Will Cuppy

This is the 59th anniversary of the death of the great American satirist Will Cuppy. Not as familiar or as widely read today as he should be, Cuppy was a very popular essayist and reviewer during his lifetime. And although a very private, even reclusive individual, he was well-known and respected in the literary world of his day. He published articles in the New Yorker, wrote the “Mystery and Adventure” review column for the New York Herald-Tribune, and also wrote for the Saturday Evening Post. In the 1940s he was the editor of three collections of stories in the crime and mystery genre.

But his finest works were his books of satirical essays and stories about nature and historical figures, starting with How to Be a Hermit in 1929. That book grew out of Cuppy’s experience keeping house for himself (he never married) in a shack on New York’s Jones Island. It became an immediate best-seller when it appeared and went through six printings in four months. It was followed by How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes in 1931, How to Become Extinct in 1941, and How to Attract the Wombat in 1949.

However, the book he’s most remembered for today (and my favorite) is The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, which was pulled together by his friend and editor Fred Feldkamp, and published posthumously in 1950. It’s a wonderfully researched, and at times absolutely hilarious, book about the great figures of history from Khufu and Hatshepsut in ancient Egypt, to Captain John Smith and Miles Standish in Colonial America.

Cuppy was very serious about his subject matter, even though he was writing in a comic and satirical vein. According to Feldkamp:

. . . before writing a line on any topic – or even thinking about what he might write – he would read every volume and article on the subject that he could find – including, in many cases, obscure books no longer available in this country. This was standard operating procedure, whether the topic in question was the Giant Ground Sloth or Catherine the Great.

After having absorbed this exhaustive amount of material, he would make notes on little 3-by-5 index cards, which he would then file under the appropriate subheading in a card-file box. Usually he would amass hundreds and hundreds of these cards in several boxes, before beginning to block out his piece.

This research and scholarship shows itself, at least in the case of The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, in the hundreds of humorous footnotes that accompany the text. And although Cuppy’s work is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, you’re always aware that it really does contain quite a lot of legitimate historical fact, which somehow makes it even funnier. Cuppy employs a pseudo-scholarly tone, and the humor is gentle but relentless, and builds throughout each piece – which makes it difficult to give examples. But I’ll try a couple.

The book’s second tale, “Hatshepsut,” ends with this paragraph and its accompanying footnote:

Thutmose III died in 1447 B.C. in the fifty-fourth year of his reign, or the thirty-second counting from the death of Hatshepsut. None of his obelisks, inscribed with whopping big lies about his seventeen campaigns, remained in Egypt. They were picked up as souvenirs and carried to distant lands. One of them, known as Cleopatra’s Needle, although it has nothing to do with Cleopatra and never had, is now in Central Park, New York City, where it causes passers-by to pause for a moment in the day’s rush and inquire: “What the hell is that?” It is called Cleopatra’s Needle because the world is full of people who think up those things. If you ask me, it always will be.
[Footnote: In the reign of Amenhotep IV, or Ikhnaton, the Hittites grew so strong that the Egyptian Empire fell apart. I forget, at the moment, what became of the Hittites.]

Or, another example, toward the end of the chapter on William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda:

The Bayeux Tapestry is accepted as an authority on many details of life and the fine points of history in the eleventh century. For instance, the horses in those days had green legs, blue bodies, yellow manes, and red heads, while the people were all double-jointed and quite different from what we generally think of as human beings. . . .
[Footnote: I don’t know who the people were who made the thing, but I know plenty of people just like them.]

Maybe just a bit more (I love this stuff). Here are a couple of excerpts from the chapter on Hannibal, about the Carthaginians:

Meanwhile the Carthaginians grew richer and richer by peddling linens, woolen goods, dyestuffs, glassware, porcelains, metalwork, household supplies, porch furniture, and novelties all along the Mediterranean. They used a system of barter to start with, but they soon found out that there’s nothing like money. They had learned most of their tricks from their parents, the Phoenicians, who were the most skillful traders of antiquity.
[Footnote: They sailed by the stars at night, depending chiefly upon the North Star. Ask a friend to point out the North Star some night and see what happens.]

