mayhew is just a guy–a normal, ordinary, run-of-the-mill guy with really nothing very special about him. Nothing, that is, except one thing: he helps a girl he spots broken and bleeding on the street. But he doesn’t really think anything of it; why would he? He just did what any decent, ordinary person would do. Right? Right?

Yeah, no. The next day his whole world falls apart. The house agents are showing his apartment to prospective tenants, his fiance can barely remember him, his coworkers have no idea who he is. Bewildered and upset, he tracks back to the last person he knows for sure saw him: the injured girl, named Door. As it turns out, his invisibility’s a side effect of sorts, one he picked up by helping her in the first place: she comes from London Below, the other London, the one that fell through the cracks, that people forgot about. And by helping one of its denizens, he’s become all but invisible, too.

Door tells him that he can be returned to London Above, but first she’s got more pressing problems: someone’s after her, and whoever they are, they’re dangerous. They’ve already taken out her family; she’s the only one left. She’s heading out with a couple of allies to find an angel, the Angel; since the Angel is the guardian of all of London Below, if anyone would have some insight as to who would want her dead (and why), it’s him. Richard, still a bit befuddled and a lot upset over his whole situation, tags along, seeing as how he literally has nothing to go back to.

I know I say this all the time, but I really do love this book. The contrast between a completely ordinary schmo like Richard and the bizarre, funhouse-mirror world of London below is wonderful and eerie in equal measure. It’s clever and brilliant and very, very different from anything you may have read before.

Will Door find out who killed her family? Can Richard get his old life back? Just how scary is Knightsbridge, anyway? Pick up a copy of Neverwhere, and join them as they journey through a London made not of concrete or steel, but rather of darkness and dreams.

Favorite Line:

Mind the Gap.

Don’t read if: you don’t like anthropomorphic personification, being underground, riding the Underground, or London in general.

The Alienist, by Caleb Carr

As a crime reporter for the New York Times, John Moore has seen the darkest side of humanity–or so he thought until one night in March 1896, when a frenzied pounding at his door summoned him to a murder scene worse than anything he could imagine: a boy, a child prostitute, bound and horribly mutilated atop the Williamsburg Bridge. The worst part? This is the third such body so far this year.

The police commissioner is appalled. So much so that he decides to appoint a handpicked group to investigate the murders; a group separate from the notoriously corrupt Division of Detectives–a group that actually cares about the deaths of ignored, desperate children working a job most of society refuses to acknowledge could ever exist.

So John, a pair of Jewish brothers, and the NYPD’s first female secretary team up under the leadership of one of New York’s most controversial figures: Dr. Laszlo Kreizler.

Kreizler is an alienist–what we would nowadays call a psychiatrist (back then people with mental illnesses were considered “alienated” from themselves, and so the doctors who treated them were known as alienists.). A strong advocate of nurture over nature, Kreizler believes the group can come to understand the motivations of the killer by examining the dead and working backwards to establish patterns, and then using those patterns to find the killer’s identity.

John believes they stand a good chance of solving the murders, but powerful people are standing in their way–witnesses are bribed, beaten, threatened into silence. But who is silencing the witnesses? And why? The deeper the team digs, the stronger the pushback becomes, until they themselves are at risk.

I first read this book about twelve years ago, when a friend loaned it to me, telling me I’d love it. He was right. A dark, sometimes graphic, engrossing mystery, it’s got so much historical detail you feel like you’re actually there. Real-life people from history populate the pages of the book; rather than seeming out-of-place or overshadowing the fictional characters, they instead breathe even more life into the setting. Carr does a wonderful job painting a portrait of desperation standing alongside unimaginable wealth; of an hypocritical society determined to ignore its own darker side.

Can Kreizler and Co. find the murderer before another child dies? Before the city’s poor begin to riot? Before one of their own becomes the next victim? The Alienist is a thrilling chase through Gilded Age Manhattan that will leave you breathless.

Favorite Line:

If I’m the danger then I shall remove myself. Let this man keep killing. It’s what they want…without such creatures they’ve no scapegoats for their own wretched brutality!

Don’t read if: you recoil at Teddy Roosevelt, reformed criminal children named Stevie, long meals at Delmonico’s, or nervous grandmothers.