My cranky side says that these books must make a fair amount of money for the publisher, because this is really, really minor Apprentice. Just three stories and a whole lot of filler make up its 166 pages. The actual apprentice, Tom Ward, barely makes an appearance. However, Delaney does keep up the deliciously chilly atmosphere and provides a bit of back story for some of his characters, so it wasn't a total loss. And I got to listen to Christopher Evan Welch for a short time.
The first story is narrated by John Gregory, the Spook himself, who relates how he first encountered the dark and eventually decided to become his Spook's apprentice. On a journey to enter seminary, he met up with a witch who tried to use him as bait to trap the Spook. Fortunately, his Spook -- Henry Horrocks -- was wilier, and Gregory survived, eventually choosing a Spook's career instead of the priesthood.
The third tale is from Grimalkin, the witch assassin that we met in Tom's fourth adventure and who is our cover girl (I think). She explains why she and the Fiend are mortal enemies and describes the time she battled the previous witch assassin to the death.
In between, Tom's friend Alice Deane (who is trying to overcome her witchy origins) tells how she bravely returned to her home village of Pendle to face her relatives in an attempt to save Tom's brother, whom the Pendle witches had kidnapped. (That Pendle witches story is fascinating. I do like how Delaney relates the County's actual history to his fictional stories.)
Following these stories is "The Gallery of Villains," which recaps all the bad uns that Tom and the Spook have met in their adventures, providing a little excerpt from the book in which they first appeared, followed by the exhortation to read the entire book. It felt quite cheesy to me and I spent my listening time idly wondering if Welch had read these sections anew or if the producer had pulled them from their archives.
I eye-read the last Last Apprentice book and enjoyed hearing Welch's voice in my head while I was reading. His narration is quite distinctive and I like it a lot. There's a lot of delicious fear in listening to these, of the please-go-on-but-it's-so-scary variety. He builds tension in the stories through the first-person narrative and in some expert pacing -- knowing when to stretch out the suspense and when to quickly resolve it. I like the fairly high-register innocence he brings to young Tom's character and the crabby, scratchy growl of the Spook. In The Spook's Tale, Welch sustains the Spook's growl while he is telling the story, but assumes the younger, more naive delivery (much like Tom Ward's) for John Gregory's dialogue.
Welch also has a nice variety of scary, threatening, and evil voices that he gives to the book's various witches, fiends and creatures of the dark. Grimalkin has a sharp, raspy delivery that asks for no sympathy despite what the Fiend did to their child. She is, indeed, a cold-blooded assassin who lets nothing get in her way.
While eye-reading the book, Clash of the Demons, I realize that these books are written in a pretty simplistic style -- there are lots of short, choppy, declarative sentences. This can be a trial to listen to (and to read), but Welch pulls it off, imbuing Delaney's prose with the all the conflicting emotions young Tom feels as he faces his fears, his feelings for Alice, and his growing confidence and maturity at fighting the dark.
I think I'd rather keep listening. Alas, there one downloadable available from our Overdrive, but I'm really still a CD person. There may have to be some Interlibrary Loan-ing.
[The image from The Lancaster Witches by William Harrison Ainsworth (an 1849 novel based on the Pendle witch trials of 1612) is in the public domain and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
The Spook's Tale and Other Horrors by Joseph Delaney
Narrated by Christopher Evan Welch
Harper Audio, 2009. 2:31