Phoenician sailors were the first to establish intercourse with foreigners, an idea which soon proved its worth all over the world. Nobody had thought of it before.
[Footnote: The Phoenicians employed an alphabet of twenty-one consonants. They left no literature. You can’t be literary without a few vowels.]

Will Cuppy died on September 19, 1949, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. He’d been suffering from declining health and depression, and had taken an overdose of sleeping pills ten days earlier. Decline and Fall was published a year later in 1950, and a second posthumous volume, How to Get from January to December followed in 1951. Sadly, most of his works have gone out of print over the decades. But a check of online sources shows that Barnes & Noble have an edition of Decline and Fall listed, and Amazon.com indicates David R. Godine is apparently bringing out a new edition of the book, scheduled to appear this month. And that’s good news indeed – everyone should know Will Cuppy.

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Review: The Gargoyle

Written by Andrew Davidson
Published by Doubleday, 2008, 468 pages
This review refers to an advance reading copy of the book

Just a short note about The Gargoyle. There’s not a great deal to say about the book that hasn’t already been said, and said again. Unless you’ve been buried in a coal mine for the last few months, or out mapping the migration of the yellow-headed parrot through Ecuador, by now you’ve heard all about Andrew Davidson’s best-selling debut novel.

Briefly, it’s the story of a nameless (unless I’m mistaken?) porn film maker who is badly burned in an auto accident. This happens in the first chapter, and the next hundred or so pages are mainly filled with pretty gruesome details about his hospital treatment and recovery. If Davidson were a less talented writer, most readers would probably give up somewhere around page 7 when the doctors are performing their first “escharotomy” – slicing through the main character’s charred skin with scalpels to give the swollen tissue room to expand.

But if you hang on, you get to the best part of the story. One day, a beautiful and mysterious sculptress of gargoyles appears suddenly at the burn victim’s bedside and begins to tell him tales of their lives as lovers in an earlier incarnation, hundreds of years ago. She insists her stories are true; and over the next months, she takes him into her home, nursing him back to health, and giving him more and more details about their former lives together. She tells him stories of other lovers, too. And reads Dante to him. And cooks him elaborate feasts. And takes him for midnight swims at the beach. All the while, madly sculpting more and more of her “grotesques” – until eventually their situations are reversed and our hero has to begin looking after his caretaker.

This is a first novel and, of course, it shows. It’s not fine literature, but it’s a darn good read. I took it to the beach this summer, and it kept me up late every night. The characters are engaging, and there’s quite a lot of humor for a book about such an appalling situation. It’s a really good love story – no, it’s several really good love stories. And it even has a bit of a literary mystery thrown in at the end. It’ll make a terrific movie – I wonder if Johnny Depp has read it.

Review: The Fires

Written by Alan Cheuse
Published by The Santa Fe Writers Project, 2007, 113 pages

The pair of short novellas that together make up Alan Cheuse’s The Fires are excellently crafted and emotionally compelling works exploring themes of memory, love, loss, and renewal. As I read them I was often reminded of J.D. Salinger – almost as if we’d dropped back in on Franny and Zooey, now in their middle years with adult problems (and problem children) of their own. I’m not sure whether or not Cheuse would like to hear that, but for me it’s a great compliment.

In the first work (also titled “The Fires”), Gina Morgan, middle aged and menopausal, must travel to Uzbekistan to deal with the complications of retrieving her dead husband’s body after he’s killed in an auto accident. If that’s not bad enough, she also has the problem of carrying out his last wish – to be cremated – in a Muslim country where cremation isn’t practiced. In “The Exorcism,” Tom Swanson must deal with the aftermath of his daughter’s expulsion from college for setting fire to a grand piano in the college concert hall. Thus, the two instances of fire, another uniting element.

