When I found this book, I was torn.
On one hand, there was the fact that it was written by Jonathan Stroud, author of the Bartimaeus series (quite good, BTW). On the other, we have the label in the description telling us this book is intended for readers in grades three through seven. (Elsewhere, it says grades six through nine, but still.) It seems to me that for every Harry Potter, you have about a thousand middle grade books that, though I can easily see why they'd be enticing to kids, simply don't hold up to a discerning adult's eyeballs.
But holy cow, people: we've got a Harry Potter.
Now, before you all start shrieking at me because this book is nothing at all like Harry Potter, let me just say this and hope that I'm being quite clear: this book is really nothing at all like Harry Potter. Except maybe in the most superficial of ways. (Magical Britain, two boys and a girl...) What I meant was that this is a book that was no less delightful just because it was written with a younger reader in mind...and though it's rather darker than the first HP book, it still manages to introduce some of the same sort of literary magic that made me fall in love with Hogwarts.
The Lockwood & Co. series is set in the "real world," with one major divergence: several decades ago, ghosts started appearing. Turns out that ghosts aren't benign, and to make things even worse, the only people who can sense them with any sort of reliability are kids. And those with the most psychic ability? They're on the front lines.
The characters were quite well done, I thought, and so was the plot. Where this book really shines, though, is the setting--Stroud's land of malevolent spirits is rich and well-planned and masterfully painted. The descriptions of the ghosts and the dangers the characters faced were vivid, and though I didn't personally find the book frightening, precisely (though if you really are buying this for a child, you may want to make sure they have a strong constitution...or at least read it first yourself), I was sucked into this baleful world expertly enough that I could almost feel the chill the specters were emitting.
I've already said this book reminds me a bit of Harry Potter, at least in the way it made me feel, but it also reminds me of John Bellairs's
The House with a Clock in Its Walls (Lewis Barnavelt)
. Again, not really in substance, in experience. I read HWACIIW as a kid--maybe 3rd grade?--and it was the book that turned me on to fantasy. I do recall finding that one a bit frightening, but far more important was how it opened me up to a world of magic. I can easily see the Screaming Staircase doing the same for a new generation of readers.
Seriously, folks. If the description makes the book sound like it's up your alley, don't let the reading level scare you off. This grown-up will be reading the whole series, doubtless over and over, until my eyesight finally goes.