The Dark Is Rising, Handspan and Rob Colling’s kantele

There is something incredibly evocative and magical about a childrens’ novel set during a harsh, snow-bound winter… The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has inspired many an inquisitive child to tap excitedly on the back of their parents’ wardrobe in search of Narnian pine trees and the distant glow of a flickering lamp-post, and The Box of Delights introduces the mysteries of medieval magic into a very traditional 1930s Christmas; a riot of snowy scrobblings and festive skulduggery.

Susan Cooper’s 1973 novel The Dark Is Rising continues this tradition, bringing sinister folkloric forces into the household of an ordinary 1970s family, snowed into their home in an idyllical Buckinghamshire village. As youngest child Will Stanton celebrates his 11th birthday on Midwinter’s Eve, with Christmas excitement mounting, he unexpectedly inherits his destiny as an “Old One”, a guardian of The Light, charged with a quest to vanquish the burgeoning powers of The Dark, whose presence threatens to bury the Thames Valley in both Arctic snow drifts and ancient malevolence.

The book is the second instalment of Cooper’s acclaimed, five-book Dark Is Rising saga, but seems to have acquired its own independent status and associated fanbase, perhaps specifically because of its association with childhood Christmases and the heart-bursting, magical minutae of a harsh winter… the crunch of morning wellies in deep, overnight snow; the slate-grey afternoon skies and finger-biting winds that foretell the storms to come. Certainly those qualities have driven musician Rob Cooper – originally from my native Teesside, but now living in Finland – to create an album of beautiful, vintage-sounding folktronica inspired by the moods of the book.

Simply called The Dark Is Rising, the album was released on cassette by The Dark Outside label in 2018, but is now available to download. I spoke to Rob, live from his remote Finland home, for my BBC Tees Evening Show. This is how the conversation went…

Bob: I’m going to start be asking you the most British question imaginable… what’s the weather like in Finland?

Rob: The weather is absolutely beautiful! There’s no wind, very few clouds, and it’s just about getting to the time of year when we get an hour or two of darkness again, after a couple of months of having no dark at all. So it’s a weird time to be releasing The Dark Is Rising when there’s no flipping dark around!

It’s a very snow-bound book, too… are you also going to tell me there’s no snow on the ground at this time of year?

Not in July, no. It’s generally about 20-30 degrees all the time, so I’m sitting here going… oh god, The Light Is Rising!

You should have waited six months and put the album out in December…

I did think about that, but as you probably know, it came out on cassette on Midwinter’s Eve 2018, six months ago, and that was the perfect match, as Midwinter’s Eve is the day when the story starts in the book. But I had to wait until we’d finished selling the cassette version before releasing the download. And I didn’t really want to wait a full year until Midwinter’s Eve rolled around again. So I thought I’d release it on Midsummer’s Eve!

The book is all about the dark and the light, and the conflict between the two. For some periods of history the dark is winning, and through other periods the light is winning, so I thought OK… this is the ying-and-yang. We can do the cassette album when it’s darkest, and the digital album when it’s lightest. And it matched the whole theme of the cassette as well, as the actual cassette shell was half black and half white. I don’t know, it’s easy to get carried away with these things…

The book itself came out in 1973, and I’d assumed that it was a big childhood favourite of yours, but that’s not the case, is it? Did you discover it later in life?

Yes, as I believe you did as well?

Yes, I was about forty when I first read it.


Well, it was one of those books that some of the kids around me read, and I seem to remember a teacher or two recommending it… and I saw it sometimes in the library and thought it looked interesting, but I just never got round to it. I don’t know why, as it seemed right up my street… but when I was that age there was a lot of good fiction around, and I was reading and reading, and I just never got to that one. It never reached the top of the list.

So time passed, and I’d forgotten about it, but we were here in Finland, and I was looking for books for my daughter. I guess at the time she would have been about eight or nine, so I was looking in the kids’ section of the library here in Joensuu In Finland… and it’s enormous. It’s nearly the size of the whole of Gateshead Library, where I used to go! And they have an English language section, so I was looking through that, and I picked up The Dark is Rising and thought… “Oooh, actually, that looks good.” And I read the first few pages, and it was… “Wooah, this is really good!” So we did it as a bedtime story, and every time I read any of it, there was always music happening in my mind. And I thought… I’d better do something with this.

Can we talk about the plot a little? It’s a book set in a small village in Buckinghamshire, and the main character is an 11-year-old boy called Will Stanton, who discovers that he’s an “Old One”, put on this earth to fight the powers of darkness. And this all takes place at Christmas amidst a very frozen, snowy landscape, created by the powers of darkness themselves…

Yes, although we don’t find that out to begin with! To ordinary people,  who aren’t mixed up in this conflict between light and dark that’s going on behind the scenes, it just seems like a really nasty winter. Which we had a couple of in the 1970s… I remember being sent home from school because of various strikes, and things being shut down. We had a hideous winter in 1976, when the whole country just ground to a halt. And to an ordinary person, that’s what it looks like… but, as we find out in the book, it’s actually down to the age-old forces of light and darkness, going since time immemorial! And it’s a wonderful story that ties in everything from ancient British customs, to Stonehenge and Merlin. Herne the Hunter is in there, too… it’s like a meta version of every English folk myth there’s ever been.