There was really only one part of the two novellas that I felt was something of a let down, and that was Cheuse’s use of the sudden, unexpected return of menstrual flow as a convenient metaphor for renewal and rebirth. (Didn’t Erica Jong use this, too? Maybe I’m not remembering exactly – it’s been a lot of years since I read about Isadora Wing and her high-flying zipless sexual escapades.) Anyway, it bothered me, and it was the only part of the story that seemed a bit forced. And I also kept worrying about when the poor woman was going to find a pharmacy in the midst of all her other problems.

I enjoyed The Fires so much I immediately sat down and read it over a second time – something I rarely do, even with short works. And I think it will stand up to many re-readings. These are very fine stories by a gifted and insightful writer.

Review: Love and the Incredibly Old Man

Written by Lee Siegel
Published by University of Chicago Press, 2008, 227 pages

Lee Siegel’s Love and the Incredibly Old Man is a novel about a professor and novelist named Lee Siegel who agrees to ghost write the memoirs of a man claiming to be Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador who explored Florida and, legend has it, went in search of the Fountain of Youth. According to Mr. de León’s story, he actually found the life-sustaining fountain and is now over five hundred years old. But the fountain, alas, has run dry; and now the ancient explorer is facing his fast-approaching end of days. He wants his story told, and he thinks Mr. Siegel is just the man to do it. And after he offers the writer a massive amount of money for the job, Mr. Siegel thinks Mr. Siegel is just the man to do it, too.

Mr. de León has had five wives over the centuries and loved countless other women (in fact, at times it seems he’s made love to just about every woman he ever met, including the Queen of Spain). He’s been an actor and masqueraded as a priest. He’s taken on many different identities over the centuries, to avoid having his secret found out. And he claims to have discovered cigars, rum, and popcorn.

The story unfolds mainly through daily interviews between Siegel and de León, alternating with the writer’s night-time attempts to pull together some kind of a manuscript that will pass muster with his employer. Juan Ponce has definite ideas about what he wants the book to be. It’s to be about love in all its forms (“Love and time, love and age, love and death. Love true and false, glorious and foolish, tragic and comic.”) and it must tell his unbelievable story in a way that will make people believe it.

Well, by the end of Love and the Incredibly Old Man, I think Mr. Siegel and Mr. Siegel have both done their jobs pretty well. It’s a tall tale, but one you’d really like to believe.

To be honest, I never would have chosen this book on my own. I received it through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, and (even though it was one of the titles I requested) at first glance I really thought maybe the famous LT algorithm had experienced a major glitch this time. But I guess they knew what they were doing after all, because in the end I found myself really enjoying the book. Sometimes it’s good to step outside your comfort zone and treat yourself to something new and unfamiliar.

Still, it’s probably not a book for everyone – a lot of it is very bawdy and mildly pornographic. Not a lot happens – it’s mostly description, not action. And the first third of the book, with de León telling Siegel over and over how he wants the book written, I found really tedious after a while. But overall, it’s an imaginative, erotic, and very funny piece of metafiction.

Review: The Aviary Gate

Written by Katie Hickman
Published by Bloomsbury, 2008, 341 pages

We come here as slaves, all of us: slaves of the Sultan. We give up everything, even our names. It is a strange fact – don’t you think? – that not one of us was born Ottoman, or even a Muslim. Not one of us. There is nothing to unite us except the fact that we have the honour to be the Sultan’s women. And do not forget this, . . . : there is no higher honour.” [p. 55]

 

I so very much did not want to like this book. Yes, I did request an advance reading copy from Bloomsbury. But I was guilty of doing something I hardly ever do – asking for a book I knew absolutely nothing about. I almost always do quite a lot of research on an author or any given book before I buy it or request a reading copy. Not this time, though. And from the reclining odalisque with the come-hither stare on the cover, to the jacket flap description of “a rare glimpse into the forbidden confines of the Sultan’s harem,” the whole package just screamed “bodice-ripper” and “not my kind of story.”

