The Whispering Skull
Review posted October 8, 2014.
Disney Hyperion, Los Angeles, 2014. 435 pages.
2014 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 Children's Fiction
I was so looking forward to this sequel to The Screaming Staircase, I preordered the book as soon as I heard its publication date. And I was not disappointed.
Jonathan Stroud is a genius for plotting. This book again intertwines many plot threads. We’re back with the 3-person (3-child) agency Lockwood & Co., in an alternate reality England where ghosts plague the populace. Lucy continues to narrate, and in this book she continues to hear from the skull-in-a-jar that George stole when he was working for the Fittes agency.
It is highly unusual for someone to be able to talk with a ghost. This is a Type Three ghost, and only one other Sensitive was ever able to do it. So this could bring Lucy and their agency fame and fortune. But is it worth it? The skull gives them information that almost gets them killed, and it sows doubts in Lucy’s mind about Lockwood and that door he asked them never to open.
Then there are, of course, the cases. The ones in this book are even more gruesome and frightening than the ones in the earlier book. Kids with an especially vivid imagination might want to stay away. Kids who like scary books, however, will be delighted. Mention that a ghost starts falling apart and forming ghost-rats that attack them. If they think they like the sound of reading about that, this is the book for them!
There’s also a rivalry with another agency – and a bet as to which one can solve the case first. There’s the usual fun banter between Lockwood and Lucy and George. (And George shines in this volume, I must say.)
But the meat of the book is the mystery. Who stole the Bone Glass, and what does it do? And can they get it back, yet stay alive?
This is yet another example of Jonathan Stroud’s superb writing. Even though I had my own copy, I checked out the library’s copy so I could read it on my lunch breaks. This is absorbing, clever, innovative, and completely delightful reading.
To give you the flavor, here’s a bit from a scene right at the start, where Lockwood & Co. get in a little over their heads:
“It’s getting close to the barrier,” I said.
“It’s really horrible.”
“Well, mine’s lost both hands. Beat that.”
Lockwood sounded relaxed, but that was nothing new. Lockwood always sounds relaxed. Or almost always: that time we opened Mrs. Barrett’s tomb – he was definitely flustered then, though that was mainly due to the claw marks on his nice new coat. I stole a quick sidelong glance at him now. He was standing with his sword held ready: tall, slim, as nonchalant as ever, watching the slow approach of the second Visitor. The lantern light played on his thin, pale face, catching the elegant outline of his nose, and his flop of ruffled hair. He wore that slight half-smile he reserved for dangerous situations: the kind of smile that suggests complete command. His coat flapped slightly in the night breeze. As usual, just looking at him gave me confidence. I gripped my sword tightly and turned back to watch my ghost.
And found it right there beside the chains. Soundless, swift as thinking, it had darted in as soon as I’d looked away.
I swung the rapier up.
The mouth gaped, the sockets flared with greenish fire. With terrible speed, it flung itself forward. I screamed, jumped back. The ghost collided with the barrier a few inches from my face. A bang, a splash of ectoplasm. Burning flecks rained down on the muddy grass outside the circle. Now the pale figure was ten feet farther off, quivering and steaming.
There you have it: Plenty of adventure, danger from entities living and dead, swordplay, ghosts, mysteries and murders. This will appeal to many for its clever plotting, but is not for the faint of heart.