By Tara Fowler
May 08, 2013 at 02:00 PM EDT

Never heard of Jonathan Stroud? Then stop what you’re doing right now and go pick up a copy of the first book in the Bartimaeus Sequence, The Amulet of Samarkand. Go on. We’ll wait.* Good, right? Fabulous, even? Alas, that trilogy is done (though there was a prequel published in 2010), but thankfully Stroud is back with a brand new series, Lockwood & Co., which has already been optioned for the big screen by Illumination Entertainment. And if it’s half as funny as Bartimaeus, consider us sold. Don’t take our word for it?** We’ll let Stroud himself tell you all about it. But first check out the cover below, along with an exclusive excerpt from Book 1, The Screaming Staircase.

London has become overrun by all sorts of nasty ghosts and specters, but only young people have the ability to see them. Enter Lucy Carlyle, the plucky heroine of Lockwood & Co. Together with Anthony Lockwood, leader of the titular psychic detection agency, and his sarcastic colleague George, Lucy must investigate the mysterious Combe Carey Hall, one of the most haunted houses in all of England. Can they weather its horrors, including the legendary Screaming Staircase? Take a peek at the cover and preview the first chapter afterwards:

NEXT: Jonathan speaks about his new series, including the potential movie!

*Not that there’s any excuse for this. That book was released 10 years ago! I honestly don’t know how you’ve been functioning.

**Though you really should.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me a bit about your new series.

JONATHAN STROUD: Well, I’m very excited about it. In a way, it’s an attempt to carry on where I left off with Bartimaeus, and create a series that has a lot of the same elements: lots of humor, lots of action, good characters that you root for, with the added element of being a bit scary as well, I hope. It’s nothing if not a bit ambitious [laughs]. I’ve always loved ghost stories, but I really like to have a story that pulls you in, with characters that you can respond to.

How did it could about?

As with Bartimaeus, it began with a single image that I saw quite clearly. In this case, it was having a boy and a girl walking up to a doorstep in modern London and knocking on the door. They’ve got big swords by their side, but otherwise they’re totally in modern clothes. I just thought, this is interesting, what’s this about? They were going to go in there and deal with ghosts. From that initial premise, I expanded it to a plague of ghosts. It’d be intriguing if there’s an epidemic going on in a modern London, and that only kids have the ability to see these specters. Therefore, the kids are going to be on the front line. As soon as I had that idea, then the possibility of a series came rushing towards me. I’ve had a lot of fun writing it.

Your previous books are notable for being dark but incredibly funny. Is this series similar? It’s a middle-grade series, so I wonder how dark you plan to take it. How dark can you take it?

That’s a good question. It is middle grade and I don’t want to go too dark, but at the same time I think children of that age can cope with that. All the great children’s books that have been written over the last 10, 20 years, they have these elements in them. That’s what makes them compulsive. My daughter is 9 and she’s read the Harry Potter books. I can remember when she read the first one and got to the end bit where the teacher rips off his turban and Voldemort’s face is there. I was watching her — she was in bed reading it — and you could just suddenly see that a light bulb went off. It’s so scary, but so good. It took it to a whole new level. She just whizzed straight through. It’s a really valid attempt. You want to have something that is dark, that is exciting, that pulls on the heartstrings — if you’re lucky — and you balance that by putting in some silly jokes. If you can get the right balance, then you’re onto a winner.

These days, children seem to be into darker stories anyways. I mean, I grew up on R.L. Stine, so it’s nothing new, but it seems as though there’s been a resurgence in recent years.

You look back at fairy tales that were told hundreds of years ago; people sitting around a campfire, they would tell these folk tales and there would be all sorts of gruesome stuff going on. They were tales told for adults as well as children. The children would lap it up and the adults would love it as well. It was a universal thing. That’s why there’s such an international success of children’s literature.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding this new series, Lockwood & Co. How does that make you feel?

It’s very exciting. You start off with an idea and you work on it quite closely for a year or so. Really, very few people look at it for an enormously long time. You get a terrible nervousness when you get to a point like now, when galleys have been created and it’s going out into the world. But it’s what you live for. You want to be able to drop into schools and look kids in the eye and answer their questions. And hopefully hear that they’ve entered your world and believed it or lived it. It’s tremendously thrilling.

How long will this series be?

It’s open-ended. I’m currently thinking about five books. You’ve got to sort of go where the characters take you. But it’s very much open to how the story goes.

And of course, there’s the movie deal…

It’s terribly thrilling. I’ve had a couple of very initial chats with the guys at Illumination and they seem tremendously keyed up and enthusiastic. I’m thrilled at the possibility that it might make the big screen. You kind of have these dreams and you know that movies will happen if they happen. You have to keep focused on the books, but I’m tantalized by that prospect. Fingers crossed for it.

The Screaming Staircase hits shelves September 17.

Read more:

10 Great Kids Books of 2012

Disney Live-Action Movies: Best/Worst

13 Pixar Classics: We Rank ’em!

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