But guess what. You know that old adage about not judging a book by its cover? Well, it’s been proven true once again. Even though, the whole time I was reading The Aviary Gate, I kept telling myself I should not enjoy it – I did.

Can a Barbara Cartland marathon be far behind?

No, seriously, although it certainly has elements of the romance novel, The Aviary Gate is nothing like a Harlequin. It’s a thoroughly engrossing historical tale of murder and intrigue in the Sultan’s harem in 16th Century Constantinople, juxtaposed with the story of a present-day academic whose research brings the episode to light.

Based partly on fact, Hickman’s novel shifts back and forth between the story of Celia Lamprey, a sea captain’s daughter lost in a late-16th Century shipwreck and sold into slavery at the Sultan’s court, and that of Elizabeth Staveley, the Oxford researcher who becomes obsessed with finding out what actually happened to the young woman. Did she escape the Sultan’s harem and return to England? Was she rescued by diplomat Paul Pindar, the man she was engaged to at the time of the shipwreck? Did she live out her life as a Sultan’s concubine? Or was she somehow involved in the poisoning of the Sultan’s chief black eunuch and possibly imprisoned or even executed?

Well, I’m not going to give away the ending – I’ll just say it wasn’t really what I expected. But then the entire book was a pleasant surprise. And some of it was just, well, surprising. Like the descriptions of a 16th Century version of a bikini-wax session, and the mechanics of producing eunuchs to guard the Sultan’s harem (actually, I could have done without that last episode altogether).

The book does have its flaws. Some of the dialogue sounds a little too modern to be thoroughly believable Elizabethan speech: One of the characters agrees with another by remarking “I’ll say!” and another expresses his doubt about the success of a plan by arguing that “we’ll be dead meat.” And the current-day story frequently seems rather lackluster in comparison with the thrills and escapades of the Sultan’s palace. Perhaps the fact that Hickman’s earlier work was mostly nonfiction might have something to do with that.

One of the interesting things the novel points out is just how much power women could attain in the ancient harem system. There were, of course, the “powers behind the throne” – the Sultan’s mother, and chief wives and concubines. But for the other most-favored slaves, there was also the possibility of a marriage outside the court, to a rich and powerful nobleman or merchant. These women were highly sought after because of their ties to the royal circle.

The Aviary Gate is a fascinating combination of academic mystery, historical adventure, and thrilling love story. I can heartily recommend it as a romance novel for people who hate romance novels.

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Published by The Dial Press, 2008, 274 pages
This review refers to an uncorrected advance proof of the novel

When I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program, I had a few misgivings about starting it. For one thing, it has such a cutesy title. And it’s an epistolary novel which made me dubious right away. Novels written in the form of letters are some of the hardest to pull off successfully – I know because I’ve tried it myself, with absolutely ghastly results.

But I needn’t have worried. This is a wonderful little book. Some other reviewers have called it “perfect.” I’m not sure I’d go that far – but if it’s not perfect, it’s a very near miss.

With just a few exceptions, the letters that tell the story are written by or to Miss Juliet Ashton, a young writer living in London, right after World War II. It’s 1946 and England is struggling with the dreadful aftermath of the war – rationing is still in effect and the horror of the war is still fresh in everyone’s memories.

Juliet is floundering a bit, looking for a subject for her next book and not having much luck. And then one day she receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams, a farmer living on the Channel Island of Guernsey. He has acquired a book that once belonged to Juliet – her name and address were written inside the front cover. The book is the Selected Essays of Elia, by Charles Lamb, and Mr. Adams has fallen in love with the book and its author. He asks Juliet if she could send him the name and address of a bookstore in London where he can order more of Lamb’s books by mail. He also makes brief mention of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which he says came into being because of a roast pig the Islanders were trying to keep secret from the German soldiers who occupied the island during the war.

