The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Since reading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone earlier this year, I have been looking forward to reading the rest of her The Dark is Rising sequence, especially after I was told that Over Sea, Under Stone is usually considered the weakest of the six books. The second book, The Dark is Rising, sounded appropriately dark, so I decided to read it for this year’s R.I.P event. The first thing to say is that although Over Sea, Under Stone was the first to be published, I don’t think it’s essential to read it before starting this one. They are linked by the character of Merriman Lyon and the same overarching theme, but otherwise they are quite separate stories.

The Dark is Rising, published in 1973, is set in the fictional English village of Huntercombe during the Christmas period. The novel opens with Will Stanton celebrating his eleventh birthday on Midwinter Day – 21st December – and wishing it would snow. He gets his wish because snow does soon begin to fall…and keeps on falling, covering the landscape in a thick blanket of white as far as the eye can see. Stepping outside into a world transformed by snow, Will quickly discovers that it has been transformed in other ways as well – the houses and roads of his own time have disappeared, to be replaced by the dense forest of an earlier age.

As Will begins to explore this strange, enchanted land, he learns for the first time that he is one of the Old Ones, destined to join the people of the Light in their ongoing battle against the forces of the Dark. With the help of Merriman Lyon and the mysterious Lady, Will must look for the six Signs of the Light and only when he has collected all six will he be able to ward off the powers of the Dark.

The Dark is Rising is described as a children’s classic, but even reading it as an adult I found it genuinely creepy in places. The villains, particularly the sinister cloaked Rider, are quite menacing and the way the snow keeps falling, day after day – too heavy and too persistent to be natural – adds to the general eeriness. For any tale of the conflict between good and evil to be effective, the evil needs to feel really evil and that is certainly the case here. But although the Light is obviously the ‘good’ side, Will discovers over the course of his quest that sometimes it is necessary to make sacrifices and difficult choices – and that sometimes innocent people will be made to suffer in furthering the cause of the Light.

Will himself could have been a fascinating character – an intriguing mixture of ordinary eleven-year-old boy and wise and powerful Old One – but I didn’t find him as interesting as I would have liked. This is maybe because his quest just seems a little bit too easy – he is led straight to most of the six Signs without really needing to search for them – and so he comes across as somebody to whom things happen rather than somebody who actively makes them happen. I also wondered at first why Susan Cooper had given him so many brothers and sisters (he is the youngest of nine children and I found the number of characters introduced in the opening chapters a bit overwhelming), but the significance of that soon becomes clear.

There are some elements of English folklore incorporated into the plot, such as the legend of Herne the Hunter, and Christmas traditions and customs play a big part in the story too: giving and receiving presents, decorating the tree, singing carols. While this book was a perfect choice for the R.I.P. challenge, I wish I had saved it until December as it would have been a perfect Christmas read. Anyway, I enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

This is book #4 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

28 thoughts on “The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

  1. Liz Dexter says:

    Over Sea, Under Stone comes into its own when you read it as part of a whole read-through but after you’ve already read The Dark Is Rising, if that makes any sense at all? I re-read the whole lot over Christmas/New Year one year, with my husband, and really enjoyed doing that. I think of Will as an innocent, a puzzle piece who has a fate but could be swayed. My reviews of the full sequence are here, no spoilers, as I did it carefully! https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/book-reviews-39/

    • Helen says:

      That does make sense – I’m sure I will want to read all of these books again in the future, so maybe I’ll fully appreciate Over Sea, Under Stone when I get round to doing that. I enjoyed your reviews; it’s difficult to avoid spoilers for later books in a series, but you managed it perfectly!

  2. Elle says:

    My parents, brother and I read this out loud over the Christmas week one year, and it was BRILLIANT – so atmospheric, so creepy and such a delight to read inside a cosy warm house!

  3. Lory says:

    I agree that Will is kind of a non-entity. That never bothered me much as a child because I was too absorbed in his world to notice him much. I’m glad you enjoyed this – yes it is a perfect Christmas read too.

    • Helen says:

      I would have liked to have been able to engage more with Will as a character, but it didn’t bother me too much as I enjoyed the story anyway.

  4. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I remember listening to a dramatisation of this on a tape around 20 years ago. The story was very atmospheric and scary anyway, but the recording I heard was underscored by some music which made it even more frightening.

  5. tbr313 says:

    Now I’ve got this stuck in my head, “When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back…” I think this is my favorite of the series, and I do often re-read it at Christmas.

  6. Sandra says:

    Oh Helen, as I read your review – carefully, just in case it started to give too much away – I found myself so tempted to pick this up immediately. Then I reached the final paragraph and thought, wait! I shall be desperate to read it by December!

    • Helen says:

      I hope I didn’t spoil anything – I do try not to give too much away, but sometimes it’s difficult! It’s such a Christmassy story, I don’t think you’ll regret waiting until December.

  7. Lark says:

    I think I read this one as a kid, but I don’t remember much about it. Even after reading your review. Guess I need to read it again. 🙂

  8. whatmeread says:

    I wasn’t that impressed with Over Sea, Under Stone, so I never went any further with this series. If Will was in the first book, there were only three children in that.

    • Helen says:

      It was three different children in the first book. The characters in this one were all different, apart from Merriman Lyon (the great-uncle in Over Sea, Under Stone). I thought this book had a different feel – much more of a fantasy than a children’s adventure story like the first one.

  9. Judy Krueger says:

    When I used to work in a bookstore, I always saw this series in the wonderful and well-stocked children’s section. I put the series on My Big Fat Reading Project lists. Interestingly I always wanted to read The Dark is Rising first! And I had heard that Over Sea, Under Stone was a weaker book, though I liked it well. Interesting that OSUS was written so many years before the rest of the series. Anyway, I look forward to The Dark Is Rising.

    • Helen says:

      Over Sea, Under Stone is not as dark as this book and feels as though it was probably aimed at slightly younger readers. I enjoyed both, though.

    • Helen says:

      They would be classed as either children’s or young adult books. I somehow missed out on them as a child, but I’m finding they have a lot to offer an adult reader too!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it was a perfect book for October but would have been a good one to read over the Christmas period too. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series – I’m glad you enjoyed them all!

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