The Creeping Shadow
Lockwood & Co. (#4)
by Jonathan Stroud
Middle Grade (8-12 and up)
Only Jonathan Stroud can make 450 pages go by this quickly. Why, it’s barely a drop… in a bucket of blood. This guy is a master of storytelling. He conveys character through the thoughts that someone might have if for instance, they had a crush on their former boss… but didn’t want to admit it to themselves. He creates suspense through the clear and present danger of ghost touch and a mystery dwelling below the surface: why are the founders of ghost hunting keeping all their revolutionary new devices and research secret? Could they actually be involved in unethical experimentation?
In the fourth book about Lockwood and Co., Lucy Carlyle has gone solo as a freelance agent, fearing that her relationship with Lockwood may be his undoing. She hears by chance from Flo Bones, (a homeless young woman who walks the strand,) that there is suddenly a big demand for very strong artifacts in the relic black market. In fact, she says a mummified head was sold just last night. One much like Emma Marchment’s gallows head, a source Lucy recognizes from a job she only just completed on retainer from The Rotwell Agency.
Lucy immediately confronts the one who is responsible… when her companion skull is stolen right out of her apartment to be sold on the booming black market. The boy, one Harold Mailer, who let objects slip out the back door of the ghost-cleansing Fittes Furnaces, agrees (under duress) to meet with his contacts so that Lucy might tail them and learn more. They meet at the agreed upon spot… but Harold is dead! Jumped and chased by thugs bent on her murder, Lucy is in over her head! There is only one place she can turn for help.
“You did this.” Its fingers stroked the air close to my skin. I flinched away. Ice blistered across my cheek. I could feel it building across the hollow of my eye. My mind hurt; my grip closed on the hilt of my rapier.
“No, Harold. Please don’t–”
“It is at the place of blood.”
Lockwood & Lucy go undercover to retrieve the skull, and fail, almost getting killed– but they do discover that one Mr. Johnson from the Rotwell Institute is behind the Winkmans’ popular new underground artifact auction. Rotwell’s Institute designs ghost detectors for adults for commercial use, staying ahead of the curve in paranormal research and development. (Though they don’t always work quite as well as a ghost hunter might hope.)
After walking away from his revered and beloved Fittes Agency, despondent over his recent loss of ability to see the undead, Quill Kipps is invited along on Lockwood’s new case. Things begin to come together when the agency investigates a town besieged with ghost activity. Danny Skinner begs Lockwood & Co. to come to the village of Aldbury Castle– so many people are dying, the wave of manifestations somehow tied to a “creeping shadow” that collects souls! Recalling that The Hollow Boy scenario had been caused by mysterious somebodies experimenting with opening a portal through the use of psychically charged bones, Lockwood asks what if someone, some… research agency, had collected the most powerful artifacts known and created a similar, but larger, circle?
Inside: a large dark object, like an irregular-shaped soccer ball, heavily spun with cobwebs, and with spiders crawling on its surface. It was furry with dist and age.
“Oh,” I said. “A head.”
“Yep. Old. Mummified. Nice.”
Still, there seems to be a bigger mystery surrounding these goings on. We know that The Empty Grave will be the last book in the Lockwood & Co. Series. Will it reveal how “The Problem” originally started? Stroud has dropped a lot of potential clues, from Lyre of the Orpheus Society, of whom Marissa Fittes is a member, to the looming unfinished puzzle of Lockwood’s sister. During the adventure, Lockwood discovers new tools of the trade in his arsenal: objects his parents brought back from their days of exploration stored… in his sister’s room.
The opening scene was delightfully frightening with a witch who keeps a mummified head as a source of power, and later the horrifying imagery of a jar of teeth hidden behind the cabinets of a serial killer’s abandoned house adds to the frisson. It feels great to see Quill Kipps back, not only in action, but being welcomed into the team, fallen, and forgiven. This entry in Stroud’s haunted overture of horror holds up to its predecessors and promises more to come.