A DARK AND TIMELESS BEAUTY
The Dark is Rising: Book Two of The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper (1973)
by Andrew Wallace
I had this novel as a boy, but didn’t read it because the cover was too frightening. It was the Puffin UK second edition, with art by Michael Heslop, and featured Herne the Hunter as an owl-eyed, antlered figure with an uncomfortably human face. Herne is riding the white horse, which through a curious use of negative effect and collage appears to be black. The picture is dynamic, even threatening; due to the colouration, it looks as though we are seeing Herne through a rifle sight. It is not clear whether this menacing figure is friend or foe; he looks like trouble, but there is something about his eyes that is not so much evil as uniquely focused.
I’ve dwelt on this cover for two reasons: one is that the combination of familiar and uncanny elements makes it one of the most enduring images of the weird I know; the other is that it so perfectly captures the tone of the book. Later covers are less menacing; I know from other reviews and comments – especially during recent Twitter #thedarkisreading threads over Christmas – that I wasn’t alone in finding the Heslop artwork terrifying. However, there is something delicious about the fear it instils; the collage technique and saturated colours reflect the sudden, disorienting chronological shifts experienced by the protagonist, eleven-year-old Will Stanton, as he comes to realise that the power of his loving (and lovingly depicted) family is no longer enough to keep him safe.
Such is Susan Cooper’s extraordinary craft that this universal childhood experience is depicted as simultaneously traumatic and wonderful. The loss of the family is a constant threat; and yet, the story implies, in one form or another it will happen anyway. Will, for example, is last of the Old Ones; an ironic choice of title for a boy who has just turned eleven. He has a great and seemingly impossible task: as Seeker of the Signs, he must fight off attacks by agents of the Dark as he acquires six mysterious artefacts in time for Twelfth Night. This daunting role reflects that of any child beginning to understand the responsibilities of adulthood, regardless of whether, like Will, they are the seventh son of a seventh son.
The novel explores the transition between childhood and adulthood via timeless seasonal rituals, particularly Christmas. The author delves deep into England’s folkloric past to depict the season in all its eerie splendour. Like Herne, it is a mixture of different things, each loved by children more through instinct than reason. The early Seventies setting puts the contemporary reader closer to some of these traditions than tends to be experienced now; the Yule Log, for instance, was not then the chocolate dessert beloved of office Christmas parties but an actual log that burned over days, with the remains saved to light the log the following year. For the Stanton household, this rite is hugely important; both for its unquestioned tradition, and because the Dark uses cold, particularly snow, to create an environment in which it can thrive.
It is one of the many ways the author combines ritual and story in The Dark is Rising; another is how Will accumulates the Signs, almost as if they are Christmas presents. The Signs are either given to Will or collected after a ceremonial transformation sequence; each more elaborate and perilous than the last. These gifts are thus ‘wrapped’; either carried across centuries by a stranger, embedded in buildings or forged by magic before Will’s eyes.
This shift under the surface of tradition goes even deeper when Will receives a strange Christmas gift from his brother Stephen, who is away from home serving in the Navy. Stephen is given a carnival head by an Old One in the West Indies. The head is that of Herne the Hunter; Stephen sends it to Will with a note which makes it clear that the West Indian man knows who Will is despite never having met him. Later, Will gives the head to a shadowy figure who turns out to be Herne himself. When Herne brings the head to life, he completes a process of renewal and rebirth that enables him to drive the Dark away.
This cyclical pattern reflects the circular shape of the Signs, which have further resonance in the materials used in their composition. Iron, bronze, stone, wood, fire and ice hint at the ages of civilisation; embodying the scale of what is at risk should Will fail.
