Starting this blog with a piece about Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series seems appropriate given that it was these books that rekindled my long-dormant interest in the concept of paranormal investigation and ghosts in general. Aside from being well-written and accessible ghost-stories aimed at a younger audience, the books’ somewhat unconventional setting means that we are presented with both literal and thematic hauntings.
First published in 2013, The Screaming Staircase opens on a pair of teenaged ghost-hunters investigating a haunted house. Equipped with swords and a degree of psychic sensitivity, the books’ protagonists creep around the empty house until a ghost reveals itself and proceeds to attack them. Using their swords to keep the ghost at bay, the teens frantically search the house for a physical object that might serve as the ghost’s connection to the world of the living. Destroy the object or sever its connection to the world of the dead and the haunting is resolved.
Thus far, little is atypical for the genre: The book opens with a quite conventional haunted house and Stroud hints at the idea that hauntings might be caused by traumatic events and resolved by the destruction of a psychically-imbued fetish object. The psychodynamic undertones are obvious but the idea that hauntings can be resolved either by destroying significant objects or be severing their connection to an initially inaccessible (un)lifeworld does map quite nicely onto the way that objects remind us of the dead until the moment until they are ‘cleansed’ by their passage through auction houses and charity shops that strip objects of their emotional power by turning once-cherished heirlooms into nothing more than cold hard cash. Aside from being the first of many creative anachronism deployed by Stroud in the series, equipping the ghost-hunters with literal swords rather complicates their symbolism: Stroud’s ghost-hunters are both swashbuckling treasure-hunters and psychotherapists trained to dispose of lingering psychic trauma.
The manner in which fictional ghost-hunters ‘resolve’ hauntings always tell us a lot about the author’s choice of both genre topography and metaphorical heft. One can imagine the author acting as a record producer, sat in front of a huge console and subtly altering the positioning of different sliders in an effort to create different affects and associations. For example, one can imagine both a pulpy version of Lockwood & Co that emphasised the sword-fighting and undead battling of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane but it is also possible to imagine a rural detective version of Lockwood & Co that emphasised digging through local history and coming to terms with the past in the style of Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins. The actual Lockwood & Co books are aimed at a Young Adult audience and so the genre sliders arguably edge a little bit closer to the action/adventure stories of Solomon Kane but Stroud’s novels contain a variety of nods and winks to a number of different occult detectives as the series progresses.
This being said, it would be a mistake to read these books purely for their ghosts. In fact, as we move from book to book, the actual mechanics of the hauntings become somewhat vague as the characters are just as likely to encounter the ghosts of identifiable people (who can only be laid to rest when their ‘issues’ are resolved) as they are inhuman paranormal presences (that can only be defeated by the detonation of silver and salt-based explosives). Far more interesting is the imaginative infrastructure Stroud creates in order to house and contextualise his various paranormal conceits.
Much like Stroud’s earlier (and seemingly more successful) Bartimaeus novels, the Lockwood & Co books are set in a version of London that resembles both the present and the past.
The events of the books take place a number of years after the beginning of an event referred to only as “The Problem”. The Problem is that, every night after dark, spirits of the dead rise from their graves and wander the streets in search of human victims. The books never really delve into how The Problem might have started but it resulted in the British government taking a number of steps to protect the population thereby resulting in the creation of a world significantly different from our own. For example, Stroud frequently describes London terraced housing with artificial streams running along the border of the property in an effort to keep out ghosts. Though somewhat effective, these cosmetic alterations to the London landscape are far from perfect meaning that Stroud’s London locks itself down every night except for trained ghost-hunters and fleets of armoured ghost-proof taxis. Indeed, some of the series’ most striking images involve the books’ teenaged protagonists walking through the empty streets of Central London like survivors of some great apocalypse that plays itself out over and over again with the setting of the Sun.
Aside from these defensive measures, the British government also created a government ministry that oversees a network of private ghost-hunting agencies both large and small. The larger of these agencies recall cyberpunk-style corporations in that the resources at their command easily rival that of governments. In fact, one of the books’ recurring themes is the tension between the individualistic desire for unconstrained capitalism and the realisation that unchecked capitalism naturally leads not only to the creation of monopolies but also the concentration of power in the hands of people with selfish, destructive, and deeply idiosyncratic agendas.