Her curiosity piqued, Juliet writes back to Dawsey Adams and their correspondence begins. Gradually, other members of the Island literary group join in and Juliet gets to know them all through their tales of the books and authors they’ve discovered. She learns about their daily lives in Guernsey, and also hears about the hardships and trauma they experienced during the war which brought the German army to their island. Juliet and the Islanders become more and more caught up in each other’s lives, until they eventually invite her to visit them, and she quickly accepts the invitation. And her visit has a powerful, life-changing effect on both Juliet and her new friends.

This is one of those rare books that will have you laughing and crying at the same time. It’s witty and warm and moving, with a few surprise twists thrown in along the way – a love story, and a celebration of literature and books and the people who read and write them. And it even has a description of the Potato Peel Pie of the title!

Oh, and Oscar Wilde makes an appearance, as well.

Review: My Fantoms

Written by Théophile Gautier
Translated by Richard Holmes
Published by New York Review Books, 2008, 194 pages
This review refers to an uncorrected advance proof of the book

In these seven examples of the short Gothic work by 19th Century French writer Théophile Gautier, tapestries, statues, and corpses come to life, and young men are seduced and ruined by other-worldly visitors – labeled “fantoms” by translator Richard Holmes.

In “The Adolescent,” a young man has nightly encounters with a beautiful goddess woven into a tapestry in his uncle’s summer-house. In “The Priest,” an aging cleric looks back on his youthful infatuation with a lovely but just slightly undead courtesan who used his blood to keep herself young and beautiful. “The Painter” is the tale of an artist who may have been possessed by a demon, or possibly just “driven mad by cause or causes unknown.” The narrator of “The Opium Smoker” describes his erotic hallucination involving a dead opera singer. The young performer in “The Actor” learns that no one can portray the Devil like the Devil himself. And in “The Tourist,” a visitor to the ruins in Pompeii becomes obsessed with a “lump of molten lava” which has solidified around one of the victims of Vesuvius, and left a perfect impression of her body.

The last piece in the book, “The Poet,” is actually a character sketch of Gautier’s friend, Gérard de Nerval, who committed suicide in 1855 by hanging himself from a window grating. It was through Nerval that Gautier met Victor Hugo. And it was Hugo who inspired the young Gautier to abandon his aspirations to be a painter, and take up writing instead.

The stories, especially “The Adolescent,” have a very Edgar Allan Poe feel about them, but are much more overtly erotic than Poe’s work. As Holmes says in his Introduction, Gautier’s fantomsare all seductresses, ravishing mischief-makers, soft-hearted vampires, generous courtesans, fatal temptresses, or simply ardent thousand year-old muses. What they have in common is that all of them come back from the dead, seeking human lovers.”

Gautier’s work also has a witty and, at times, almost whimsical quality that you would not expect to find in Poe’s tales. This doesn’t mean the stories aren’t creepy – they most definitely are that. Holmes says that “catching the exact pitch and tone of Gautier’s stories, with their high decorative finish, and their various deflections of wit and lubricity, was not easy.” But he seems to have done a laudable job.

Holmes also provides quite a lot of background information on Gautier and his times, and the history of his own involvement with Gautier’s works. I would definitely recommend reading all of this (especially his Postscript) before undertaking the stories themselves.

Review: Mrs. Malory and Death By Water

Written by Hazel Holt
Published by Signet Books, 2003, 248 pp.

Not long ago I found myself in need of an outfit to wear to a funeral. And, determined not to have to shop for anything new, I ended up burrowing deep into my closet, pulling out a couple of garment bags full of “wedding/funeral stuff,” and spending an entire afternoon sorting and trying on. Well, about two hours into my quest, I suddenly realized what a very “Barbara Pym” scene it was. But then I thought no, not Barbara – more like Sheila Malory.

