While The Ogre Downstairs was published the year after Wilkin’s Tooth, I remember reading (I think it was in one of the essays from Reflections?) that she had actually written both this and Eight Days of Luke before her children’s debut. It’s hard to think that this – and especially Eight Days of Luke, which is one of my favourite Diana Wynne Jones novels – came before Wilkin’s Tooth, but it makes sense when one considers the fact that Wilkin’s Tooth would be consider a “safer” book to publish, being the simplest of the three.
Like Wilkin’s Tooth, The Ogre Downstairs had elements of an “issue book”, bringing up subjects like parental abuse and neglect, and getting along with new step-parents/siblings. The Ogre – really the childrens’ new stepfather, which surprised me the first time I read it – shouted at the children whenever they’re being too loud or messy, which children generally are a lot of the time. One thing I didn’t remember when I was younger was Johnny’s observation that the Ogre had YET to hit them, and they were putting it off by trying to behave when they could. I guess it might have gone over my head back then because I grew up during a time/in a household when/where it was normal for adults to hit children, and now… well, it isn’t. The Ogre wasn’t used to children, even though he had two of his own, as Douglas and Malcolm both went to boarding school until their parents’ marriage. Both the adults and the children (and both sides of the family) tried to get along at first, but this quickly fell apart as the misunderstandings kept piling up.
I had said in my post on Wilkin’s Tooth that I find DWJ’s use of magic very organic. I definitely felt that with this book, in which the magic was introduced in the form of science – two non-toxic chemistry sets purchased by the Ogre for Malcolm and Johnny to keep them entertained. Even the children’s initial reaction to magic felt real – seeing Gwinny’s floating body, her brothers immediately tried to get her down and were thankful that the windows weren’t open or she might have been blown out and away. Besides the ability to fly, the experimenting children discovered that their new sets enabled them to give life to inanimate objects, switch bodies and turn invisible, launching them into a series of misadventures and further bring about the ire of the Ogre. It was fun seeing what they do with magic, and I liked how they experimented on the boundaries of what they can or can’t do, revealing that children understand more about the limitations of magic and its uses.
Once I got over the fact that the Ogre wasn’t actually an ogre, when the chemistry sets were introduced I had thought that the children would use it to get rid of him. I liked that they hadn’t – instead, the book emphasises on the importance of empathy and trying hard to understand one another. Body-switching is one of my favourite tropes (thanks to Mary Rodger’s Freaky Friday and all the movies it spawned/inspired) and it goes without saying that my favourite part of the book was when Malcolm and Caspar had to go to school as each other. Caspar learned (while being Malcolm) that despite his snooty appearance, Malcolm was really rather lonely, and had horrible classmates – while Caspar and Johnny had done nothing to help their new brother.
The first time I read this book, I thought it was a nice read, but it was probably among my least favourite DWJs. It could be that I just hated the cover of my particular edition of the book – Diana Wynne Jones hadn’t been blessed with awesome covers, but my edition of The Ogre Downstairs would be among the worst. It looked like a Christopher Pike or Goosebumps story more than a DWJ, which would have been okay if the story’s anything like Christopher Pike or Goosebumps, which it wasn’t. And being a magic-as-science book, it didn’t seem to have the clear folkloric/mythological influence that appeared in my favourites – at least, that was what I thought then. Since my first read, I had become familiar with the story of Jason sowing the dragon’s teeth and appreciated the use of it here (I should have been clued in by the name Dens Drac.!), and I forgot that the Philosopher’s Stone also appeared in this story. Lastly, I hadn’t been keen on how the book is firmly lodged in the real world, and how the magic seemed too natural. Strangely, both are things I love best about Jones’ fiction now. I’m so glad I read this again – I find that I love it a whole lot more now.
– previously posted on Weebly