I woke up today thinking about which books have settings that have drawn me into the story. That list was disappointingly small. At the top of the list, though, was a masterpiece in setting: Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series. It's a contemporary fantasy series, published mainly in the 1970s, set in England and Wales. But to call it "contemporary fantasy" is a misnomer; it has deep roots in British history and legend, and even deeper roots in the landscapes of Susan Cooper's childhood.
There are five novels in the series: "Over Sea, Under Stone," "The Dark is Rising," "Greenwich," "The Grey King," and "Silver on the Tree." Recently I wrote a fan letter to Ms. Cooper that describes how I first encountered her series as a teen:o--o--o
I was in eighth grade, just turned fourteen, when I encountered "The Grey King" on display in my junior high school library. I passed it by a couple of times, but it had such an attractive cover that I picked up the book finally. When I realized the story had an Arthurian element, I borrowed the book. (I'd recently read "The Sword in the Stone" and the first two books in Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, so I was primed for more Arthurian fiction.) Then, when I was finished with "The Grey King," I went back and read "The Dark is Rising" and "Greenwitch." I eventually had to buy "Over Sea, Under Stone" to get my hands on it, and "Silver on the Tree" hadn't yet been published. . . .
That fall, I attended a children's book fair in Oxford and acquired a copy of the Summer 1977 issue of "School Book Shop News" (sitting by me as I write this), which had an article by you about how you came to write the Dark is Rising series. It ended with your anecdote about Oldway Lane, in which you spoke of "the precise landscape of 'The Dark is Rising,' disappearing now beneath the urban sprawl of Slough . . ."
Well, that was quite enough for me. I managed to persuade my parents - heaven knows how - to take us out on a drive on a very dark and cold Twelfth Night, in search of Oldway Lane. Since I didn't think to bring a map along, we never did locate the lane. It wouldn't be till a few years later that, with the help of Google Maps, I was able to "walk" through the landscape of "The Dark is Rising."
By age sixteen, I was deeply into the series. I taught myself a bit of Welsh, spent time in English public libraries tracking down every literary and mythical reference you dropped in the series, and converted an American friend to the series, so that I could have someone to talk about it with. (I could really have used social media in those days.) Finally, two summers after my failed expedition to find Oldway Lane, I managed to persuade my easily persuadable mother to take me and my younger brother on a trip to Wales.
So we did the full pilgrimage. We stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in Machynlleth and then set out for Aberdyfi. With my Ordnance Survey map in hand this time, we walked to Cym Maethlon, Carn March Arthur, Llyn Barfog, and the echoing stones, where I shouted, "Thou earth, thou! Speak!"
Later, we drove to Tal y Lyn and to the Church of St Cadfan. (We had some trouble dragging my brother away from the Cadfan Stone; he wanted to be an archaeologist.) I still have the photos I took with my Brownie on that trip.
What was the result of all this? Well, my interest in mythology morphed in college into an interest in religion, and I ended up working for a few years as a religion news reporter. A story I wrote a few months after our visit to Wales served as an eventual seed to a cycle of mythic fantasy series
I've been bringing out. All that history I read blossomed into editorial work for academic history publications, a cycle of alternate history series, and work as a children's history writer, a part of my career that I'm about to revive. And "The Dark is Rising" is still part of my annual Christmas reading.o--o--o
I think Harry Potter fans would probably like the Dark is Rising series; in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I found that J. K. Rowling was a fan of the series. The series share a lot of common items. But I don't find in the Harry Potter books the strong love of landscape and history that I find in the Dark is Rising series, and which gives such depth to that series.
I found it surprisingly difficult to pick a passage from the series to quote here; so much of the series's success depends on the accumulated atmosphere of suspense and wonder. But here's a passage from "The Dark is Rising" (the second book in the series) that gives a sense of how deeply rooted certain British Christmas traditions can be.o--o--o
The tall fir tree, its branches tied down with bands of hairy white string, was loaded onto the handcart, and with it the gnarled old root of a beech tree that Farmer Dawson had cut down earlier that year, split in half, and put aside to make Yule logs for himself and the Stantons. It had to be the root of a tree, not a branch, Will knew, though nobody had ever explained why. At home, they would put the log on the fire tonight in the big brick fireplace in the living room, and it would burn slowly all the evening until they went to bed. Somewhere stored away was a piece of last year's Yule log, saved to be used as kindling for its successor.