Sheila Malory is the fiftyish (or I suppose, by now sixtyish) amateur sleuth at the center of Hazel Holt’s “Mrs. Malory” series of mysteries. Sheila is a widow who lives in the fictional English seaside village of Taviscombe. She’s sensible and witty and erudite and self-deprecating, and she makes her own marmalade and scones. She has a grown son (who goes from university to law practice during the course of the series), a dog named Tris, and a cat named Foss. She is “deeply involved in local activities,” always helping plan the annual Christmas Fayre, or rounding up jumble for a sale to benefit Help the Aged. She’s also a writer of “the occasional volume of literary criticism – mostly about the more obscure Victorian novelists.” And in her spare time (!) she solves local murder mysteries.

The Mrs. Malory books are “cozy” mysteries, so there’s very little violence or overt nastiness. The deaths take place “offstage,” and most don’t even seem like murders at first – the victims are usually (but not always) elderly or ill, so that their deaths don’t strike anyone as too surprising or suspicious. But once Mrs. Malory starts nosing around and putting two and two together, murder always outs (how’s that for a nice chain of mixed metaphors or references or something?).

In Mrs. Malory and Death By Water (issued as Leonora in the UK), Sheila’s dear friend Leonora Staveley, a legendary journalist and foreign correspondent now in her eighties, is found dead from drinking contaminated water. And although the cause of death seems surprising, Sheila at first accepts it as not unlikely – Leonora lived alone in an out-of-the-way country cottage, with a large assortment of domestic and farm animals roaming around the place. So a contaminated water supply doesn’t seem out of the question.

But in her will, Leonora has left her voluminous library to Sheila. And once Sheila starts sorting through all the books and papers, she begins to see the death as suspicious – especially after a few questions arise about some of Leonora’s other bequests. And then there’s the fact that Leonora’s brother Vernon was anxious to acquire her cottage so he could use the land for a real estate scheme he’d been working on. Sheila also finds out about a quarrel Leonora had with her neighbors, over the placement of a boundary wall between their properties. And then strangers begin to emerge from Leonora’s past (well, don’t they always?), leading Sheila to realize that her old friend may have had an even more adventurous life than anyone had imagined. After that, Sheila of course suspects foul play, and she’s off and running. Well, not running – she’s too dignified for that.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I should think of Barbara Pym and Hazel Holt together – they were friends and co-workers for many years at London’s International African Institute, and Holt later became Pym’s literary executor and biographer. These days there are a lot of “Pymish” mysteries around, but in my opinion the Mrs. Malory series is far and away the best of the lot.

Oh, I did manage to put together an outfit for the funeral, and I didn’t have to buy a thing. And after all the trying on, I had a nice cup of tea. I like to think Sheila and Barbara would have approved.

Review: Chatterton

Written by Peter Ackroyd
Published by Grove Press, 1988, 234 pp.
First published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1987

In Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton, Charles Wychwood, a young 20th century poet, becomes obsessed with discovering the true history of another poet, Thomas Chatterton who supposedly committed suicide in 1770 at the age of 18. In an antique shop, Wychwood discovers a painting he believes to be a depiction of Chatterton in later life – much older than the age at which he is supposed to have died. Charles’s interest in the painting leads him to a further discovery – a stash of Chatterton’s manuscripts and papers still in existence in Bristol.

The tale of Charles and how his fascination with Chatterton affects both his professional and private lives is the main story in the novel. But there are also flashbacks to Chatterton himself, and the story of his rise to fame as a teenaged poet who faked a whole body of poetry supposedly written by a medieval monk. Then there’s the story of the Victorian artist Henry Wallis who created a well-known painting showing Chatterton lying dead in an attic room. Wallis uses his friend, the poet George Meredith, as his model and is attracted to Meredith’s wife Mary. And there’s the elderly novelist Harriet Scrope, who employs Charles to help her write the memoirs she hopes will prevent her well-kept secrets from being revealed and ruining her reputation.

And all of these plots intertwine around the central core of Chatterton’s suicide, and weave back and forth between past and present, and fantasy and reality, using both fictional and real-life characters and incidents.

