BOOK launches are strange animals, and these days you might expect something more akin to an evangelical Apple-type extravaganza, with plenty of hype, free booze and canapes on offer.
While the food and drink were certainly there at the Shire Hall in Lancaster Castle on Thursday night, this was far more low-key. But somehow it fitted the bill perfectly.
As I would have to contend with a nonchalant drizzle that quickly turned to driving rain on the way back down the M6, I was thankful there was no ligging for this scribe anyway. But that’s beside the point.
For the fact that Andersen Press went with North Lancs rather than the South Bank Centre on this occasion was only right seeing as the main attraction was the somewhat laid-back writer Joseph Delaney.
Hang on … trilogy? Well, okay, that seems to have stretched to more than a dozen books already, with more expected. But Spooks fans clearly can’t get enough of a good thing.
I was there among a county collective of arts, cultural and library types, and a few junior fans, for the launch of The Ghost Prison, a gripping novella aimed at the middle school age range, with an only-slightly fictionalised Lancaster Castle at its heart (in that city Joe dubbed Caster in the Spooks books).
The blurb? Try this: “Night falls, the portcullis rises in the moonlight, and young Billy starts his first night as a prison guard. But this is no ordinary prison. There are haunted cells that can’t be used, whispers and cries in the night . . . and the dreaded Witch Well. Billy is warned to stay away from the prisoner down in the Witch Well. But who could it be? What prisoner could be so frightening? Billy is about to find out . . .”
Young Billy’s first night-shift as a prison guard certainly proves to be a hair-raising experience, but you know even without opening the pages you’re in safe hands with Joe’s prose, the former English teacher and Lancashire lad (now 67, incidentally) having proved his worth in recent days after many years looking to break through.
Joe had been to the castle on a few occasions before of course, including visits to speak to inmates in its until-quite-recent HMP days, visits which ultimately inspired his latest tale.
It’s a good thing the book didn’t really need selling, though, for the star attraction seemed happy enough just giving a few swift words, talking to his fans, signing a few books and enjoying the odd glass or two.
He said he could talk for an hour or an hour and a half, but instead decided on about 15 minutes tops, and with the acoustics in the hall (grand as it was) pretty poor, that was about right.
Jake Hope, as ever putting a lot of legwork into the event to make it run smoothly, was in charge of a few slides to illustrate Joe’s words, but it was mainly just about visual prompts.
You got the feeling – and don’t get me wrong, I think many of us would be the same – he was eager to just get past his night in the spotlight, talking a little about his inspiration, giving a brief reading, answering questions from the floor, then finally relaxing.
When that Q&A came, we struggled to hear both aspects, but there were plenty about believing in ghosts, favourites books, future plans and such-like, Joe’s promotion team on hand for a few of the more technical enquiries.
He also spoke of that curious period between sleeping and waking that inspired so many supernatural moments, as well as the smell of a spirit (and I don’t mean gin), and plenty more besides in a short space of time.
That said, after you’ve been to a few of these events, you get to second-guess the answers, not least the proviso that the author’s favourite book is always the one in his hand – the new one – usually with a quick nostalgic mention for the writer’s debut too.
I have to confess I’m quite new to Joe’s work, but I’m currently enjoying his 2004 breakthrough, The Spook’s Apprentice, although wondering just what the hell Hollywood is about to do with it, judging by their ground-shaking all-action trailer for The Seventh Son, due out in January.
Joe remains supportive of the film, though. For one thing, I’m sure it’s an effective pension plan, and, however close to the original, it must give you a warm feeling knowing something you wrote is now being given a little cinematic treatment courtesy of Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes and Julianne Moore (and who can resist the latter as a witchy temptress?).
Besides, however good that film proves, there’ll always be the written word too, an army of fans having devoured each and every turn of that Spooks series.
But on Thursday night, The Ghost Prison took centre-stage, and – as with the Spooks tales – Lancashire plays a leading role.
As it turned out, after an evocative reading from the book by Janet from the heritage learning team, we were given a tour of the castle. And while we didn’t get to see the witch’s well that figures so prominently in Joe’s story, there was plenty to savour.
Our guide, Victoria, spoke with great knowledge and plenty of stage presence in a swift but no less illuminating turn around the old cells, the crown court, Hadrian’s Tower, and the Drop Room, with history brought alive in highly-fitting surroundings.
The inevitable but nonetheless stirring tale of the Pendle Witches was well covered too, and surely it’s not many book launches where you get to be locked in a cell with your fellow guests while the staff switch the lights out.
The wet walk back to my car was of my own doing, having been momentarily confused by the city’s one-way system. But it really was – to paraphrase Peter Kay – that fine kind of rain that wets you through.
And I felt somewhat like Old Gregory’s apprentice as I shambled along, not fully knowing where I was headed as the rain increased, and yet with not so much as a lump of cheese tucked away to help me through.
* With thanks to Andersen Press and Jake Hope for the invite, and the team at Lancaster Castle (for tour details head here) for the walkabout.
* A previous writewyattuk blog, Not Just Any Old Witch Way, also involved Lancaster Castle – if you missed it, follow this link.