Diana Wynne Jones The Ogre Downstairs
Harper Collins Children’s Books 2010 (1974)
Caspar, Johnny, and Gwinny’s mother Sally remarries, creating a state of affairs made especially fraught when their new stepfather Jack is both taciturn and strict. But the two stepbrothers – Malcolm and Douglas – help turn sibling rivalry into all-out conflict, compounded by Jack’s gift of two chemistry sets with some very unusual properties, one to one of Sally’s boys and the other to one of his own.
This riff on Jack and the Beanstalk is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ best standalone fantasy titles, dating from 1974. The twists come from the fact that the character of the giant (here nicknamed the Ogre) is “downstairs” and not up the sky as in the fairytale, and that it’s the Ogre whose name is Jack and not the hero of the tale. All the Jones features are there: the fun with words (the compounds in the magic chemistry sets have abbreviations which remind me of homeopathic remedies), the sly Arthurian allusions (the most obvious being the girl Gwinny: Guinevere in British folklore was sometimes described as a giant’s daughter) and, not least, the convoluted plot in a claustrophobic setting (a suburban terraced house).
What helps makes the story attractive are the conflict resolutions that emerge from the initially strained sibling relationships, combined with the increasingly sympathetic description of the Ogre as an ordinary adult with human failings rather than the mere monster of one’s nightmares. But the real magic comes with the unexpected results of the chemistry experiments, another take on the kind of motif familiar from the universal tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by the prospect of changing bodies with somebody else, or becoming invisible? And of course, anybody who’s ever had a flying dream, with all its associated surrealism, will recognise how the Ogre’s children and stepchildren felt in the opening chapters. And how frustrating the experiece can be.