And all of this spoke to you?

It did. It isn’t orcs and elves and goblins, it doesn’t feel like it’s a million miles away. It feels like it’s rooted in the super old pathways and roads of England; it feels real and domestic. But also it’s contrasted with ordinary household life… an ordinary Christmas that an ordinary famly is having. And I remember all of that, as well. The wooden windowframes letting in a bit of a draft, and stamping your snow off your wellies by the back door.

And I think it’s the fact that those two things are juxtaposed so closely in the book – you’ll go from a situation where Will’s in a bright, beautiful kitchen with the log fire burning and the whole family making fun of each other, then he’ll walk out into the back yard and find that the rooks have all gone nuts, because an agent of the Dark is walking by – it’s just very real, somehow. It feels like a kind of magic and fantasy that’s not too far from the surface.

And how did you transpose those feelings into a musical context? I’ve seen you say you that you imagined a 1973 BBC adaptation, and the soundtrack that it might have had…

Yeah, exactly. It’s a little bit before my time, but I’m very into that period of music. I collect old electronic instruments, and I’m really into the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. I just remember so many series from when I was a kid, things like The Box of Delights, Day of the Triffids, Doctor Who… even Robin of Sherwood. They would come along and you’d sit down in a normal, bright living room, and have the pants scared off you. And it would partly be these cheap and nasty video effects that they would use, but partly this sense of weirdness… and because it was all on analogue film, there’d be a kind of knotty heart of it that you couldn’t quite see. There was a certain, dreamlike “What if…”? feeling.

But a big part of it was the music, as well. So I just imagined that the BBC had made a series of it – which they never actually did – and that they’d given it to the Radiophonic Workshop to do the music. So I thought – what would they have done at the time? And I looked around me and thought… well, I’ve got a lot of the instruments that they would have used, modular synthesizers that you plug in like a telephone exchange, and they seemed to create just the right atmosphere. I don’t ever remember consciously thinking “What sort of music would this be…?” I just thought these melodies sounded like they belonged on a modular synth, or a folk instrument paired with something on a big old synthesizer. That was the sound that felt right when I started putting it together.

You learned to play some new instruments specifically for this project, didn’t you? Including the Finnish kantele?

Yeah, there are three or four instruments on it that I learned to play. I play a few instruments anyway, so when you hear things like a bass guitar on there, that’s just me. But yeah, I thought some of the melodies that were coming into my head were folk melodies. Really old-sounding folk melodies, that had been floating around in the cosmos for 2000 years waiting for my head to come along! You can’t play all of those on the synthesizer, so I thought “OK… let’s play some folk instuments.” And I don’t play any folk instruments, so I had to sit down and learn a few of them.

So there’s some accordion on there, some cahon, a wind instrument called a xaphoon that’s halfway between a clarinet and a recorder, and there’s a Turkish instrument called a cura that I found in a backstreet shop in Istanbul, it’s a bit like a mandolin. But yeah, the kantele is Finnish. At its most basic, it’s just a thing with tuning pegs hammered into it, and cutting wire on it. it’s a very basic instument that’s lasted for thousands of years. And they have this whole tradition here in Finland of “Song Poety”… they recite poetry in a  semi-song form, with the kantele as your musical accompaniment. It’s very limited, there are no frets or anything… whatever the strings are tuned to, that’s the noise that comes out!

The obvious question to ask amidst of all this… is how did you end up living in Finland in the first place?

That’s a valid question, isn’t it? My wife got a job here… she works in publications, and got a job with the European Forest Institute, which is based out here in Joensuu. We were both freelancing, based at home, a bit fed up with it… and we thought “Let’s just find a job somewhere else”. So we had a bit of a race to see who could apply for the most jobs around Europe, and we made a deal and said whoever got one first… we’d go there! And this is the one that came up, in a place called Joensuu in Eastern Finland. We’d never heard of it, we had to get out a map when they offered her an interview and say “Where the hell is this…” and it turns out it’s the most beautiful place. There are so few people here, but thousands of lakes – it’s got the greatest density of lakes anywhere in Europe, and just a staggering amount of forest.

Do you live out in the woods, then?

Kind of! We’re only four or five kilometres out of town, but you can forget that there’s anything nearby for long periods of time. We have a back garden… and then forest. And you can go off and wander around the forest… any time I was short of imspriation for the album, I’d just go and take a stroll. And I’d immediately feel like I was in the book, in those very snowy forests from the novel.

It sounds idyllic...

It wasn’t hard to get inspired! And then in winter, it gets down to about -35 degrees, and we get a metre and a half of snow. So that side of things was quite easy to imagine, too! I was writing songs based around the winter, and all I had to do was go outside the front door and crunch around a bit in this waist-high snow, and think.. yeah, this what it would feel like to be snowed in by The Dark!

Thanks to Rob a fascinating chat, and for the photos of his local woodland – the two wonderful pictures above are Rob’s own. His album, The Dark Is Rising, is available now from…

https://handspan.bandcamp.com

And a little tip that the next printed version of The Haunted Generation column will be in the Fortean Times magazine, issue 383… on the shelves on Thursday 15th August.



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