Given that the Lockwood & Co books were written for a Young Adult audience, it is perhaps unsurprising that Stroud came up with a reason for centring his books on a bunch of teenagers. In this case the reason is that while adults can be harmed by ghosts and can ‘feel’ their presence, only children can actually see them well enough to fight them or enter haunted spaces with any degree of safety. This means that while the world of Lockwood & Co is dominated by attempts to constrain The Problem in the style of a public health problem, its safety rests upon child labour.
It would have been easy for Stroud to stress the fantasy upsides of this conceit but aside from revolving around a ghost-hunting business run by teenagers without any form of adult supervision, the books also present the ghost-hunting industry as a site of systemic child endangerment and exploitation. For example, in one of the series’ more striking moments, we are told of how the books’ protagonist Lucy Carlyle started her career as part of a gang under the command of an adult ghost-hunter who, no longer physically capable of seeing ghosts, stands outside haunted houses bellowing instructions to children barely old enough to lift a sword. Deeply reminiscent of Dickens’ Fagin and his gang of teenaged thieves, these images of child exploitation remind us that the world of Lockwood & Co is not our own.
While the presence of children working in dangerous environments and a rich environmental seam of gothic ghost stories may recall both the Victorian period and the weirdly anachronistic Victorian nostalgia that British culture attaches to the ghost story genre, the world of Lockwood & Co feels a lot closer to the 1950s in terms of its economic landscapes. For example, the third book in the series The Hollow Boy is set in a version of Chelsea where the residential and commercial areas surrounding Sloane Square feature the kinds of factories and power stations that were mostly shut down by the 1970s. Similarly, the second book in the series The Whispering Skull features an outdoor rally that blends the overtly nationalistic pageantry of the post-war era with the kind of private utility companies you would associate with the wave of austerity-fuelled privatisations that followed the 2008 crash. Add to this the conspicuous lack of a British Empire and any mention of foreign wars and you have a setting that sits somewhere between a 1950s genre-bending Socialist science fiction dystopia warning us against the perils of privatisation and a weirdly nostalgic Bennite fantasy in which a re-industrialised and self-contained Britain overcomes an existential crisis without the need for either Colonialism or Globalisation.
The Lockwood & Co books fascinate because their evocative and exciting foreground ghost-hunting serves as a sort delivery vector for a set of background hauntings that are far more troubling than the kinds of undead nasties that are kept at bay with flashing steel. The fact that the world of Lockwood & Co recalls the 1950s and takes place at least a decade into The Problem suggests that the ghosts might have begun the emerge in the 1940s suggesting in turn that the events of Lockwood & Co should be read as post-War.
One of the most striking things about Noir crime fiction is that while that literary landscape tends to be littered with emotionally constipated men who explode into violence at the drop of a hat, relatively few books dare to acknowledge that most of these characters would not just have fought in foreign wars but would have been trained to kill by their governments and forced to endure unimaginable psychological trauma for months and years at a time. While I may not be the most stereotypically masculine of men, I do not carry a gun, I do not expect other people to be armed, and I have never once pistol-whipped someone into submission. The fact that a lot of Noir fails to acknowledge its uniquely post-War status speaks not only to the traumatised status of many World War II veterans, but also to the fact that these people had grown so accustomed to violence and psychopathic cruelty that they naturally saw these things as ‘realistic’ characteristics of their worlds. To read 1950s crime novels now is to be like an adult in the Lockwood novels: We can be affected by the ghosts of World War II, we can sense their presence, but we cannot see them as we were born at the wrong time.
The teenaged characters of Lockwood & Co are all too young to have lived through World War II and the fact that they are all veteran ghost-hunters by their mid-teens suggests that their schooling was extraordinarily limited by contemporary standards. They are literally haunted by ghosts brought forth by some vast psychic trauma not only because they make their living by dealing with the symptoms of repressed trauma, but also because they have grown up in a world made to accommodate the phenomenon of mass haunting.
The source of the problem is unidentified for much the same reason as the trauma of war is absent from the pages of Noir fiction: Those who had direct experienced the savagery refuse to acknowledge the source of the trauma and so the next generation inherits it in the form of a violently disembodied and decontextualized trauma. They must arm themselves or surrender the streets… their world is both literally and metaphorically haunted in the sense that everything from employment law to street lighting is shaped by things that are not alive and yet somehow continue to exist.