"Here," Old George said, appearing suddenly at Will's side as they all pushed the cart out of the gate. "You should have some of this." He thrust forward a great bunch of holly, heavy with berries.
"Very good of you, George," said Mr Stanton. "But we do have that big holly tree by the front door, you know. If you know anyone who hasn't--"
"No, no, you take it." The old man wagged his finger. "Not half so many berries on that bush o' yours. Partic'lar holly, this is." He laid it carefully in the cart; then quickly broke off a sprig and slipped it into the top buttonhole of Will's coat. "And a good protection against the Dark," the old voice said low in Will's ear, "if pinned over the window, and over the door."o--o--o
Susan Cooper has quite a lot to say about landscape and history in her book of essays on writing fantasy, "Dreams and Wishes." At one point, she says, "We all have places we can't get rid of, loved or hated; places which bring the past into the present. . . ."
Well, yes and no. As I grow older, I do find that I draw more and more upon my own memories of childhood places, which were mainly suburban rather than small town. But I don't think I'll ever be able to tap as deeply into place as Susan Cooper did, for a simple reason: while her primary home as a child seems to have been landscape, mine was books and television.
This is the reason why so many of my stories are set inside buildings. That's not an accident; that's been a deliberate choice on my part. Writing about landscape is tough for me, unless it's inside landscape; I've spent so much of my life inside. And most of that time has been spent with books or with screens.
There have been times when I strove with all my heart to create and love a fictional landscape. One time is with Chronicles of the Great Peninsula
, and for this, I owe a lot to Parhelion
. Parhelion had volunteered to create a map of the Three Lands of the Great Peninsula for me. I had a vague sense of what the peninsula looked like; I sent that to her in the form of a sketch. What Parhelion gave me back - through the map
and through a series of e-mails - was an entire physical geography for the Great Peninsula and surrounding environs, complete with climate regions and - I kid you not - prevailing ocean currents.
It was amazing and inspiring, and I wish I could say I'd done as much work in that area as Parhelion did. I didn't, because of my lack of background in such matters. But I did make an effort to dig deeper into the history that underlies the Great Peninsula, which is starting to affect what the peninsula looks like. There's a scene in Breached Boundaries
that you'll encounter later, set in a town called Emorton; that town wouldn't exist if I hadn't tried to dig into history.
But the Great Peninsula continues to be a conundrum for me, mainly because I came at it in such a hodgepodge fashion, adding bits and pieces as I went. The realest pieces continue to be the people, and any landscape I create is in response to my characters' dilemmas. There are definite advantages to this. I never have to tear out a pretty piece of landscape because it plays no real role in the story. The problem is remembering to put the landscape into the story in the first place.
The other landscape that I have used in my stories is, of course, the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, which ended up being the setting for Turn-of-the-Century Toughs
. I say it "ended up being the setting" because it wasn't, to start with. I wrote The Eternal Dungeon, Michael's House, and Life Prison for years without any concept that these series were set anywhere except in an imaginary world.
That changed when I began writing the first and third stories in Master and Servant
. I went to a Chesapeake island to do research on what islands are like, and I fell in love with that particular
island, Hoopers Island. I wanted to write about Hoopers Island, not about a wholly imaginary island. So I came home, took the map of my imaginary world, superimposed it on a map of the Mid-Atlantic (with Maryland at the center) . . .
. . . and it didn't fit. I glared at the maps for a while, thought a lot, and then tilted the map of my imaginary world so that its north pointed east. And then
the map fit atop the map of the Mid-Atlantic
, to a frightening degree.
You won't notice this switch in the current e-books; I went back and changed the direction markers. I also set out to determine exactly where my stories were located. For example, Vovim City, the setting of Michael's House
, became Pittsburgh. Lo and behold
, Pittsburgh has an old theatrical district, south of which is a bridge over a river, and south of that is a manufacturing district with a high hill on it, and on top of that hill was once a mansion . . . just like I'd already described in Michael's House. It was eerie.
The rest of the locations took a bit more tucking into place, but eventually I'd given all of my imaginary places real homes to live in, and man, did it make a difference to my series. Suddenly my cycle had roots in real places and real history, and this made my stories feel more real, at least to me. I don't know what effect it has had on my readers.
So it has taken me decades as a writer to begin to have that "love of landscape and its history" that drew me so deeply and so hard into the Dark is Rising series. But without Susan Cooper's series, I might not have found it at all.