Once heard, the chant is not easily forgotten: “When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;/three from the circle, three from the track...” It is a spell-song against harm, and it is sung to keep evil at bay in the eeriest novel I know, Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” (1973). Sometimes, when I am walking by myself, I keep pace to its rhythm: “Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;/Five will return and one go alone.”
Cooper lives in Massachusetts but her book, the second in a series of five, is set in a village in Buckinghamshire, where she was born. All the usual pastoral props are in place: red-tiled farms with apple-cheeked dairymaids, beech hangers and hedgerows, a churchyard with yews. But this is only a stage set, soon to collapse—for Cooper is concerned not with Olde Englande, but with uncanny England, deep England, eldritch England.
It is Midwinter Eve, four days short of Christmas and one short of the 11th birthday of a boy named Will Stanton. Far to the north a snowstorm is brewing, and things are not as they “normally” are in the landscape around. Animals are restless, rooks clatter from the treetops to swirl blackly above the fields. Local people have seen these signs before—they know what is coming. Warnings are issued: “This night will be bad,” an old farmer tells Will, “and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” And so it is.
Re-reading the opening pages of this book, I feel again a lurch in the stomach-pit and a nerve-prickle down the right side of my neck. Why does fear touch us in those places on the body? Why does Cooper’s prose possess such power to disturb? I feel the same when I return to the ghost stories of M.R. James, or to Alan Garner’s “The Owl Service”. These are fictions not of horror but of dread: what Will calls “a shadowy awareness of evil”. They show more than they tell, and taken together they form a tradition of the English eerie. Something far stronger and stranger is at work in them than the Agatha Christie idea that every sleepy village has its poisoner, or the squint-eyed rustic-gothic that Stella Gibbons mocked so sharply in “Cold Comfort Farm”.
In Cooper’s novel, the English landscape is a battleground upon which a millennia-old conflict is fought. Time flickers quickly across it. Will wakes on Midwinter Day to discover a changed world: snow has blanketed the countryside overnight, and a “great white forest” of oaks has arisen that stretches to the horizon. His family are all sunk in unrousably deep sleep. He leaves his farmhouse on foot, and out in that winter countryside discovers himself to be an “Old One”: an ancient “keeper of the Light”, whose task is to restrain the Dark as its huge force waxes.
Much of the novel takes place on or near an ancient path that runs close to Will’s home. He knows it first as Huntercombe Lane or Tramps’ Alley, but later by its “real name” of Oldway Lane. The path has been both harrowed and hallowed into the land by the passage of feet, and to the keepers of the light it is a site of great power. While upon it, they cannot be harmed by their enemies.
I first read “The Dark is Rising” in my mid-teens, and it roused a lifelong fascination for old paths and tracks, and the names by which they go, on maps and in memory. For five years, I walked these “old ways” wherever I found them—coffin-routes, pilgrim-paths, ridings, dumbles and snickets—in England, Scotland and abroad. Cooper was often in my mind, and occasionally things occurred that were inexplicable by the usual means. A pair of vast glowing eyes seen in the darkness that could belong to no local creature. Screams from the treetops as I spent the night on Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs. Projections of my own longings and fears? Ghosts of Cooper’s prose? Impossible now to say.