Joseph Delaney obituary

Children’s author whose popular series beginning with The Spook’s Apprentice drew on Lancashire history and folklore

The children’s author Joseph Delaney, who has died aged 77, was best known for the series of novels that began with The Spook’s Apprentice (2004), and the 2014 film based on it, Seventh Son.

The Spook’s Apprentice, Delaney’s first published novel, was quick to find success and he went on to sell more than 4m children’s books worldwide. However, getting to be an author had not been as instantaneous as that might look.

A teacher and subsequently head of the department of English and media studies at Blackpool sixth form college, Delaney had previously written many science fiction and fantasy novels for adults, none of which had found a publisher. He was encouraged by his agent to try writing for younger readers, specifically to fit the brief of a children’s publisher who was looking for stories featuring magic to fulfil the demand created by the success of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels.

Joseph Delaney’s Spook’s novel series featured the young hero Tom Ward, a seventh son of a seventh son gifted with special powers.
Joseph Delaney’s Spook’s novel series featured the young hero Tom Ward, a seventh son of a seventh son gifted with special powers. Photograph: PR

Somewhat reluctantly, because, as he later admitted, he thought writing for children was less important than writing for adults, Delaney wrote a book to meet the publisher’s requirements. Rather than start with a new story, he returned to one he had originally written in 1993 when he moved to a village which had a folk tale about its own local “boggart” – a malevolent creature intent on creating mischief.

Drawing on this and other stories from Lancashire folklore, Delaney created a world in which everyday life is convincingly infused with the paranormal. The young hero, Tom Ward, a seventh son of a seventh son, and thus gifted with special powers, is destined to become apprenticed to the bad-tempered spook, and learns to wrangle with the troublesome boggart and other creatures from the Dark.

Influenced as a writer by JRR Tolkien, Delaney was proud that his boggarts and the magic they brought with them were Lancastrian in nature. He believed in the paranormal, claiming that he had experienced it as a child. He also relied on his dreams for his storytelling ideas – in the tradition of Bram Stoker, whom he also admired. Although the books refer to it only as “the county”, Lancashire and its countryside, where he lived, and the town of Preston, where he was born, were the source of the strong sense of place that was an important part of the series’ identity and popularity.

The Spook’s Apprentice won the Lancashire book of the year award and was highly praised by teachers and librarians. Delaney enjoyed being a writer in the lively years of the rising demand for children’s books after Harry Potter. He threw himself into meeting his readers and kept up a steady stream of new books – one a year until the series concluded with the 13th title, The Spook’s Revenge (2014).

Film rights for the Spook’s series were eagerly snapped up, but went through the hands of three directors, including Tim Burton, before Seventh Son appeared in 2014, directed by Sergei Bodrov. It starred Jeff Bridges as the grim Spook, Ben Barnes as young Tom Ward and Julianne Moore as Mother Malkin, an old hag who, in the books at least, spends much of her time buried in a pit. It was shot in British Columbia and not Lancashire as Delaney would have liked – although he loved going to Canada to watch the filming – with his local Pendle Hill renamed and transformed into Pendle City. Like many authors Delaney found the experience of a film adaption both thrilling and frustrating and sensibly concluded that the story was no longer in his hands. In the same year, his son Stephen adapted the stories into a play.

Jeff Bridges and Ben Barnes in Seventh Son
Jeff Bridges and Ben Barnes in Seventh Son (2014), the film adaptation of Joseph Delaney’s The Spook’s Apprentice. Photograph: Cinematic Collection/Alamy

Delaney retired from teaching after the publication of the second Spook’s title and concentrated on being a writer, as he had always wanted to be. Jake Hope, a judge of the Lancashire book of the year, described him as “a very fast and efficient writer who was always brimming with ideas but very private about what he was writing”. In addition to the Spook’s books, he wrote several shorter series including The Starblade Chronicles (2014-17), also about Tom Ward; Arena 13 (2015-17), a science fiction series for young adults; Aberrations (2018-19), a dark fantasy series; and The Spook’s Apprentice: Brother Wulf (2020), a spinoff from the original series. Brother Wulf: The Last Spook, was published earlier this year and Brother Wulf: Wulf’s War is due out next year.

The son of a labourer, Delaney was born and grew up in Preston. He went to school at Preston Catholic college and began work as an apprentice engineer before taking A-levels at night school and going to Lancaster University as a mature student to study English, history and sociology when he was 27. On graduating he trained as a teacher at St Martin’s college in Lancaster.

In 1968 he married Marie Smith. They had three children, Joanne, Paul and Stephen, who remember their father as warm and funny and the teller of “very scary stories that should not have been told after dark”. Marie was a constant support when Delaney’s career as a writer took off, and she accompanied him on many book promotions and tours. She died of ovarian cancer in 2007. In 2014 Delaney married Rani Kuncher Vannithamby; she survives him, along with his children and nine grandchildren.

• Joseph Henry Delaney, children’s writer and teacher, born 25 July 1945; died 16 August 2022


Julia Eccleshare

The GuardianTramp

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