Author Jonathan Stroud on 'ghastly phantoms and sword-wielding kids'

Author Jonathan Stroud on 'ghastly phantoms and sword-wielding kids'

14th May 2014 < Back

I’ve never seen a ghost. That’s the first confession. As an author, you’re supposed to write about ‘what you know’, so maybe I’m on shaky ground with my new Young Adult paranormal thriller series, Lockwood & Co. I’ve yet to see a grey lady drifting along a midnight corridor, or witness a wild hunt passing above me through the darkling sky. No wan-faced, black-eyed ghoul has ever waylaid me by a graveyard, and as for the stealthy, dishevelled forms creeping up to my bedside in the dead hours of the night, they’ve always turned out to be my kids.

Ah well, you can’t have everything. And in fact there are some stories – if not of ghosts, then certainly of psychic sensitivity – in my family. A great-uncle, for example, who when walking to school in the early years of the 20th century, refused to pass a certain cottage by the roadside (a cottage that he went by every day). Subsequently it was discovered that a man had hung himself inside the house that morning, and was swinging in the dark at the very moment that the boy drew near. Then there’s the story of how my great-grandmother woke up one day in sudden mortal fear for the life of my sea-faring grandfather, who was on board a merchant ship half a world away; and how a telegram later informed her that he had been badly injured that morning when a crate fell from its moorings and smashed into the deck beside him. 

Still, no bona fide ghosts, exactly. So, although these family traditions helped inspire my love of the eerie and the weird, when it comes to actual research for my book of supernatural adventures, I’ve had to go a little further afield. 

The first thing I consulted, of course, is the great literary tradition. English Lit is well supplied with superb proponents of the chilling tale. You only have to dip into the collected works of M R James, J S le Fanu and Algernon Blackwood to get a broad cross-section of most of the effects that are possible with the form. James in particular is a master at suggesting an infinity of horror in the smallest, sparsest detail. Henry James weighs in too, at greater length and verbosity, with the brilliant Turn of the Screw, which showcases the psychological ambiguities latent in all supernatural fiction. It’s suggestive that these classics are all (at least) a century old; ghost-story writers since then may have elaborated on the possibilities laid down by these forebears, but have seldom broken truly new ground. Perhaps partly this is down to the limitations of the short story structure; perhaps it’s because there are only so many ways of being scared.

With Lockwood & Co, I’ve tried to recapture the richness and potency of these old-style ghost tales, but do it in a fresh new way. Instead of going for short stories, I’ve chosen novels; instead of the essentially isolated horror and dread of the traditional fictional experience, I’ve embedded each separate haunting into a wider scheme. In fact, in The Screaming Staircase, the first book in the series, we’ve got a veritable epidemic of ghosts across Britain. Euphemistically known as the Problem, it’s been steadily worsening for two generations; more and more shades and spectres are returning, and no one knows why. What they do know is that ghost-touch is fatal, and that adults have trouble detecting spirits before it’s too late. Some children, however, can see and hear the ‘Visitors’, and so they’ve become the workforce on which the many competing psychic agencies rely. Kids risk their lives by entering haunted properties and disposing of the dangers there. 

Jonathan Stroud tells us more about 'The Problem':

Our three heroes, Lockwood, Lucy and George, are unusual, however, in that they work independently and aren’t in thrall to adult supervision. And the equipment they use owes a debt to a second strand of ghostly lore, which is rather different from the literary – the folkloric tradition. For hundreds of years certain materials have been thought to ward off ghosts and evil magic; foremost among them are iron, silver, salt and running water. Local legends and common superstitions testify to the power of all these substances, and using them (in modified form) inside my created world brings (I hope) a robustness and solidity to proceedings. Lockwood and his friends carry iron swords to deter spectral embraces; they use protective iron chains to stand within, or to hem an enemy in. Salt bombs and silver objects help to suppress the ghosts, and explosive flares, filled with iron and magnesium, are there too to use in desperate straits. Having methods of defence available to my characters changes the feel of the book: instead of the helplessness, morbidity and dread you get with the classic ghost tale (where, more often and not, the ghost wins), here there’s at least a chance the outcome could go the other way. For this reason I think Lockwood & Co. sits as much in the thriller/adventure genre as it does in supernatural fiction.  

Watch the trailer for Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase:

Having a wider context for each haunting broadens the tone of the book too, and here I mine a fourth kind of inspiration. Whenever Lucy or Lockwood go off on a new case, the claustrophobia and terror they experience conjures the feel of a traditional ghost tale; when they get home, however, and have to deal with the attentions of rivals, or of irritating bureaucrats who dislike their adult-free status; whenever they start worrying whether the job they do is really worth it, or simply begin arguing amongst themselves about whose turn it is to do the washing-up, we’re mixing the fantasy with details that are much more mundane and everyday.

Paradoxically, including these commonplace experiences gives solidity to the ghosts. It draws the whole invented world close to ours, makes everything feel more real. As a writer, too, it gives me something reassuringly grounded to build upon. Alongside the family inspirations, the literary influences and the folkloric traditions, it’s actually the everyday emotions and frustrations of ordinary relationships that I’m focusing on here. So perhaps the old adage does remain true, after all. Ghastly phantoms and sword-wielding kids aside, I am writing about familiar things. I’m writing about what I know.

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