Unwelcome guests

Diana Wynne Jones:
Stopping for a Spell
Illustrated by Chris Mould
CollinsVoyager 2002 (1993)

I patted the uncomfortable chairs and the poor ugly tables and stroked the piano.

“Chairs,” I said, “stand up for yourselves! He insults you all the time. Tables,” I said, “he said you ought to be burnt! Piano, he told Mum to sell you. Do something, all of you! Furniture of the world, unite!” I made them a very stirring speech, all about the rights of oppressed furniture, and it made me feel much better. Not that it would do any good.

— Candida Robbins, in ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’

Three ‘magical fantasies’ make up this short story collection: ‘Chair Person’ (1989), ‘The Four Grannies’ (1980) and ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’ (1975). They all concern unwelcome guests who seemingly can only be persuaded to depart through magic inadvertently conjured up by young protagonists.

At one level these are merely slight tales of humorous mayhem familiar from much children’s literature and from Hollywood films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; and yet on another they are rather more what the awful Angus Flint might term ‘profound’.

I propose to mainly consider the profound aspects in this review.

The plots are propelled forward by inciting incidents which are summed up beautifully in the author’s punny collective title — which as usual has me wondering whether DWJ spins her stories from a common phrase (maybe as in Charmed Life) or whether the title suggests itself retrospectively.

  • ‘Chair Person’ in this tale is not a gender neutral name for a person in charge of a meeting but a blundering armchair brought to life by a leaking secondhand conjuring set. (Think Professor Slughorn in the Harry Potter novel, who transforms from comfy chair to human, combined with the chemistry set that features in Jones’ novel The Ogre Downstairs.)
  • ‘The Four Grannies’ refer to the quirky, querulous individuals who come to babysit Erg* and Emily when the children’s parents are on a mini-break in Scotland; Erg’s ‘invention’ made from household odds and ends appears to be responsible for the magic that brings objects to life and turns Emily into a Teddy bear. How can matters be resolved before the parents return?
  • ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’ is the question that a bunch of siblings ask themselves when a truly objectionable friend of their father’s descends to stay for an indeterminate (and interminable) spell. His abuse of all and sundry — including the house furnishings — results in normally inanimate objects animating to literally kick him out. Which sibling initiated that magic, though?

Many readers will simply enjoy the misunderstandings, frustrations and slapstick that arise in these novelettes, each of six or seven short chapters, and put the book aside with a smile at the end. As I say, these would provide good scripts for family movies in the Home Alone mould.

However, these being DWJ stories, there are I sense darker substrata beneath the surface, very likely inspired by her own unorthodox upbringing (as alluded to in Reflections). These are tied to the natural anxieties that children often feel when faced with what they see as the irrational whims of adults who have near absolute control over them.

Such anxiety is evident for Marcia and Simon in ‘Chair Person’: the title character has absorbed all the worldly clichés and conformist thinking that an existence in front of mindless television programmes has provided, allied with a lack of human empathy as modelled by the selfish Aunt Christa. The four grannies of the second tale — both parents having acquired extra mothers and step-mothers from past divorces — don’t consider their charges’ wants or wishes but think they have to provide what’s ‘good’ for Erg and Emily.

Angus Flint is the worst of the lot. Not only does he refuse point blank to leave or observe everyday niceties (he gives The Stare when objections are raised) but he is physically abusive in the casual way that is even more shocking to us now but which more than four decades ago was reluctantly accepted as an everyday evil. Flint-hearted, almost bovine Angus also makes full use of a distraction technique, namely standing on his head as if doing a yoga pose, making it impossible to address issues.

These common threads — principally adults careless of young people’s requirements — may well have roots in the actions of the author’s selfish-minded parents when she was growing up; but she is mindful of youngsters’ need to feel empowered in some fashion, and the common feeling that perhaps, just maybe, such power can somehow manifest itself in magic — if not in reality then at least in the imagination.


* ‘Erg’ is typical of DWJ’s puns, in this case a triple pun: first, an erg is a unit of energy, apt for a wouldbe inventor; it’s also short for his first name, Erchenwald (after Saint Erchenwald, an early Bishop of London); and ERG represents his initials, Erchenwald Randolph Gervase. Profound, eh?

If only I was participating in Readers Imbibing Peril XIV I could include this in the Magic category…

14 thoughts on “Unwelcome guests

    1. Hah! I shall continue to try and fit in the odd spooky title before the siren whale song that is Moby-Dick … but possibly not as I’m trying to rush s l o w l y through Jane Eyre. But that sort of counts as spooky, doesn’t it? 🙂

      It is a delightful collection — but definitely of its time, I feel!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Also, I meant to say: The Uninvited is a great 1940s spooky movie, from a great spooky novel by Dorothy Macardle. And then, of course, there’s Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest. All would make great companion pieces to this DWJ story collection.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alyson Woodhouse

    I was never introduced to DWJ as a child, but I’m sure I would still be able to appreciate these short stories as an adult. On a superficial level, the first one sounds a little like a series of somewhat bizarre stories a childhood friend and I made up about household objects coming to life whenever the house was empty. I reckon there is definitely deeper meaning to be found here also though, so I will try to get hold of them. As an aside, I sometimes think it is a shame that many of us become much more constrained or self-conscious about using our imaginations as we get older.

    Like

    1. I think there is a part of some people — including me, I hope! — who retain a childish imagination. Here I disagree with St Paul who Implied that to be an adult one must ‘put away childish things’. That way senility beckons.

      I could have gone on a bit about how magic is accomplished in the three stories, Alyson. The first one comes from a defective magic set for amateur magicians, the second from the chance arrangement of household objects poking out of a biscuit tin’s sides like some mad scientist’s device.

      Only the last one, which I quoted, has the use of a spoken charm, allied to the Law of Magic Contagion (that is, touch!). I can see how that would have reminded you of your childhood: this is a bit like how people like to imagine inanimate figures — marionettes, for example, the toys in Toy Story, chess figures in Harry Potter — having a life when out of human presence.

      Like

  3. Hmm, just as I collect The Wolves of W… from the library you hand me another reading possibility. If only someone would gift me an extra hour or two every week…
    Nice review, though. Very intriguing. I’ve added it to the list, of course.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Apologies, Cath—I should read more underwhelming titles really, shouldn’t I? 🙂 Read Wolves if you have the choice, this only if you’re in the mood for something shorter and slighter. DWJ is a long time favourite of mine but this is one I’d missed up to now.

      If you want to distinguish between her novels there are discussions and reviews of different works under this tag: https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/tag/diana-wynne-jones/

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, that’s freaky, especially as I first read the Angus Flint title as Argus Flint! I often wonder what J K Rowling read when she was younger: as the Angus Flint story came out when Jo was ten it’s possible she may have come across it then and the name stuck in her head.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. buriedinprint

    I love discovering another work by a favourite author, and it sounds like these stories are quite delightful. Recently I stumbled on the first of Jane Gardam’s books, which was also written for children, A Few Fair Days, and it was a perfect summer read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve not read any Jane Gardam, but this title is intriguing. It won’t surprise you that I’ve made a note of it! As for DWJ, I’ve now, I think, read all of her novels but have mostly avoided fiction for much younger readers (like the Earwig book, possibly her last, the cover illustration of which put me off). Perhaps I should remedy that.

      Like

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.