Fortunately, Will is a great character; loyal, resourceful and wise, even before his education in the power of the Old Ones. He also has allies, from the wizardly Merriman to the beloved, almost goddess-like Lady. Tricksters abound on all sides, however; from the way Merriman pops up as a butler to the Lady’s appearance as a wren, seemingly dead on a bier. A homeless old man is revealed to be a Herald called the Watcher, who is at the centre of yet more mysteries, the greatest of which is grimly close to home. Even Will’s nemesis, the Dark Rider, appears as a colleague of Will’s father and, like a vampire, has to be invited in to the family home.
None of the buildings in the story are immune to the Dark; not the citadel outside time where Will first meets the Lady, and certainly not the local church. Many of the beliefs explored in the novel predate Christianity, but again the author finds a means of weaving together seemingly disparate mythologies. When the Dark attacks Will after a Christmas church service, it is revealed that churches are places in which people reflect on both Light and Dark, and thus not impregnable to the latter.
This element of choice, more even than the way the Signs embody a cross as well as a circle, links the belief systems depicted in the novel. Christianity attempts to balance understanding of an all-powerful deity with the notion of free will; while the stories that make up The Dark is Rising place individual decisions firmly at the heart of the narrative. Agents of the Dark, for example, choose to follow that path in the belief it will make them powerful, and a tragic subplot explores the results of one of these fateful decisions. Will, who has no choice about being an Old One, is nonetheless free to decide how he acts upon his new knowledge and influence. Merriman and the Lady guide and encourage, but never tell Will what to do, even when it results in disaster for them.
Will’s resulting fear and confusion are depicted with visceral force; particularly when he first becomes aware of the Dark as an unreasonable, paralysing influence that feels like a waking nightmare. It is another way in which that second edition cover is so accurate; The Dark is Rising is a frightening book. The fear is handled wisely though, and forms part of Will’s growth. It is also depicted subtly, and is often the result of choices made in ignorance or selfishness. The Watcher’s terror, which drives him to the edge of sanity, is entirely the result of his own treachery. Will is not aware of this twist until later in the novel; all he sees is an adult so scared he can barely speak.
The latter sequence gains force from what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. This restraint means the book can be appreciated by children, while ensuring its apparent simplicity embodies the streamlined power of myth. From the eerie poetry, to the inherent music of the lines – this is a book that demands to be read aloud, as if some night around the fire telling stories in the dark past has been captured by the writer for our erudition and delight. Despite that richness, there is no sentiment in either the story or the language; when the sun rises at the end, it feels as hard-earned as any of the Signs.
Such costly effort forms part of a timely political subtext. The Dark gained power in the forests planted by some of England’s kings; forests planted not for any environmental reason, but so the aristocracy could have more room to hunt. However, as with the thoughtful depiction of Christianity, the author is too generous to leave it at that; another king emerges who did fight the Dark, and it is significant that he is part Viking. For The Dark is Rising is not some absurd, homogenous Deep England fantasy of warm beer, village greens and doffing one’s cap to one’s betters; rather, it explores the ambiguity of a beautiful but often hostile landscape as home to many kinds of people over many kinds of time. Indeed, when Will finally sees the rest of the Old Ones, they are from every race on the planet.
Merriman, in true mentor style, sums it up as follows: ‘no power of the Light or Dark may take away his rights as a man’. Despite its insight, there is nothing comforting about that statement; Dark and Light may appear binary, but the story takes place between them, in a liminal zone of endless possibility and dread. Rather than overwhelm the story of a family at Christmas, however, the author instead uses extraordinary antagonists to focus on how precious those apparently simple but endlessly resonant communal rituals are. This quintessentially weird familiar-yet-strange dynamic is why The Dark is Rising remains a book that returns to our dreams again and again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Wallace is a novelist based in Kent. He writes for the British Science Fiction Association and magazines including Vector and We Are The Mutants, as well as blogging about SFF and the creative process at www.andrewwallace.me. The first two novels of his far-future Diamond Roads series (Sons of the Crystal Mind & The Outer Spheres) are out now, and his novella Celebrity Werewolf will be published by NewCon Press later this year.