Recent months have seen me enjoying a number of wonderful re-reads, returning to pivotal books in my life which I haven’t been back to for ages! This was kick-started by the Narniathon, and having revisited all of C.S. Lewis’s wonderful stories, I also re-read The Lord of the Rings and the second book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast sequence. So I guess it was kind of inevitable that when Annabel announced she was hosting a readalong of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series of books that I would want to join in. As I mentioned before, I’ve intended to go back to these a number of times in the recent past, as there are regular readalongs hosted on Twitter; however, this time it’s for real, and as the books are spaced out one a month I shan’t get overwhelmed and pressurised and will enjoy the event!

Unlike the other books I mentioned above, I first read the Cooper books in my early twenties; I was very into exploring the Arthurian legends at the time, and so they were a natural fit as they draw on that mythology. But I haven’t been back to them in a very long time, so I did wonder how I would find them! The first book in the series is “Over Sea, Under Stone” and it introduces us to the Drew family: the children Simon, Jane and Barney, plus their mother Ellen and father Dick. The family is visiting Trewissick in Cornwall to stay with Great Uncle Merry at The Grey House. Merry is not an actual relation, more of a long-term family friend, but he and the dog Rufus will join the children in their adventures.

The West Country is, of course, always connected with Logres, the ancient realm of King Arthur, and young Barney is steeped in the stories and legends of that time. However, the children are initially attracted by more prosaic matters, in the form of a shining yacht in the harbour, owned by the smooth Mr Withers and his sister. However, when exploring the secret rooms and attics of the Grey House, Barney stumbles across an ancient document with some kind of map or diagram on it. The children instantly think of treasure, and try to make sense of their find.

…You have heard me talk of Logres. It was the old name for this country, thousands of years ago; in the old days when the struggle between good and evil was more bitter and open than it is now. That struggle goes on all around us all the time, like two armies fighting. And sometimes one of them seems to be winning and sometimes the other, but neither has ever triumphed altogether. Nor ever will … for there is something of each in every man.

However, it soon becomes clear that other forces are after the map, and events take a dramatic turn. There are burglary attempts on the house; the Drews are invited on a trip aboard the yacht; Jane has an uncomfortable encounter with a local vicar; and Great-Uncle Merry turns out to have more power than the children might have expected. There are explorations in the dark around strange standing stones; and the children don’t know who they can trust: from the vicar to the Withers pair to the housekeeper Mrs. Palk, everyone seems to be acting suspiciously. What is actually at stake here, and can the children find it before the forces of evil??

Well – what struck me on this revisit (as with Lewis, actually) is how well children’s books were written during the mid-20th century!! “Over Sea…” is gripping from start to finish, with a wonderfully exciting and imaginative plot, atmospheric descriptions and settings, and a real sense of menace from the baddies. Cooper is brilliant at ramping up the tension as the story reaches its climax, and even though I knew the plot and that good would prevail, I found myself on tenterhooks, mentally shouting warnings to the Drews! There’s a really exciting set-piece involving cave exploration which made my claustrophobia kick in, and a lovely linguistic twist at the end. As for the children, well they’re real, believable children with flaws and tempers, and the narrative very cleverly lets them operate in acceptable paramenters: there are times when the adults *won’t* let them go out, their worries can be dismissed because they’re youngsters, and they have to be creative to get the chance to investigate and find the truth.

Looking back, I can see why I loved this series of books; they weave an exciting children’s story into a mythological setting with ups and downs and tension and triumphs and it all works wonderfully well. You get a real sense of the oldness of the landscape, of the fact that things could be lost in the distant past and still be there to be found if you know where to look, and it’s all presented in a beautiful seaside setting. As an opener to a series that I recall will become darker, it’s a real winner, and I’m so glad Annabel’s set up this reading event because this was the perfect time to revisit the books. A marvellous start to #TDiRS22, and the only problem I had was that I was desperate to pick up the second book and carry on reading – but I *will* pace myself!!