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Susan Cooper’s land of shadows

BBC Sounds brings to life the folkloric fantasy The Dark is Rising, with vivid and immersive storytelling.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

You will always remember how some books reached you. I’m not sure how old I was – probably about nine – when my mum’s dear friend Jane pushed a copy of Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone into my hands at her coastal home in Jersey, but I do remember how excited I was to read it there. This story of three children on holiday with a family friend in Cornwall soon morphs into something mythic and ancient, as they unearth old maps, clues, riddles, hidden treasure, and a great Arthurian legend. Soon, I had moved on to The Dark is Rising, and the rest of Cooper’s folkloric fantasy series.  

Now considered cult classics, these are the kind of children’s stories that readers keep talking about well into adulthood. Cooper has influenced writers including David Mitchell, Helen Macdonald, Max Porter, Katherine Rundell and Jack Thorne, as well as Simon McBurney and Robert Macfarlane, who have turned The Dark is Rising into an eerie radio drama for the BBC World Service that makes for irresistible midwinter listening. Having originally aired on the dates on which the book is set – from 20 December, the eve of young Will Stanton’s 11th birthday, to New Year’s Eve – all episodes are now on BBC Sounds.

Cooper’s novel, published in 1973, casts the shadows of British lore all over her Thames Valley setting. The novel opens as “snow lay thin and apologetic over the world”, a “wide grey sweep” under a grey sky. Will longs for a deep blanket of white snow, but when it finally comes the world seems different, stranger and more dangerous. Soon he learns there is an evil in the world, and he is one of only a few who can stop it: “When the dark comes rising, six shall turn it back.” Cooper’s language is rhythmic and enchanting, perfect for radio, read by McBurney’s rich voice; the performances, by actors including Harriet Walter and Toby Jones, are sinister and vivid. There is original music from Johnny Flynn, and the sound design – the creak of snow, whispered voices, the rustling of horses – is totally immersive, and best listened to through headphones.

The Dark is Rising
BBC Sounds

[See also: BBC Radio 4’s Raiders of the Lost Archive explores the world of “audio archaeologists” and missing tapes]

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege