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Not to be Read After Dark
on 9 August 2004
The Spook's Apprentice is a children's horror novel set in the time of the Pendle Witches. The eponymous Spook is a man whose job it is to protect the local villagers from witches, boggarts and all other evils, yet despite his invaluable service, he is shunned by all. After the death of his last apprentice, the Spook enrolls young Thomas Ward, who, being the seventh son of a seventh son is qualified for the position. However, he soon discovers that this is no mere accident of birth.
Thomas is left the entire night in a haunted house as a kind of initiation into his new job. The twist in this scene is perhaps a little too obvious. Thomas progresses with his lessons - but before long, the Spook is called away on an urgent matter in Pendle, and rather recklessly leaves his inexperienced young apprentice behind. During his absence, Thomas makes a rash promise to Alice (a girl with pointy shoes), and is tricked into releasing Old Mother Malkin, who was buried alive as punishment for killing the villagers' children and drinking their blood.
Once she is free, Thomas's problems really begin - and it seems that the only person he can turn to for help is the one who got him in this mess ... Alice. Alice is perhaps the most interesting character in the book. The reader is never certain whether she is to be trusted or not. Is she as well-intentioned as she claims, acting under duress - or is she an evil scheming trickster out to lure Thomas to the same bloodthirsty fate as the previous apprentice?
'Not to be read after dark,' it says on the back cover. Perhaps it's not quite as scary as the publishers would have you believe - but it's still sufficiently chilling for most young readers. Certainly not suitable for those under 8 or 9, or those prone to nightmares, as some of the imagery is quite intense: (ghosts of dying soldiers hung on a tree - a witch who wants to drink a new born baby's blood - a boy who has his fingers cut/chewed off by a boggart, and many others). However, if you're 13 or older and enjoy something on the gruesome side, this is an adventurous tale with many a cliff-hanger.
It's somewhat difficult to settle on a star rating for this book. To be honest, this kind of dark horror is not to my tastes; I prefer my fantasy reading material to be a little more light-hearted - preferably with a few laughs. However, putting that aside, I award 4 stars for the quality of writing. This is a well-written novel, briskly paced and with some good characterization. For those who live in Lancashire, the local history of the Pendle Witches may be of particular interest - but this book may well appeal to any teen with morbid or gothic tastes.