When I was a kid I was obsessed with Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series. I suppose I was a reader before I started them, but it wasn't until The Dark is Rising that a book really grabbed me. Now that I'm writing books for teens myself I thought it might be interesting to go back and reread the book that set that initial reading fire. I was a little nervous going back to it. My memories of it are so intense I feared it just wouldn't stack up. And honestly, at first, it really didn't. Mostly it felt slow. Really slow. I made a couple false starts, reading a chapter or so before putting it down. It was like I had to reacclimate myself to the world of the book.
The thing is, it's just not remotely like books being written for kids today...
For those of you who don't know, the story is basically this… Will Stanton is an 11-year-old boy living in rural England with his large family. Around Christmas time (which is also his birthday) it is revealed to him that he is actually one of the Old Ones, an immortal servant of the Light, dedicated to fighting the forces of the Dark. He is brought into the fold by a kindly Old One named Merriman and told that his quest is to find the six signs of power which will be instrumental in fighting off the Dark.
I know what you're thinking, "But that sounds exactly like books being written for kids today." Yes, it does. Plotwise it's a very familiar Chosen One fights evil story. It's what Cooper does with that story that's so unusual.
These days we're used to plucky, often snarky, heroes who go through a complex series of challenges which lead them to self-knowledge and their ability to defeat the enemy. Power and growth come bit by bit as a character struggles and fails and struggles again. The story is often psychological (Lots of mommy and daddy issues obviously. See Harry Potter.) but is also full of plot twists and turns and derring-do.
The Dark is Rising has none of that.
Psychologically, Will is a normal, well-adjusted boy before he receives his calling. Mom and Dad are alive and present and supportive if a little clueless. When he receives the calling there's no real questioning of it, no rejection, he accepts that this is who he is and these are his new responsibilities. He is fully vested in his powers, which happens very early on, by simply sitting down and reading a special book. No wizard school. No awkward fumbling with spells. Soon, he seems to not really even be Will Stanton anymore. He acts very adult like, even thinking of himself as an Old One who just looks like a little boy.
His quest for the signs is just as straightforward. For the most part, Will is led by Merriman to where he will find the sign and Will takes it. There are no riddles to be solved, no secrets that need to be unraveled, no monsters to fight. There are no startling reversals. The Dark does try to stop him at a couple key points but they are repulsed by the collected power of the Old Ones and the quest moves on.
Throughout the book it feels as though all of the characters are playing a role and that most of the story points are more or less pre-ordained.
Go to any writing class or seminar, any critique group, and you will be told that all of these things are deadly to a book. Where are the complications? Where are the psychologically rich and conflicted characters? Where are the surprises?
Another thing. Who is this book for? Is it middle grade? Teen? It's a little unclear to me. Yes, it's stated that Will is 11 but I can't imagine anyone would read this and think of him as being that young. He seems far too mature. The book has the simplicity that you might find in a middle grade book (but really you're seeing plenty of psychological realism and narrative complexity there these days) but a darkness and intensity that you're more likely to see in teen lit. It's pace and length also feel meant for a more seasoned reader.
(as a side note, I have an inside source that tells me a new bindup of the whole series is being planned and it will be marketed primarily to teens)
So all of this combined means that by any current thinking of how to write a book this one should be a loser. A boring slog. Too simple for teens. Too dark and slowly paced for younger kids. I should have hated this as a kid
But I didn't. I loved it and so did a lot of others. And once I got reacquainted with the world I loved it all over again.
For me, a lot of it has to do with atmosphere. Cooper does an amazing job of conjuring this small English village in the dead of winter that's surrounded by magical forces. It's rich with mythology, foreboding and mysterious. Reading it is like floating like an incredibly detailed dream/nightmare. I loved inhabiting that place as a kid and still do today.
Rather than being psychologically complex as is in fashion now, the characters are iconic, elemental, larger than life. The forces of the Dark are vicious and legitimately scary. The forces of the Light are kind and forthright, but in their seriousness and determination a little frightening in their own way. The story is the same. Maybe it's not complex but the stakes are high and believable. It's immense forces clashing together over the fate of the world in the way you'd see in a storybook or a fairytale. Maybe we forget how powerful stories told in this way are. I mean, there's a reason that Grimm's fairy tales lasted as long as they have.
I also wonder how much my love for this book at the time had to do with the shifting expectations of today's readers. We come to any book, especially genre books I think, with expectations based on all we've read before. This book came out in 1974 and when I first read it it was still way before the recent renaissance in children's books. Pre-Harry Potter. Pre-Twilight. Pre-Hunger Games. These books are exemplars of the kind of storytelling that is most popular today. (Nothing against them. I love, well, three of them) Have all these books radically changed what young people want and expect in a book? If I was a kid today and I was inundated with big splashy books with fast paced plots and complex characters, would I be able to see the value in this dark, slowly paced fable? I wonder.
It'll be very interesting to see what happens when this series is re-released. Will kids of today accept it? If it was written today would it be more like this abomination?
What about you guys? And Cooper fans out there? Any favorites from childhood that you've recently gone back to? How did they hold up?