Monday, August 17, 2015

The Dark Is Rising (1973)

The Dark is Rising (1973) is Susan Cooper's second book in the series that is now labeled The Dark Is Rising. Compared to all the other books in that series, this one is the monster, a dense and world-bending monument of cinematic description forming the backdrop of a symbolic power play over the winter's solstice. The book was a Newberry award finalist.

Our protagonist is Will, the youngest of a pack of Anglican farm kids living near Windsor Castle. (Although with that many siblings, I thought that they were Catholics.) The first chapter sets us firmly on the night before the solstice, when the old powers grew strong, and Will's world was about to change. In that way, Will is a chosen one, although less obnoxiously chosen than most chosen ones. Where today, a chosen one must save the world by finding signs, this chosen one must find signs, and thus save the world. It looks like a small change in emphasis, but that small flip keeps the story rather earthy, and the story focused on the here and now. This quest takes him all over town, meeting many people, some of whom are help, and others that are hostile.

On strictly artistic merits, this book is a remarkable work, using remarkable descriptions to walk you through unsettling events. The path that young Will is about to make is difficult and filled with gray. Despite allying with the Light, he spend far more time walking between the Light and the Dark than he would prefer. Susan uses her descriptions to keep you in the mood of the weather, the bleakness of the day, and the anxiety of our hero. While we know that our protagonist will be successful in the end, he never feels safe, and when not safe, the vector of his danger is always a matter of doubt.

The book is broken into three acts, emphasizing its screenplay roots. The descriptions of magic and the supernatural retain their celluloid flair, easily filmable through inexpensive techniques of lighting, music, ambiance, crossfades and cuts, although the ending did have a bigger special effects budget that her first book. (Special effects must have been getting cheaper in that day and age, or at least more usual.)

To use the word "symbol" repeatedly is no misnomer, for Will, is tasked to find all the symbols necessary to break the grip of the Dark. With each of those symbols came meaning, some of which I recognized, at a time of meaning, with people who have meaning. There are times when those layers of meaning glow delightfully, and others when the layers lay so thick that you can't tell anything about the meaning at all.

The books is not above reproach. Will, could have been substituted by a mannequin for most of the book. "The mannequin stood there, swept along by events, witnessing another thing." Yet, the books works as a book because the books is more experiential than action. This is a book about the voyage, not path, which I find quite surprising as the first book of the series was entirely path driven. In today's writing, this type of book would not be allowed out of the modern publishing system, let along out of critique groups.

I can't say whether I loved it or hated it, but I did find the path engaging and the narrative voice poetic.