Second in the Dark is Rising sequence, The Dark is Rising (1973) by Susan Cooper takes us into very different territory from and introduces us to entirely different characters than the first book, and if I found the darkness and danger palpable in that one, in this book it is far more intense and disconcerting.
The book opens in the Stanton home where young Will Stanton lives with his parents and several siblings, the eldest though away in the Navy. It is nearly the winter solstice, the day that also marks Will’s birthday and he is about to turn 11. But as he steps out with his brother on the evening before his birthday for some errands, strange things begin to happen—the birds and animals are uneasy, even his own dogs seeming to ‘fear’ him, a tramp is lurking about, and Will himself experiences a strong feeling of fear in his subconscious. As they visit the Dawson farm, Mr Dawson gives Will an ornament—an iron circle quartered by two crossed lines which he tells Will to wear as a buckle always. When Will wakes up the next morning (after a hard, snowy night), he finds himself in almost a different world. Soon he learns that he is no ordinary boy, but one of the ‘old ones’, possessors of special powers and knowledge; and while this makes him extraordinary, it also places on him a great burden—to fight the forces of darkness which are rising once again. In this fight, Will is the sign seeker charged with finding the six great signs of light which when joined will empower the old ones to defeat the dark. The path is no easy one though and involves hard tasks and tests, and facing the forces of darkness which might even endanger his family; on this journey, he is guided by other ‘old ones’, among them Merriman Lyon, who is almost always by his side. How does Will discharge this heavy burden?
When I read and reviewed the first book in the sequence, Over Sea, Under Stone which I enjoyed very much, a few fellow readers mentioned that that wasn’t their favourite or that the later books were better. But it is only when I finally read The Dark is Rising that I found that while the first book was very good, this one takes things to a completely different level.
Throwing the reader straight into the midst of action, Cooper’s descriptions create a sense of fear and unease which is intense right from the start and stays with the reader all through. As we read, we experience the same fears and anxieties, hear the terrifying sounds and see the images that Will does in his subconscious, and I must say, had I read this as a child, I’m sure I’d be very frightened indeed (I was as an adult too). Alongside the fear, Copper also manages to get us to almost feel the fluidity of time as Will more or less floats amidst time as he carries out his task of finding the six signs, and at times seems even beside it, getting him to realise how it can exist side by side:
‘I mean part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or today or tomorrow. Yesterday is still there, on that level. Tomorrow is there too. You can visit either of them’. And all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for. And, he said, sadly, ‘the opposite too’.
But to balance out these unsettling feelings, and indeed the cold cold atmosphere the characters (and reader) are soon enveloped in, there is Christmas! Cooper’s descriptions of Christmas at the Stanton home are equally gorgeous, taking us right in the middle of the celebrations, the tree being brought in, the ornaments taken out for decoration (‘the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights…Half-spheres…like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spheres, spidery webs of silvery glass threads and beads…’) tasty treats being prepared, presents bought and wrapped, and all the joy around (even if it sits alongside the unfolding darkness). This is certainly an atmospheric book which draws the reader right in and in which one stays enwrapped as the story plays out.
Like the first book (which explored Arthurian legends), The Dark is Rising, too, is rich in its weaving in of folklore and legends. Whether it is Will discovering the truth about himself on his eleventh birthday (as do many heroes and heroines of children’s fiction), or turning out to be the seventh son of a seventh son, making him the possessor or special powers; or legends associated with Christmas like the power of holly to protect against evil (besides bringing good fortune), or the story of Herne the Hunter or even the relevance of the solstice, these and more don’t merely enrich the story, but are really the frame on which the story is built.
And Cooper doesn’t give us only excellent atmosphere but a thoroughly good story too, with an exciting but also very dangerous quest, terrifying enemies but also good friends, travels through time with a constant sense of its fluidity, and a satisfying end and yet knowing that there is more to come.
At the end of the Vintage Classics edition of the book is a short interview with Susan Cooper where she mentions that it was with this book that the idea of a sequence really came about and she realised how it would also connect with Over Sea, Under Stone and also that there would be more books to come; and while this book gives one some clue as to a link between the two adventures, it has left me very keen to see whether the two sets of characters meet—how their stories end up connecting and what forms the dark takes on next!
A really wonderful read!
p.s. This edition also has some lovely illustrations with the title of each chapter.