The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1)(12)

by Jonathan Stroud

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.

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 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 exclusively found in the very young, this meant that whole generations of children like me found themselves becoming part of the front line.

I was born Lucy Joan Carlyle in the fourth official decade of the Problem, when it had already spread across the whole of our islands, and even the smallest towns had their ghost-lamps and all villages their warning bell. My father was a porter in the railway station of a little town in the north of England, a place of slate roofs and stone walls, set tight amongst green hills. He was a small, red-faced man, bent-backed, sinewy, and hairy as an ape. His breath smelled of strong brown beer, and his hands were hard and swift to punish any of his children who disturbed his usual taciturn indifference. If he ever called me by name, I don’t recall it; he was a distant and arbitrary force. After he fell under a train when I was five years old, my only real emotion was fear that we might not be done with him. In the event, the government’s new Untimely Death regulations were followed to the letter. The priests scattered iron on the tracks where the accident occurred; they put silver coins on the corpse’s eyes; they hung an iron charm around its neck to break the connection with his ghost. These precautions did the job fine. He never came back. Even if he had, my mother said, it wouldn’t have caused us any problems. He’d only have haunted the local pub.

By day I went to school in a little concrete building set above the river on the outskirts of the town. In the afternoon I played in the water meadows or in the park, but always kept an ear out for the curfew bells, and was back safe in our cottage before the sun had fully gone. Once home, I helped set up the defences. It was my job to place the lavender candles on the sills and check the hanging charms. My elder sisters lit the lights and poured fresh water in the channel that ran beneath the porch. All would then be ready for when our mother bustled in, just as night was falling.

My mother (think large, pink and harassed) washed laundry at the town’s two small hotels. What active maternal affection she possessed had largely been eroded by work and weariness, and she had little energy to spare for her brood of girls, of whom I was the seventh and the last. By day she was mostly out; after dark, she sat slumped in a haze of lavender smoke, silently watching TV. She seldom paid me any attention whatsoever, and for the most part left me to the care of my elder sisters. My only real point of interest to her lay in how I might eventually pay my way.

Everyone knew, you see, that there was Talent running in my family. My mother had seen ghosts in her youth, while two of my sisters had sufficient Sight to get jobs with the night watch in the city of Newcastle, thirty miles away. None of them, however, had actually been agency material. From the first it was obvious that I was different. I had unusual sensitivity to matters relating to the Problem.

Once, I guess when I was six, I was playing in the water meadows with my favourite sister, Mary, who was the closest to me in age. We lost her football among the rushes and hunted for it a long time. When finally we found it, wedged deep in the roots and sticky amber mud, the light was almost gone. So we were still trailing back along the path beside the river when the bell sounded across the fields.

Mary and I looked at each other. Since infancy, we had been warned what might happen to us if we stayed out after dark. Mary began to cry.

But I was a plucky little girl, small and dark and dauntless. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘It’s early yet, so they’re still as weak as babes. If there are any about round here, which I doubt.’

‘It’s not just that,’ my sister said. ‘It’s Mam. She’ll beat me sore.’

‘Well, she’ll beat me too.’

‘I’m older than you. She’ll beat me awful sore. You’ll be all right, Lucy.’

Privately I doubted this. Our mother washed sheets nine hours a day, mostly by hand, and had forearms as vast as pig’s thighs. One smack from her and your bottom vibrated for a week. We hurried on in gloomy silence.