Admittedly, that’s an extremely abbreviated synopsis of a very intricate novel. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “inventive” and “larky,” and those are good descriptions. At first meeting, most of the characters appear eccentric to the point of lunacy. But gradually they come to seem almost too disturbingly real and familiar. I was particularly taken with the novelist Harriet Scrope and her friend, “the famous art critic” Sarah Tilt. It’s worth reading the whole book just to get glimpses of their exchanges and brief escapades.

Chatterton was a bestseller in England when it first appeared in 1987, and was short-listed for that year’s Man-Booker Prize. Even so, I had a little trouble finding a copy of it. Apparently it hasn’t achieved the lasting popularity of the author’s Hawksmoor. At least, not in the U.S. But it’s definitely worth seeking out.

Review: The Grey King

Written by Susan Cooper
Published by Aladdin Paperbacks, 1986, 165 pages

“You see,” Will said, “it’s the first quest, without help, for me – and the last, because this now is the raising of the last defence the Light can build, to be ready. There is a great battle ahead . . . not yet, but not far off. For the Dark is rising, to make its great attempt to take the world for itself until the end of time. When that happens, we must fight and we must win. But we can only win if we have the right weapons. That is what we have been doing, and are still, in such quests as this – gathering the weapons forged for us long, long ago. Six enchanted Signs of the Light, a golden grail, a wonderful harp, a crystal sword . . . They are all achieved now but the harp and the sword, and I do not know what will be the manner of the sword’s finding. But the quest for the harp is mine. . . .”

The Grey King, Susan Cooper’s fantasy novel for young people, is the fourth and next to last book in her five-novel Dark Is Rising sequence (also the title of the sequence’s second book). It continues the story of Will Stanton and his struggle against the forces of evil – the Dark.

We first met Will (in The Dark Is Rising), as an eleven year old country boy – the youngest member of a large, happy family. In the course of that novel, Will learns he isn’t just any ordinary eleven year old – he’s also the last of the “Old Ones,” immortal beings dedicated to keeping the world safe from the ravages of the Dark. In The Grey King, Will is continuing his quest for the “six enchanted Signs of the Light.” His search for the “wonderful harp” is set in Wales, and Welsh folklore plays an important role in the book.

At the novel’s opening, Will is recovering from hepatitis – he’s been very ill, and that illness has caused him to forget much of the ancient knowledge he possessed as an Old One. To recuperate, he’s sent to stay with his Auntie Jen and Uncle David Evans on their farm in Wales. There he meets the “raven boy,” Bran Davies – a boy about his own age, with the white hair and pale skin of an albino, and strange golden eyes. Surprisingly, Bran seems to know all about Will and is ready to help him in his quest to find a golden harp that will produce music to “wake the Six Sleepers” and prepare for the final battle between good and evil:

When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

The two boys become friends, and as they set out on their adventure, Will gradually begins to recover his memory and the prophecy he once memorized:

On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
. . . .
By the pleasant lake the Sleepers lie . . .
Yet singing the golden harp shall guide
To break their sleep and bid them ride.

And as Will learns a bit of the Welsh language from Bran, and starts to compare the local place names and geographic features around his uncle’s farm with the memorized lines of prophecy, the final battle comes closer and closer.

The Grey King was first published in 1975 and was the winner of the Newbery Medal for excellence in American children’s literature in 1976. And though it’s classified as a children’s book, in many ways it’s the most “adult” of the first four books in the sequence. (I haven’t yet read the final novel in the sequence, Silver on the Tree.) There are more adult situations in this one, and more explicit violence. Also, the frequent use of the Welsh language does slow the action down at times – possibly a problem for some younger readers. Unless, of course, they speak Welsh.

The Dark Is Rising sequence is proving to be just as powerful and addictive as I always imagined it would be. My favorite book in the series is always the one I happen to be reading at the moment! But The Grey King is definitely one of the best. Although I missed the presence of Merriman Lyon a bit (he figures in this book, but only briefly), I enjoyed the Welsh setting and the introduction of a fascinating new character in Bran Davies. His story and the mystery of his birth and birthright seem to be at the heart of the entire saga.