Have you ever remembered a book that you read as a child that you were curious to read again but you can’t remember the name of the book or the author or even enough detail to track it down? That was my dilemma for a few years, as I remembered reading a series of fantasy novels in grade school, one of which featured an evil skeletal horse. Initial efforts to track it down were unsuccessful, as depending on the wording you use on an internet search you either find skeletal horses from Minecraft or the Mari Lwyd from South Wales:
About six months ago, however, by some dumb luck I finally found what I was looking for: The Dark Is Rising sequence, five novels written by British author Susan Cooper from 1965 to 1977. The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, was written much earlier than the others, in 1965; I opted to begin my re-read with the second book, The Dark Is Rising, which was originally published in 1973:
This was the young adult fantasy series to read of my generation; everyone I knew in grade school got around to reading it at some point! But would it hold up for an adult reader?
On his eleventh birthday, the midwinter day, Will Stanton feels that something has changed. Almost immediately on this snowy winter day, odd things begin to happen in his rural community, some simply strange, others sinister. While out doing farm chores with his brother James, Will spots a strange tramp lurking just out of sight in the trees. When he later describes this encounter to Mr. Dawson, the cattleman, Dawson cryptically replies, “The Walker is abroad. And this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.”
That night, Will gets a taste of that badness, as he is overwhelmed by an inexplicable terror. But the next day is worse. While visiting the blacksmith, appropriately named John Smith, he encounters a sinister Rider, getting new shoes for his horse, which is colored black as night. The Rider tries to cajole Will into accepting a ride on his horse, but when that fails he tries to grab him, and it is only the quick reflexes of Smith that saves him from abduction.
Will soon learns that he is the last and youngest of a group of immortal beings known as the Old Ones, who possess immense supernatural powers and are tasked with keeping The Dark, the powers of evil, from overtaking the world. Will is given an important mission: collect six magical Signs that can be used in the final battle between Light and Dark. His mission will take him not only through his community but to other places and other times, and he must beware the machinations of The Dark, who not only seek control of the Signs of wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone, but of Will himself.
The book is a fascinating story of supernatural adventure, with a rather unique tone and feeling to it (though people who have read the more recent adventures of a certain boy wizard may get a sense of deja vu). Will turns eleven years old completely unaware of his powers, but the knowledge nevertheless lies within him, and he often finds the answers to questions coming unbidden from his mouth. Many of the familiar faces in the community have some connection to the Old Ones and their mission, and a fun part of the story is that everyone seems to know more about what’s going on than Will himself.
Imagery is often taken from British folklore; the blacksmith John Smith has a middle name Wayland, which is a reference to Wayland the Smith, a character from German heroic legend. By the end of the novel, Will will have summoned Herne the Hunter to his assistance.
The winter setting of the first book is quite evocative; as a reader, you can practically feel the cold. In fact, as written in the intro to the edition of the book I have, the entire series was inspired by the author and her husband cross-country skiing in the winter in Massachusetts. She recalled thinking, “I want to write a book set in snow like this, but in Britain, about a boy who wakes up on his eleventh birthday and finds he can work magic.”
This first book is a little heavy on exposition, though I didn’t find it too cumbersome; it serves to set up the story and the conflict, and I’m curious to see if the later books of the series are more fast-paced.
Speaking of the later books, it is the last of these, the 1977 Silver on the Tree, which features the sinister skeletal horse. I’m pretty sure my grade school library had this UK edition, because this cover sticks out in my mind:
So I enjoyed The Dark Is Rising! I can’t say I enjoyed it purely out of nostalgia, because I remembered basically nothing about it! Now I’m tempted to read the rest of the series, and will post if I do.