Last month, Annabel kicked off her monthly readalong of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence of five books, and I found my re-encounter with the first volume “Over Sea, Under Stone” to be such a joy: wonderful writing, very vividly drawn locations and a real sense of danger. This month’s book is the second in the sequence, “The Dark is Rising” (from which the series takes its title) and in it the excitement, tension and sheer menace take a step up!

The story opens on Midwinter’s Eve; it is nearly the eleventh birthday of Will Stanton, who lives with his parents and large family in a rambling house in the south of England. Will seems an ordinary boy, wishing for snow on his birthday and looking forward to opening his presents in the morning. However, what happens to him over the course of this story is anything but ordinary, and it’s not long before we’re having hints that there is much more to Will than meets the eye. The two family dogs, and indeed other animals, are wary of him; the radio lets out alarming screeches when he goes near; and he and one of his brothers witness a shocking attack on a tramp by a group of rooks. Onto the scene comes Merriman Lyon, that pivotal figure from the first book in the series, and it is revealed that Will is not only the seventh son of a seventh son (a fact he was unaware of up until that moment, as he didn’t know he had a brother who died in infancy); he’s also an Old One, beings who must protect the world from the powers of evil.

That’s a lot to grasp for an 11-year-old boy, but he’ll soon have to step up to the mark and fight the forces of Dark which are massing for an attack on Will and his fellow Old Ones, representing the Light in the world. Over Christmas, and on to Twelfth Night, the battle will range over different times and places, drawing in myths and legends, old friends and new enemies, and the moumental figure of Merriman will be a constant throughout. Will is the ‘Sign Seeker’; his quest is to bring together six signs of power which will help defeat the Dark, but it’s a race against time to see if he can find them all. Can Will and his fellows defeat the Darkness? Or is it too strong for them this time?

The rhythms of his voice, which had been rising and falling in an increasingly formal pattern, changed subtly into a kind of chanted battle cry; a call, Will thought suddenly, with a chill tightening his skin, to things beyond the great hall and beyond the time of the calling. “For the Dark, the Dark is rising. The Walker is abroad, the Rider is riding; they have woken, the Dark is rising. And the last of the Circle is come to claim his own, and the circles must now all be joined. The white horse must go to the Hunter, and the river take the valley; there must be fire on the mountain, fire under the stone, fire over the sea. Fire to burn away the Dark, for the Dark, the Dark is rising!”

“The Dark is Rising” is a stunning piece of writing, it has to be said; although ostensibly written for children, it packs a strong narrative punch and is gripping from start to finish. I commented in my post on “Over Sea…” how well Cooper conveys a real sense of danger and menace, and that’s well to the fore here. I read the opening chapter of the book at night in bed and totally spooked myself; and there were many moments like that throughout the narrative where the force of the Dark was almost tangible. Cooper’s inventiveness has to be praised, too – drawing on folklore, particularly that of the Thames Valley and Herne the Hunter, she builds a believable world in peril which is of course recognisably ours, yet populated with Old Ones who have been protecting it during the centuries. Good and bad in our world do seem to be like yin and yang, needing to be balanced and so often out of alignment…

There are so many elements of this book I could comment on; the brilliance of her storytelling is remarkable, for example the slipping in and out of different times, and at points in the book the Old Ones seem to inhabit two times at once which is cleverly done. Additionally, the balancing of Will’s ‘real’ life alongside those times when he’s fighting the Dark is done so well, as Cooper never lets us forget this is an 11-year-old boy who’s suddenly found he has great power but has to weigh that against the fact he needs to live his ordinary life. He develops as the book goes on, yet never loses sight of his everyday existence.

The wind rose. It whipped screeching at the window. There was a tremendous thump of a knock at the door. Across the room, the Walker jumped up, his face twisted again, tight with waiting. Paul played, unhearing. The crashing knock came again. None of them could hear, Will realised suddenly; though the wind was near to deafening him, it was not for their ears, nor would they know what was happening now. The crash came a third time, and he knew that he was bound to answer. He walked alone through unheeding people to the door, took hold of the big iron circle that was the handle, muttered some words under his breath in the Old Speech, and flung open the door.

Merriman, of course, is a joy all the way through; a solid and reliable Old One, ready to support Will but also willing to leave Will to find his own way when he must, he is also fallible and has his own griefs to bear. And the other characters are vivid and alive, from Will’s family through the local people who turn out to be allies to Hawkin, Merriman’s foster-son. The forces of Dark are well-drawn, and at points we’re reminded that Will is regarded by his family as just a child and it’s hard for him to convey the peril to adults without giving too much away, a situation which came up in “Over Sea…” too.

The book does, of course, draw on many mythologies, whether Arthurian, Celtic or from further afield; however, I can’t help feeling that Cooper created her own modern mythology by so cleverly blending all of these elements. It’s quite some time since I read the books, and most of my memories centre around the cold and the threat from snow and nature. However, I was interested to pick up this time round that Cooper is not altogether parochial with her mythology, as there are Old Ones all around the world who not only appear in group gatherings, but also have an important part to play in the climax of the story (which is really very exciting and had me glued to the book). I have to say, though, that I had forgotten the part Hawkin plays in the narrative and found this to be particularly moving.

Well, I could go on and on, but you get the picture – this really is a quite magical book and deserves all the praise it gets. One of the things I’ve loved about the books so far is how they give you a sense of the oldness of the country, its history and its legends, and make you look at the old paths, ways and names in a new light – no wonder Robert Macfarlane loves the series! There are no doubt all manner of references to myth and legend built in which I’ve missed but which other more erudite commentators than I will explore; but you don’t need to know all of those to enjoy “The Dark is Rising”. All you need to do is give yourself up to the story and be transported to other places and times, following Will on his quest for the signs – it’s a journey you won’t forget!

*****

It’s worth mentioning that when Cooper wrote her Grail story, “Over Sea, Under Stone”, she hadn’t conceived of a follow-up or the series as a whole. However, the end of “Dark…” states quite firmly that this second book gives the sequence its name and that there will be five of them. Thank goodness she decided to carry on with this series!

And as an aside, my poor fragile Puffin paperback struggled to cope with being re-read; it is, alas, over 40 years old and the paper and binding have become very brittle. It made it, and as it’s the longest of the books, I hope the others will survive too as I do want to re-read my original copies!