Imogen's Book of the Week: The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud, published by Random House
My Sunday Best this week is a super-creepy third instalment in a series that has held me transfixed since the first book came out two years ago. If you’re in the market to have your pants scared off this Halloween, this atmospheric tale, finely balanced between horror and humour, will definitely do the trick.
Jonathan Stroud’s The Hollow Boy follows The Screaming Staircase and The Whispering Skull in a superlative series of alternate history-cum-ghost-stories, chronicling the misadventures of London’s smallest ghost-hunting agency in a capital city ravaged by a supernatural Problem. The members of Lockwood and Co consist of Lucy Carlyle, the narrator, whose ability to hear ghosts renders her both brilliant and vulnerable in the field; George Cubbins, plump and puffa-clad, with a gift for in-depth research and excessive jammy-doughnut consumption; and the eponymous Anthony Lockwood, charismatic, mysterious and the object of Lucy’s unacknowledged fascination. In Book Three, however, all that is about to change.
Throughout the series, Stroud has foregrounded relationships – and the complex and intriguing bonds of irritated fondness, bone-deep loyalty and surreptitious fascination between Lucy, George and Lockwood are a big part of what makes it so compelling. In The Hollow Boy, however, the overstretched agency has hired an extra member, the sleek, efficient and well-turned out Holly Munro - and Lucy’s nose is out of joint as a result. The ease and comfort with which the three ghost-hunters used to work is under strain. Will they find their camaraderie again – or has the agency been fatally compromised?
It’s still the superbly-evoked suspense and scariness, however, which are the main event. Another haunted flight follows the earlier Screaming Staircase, this one ‘a great oval cavity cut right up through the house…an inward-looking space, heavy and silent and turned towards the past’, up which bloody footprints run nightly, just after midnight. There is a wave of hideous hauntings, all through Chelsea, which have stretched all London’s agencies to their limits. And there is an old department store, riddled with ghosts, hiding a horrific secret in its foundations. Few writers can imbue an object with the cold-breathing menace Stroud manages to impart to a small stone tape-dispenser – and there are few writers whose work I look forward to more.