The Problem is growing. Ghosts are becoming more common, hauntings are terrifying people up and down the country. And our only real line of defence is… a bunch of kids.
In a wonderful re-organisation of traditional power structures, grown-ups are now more or less in thrall to young children, the only people able to see and trap the spectral beings that are paralysing life across all levels of society. This is the background to Jonathan Stroud’s fantastic Lockwood & Co. series, following the adventures of a rogue ghost detection agency – not only made up of young people, but managed entirely without adult control. And the problem (for us over 18) is that these children are really very good at what they do.
With this shift of control you already get a sense of how much fun and how appealing Lockwood & Co: The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud (@JonathanAStroud) is going to be. What young person doesn’t love the idea that they have all the answers, and don’t need any grown-up to tell them what to do?
Throw in some clever mysteries to solve, wickedly spine-tingling settings and plots, tremendously satisfying characterization with a rich range of characters, light-touch yet sparklingly sharp writing and a bags and bags of humour, and you’ll see why Lockwood and Co. have taken over our imaginative lives for the past few weeks at Playing by the Book.
The Creeping Shadow happens to be the fourth in the Lockwood & Co. series. (I don’t think you need to have read the others to enjoy this one, though of course it will bring extra depth and understanding to some of the sub-plots and understanding of the characters’ motivations if you have read the previous, equally enjoyable books.) One of Lockwood’s key team members, Lucy, has gone freelance, creating all sorts of tensions in the previously very tight knit bunch of demon detectives.
When a new case arises, which really needs Lucy’s specialist skills, the team somewhat uncomfortably re-forms. In the process of solving a new series of terribly hauntings they discover all sorts of corruption, mismanagement and suspect goings on in the adult world.
Stroud’s writing is simply brilliant. Dry, scalpel-like wit mixes with wonderfully authentic psychological observations, particularly about different types of friendships. Rich settings, so cleverly conjured up without pages and pages of dense description, are the backdrop for a wonderfully rhythmic, pulsing plot. This is definitely one of those books where you’ll read just one more chapter, and then just one more, because you simply “have to” find out what happens next.
For our family, it’s especially delightful to have such a splendid, exciting and complex female lead character shine throughout the book. Lucy does things on her own independent terms, is clever, brave and also flawed, with – it would seem – some dark unanswered questions about her background. It’s also marvellous to see a character, George, who might elsewhere be described as a swot, a geek, and somewhat uncool, play a pivotal role in the success of the ghost-busting team.
Exciting, seriously spooky, and extremely entertaining, Lockwood & Co: The Creeping Shadow is a rewarding and satisfying read that will not only make the hair stand up on the back of your neck but also give you hiccups through so much laughter. How wonderful that it looks like there will be at least one more book in the series; it can’t come soon enough!
Ghost hunter Lucy has a sidekick like no-other: a screaming skull. This is a ghost trapped inside a skull tightly and safely enclosed in a glass jar with a silver seal. It should have been destroyed, along with all other psychic artefacts uncovered by ghost detective agencies, but Lucy has discovered that she is able to hold conversations with the skull (a highly unusual skill) and together they have struck up an extremely unlikely and yet in the hands of Stroud a wickedly genuine friendship.
We wanted our own screaming skulls and so set about making some, seeing as we couldn’t find any trapped ghosts in our neighbourhood.
Cooking apples were our somewhat strange starting point.
First we peeled and carved them into skull-like shapes.
Then we dunked them in a strong lemon/salt solution before drying them out in the oven (at its lowest temperature) overnight.
We then trapped our skulls in a kilner jar, with a little bit of ectoplasm (otherwise known as toy stuffing) and a dash of green food colouring to add a soupcon of spookiness.
Can’t you hear the skull going “MWAHAHAaaaaaaaa!” ??
Having created our own ghostly source, we then thought it a good idea to actually protect ourselves from it. As you discover during reading the Lockwood & Co. books, silver, iron, lavender, and running water all have their uses in keeping spooks at bay. Salt is also extremely useful, either scattered as a line of defence, or used in the form of salt bombs – for throwing at apparitions.
And so it was we turned to making salt bombs. Lavender bath salt bombs, that is. Using this really helpful, super family friendly tutorial from Scientific American we not only had great fun, we actually snuck in some scientific research too – the sort that dear George would have been terribly proud of.
We included epsom salts (the crucial salts for keeping ghosts at bay), and added in both dried lavender flowers and lavender oil (both known ghost deterrents!).
We had a bit of a hard time finding citric acid (we wanted to buy local), but eventually found lots on sale very cheaply in an Indian supermarket.
After all that hard work it was time for a party! Lockwood and his team are rather partial to mints, battenburg cake, biscuits and crisps, so these formed the backbone of our party fare.
You can see how we kept our sources under control with iron chains, plenty of lavender, and even some secretly sourced magnesium flares.
We had a “thinking cloth” to capture messages, comments and doodles as we munched our way through all the goodies. (Lockwood & Co make use of just such a feature in the home they use as their base.)
At one point in Lockwood & Co: The Creeping Shadow one of the ghost-hunting team “had taken a prawn cocktail crisp and was staring at it like it held the mysteries of time and space.” This simple line was enough of a prompt to get us to do more scientific research: DO prawn cocktail crisps hold the mysteries of time and space? Do some varieties hold more mysteries than others?
Partying ended in the appropriate Lockwood & Co manner – with big mugs of hot chocolate.
Whilst taking sources out of the furnace (our carved apple heads), supplying ourselves with salt bombs, and being very serious about prawn cocktail crisps we listened to this music:
If you’re after a full playlist of spooky / halloween themed kid-friendly music, this long list from Zooglobble is the answer to everything!
Other activities which would go well with reading Lockwood & Co: The Creeping Shadow include:
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by its publisher, Corgi Childrens (Puffin).